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Yanks' big question mark

Jeff Passan
Yahoo Sports

CHICAGO – One thing we know about Randy Johnson is that he cares about winning ballgames. He said so Wednesday night after flirting with a no-hitter for six innings. In one derivation or another, Johnson combined the words "win" and "ballgame" seven times in a 5½-minute span, a performance nearly as impressive in its tedium as Johnson was on the mound.

"I'm going to be 43 next month," said Johnson, brought in last season to anchor the New York Yankees' rotation, "and that's the only thing that matters to me anymore."

A hint of resignation colored Johnson's voice. He hasn't merely gone out and pitched like a man far beyond his prime. He talks like it, too, and not even the possibility of a no-hitter – last seen in 2004, when Johnson did it – tickled him from his mire.

"I've thrown a perfect game, and I've thrown a no-hitter," Johnson said, "and anything that happens on the day I pitch beyond winning a ballgame – striking out 20 or throwing a no-hitter – that's a bonus. …

"You wake up some days, and doesn't your body feel better? I'm 42 years old. Some days my body feels good, some days it doesn't."

It felt good Wednesday during a 7-6 victory, and that, more than any singular win for the Yankees against the defending champion Chicago White Sox, was the moral of the story. Because the Yankees are in the precarious position where they need Johnson in top form to win the American League East, and they don't know, start to start, if he'll be there.

For so many years, Johnson defied convention, whether it was his height inhibiting his success or his age limiting his future or his body breaking down midseason. Johnson, at 6-foot-10 and 39 years old and without cartilage in his knees, won his fourth consecutive Cy Young Award in 2002. Now, everything has caught up, or at least it seems that way until performances like Wednesday's.

Fact is, Johnson is the 11th-highest-paid player in baseball this season, and his earned-run average of 5.03 ranks 11th-worst among 88 qualified pitchers. While he does win ballgames – Johnson is 12-9 – the Yankees buoy him with 7.66 runs per game, the third most in baseball.

And still, at 42, with enough Synvisc injected into his knees to keep a hospital of arthritics satiated for months, Johnson can twirl a masterful six innings.

"Looked like the old Randy," Yankees catcher Jorge Posada said. "We need him to pitch like this. He knows it. He's capable of doing it."

The first batter Johnson faced, Pablo Ozuna, struck out swinging through an 86-mph slider, and it was significant not because Johnson reached any milestone with his 4,494th strikeout but because it was his first in 52 at-bats, far and away the longest drought of his career. Johnson without the strikeout is like Popeye without spinach, and in the two previous starts he went without a K, Johnson gave up 13 runs in 9 1/3 innings.

He struck out five using a fastball that topped out at 96 mph, which, while 4 mph slower than it was at its peak, still screams toward the plate. Johnson will always be a physical marvel, somehow willing his long limbs into complying with the unnatural motion of pitching – taking a hundred pieces and parts that weren't meant for synchronization and keeping them in lockstep.

When he stands on the mound and stretches his arms skyward before each inning or between pitches, Johnson seems as though he's going to tug down a cloud or two. Then he lurches toward the plate, the step of a giant, and flings his fastball or his slider, and it's easy to wonder, as so many hitters have for 19 years, how teams score off Johnson.

Easy: He gives up hits at inopportune times. With runners in scoring position, opponents are hitting .348 and slugging .626. In 2004, Johnson's last great season – he should have won a fifth consecutive Cy Young that year – he held batters to a .198 average in those situations, and for his career, they hit .215.

"He doesn't throw as hard as he used to," said White Sox first baseman Jim Thome, who Johnson caught looking with a 95-mph fastball in the fourth inning. "And still, you see him dominate like this."

For six innings, at least. In the seventh, Johnson worked Tadahito Iguchi to a two-strike count, then shook off Posada's call for an outside fastball and pumped one at 94 mph inside that Iguchi turned on for a single. Thome walked, Paul Konerko hit a ground-rule double, Jermaine Dye followed with a double off the right-field wall, and with a seven-run lead cut to five, that was it. After 86 pitches, Johnson was cooked.

"We need for him to go out and keep us in the game," Yankees manager Joe Torre said, and he isn't wrong. It's just that Randy Johnson isn't supposed to be a pitcher who keeps the team in the game. Jaret Wright and Cory Lidle and Sidney Ponson do that. Randy Johnson dominates.

Or did. Or still can. Or … not even he knows. Right now, Johnson cares about winning ballgames, and, at its simplest, that goal is noble. Beyond his mantra, he does know better. There would have been no good reason, otherwise, for Johnson, strolling toward the clubhouse exit, to lament: "Wish I was 25 again."

He sounded defeated. He didn't sound much like an ace at all.