“Every time he goes out there and shows that kind of stuff he showed early on, everybody thinks a no-hitter,” Yankees manager Joe Torre.
While he didn’t throw a no-hitter, Johnson pitched his finest game with the Yankees. He reached double digits in strikeouts for the first time this year and threw a five-hitter Thursday night, leading New York to a 6-1 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates that completed a three-game sweep.
“He was great!” Yankees owner George Steinbrenner said.
With perhaps his sharpest slider of the season, Johnson threw his first 13 pitches for strikes and 20 of his opening 21. He went to 0-2 counts on 10 of his first 18 batters and finished with 11 strikeouts and no walks. He even got Sanchez to swing at a slider that hit him in him on his back knee.
“Most of you guys have written my eulogy last month,” Johnson told reporters. “I’m not done. I’ve got a lot of fire in me.”
Johnson (7-5) won consecutive starts for only the second time this year, lowered his ERA to 3.51 and had his 205th double-digit strikeout game, 10 shy of Nolan Ryan’s record. He got his 253rd win, tying Carl Hubbell for 40th on the career list.
“At times I felt really good with my mechanics in April. In May, I felt good at times,” Johnson said. “Things just get blown out of proportion here. You give up a couple of runs and you lose 3-1 or something, the world’s coming to an end.”
Johnson was more animated on the mound than he had been previously this season.
“We’re starting to see some of the staredowns,” catcher John Flaherty said. “He made some gestures, and I just wanted to make sure they weren’t directed at me. He said they were directed at himself.”
Michael Restovich’s opposite-field homer in the fourth just went over the right-field wall and ended Johnson’s scoreless streak at 10 innings. He pitched his third complete game of the year, his first on the winning side.
“I got lucky with my home run,” Restovich said. “Sometimes, you just have to get the barrel out there and velocity will take care of the rest.”
Johnson lost his previous three starts to the Pirates, getting a total of three runs of support. For the second consecutive start, he threw to Flaherty instead of regular starter Jorge Posada, and Torre said Flaherty also will catch Johnson’s next start.
“I’m uncomfortable with it, to tell you the truth, because I think I’m just fortunate enough to be back there the last two starts when he found something,” said Flaherty, who attributed the effectiveness of Johnson’s slider to a higher arm angle.
At 33-32, the Yankees are over .500 for the first time since they were 28-27 before losing at Minnesota on June 5.
“We just have to make up for the lost time now,” Torre said. “We can’t be proud of ourselves yet.”
Hideki Matsui hit a two-run homer in the first off Oliver Perez (5-5), and New York made it 4-0 in the second when Jason Giambi hit a long RBI double and scored on Robinson Cano’s single. Gary Sheffield added a bloop, two-run double in the fourth that bounced just in front of a sliding Restovich in left.
Perez, who was 4-0 in his previous five starts, gave up six runs, seven hits and five walks—one intentional—in five innings. Pittsburgh lost its fourth straight overall and its ninth in a row at AL ballparks, dropping to 17-39 on the road in interleague play.
“I didn’t think Oli would come out and elevate the ball the way he did,” Pirates manager Lloyd McClendon said. “He just didn’t have it tonight.”
Torre said RHP Kevin Brown, who left Wednesday’s game with back spasms, is doubtful for his next scheduled start. … Steinbrenner spent part of the game sitting with President Clinton, who received a $1 million check from the team for tsunami relief. “He’s a great baseball fan, a great Yankees fan, a great guy.” Steinbrenner also gave Torre an endorsement: “I haven’t talked to him. He’s doing too good a job. I don’t want to disturb him.” … The game took 2 hours, 19 minutes. Johnson’s loss to the Pirates last Aug. 27 lasted just 1:47. … Giambi, whose 10th-inning, two-run homer won Wednesday night’s game, was 1-for-2 with a walk and was hit by a pitch. … Sheffield was in a 4-for-35 slide before the double. … With Restovich’s homer, the Pirates remained the only major league team with an extra-base hit in every game this season.