Best pair ever? Put 'em on the list
LOS ANGELES — Super pitchers don't usually come in pairs.
When they do, such as last year when Arizona lefthander Randy Johnson and righthander Curt Schilling won 43 regular-season games between them, comparisons with the best dynamic duos of the past become inevitable.
In the 2001 postseason, Johnson and Schilling combined for a 9-1 won-lost record, leading the Diamondbacks to an eventual World Series victory. In fact, in Arizona's four World Series wins against the New York Yankees, the pair recorded 95 of their team's 108 putouts and were named co-Most Valuable Players.
Already Johnson and Schilling conjure up visions of the old Boston Braves, who had two outstanding pitchers, Warren Spahn and Johnny Sain, and not much else, yielding the fans' plea for "Spahn and Sain ... and two days of rain."
In the 1960s, the Los Angeles Dodgers could throw future Hall of Famers Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale at their opponents every four days. Where, too, would the Atlanta Braves and their 10 consecutive division titles have been without the marathon arms of Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, who have five Cy Young Awards between them?
Though they've been together less than two seasons, Schilling (12-1, 2.79 ERA so far this year) and Johnson (9-2, 2.81 ERA) have shown they can dominate in the same way. They continue to intimidate baseball's best hitters, give up a minimum of home runs (usually with nobody on base), pitch a lot of innings, and wear out the corners of the plate. Schilling's 12 wins (he goes for his 13th tonight) include 9 in a row and lead the major leagues, as do his 140 strikeouts. Johnson is second in strikeouts with 123.
A quality they have in common is that they rarely beat themselves. They make fewer mistakes than most pitchers. And they have the stamina to make a lot of pitches to get out of an inning and still be ready for more. On those rare occasions when an opponent is successful against them, it happens in an early inning, before they can settle deep into their rhythm.
"Give me Johnson and Schilling, and I'll build a team around them that will win the pennant," or words to that effect, says former Dodgers and Padres general manager Buzzie Bavasi. "With Johnson and Schilling in their rotation, Arizona isn't going to have any lengthy losing streaks."
Unlike longtime partners Spahn and Sain, Koufax and Drysdale, and Maddux and Glavine, Johnson and Schilling have been imposing double jeopardy on the National League only since July 26, 2000. That's the day Schilling joined Johnson in Arizona after a trade with Philadelphia.
Prior to 1997, in fact, when he refined his slider, Shilling had compiled an unremarkable 52-52 record with Baltimore, Houston, and Philadelphia.
But if Johnson (age 38) and Schilling (age 35) are ever to become a team engraved on baseball's Mt. Rushmore, they'll have to keep up this impressive pace for a few more years all the while outdueling today's bulked-up batters and throwing a baseball that seems to be filled with helium and eager to fly out of ballparks.
In spring training, Schilling played down the talk of his pairing with Johnson. "It's flattering," he said, but "there is a big difference in doing [for] one-and-a-half seasons what Maddux and Glavine have been doing for a decade."
Johnson, who spends his words slowly and carefully, feels the same. At 6-ft., 10-in., and 220 pounds, Johnson (aka the Big Unit) pitches with an intimidating scowl, although he is nothing like that off the field. Prior to notching 21 victories last year with Arizona en route to his third consecutive Cy Young Award, he had logged 10 years with Seattle and Houston, during which he won 140 games.
Unlike most older pitchers, Johnson keeps getting better. He may be another Nolan Ryan, who was still a power pitcher into his 40s.
Early in his career, Johnson used to have days when his fastball was all over the place. Reportedly it took three years before he could pinpoint his slider. Today, there may not be another pitcher in baseball who throws inside as consistently without hitters making him pay for it.
Although the public perception of Johnson and Schilling is that they're strikeout artists, what they say they want to do is just get three outs each inning. To do that, they try to stay in a favorable pitch count (fewer balls than strikes) to consistently keep pressure on hitters.
Schilling, 6-ft., 5-in., and 235 pounds, has a classic way of deciding if a pitcher is an "ace." "Mostly pitchers of that caliber are like the days of the week," Schilling says. "If you can't name them off the top of your head, they're not an ace. One more thing: An ace will win even on days when he doesn't have his best stuff."
Where Johnson uses his head to catalog the strengths and weaknesses of opposing hitters, Schilling writes it all down. Among things they do share, though, is an off-season conditioning program so demanding that few ballplayers work harder.
"I played with Koufax and Drysdale, and I've seen a lot of Maddux and Glavine, and [watching Johnson and Schilling is] like watching the same guys," former Giants manager and part-time Arizona coach Roger Craig told Baseball America.
Off the field, the Arizona pair are a study in contrasts. Schilling can entertain his clubhouse peers for hours with opinions on everything from setting up a hitter to making Middle East policy. Johnson, on the other hand, isn't into words or computers or making it onto the list of baseball's best-shorn players. When the thicket of hair on the back of his neck reaches full flower, some people think he looks like a modern-day Samson.
How valuable is the dynamic duo? "When Philadelphia Athletics manager Connie Mack said years ago that pitching is 75 percent of baseball, he didn't go far enough," says former Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda, now a club vice president. "Great pitching is worth much more than that....
"Even one ace is important. Look at the way the Yankees rely on Roger Clemens, the Red Sox on Pedro Martinez," he says. But a staff with two aces? Truly amazing.
"Why do you think, years after they have retired, baseball [people] still talk about Koufax and Drysdale?"