Johnson pitched two-hit ball for eight innings and struck out 11 in his best start for New York’s broken-down rotation, leading the Yankees over the Minnesota Twins 4-0 Tuesday night.
“I don’t know why they say he’s getting old,” said Torii Hunter, who struck out in all three of his at-bats against the Big Unit. “He was throwing gas and spotting his slider. I don’t think no team could hit him today—well, maybe the Yankees.”
The 41-year-old left-hander tantalized the crowd, not allowing a hit until Juan Castro bounced a single up the middle with two outs in the sixth. He threw 71 of 97 pitches for strikes, starting off 19 of 26 batters with a strike.
On Sunday, he bristled at the constant scrutiny of his health.
“Randy tonight, I think he answered all the questions,” Yankees manager Joe Torre said. “He may not have felt 100 percent, but most pitchers when they pitch as long as he has find a way to deal with, you know, with things.”
New York, which remained one game behind first-place Boston in the AL East, learned before the game that Kevin Brown’s balky back will prevent him from starting Thursday. The Yankees will replace him with Aaron Small, who beat Texas last week for his first major league win since 1998. They also pushed back Carl Pavano from his Saturday outing against the Angels, deciding not to rush his return from a sore shoulder and creating an opening that has yet to be filled.
Johnson and Mike Mussina, who allowed one run in beating the Angels on Sunday, are the only pitchers left from New York’s original five-man rotation.
“When myself and Mike go out there, we need to pitch quality ballgames and keep our team in the ballgame,” Johnson said.
Torre said the two don’t need to be reminded.
“I think they understand when they look around and see our rotation a little bit on the skewed side that their starts are very important for us,” he said.
Johnson (11-6) matched his season strikeout high and showed no signs of the minor back pain that caused the Yankees to cut short his start in Anaheim last Thursday. He hit Shannon Stewart with his second pitch of the game, then got Nick Punto to ground into a double play, getting 17 straight outs until Castro’s single past the mound and a few feet beyond the outstretched glove of shortstop Derek Jeter.
“They’re going to get their hits against me,” Johnson said. “Had they not, it would have been something special.”
Fans applauded and Johnson adjusted his cap twice, perhaps giving an ever-so-slight tip. Minnesota didn’t get another hit until Lew Ford’s double to left-center with one out in the eighth.
“I thought it was his best location of the year,” catcher John Flaherty said. “His stuff was nasty.”
Johnson reached double digits in strikeouts for the third time this season and 207th in his career, trailing only Nolan Ryan (215). Tom Gordon followed with a 1-2-3 ninth.
“I can’t imagine facing him when he was younger,” Stewart said. “Six-10. You can’t see it. With that kind of stuff, forget it.”
Radke, whose 0.7 walks per nine innings coming in were second in the major leagues to teammate Carlos Silva, walked two, hit two batters and threw a wild pitch, allowing two runs and five hits in six innings.
“It’s a shame to lose a game on one pitch—one bad pitch cost us the game,” Radke said.
Minnesota, a potential competitor along with the Yankees for the AL wild-card berth, dropped to 5-8 since the All-Star break and has scored just 43 runs during that span.
“Even if we were hitting, I don’t think it would have made a difference,” Stewart said.
Rodriguez was just 8-for-43 (.186) in the regular season against Radke coming in, but four of the hits were home runs. He led off the second inning with a drive that landed over the center-field fence, just to the left of the 408-foot sign. Rodriguez has 28 home runs, tied with Boston’s Manny Ramirez for the AL lead.
Jason Giambi, who leads the AL in on-base percentage at .441 after reaching three times, walked with two outs, went to third on Bernie Williams’ single and scored on Tino Martinez’s groundout. Hideki Matsui added a two-run single in the seventh off left-hander J.C. Romero after New York loaded the bases against Jesse Crain.
Rodriguez reflected on Johnson and already thought ahead to the postseason.
“That will make our team a little more dangerous in a short series this year,” he said.
The crowd of 53,855 was the Yankees’ 21st sellout in 49 home games, their 10th straight. … Radke, 4-10 against New York during the regular season, hit two batters in a game for just the third time in his career. … Minnesota was shut out for the fifth time this season, one more than last year. … New York has won 19 of its last 23 regular-season games against the Twins, including 10 straight at Yankees Stadium.