"I'm a better pitcher because of all the work I've done since last October," Johnson says. "I'm stronger than I've ever been. When I struck out 19, I was clocked at 99 mph six or seven times and maintained 97 throughout the game. I'm able to maintain velocity into the ninth inning. I believe I'm better because I'm around the strike zone more, and that's because I'm more balanced on the mound."
Says Seattle catcher Dan Wilson, "I think he is better, which is incredible when you think he was on an operating table 10 months ago. Each year he has improved from the year before, and this just may be the continuation of a natural progression for him."
"Better?" Mariners manager Lou Piniella says with a laugh. "It's tough to be better than he was in 1995. He was 18-2. But he's back to that level. I know this: If I've got to win one ball game, I could give you 10 pitchers I'd want pitching that game. But at the top of that list would be Randy."
At home in Bellevue, Wash., last Friday, after undergoing the MRI, Johnson cannot sit still. He moves from the living room couch ("Too soft," he says) to the marble hearth of the fireplace to the carpeted floor, all in the quest of accommodating his back. He has been robbed of more than 40 starts over three years during the prime of his career because of the strike and his back injury, denying him a 20-win season and proper public appreciation of his skills. His foyer is decorated with photographs he has taken. There is an old shot of the Manhattan skyline at night from across the East River, just slightly out of focus and symmetrically composed, like a drugstore postcard. There is also a more recent shot of Seattle's Space Needle—laser sharp, framed slightly off center and shot from an extremely low angle, giving an unusual view of a familiar landmark. "I can see how far I've come in photography when I look at these," Johnson says. "It's the same with my pitching. I feel like I'm getting better. I can see the difference."
He could always hum a baseball, even when he was eight years old in Livermore, Calif., pretending he was Vida Blue, throwing the ball so hard off the garage door that he'd pop the nails loose. "Don't forget to get the mallet out when you're done and pound those nails back in," his dad, Bud, would tell him. At 33, with a pink scar on his back that looks like the laces of a miniature football. Johnson can let a baseball fly with the same kind of simple joy. He's back in that driveway.
"I feel like God's given me a gift," he says, "and then given a second chance."
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