Most of Johnson’s strikeouts these days come off his slider, not his fastball; he’s simply not throwing it past anyone. And the slider doesn’t have nearly the bite it once did. Frequently, it’s flat and fat, a pitch that opponents are hammering all over the park.
In the past, location wasn’t that big a deal for Johnson. If he threw it anywhere in the strike zone, few were going to hit it. Today, if he can keep the ball down and hit spots, he can still get people out, as he did for the middle four of his six innings Sunday. But he hasn’t shown the ability to maintain pinpoint control this year.
In 2004, playing for a bad Arizona team that gave him no run support, Johnson pitched 245 2/3 innings, giving up just 177 hits, striking out 290, and pitching to a 2.60 ERA.
Last year, he pitched 20 fewer innings, gave up 30 more hits, had 79 fewer Ks and had a 3.79 ERA. This year, hits again are up, the strikeouts down further and the ERA bloated.
“He’s still not there,” said Torre after the game. “That first inning was a concern, but I thought he recovered all right. I think he’s got some mechanical situations he’s got to deal with right now. We did see some good things. I think it was a step in the right direction.”
“He doesn’t have it right now,” admitted Johnny Damon before going into damage-control mode and adding, “But after the first inning, he was real solid. Hopefully, that can be a real positive."
“He had one bad inning. After that he pitched well,” said Derek Jeter, trying to believe it himself.
It was nothing of the sort. It was another bad outing by a formerly great pitcher. It’s six weeks into the season, long enough to get in a groove, and Johnson isn’t a bit better today than he was in Week 1; he’s actually worst.
“I’m not lost,” he insisted. “I’ve been through a lot in my career. You keep battling. It’s not mental, not physical.”
So what does he have to do?
“Just go out and keep battling,” he said.
He’s a competitor, and it’s the only thing he can say, just as his teammates have to say they see encouraging signs. To think or say otherwise is to admit they and this season are in big trouble.
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