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Aside from not having any run-ins with TV cameramen, Randy Johnson otherwise appeared to be in vintage form this spring. The ornery 42-year-old lefty snapped at one reporter standing at his locker, telling him to back away because he was "getting too close"; welcomed his team's latest high-priced free-agent pickup, centerfielder Johnny Damon, by grazing his left forearm with a fastball during the club's first batting practice session; and in exhibition games unleashed 95-mph heaters and hard-breaking sliders that first baseman Jason Giambi said were "as good as I've ever seen." Proclaimed Johnson after an early bullpen session, "I feel real comfortable."
Those may have been the most important words uttered by a Yankee all spring. It has been six years since New York won a World Series--aeons in Bronx time--and the drought won't end this October without a dominant season from the five-time Cy Young winner. Johnson's inaugural year in New York was a rocky one, bookended by his public fracas with a TV cameraman on Madison Avenue in January and his three-inning, five-run flameout in Game 3 of New York's Division Series loss to the Angels in October.
"I felt like I was walking on eggshells [at the start of last year]," says Johnson, who before the All-Star break had a 4.16 ERA and .268 batting average against--well off his career numbers of 3.11 and .215 entering the season. "I didn't feel like I had a lot of breathing room. This spring I'm just going about my business."
Says manager Joe Torre, "At the end of our year he understood that a lot of things go on here, and a lot of stuff that in other cities gets thrown away doesn't get thrown away here. He seems to be more at ease."
Johnson returned to form in the second half, going 8--2 with a 3.31 ERA and cutting his hits per nine innings from 9.4 to 6.8. The transformation was helped by his watching video of himself from past seasons and comparing his delivery on split screens. "I've never had that long of a stretch with poor mechanics," says Johnson, who answered questions about his durability by starting 34 games, more than any other Yankees pitcher since 2001. "Last year when I struggled, I wasn't successful in keeping my fastball down and in to righthanders. I watched video and found mistakes: I was throwing at a lower arm angle. My breaking ball wasn't sharp. The location of my fastball was off. I had a flat slider."
Despite a payroll that will surpass $200 million for the second straight season, the Yankees will need yearlong excellence from their ace, because questions abound about the rest of the rotation. Can 37-year-old righthander Mike Mussina still pitch at an elite level even though he hasn't fanned more than 142 or had an ERA below 4.41 in two seasons, and he rarely reached the high 80s on the radar gun this spring? Will righties Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright, who were a combined 9--11 with a 5.28 ERA last year and could start the season on the disabled list, ever live up to the combined $61 million in free-agent contracts they signed before last season? Will two of last year's saviors, righthanders Shawn Chacon and Chien-Ming Wang, continue to impress in their second seasons in the Bronx?
New York's starters will likely have more run support than ever. Damon, 32, provides an immediate boost to the offense; while the Yankees ranked second in the league in runs and slugging percentage, their centerfielders were the 28th least productive in the league, hitting only .243 with a .297 on-base percentage. Lefty-swinging second baseman Robinson Cano added five pounds of muscle over the winter and figures to see his power numbers improve in his second season in Yankee Stadium. "As dangerous as this lineup was last year," says Giambi, "there's no question we're better this year."
But does that mean New York will fulfill owner George Steinbrenner's spring training promise of a world championship? Johnson knows that much of the answer lies with him. "The games I came here to win are the postseason games," he says. "I know that around here, the season pretty much starts in October."
Aaron Small (10--0) has the most wins among pitchers with undefeated career records for one team. Tom Filer, whose seven wins for the Blue Jays all came in 1985, ranks second.