The 44-year-old Johnson, coming off a dominant start against the NL’s best offense, will try to lead the Diamondbacks to a three-game sweep of Zito and the Giants on Sunday at AT&T Park.
Johnson won the 2002 NL Cy Young Award - his fifth and most recent - with Arizona (52-51), and Zito took the AL Cy Young that same year with Oakland.
Zito (5-12, 5.56 ERA) was solid, if not spectacular, his next four seasons in Oakland before signing a seven-year deal worth $126 million with San Francisco in 2007. He’s been a bust with the Giants (43-60), and no pitcher has lost more games in baseball this season.
While simple ineffectiveness has been Zito’s problem, it finally seemed Johnson (7-7, 4.89) was having his age - in addition to some injuries - catch up to him. But after losing six straight starts from June 3-July 1, Johnson had won his last three outings, with perhaps his most impressive effort coming on Monday.
The 6-foot-10 left-hander shut out the Chicago Cubs - who lead the NL with 540 runs - on two hits over seven innings in the Diamondbacks’ 2-0 win.
“We get a Randy like that and we’re going to feel good every time he goes out there,” manager Bob Melvin told Arizona’s official Web site. “That’s as good of stuff as I’ve seen in a while.”
The victory leaves Johnson just nine shy of 300 for his illustrious career, a figure that seemed unfathomable at the beginning of the season, when he was recovering from back surgery.
“I think 290 was a big number for him,” Melvin said. “You’re seeing a guy who looks like he’s getting after it again.”
Johnson is 0-0 with a 1.50 ERA in two starts against San Francisco this season, allowing just two earned runs while striking out 16 in 12 innings.
The battle between this former pair of All-Stars comes one day after two of the NL’s current best starters went head to head. Both Arizona’s Brandon Webb and San Francisco’s Tim Lincecum - who struck out a career-high 13 - pitched well Saturday, but it was Webb who got the 5-3 win thanks to a three-run eighth from the Diamondbacks.
“It’s always fun to play in these kinds of close games,” said Webb, who has won seven straight decisions against the Giants.
There weren’t many close games earlier this season when Zito took the mound for San Francisco. He started 0-8 with a 6.25 ERA through nine starts, but he’s started to pitch better recently. He’s 2-0 with a 3.50 ERA in his last three starts, including a six-inning, three-run outing in a 6-3 win over Washington on Tuesday.
“His stuff, no question, has really picked up,” manager Bruce Bochy told the Giants’ official Web site.
Zito is 0-3 with a 7.32 ERA in his last four starts against Arizona, including losses in back-to-back starts in April.
He’ll be facing a Diamondbacks’ offense that’s been impressive over the last four games. They’ve scored 30 runs in that stretch, and first baseman Conor Jackson has led the way. Jackson is 10-for-16 (.625) with two homers and six RBIs since Tuesday, and he’s had eight multi-hit games since July 10.
Jackson is 5-for-17 (.294) with a homer in his career against Zito.