Last Friday, in the opening performance of his final season, Nolan Ryan gave up four hits and no earned runs in six innings of the Rangers' 3-1 win over the Red Sox. "He is still the head gunslinger in the O.K. Corral," says Tom House, a special assistant in the Texas front office. "But he has opened the gate for the next gunslinger."
That would be the Mariners' Randy Johnson, who, at 29, might finally become a consistently dominant pitcher instead of a clueless lefthander capable of walking 10 batters in any given start. A lot of the credit for Johnson's transformation goes to Ryan and House, who was the Ranger pitching coach for seven seasons before moving upstairs this year.
Last August, before a game at the Kingdome, Ryan and House watched as a struggling Johnson threw in the bullpen between starts. Johnson became so frustrated with his mechanics that he stormed off the mound, looked at House and said, "What the hell am I doing?"
So House and Ryan gave him a few pointers, and Ryan talked with him about the mental part of the game. They talked some more before the end of the season, and then the three of them produced a pitching video called Fastball, which documents how Ryan and Johnson throw their specialty pitch.
Since that first conversation Johnson has made 13 starts and gone 6-2 with 138 strikeouts (Instant Analyst, below). In seven of those starts he struck out 10 or more batters, including 14 in a scintillating Opening Day performance against the Blue Jays, whom he limited to one run in eight innings. The adjustment in Johnson's pitching mechanics was a minor one. He was landing on his right heel and dragging his arm behind him, so he wasn't getting all of his 6'10", 225-pound body into his pitches. House had him land on the ball of his right foot and raise his arm to a three-quarter position, thus allowing him to pitch with more power. "My velocity is up three or four miles per hour," says Johnson, who last year had one pitch clocked at 102 mph.
The adjustment in Johnson's mental outlook was more significant. "Nolan said he saw a lot of himself in me—an unproven pitcher who has shined sporadically," says Johnson. "Nolan walked a lot of guys in his career, and he told me how he dealt with it. It was really beneficial."
Says Ryan, "Randy has the most potential of any pitcher in baseball. He has a slider that righthanded hitters can't hit. Ron Guidry had one. So did Sparky Lyle and Mickey Lolich and Steve Carlton. Randy's liable to win the Cy Young." On Sept. 27, 1992, Ryan got a firsthand look at how much progress his pupil had made when Johnson struck out 18 Rangers in eight innings at Arlington Stadium.
The two pitchers haven't talked since they made the video in January, but, says Johnson, "I'm not afraid to call him for advice." If he starts to labor, Johnson says he'll go to new Seattle pitching coach Sammy Ellis first, but he might call House or Ryan, too. "Or," he says, "I might get out the videotape and check it out."
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