Johnson’s 300th win is a career-capper
He always looked bigger, and darker, and angrier, so it almost never mattered if he was or not. He probably was.
For two decades the game had come up to his chest, and that is how he treated it. For two decades it could not chase his fastball, or reach his slider, or escape his breath.
So it was with some sense of formality that Johnson, three months from his 46th birthday, stood in a steady drizzle at Nationals Park and became the 24th pitcher with 300 career wins.
MLB’s six southpaws with 300 victories
He’d had his back repaired three times, and shot lubricant into his joints, and piled inning upon inning and season upon season, all reasons enough to have concluded the crossing long before now. He kept coming. He changed teams three times for the final 54 wins that would reach the legends, and arrived there slightly bent, somewhat bruised and very pleased.
“It’s been a long road,” he said afterward.
Not 20 feet away, his wife, Lisa, held the baseball that secured the victory, one that surely seemed impossibly far off when he was finishing his 20s with 64 wins and unreliable mechanics.
He arrived at 300 a couple seasons after Tom Glavine(notes), however, at a time when many believe Johnson could be the last of their kind. The starting pitchers have gone soft in five-man rotations, perhaps, and comfortable on tens of millions of dollars, and unmotivated at a time of bullpen specialization and quality starts that require but six innings.
But not Johnson, who won his first game going on 21 years ago for the Montreal Expos, who long after he was traded to the Seattle Mariners moved to Washington and became the Nationals. He’d win five Cy Young Awards, the last four – from 1999-’02 – by throwing at least 248 innings and striking out at least 334 batters. He threw two no-hitters, one of them a perfect game. He has 4,845 strikeouts, second all-time. He pitched in one World Series and won three games in it.
“I am satisfied,” he said.
Maybe he’s not quite finished – his fastball sped along at a consistent 90 mph and occasionally jumped to 92 Thursday, when the Giants beat the Nats in the first game of a doubleheader, 5-1, and Johnson improved to 5-4 – and, indeed, he insisted, “I’m not here just to win five games.” But starts of end-to-end dominance are rare anymore. And moments of undue heroism – he landed hard on his pitching shoulder while fielding a comebacker during the sixth inning, ending his night at 78 pitches – carry potentially dire and always painful consequences.
He laughed later and called it “my senior moment,” trying to draw all that athleticism from a body that left such dexterity behind years ago. He entrusted a one-run lead to three relievers and one scary moment in the eighth inning (Brian Wilson(notes) struck out an unconvinced Adam Dunn(notes) looking on a two-out, full-count fastball with the bases loaded), then de-iced and returned to the dugout in the ninth.
There, not far from his young son, Tanner, another lanky No. 51 who’d spent the game fetching bats from the home-plate area, Johnson watched stoically as 300 came. He accepted handshakes and hugs from another roster of new teammates, and laid his hand across Tanner’s shoulders, and received Lisa and their three daughters at the gate beside the dugout.
“I’m just happy,” he said, “my family and friends were able to come.”
In the thick mist, he’d stomped from the third-base dugout before the mere dozens in attendance, many from his own pass list. He’d retired the first 10 Nationals with little effort. The first hit came to lead off the fifth, the only run he allowed was unearned.
In the end, it looked like … a career.
It occurred to him again that this is all very difficult, and that the men who reach this place are strong and determined and unlike most others. His 6-foot-10 stature was not always a blessing. It made his back vulnerable and those mechanics so hard to maintain. But it gave him the leverage to throw a fastball few could, and a slider that became one of the most devastating pitches ever thrown, and the perspective on this day to look over the top of the game and back across a life in it.
He remembered again the father who died when he was just getting started in the big leagues, the man who’d demanded after his first no-hitter, “Yeah, but why’d you walk seven hitters?” And he thought about him throwing out a first pitch in Seattle, how happy that had made him.
“There are a lot of things he hasn’t seen,” Randy said, a little sad.
And then his son, hanging around the ballpark, patting him lovingly on the back when he returned to the dugout between innings. And his daughters, smiling back at him. His wife, clutching that baseball.
Beyond that, to Nolan Ryan and Roger Clemens(notes) and Steve Carlton, men he admired and stands with now, this number 300 that significant, “People I’m actually in awe of,” he said, “and to think how good they are.”
Of course he won’t forget. How could he? The final years, roaming from team to team, dragging his arm from start to start, they haven’t been – and won’t be – comfortable entirely. But, they’re his. That, and whatever else comes next.
He laughed, seemingly waving away decades spent swinging that scythe.
“Two hundred and eleven more,” he said, “to catch Cy Young.”