While the Big Unit is in only his second season with the Yankees, he’s accustomed to opening the season for them, having defeated Boston 9-2 last April 3 in his New York debut.
Johnson will make his ninth straight opening day start and 14th in his career, the most among active pitchers. He’s 7-3 with a 3.74 ERA in 11 starts at McAfee Coliseum.
“Oakland is a very good team,” said Johnson, 6-2 with a 2.59 ERA on opening day. “Every team that you face wants to beat the Yankees and wants to beat me. I have come to realize that.”
While Johnson will be in a familiar situation as he pitches his team’s first game of the season, new Yankees center fielder Johnny Damon will face the club he played for in 2001 before signing with the Red Sox the following season.
Damon was New York’s biggest addition of the offseason, leaving archrival Boston for a four-year contract with New York, and gives the Yankees one of baseball’s best leadoff hitters to complement one of its most dangerous lineups. With Damon, Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Gary Sheffield, Hideki Matsui and former Athletic Jason Giambi, New York will rely heavily on an offense that should have no trouble scoring runs this season.
The pitching staff is a more of question mark, with Mike Mussina, Chien Ming-Wang, Shawn Chacon and Jaret Wright set to join Johnson in the rotation. Mariano Rivera again anchors the bullpen, but with new setup men Kyle Farnsworth, Ron Villone and Mike Myers replacing the departed Tom Gordon, there is some question as to whether those relievers can consistently get the game to Rivera with a lead.
The biggest key for the Yankees, though, may be the 42-year-old Johnson, who like many high-profile stars seemed overwhelmed at times with the attention he received in his first season in New York. Johnson had a good year, going 17-8 with a 3.79 ERA, but gave up a career-high 32 homers.
Manager Joe Torre, though, saw some encouraging signs in spring training from his ace, who will be trying to lead the Yankees to their first World Series title since 2000. New York won the AL East despite its second straight poor start to the season last year, but lost in five games to Anaheim in the AL division series.
“I think it will be more comfortable for him,” Torre said of Johnson. “I think that’s been from spring training all the way through. It’s been less hectic this year.”
While the Yankees are a veteran team trying to regain championship form, the Athletics are a talented young club that surprised most observers by going 88-74 and battling for a playoff spot for a good part of the season. With a pitching staff led by opening day starter Barry Zito, along with Rich Harden, Joe Blanton, Dan Haren and closer Huston Street, Oakland will be looking to take the next step and return to the postseason after a two-year absence.
“It’s going to be nuts in there,” Zito said of facing the Yankees at home Monday. “I mean, opening night at home is cool as it is, but that it’s against what some people are saying is going to be the best team in baseball definitely makes it more exciting.”
Zito allowed four runs in six innings last April 4 in a 4-0 season-opening loss to Baltimore at Camden Yards. He has struggled against the Yankees in his career, going 2-7 with a 4.64 ERA in 13 starts.
The low-payroll A’s took a chance on two players in an attempt to bolster their lineup, adding designated hitter Frank Thomas and center fielder Milton Bradley during the offseason. Thomas fell out of favor with the Chicago White Sox and joined Oakland on a one-year contract, while the talented but volatile Bradley arrived via trade from the Los Angeles Dodgers. Both players struggled with injuries last season and played in only 109 games combined.
The Yankees won seven of nine meetings with the A’s in 2005.