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Back, ERA give Seattle's Johnson a very tall order of frustration


DETROIT -- So, Randy, just how frustrated are you?

Randy Johnson, the long, lean and occasionally mean Seattle Mariner left-hander, paused, narrowed his eyes and quickly wrapped his huge hands around the questioner's neck.

OK, stupid question.

Indeed, this time last year the 6-foot-10 Johnson basked in national notoriety, just having thrown the first no-hitter in Mariner history. But this season . . . well, this season that no-hitter form has been nowhere to find.

Johnson is up to his neck in disappointment, which at his height is some kind of hurt. There is the pain of having a 3-5 record with a 4.80 earned-run average. And there is the pain in his back, so bad now that he will miss his scheduled start Friday against Milwaukee at the Kingdome.

Just before he left for Arizona training camp in February, Johnson was involved in an automobile accident. His truck was broadsided and wound up hitting a telephone pole.

"I really didn't think much of my condition at the time or in spring training," the pitcher said. "But during the season, it has bothered me off and on. I kept thinking I could work through it."

As the back worsened, so did the state of Seattle's pitching, which started the season weakened by the absence of relief ace Mike Schooler. In mid-May, the starting rotation took a double dip when Erik Hanson and Scott Bankhead went on the disabled list within days of one another.

"With Erik and Scott down, I tried to suck it up," Johnson said. "I wasn't trying to be the ace or heroic or anything. I just felt that the team really needed me at that time, so I kept going back out."

To do so, Johnson told no one how much the back troubled him. At times, it was not that bad. For instance, in the first inning of his most recent start in Seattle against Kansas City, the miles-per-hour recordings on his fastballs were in the high 90s, looking unhittable as he struck out the side.

But each time he pitched, the pain got to him. In the Royals game, he struggled in the second inning. In his best game of the season, a 1-0 victory at Yankee Stadium, he had to leave after allowing just three hits in seven innings when his back stiffened.

"We really appreciate what Randy tried to do," Mariner Manager Jim Lefebvre said. "When I'd go out to the mound in games, he made no excuses. In Texas, for instance, he was walking those guys [eight in four innings] and said to me, 'I'm having trouble getting used to the mound.'

"But despite needing some gutsy efforts sometimes, we want the truth. It's not good for player or team to take chances making an injury worse."

The primary problem caused by the pain was Johnson's inability to extend his body and arm to finish his bread-and-butter pitch, the fastball.

He has walked 62 batters in 65 innings, walking six or more in seven of his 11 starts (including eight, six and eight, respectively, in his past three games).

"To anyone who asked me in camp if I had a goal, I told them it was to cut down on my walks," he said. "After trying to cut down on my image as a wild pitcher, this happens."

"Missing this one start," trainer Rick Griffin said, "will give us a chance to let Randy's back quiet and then build strength. We've already started him on a program of exercises."

Part of Johnson's exercise program involves sitting and standing up straight. While he sat and talked to a reporter, Griffin walked by and barked, "Posture!" Johnson immediately sat up straight.

"I'm going to have to change my habits," he said. "At 6-10, I've always slouched to seem more normal. . . . When I stand in crowds, I've always bent my knees a bit.

"A lot of really tall people do it. I just don't like to stand out, unless I'm on the mound."

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