SEATTLE -- The question for Seattle Mariners pitcher Randy )) Johnson seemed innocuous enough after manager Lou Piniella pulled him before the ninth inning of Game 3. Somebody asked Johnson why he was relieved after 100 pitches, a relatively small total for the "Big Unit."
But Johnson's response was noteworthy -- perhaps a clue to exactly how his left arm feels going into his crucial start against the Cleveland Indians tonight, in Game 6 of the AL Championship Series. The Mariners, trailing 3-2, must win to force a Game 7 tomorrow night.
Johnson bristled at the question, and said, "You guys think I have a rubber arm and I am invincible. But I'm not."
No, there is good reason to think that Johnson was pitching with a tired arm in Game 3. Now, with the Mariners faced with elimination, Piniella is asking his ace to come back and throw on three days' rest, just another chapter in Johnson's grueling postseason. He has carried Seattle as no pitcher has done since Orel Hershiser carried the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1988 playoffs and World Series.
* On Oct. 2, Johnson pitched a shutout in the one-game playoff with the California Angels, propelling the Mariners into the divisional series.
* Starting on three days' rest Oct. 6, Johnson pitched Game 3 of the divisional series against the New York Yankees and won.
* Two days later, in Game 5, Piniella asked Johnson if he could give him an inning of relief, if necessary, and Johnson agreed. Johnson pitched three innings in relief, and it was during his third inning that he exhibited the first real signs of fatigue in the postseason; his fastball sailed high and his slider lacked any real bite. Johnson gave up a run, but the Mariners came back to win, anyway.
* Although he pitched Game 3 against the Indians on a full complement of rest, Johnson threw hard, in the low 90's. But several Indians remarked that he didn't have his good fastball, and Johnson relied primarily on his slider, which took the Cleveland hitters a little by surprise. They chased his breaking pitches early in the counts, which allowed him to get by with relatively few pitches. Johnson averaged just 13.7 pitches per inning, a superlative number for a strikeout pitcher.
Johnson said that he threw his breaking pitch more because his fastball wasn't traveling to its usual standards. Piniella wanted to give him an extra day's rest and pitch Johnson in Game 7, but the loss in Game 5 forced his hand.
Johnson said after Game 5 that he feels fine and looked forward to the challenge of extending Seattle's season one more time.
"I've done that three times this year where I've had to rise to the occasion," he said. "I don't consider us having our backs to the wall, really. Again, we were underdogs coming into this series. We're going home now to play in front of our fans, and we play well there.
"We were down two games against New York and we came home and swept them. . . . I have a big heart and a lot of desire, along with everybody else in our locker room."
A big heart, but does he have the big fastball? Johnson said he's still throwing 98 mph, but that he could survive with a diminished fastball, his nasty slider and improved ability to spot his pitches.
"I don't have to pitch any [certain] way," Johnson said. "I'm pitching now, not overpowering people because you can't do that at this time of year. They've seen me two or three times and they speed their bats up a little. I'm pitching by desire, and that's the way I'll be getting them out."
Piniella said, "I have full confidence in Randy."
But does Johnson have the full complement of Big Unit stuff? The Indians, who may look to be a little more patient at the plate against Johnson this time, will serve as barometers in Game 6.
Indians vs. Mariners
Series: Indians lead 3-2
Game 6: Tonight, 8:07, Kingdome, Seattle, chs. 11, 4,
Starters: Indians' Dennis Martinez (12-6, 3.12) vs. Mariners' Randy Johnson (20-2, 2.44)
Note: Pitchers' records include playoffs