The Big Unit, who has a herniated disk in his lower back, has been pronounced fit to start for the Yankees in Friday night's Game 3 at Comerica Park and was sent ahead while his teammates and opponents were stuck in town for an extra day because of Wednesday night's postponement due to rain.
Johnson has plenty of reasons to be anxious about his next start. Aside from concern about his back, the 6-foot-10 left-hander has had his share of horror games in Division Series. Johnson's career mark in the first round of postseason play is 2-7 with a 4.59 ERA in 11 appearances, including nine starts.
Certainly, Johnson wants to replace the image he left with Yankees fans last October in Game 3 of the ALDS against the Angels. In that game, he received one of the harshest chorus of boos ever beset on a Yankees player at the Stadium as he walked off the mound after having allowed five earned runs and nine hits in three-plus innings in an eventual 11-7 loss.
Yankees manager Joe Torre said that he told Johnson after the Yankees lost that ALDS that 2006 "will be a different year."
"Last year was very different for him, coming over here and starting out the way he did," Torre said Thursday, referring to an altercation Johnson had with a TV camera operator. "I still think that had some kind of influence on his personality the whole year. The perception that everybody seemed to have of him was not what he wanted it to be, and it got off on the wrong foot. He never seemed to get in step. In Spring Training this year, I thought he was very different. He was more relaxed and less guarded as far as his personality."
Game 2 losing pitcher Mike Mussina knows the anxiety Johnson, who has been in Detroit for some 36 hours, is going through. The Yankees left Mussina in Anaheim, Calif., last year in case there was a Game 5 in the ALDS against the Angels, which there turned out to be, and he started it.
"That's 36 hours," Mussina said of Johnson's time away from the club. "I waited for, like, four days. He has been preparing for this, really, for the past 10 days. Whatever it takes for him to be ready to go out there and pitch [Friday] night, that's what he will do. Since we didn't play [Wednesday] or [don't] have a workout in Detroit [on Thursday], it makes it seem like he did nothing. But I'm sure he's not just laying on the bed watching TV all day."
Johnson's back condition was diagnosed the last week of the season. He was given an epidural on Sept. 28, threw lightly the next day and had full bullpen sessions Sunday and Wednesday.
"He threw really well in the bullpen [Wednesday]," Yankees pitching coach Ron Guidry said. "That was a good sign. He got a lot of extension, and it was a lot easier than it was the time before. As far as the problem he has, the back is always going to be stiff, but I think it's something that he works through. And if he throws just like he threw in the bullpen, he should throw pretty well [Friday]."
Johnson, 43, will face Kenny Rogers, the Tigers' 41-year-old left-hander. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Friday's matchup will be the first postseason game in which both starters are in their 40s.
It will be another period of adjustment for Johnson, who has had to adjust in his two years with the Yankees to the aging process. Johnson, who was 17-11 with a 5.00 ERA in the regular season, cannot rely solely on blowing hitters away with fastballs that top out in the high 90-mph range. Guidry, a former power pitcher, has worked all year at helping Johnson adjust.
"You can throw so hard so long," Guidry said. "And there's just so many real exceptional pitches in your shoulder, your arm, whatever. So as you get older, you might lose the consistency of your pitches. It doesn't mean you can't throw the same speed-wise, you know, 95-96 every once in awhile. The thing that you lose is the ability to throw it for nine innings. You have to learn to pitch with it for maybe five, six, seven innings.
"It's an adjustment. Until you learn how to go about it fully, it's going to present a battle to you. You're really going to have to fight it. As far as RJ is concerned, that's some of the stuff that he went through this year, trying to become a better pitcher by throwing more pitches way out of the strike zone towards the outside part of the plate and not always trying to challenge guys inside. There are a lot of things you have to learn, but he's learning."
Jack O'Connell is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less