Randy Johnson's Astro Days -- Short But Electrifyingly Sweet

Randy Johnson got his 300th career victory yesterday as the San Francisco Giants defeated the Washington Nationals 5-1. Johnson pitched six innings, giving up only two hits and one unearned run (he had a no-hitter through four innings) as he got the 300th win in his first try.

Johnson got the victory by defeating the organization he started his career with, as he was drafted by and originally pitched in the majors for the Montreal Expos, the team that went on to become the Nationals. He's the 24th major leaguer to reach the magical number, and only the sixth left hander. And I like to think that the Houston Astros helped to make this milestone happen.

The Astros acquired The Big Unit in a blockbuster trade at the trade deadline of the 1998 season. The Astros were fighting for a playoff spot at the time, and they were looking to solidify a pitching staff that was still missing Darryl Kile who had departed for Colorado during the off-season. Johnson, though only in his mid-30s at the time of the trade, was thought to be approaching washed-up status because of back problems which had limited his pitching with the Seattle Mariners that season, and his record with Seattle prior to the trade was only a pedestrian 9-10 with a 4.34 ERA.  

But Johnson was electric with the Astros.

He started 11 games, completed four of those starts, and went 10-1 with four shutouts. He struck out 116 batters in only 84.1 innings, while giving up only 57 hits and 12 runs for an ERA of 1.28.  And those numbers don't do Johnson's time in Houston justice.

I worked nearly every game that 1998 season. And I've never seen the Astrodome more electrified than in those games Johnson started in Houston. That includes rodeos, Oilers games, tractor pulls, and political conventions. Johnson had this aura about him that year when he arrived, and that aura extended into the stands. It was a fantastic experience sitting at my home-plate perch watching The Big Unit just dominate the opposition.

Remember that 1998 was the year of McGwire and Sosa and the great home run chase. But Johnson shut down everybody. Nobody stood a chance when he was pitching, not even McGwire and Sosa.  

Johnson departed the Astros after their playoff disappointment of 1998 -- that was the year they lost to the San Diego Padres in the first round and not the Atlanta Braves. The Astros never made a real attempt to retain him as he wanted at least a four-year deal and the Astros didn't think his back would hold up for four more years. But as the Astros have so often been, they were wrong.

Johnson left the Astros for the Arizona Diamondbacks where he went on to win four straight Cy Young awards from 1999-2002 while sharing the 2001 World Series MVP award with Curt Schilling -- another former Astro. (Other former Astros on that 2001 D-Backs team included Luis Gonzalez, Steve Finley, and Greg Swindell.)

At 45 years old, this is probably Johnson's last season. It's rather amazing that he got to 300 wins as he didn't get his first major league victory until he was 25 years old. He only had 64 wins before age 30. He was also the first pitcher in MLB history to strike out 300-plus batters a season for five straight seasons. And while Randy Johnson was the seventh Giant pitcher to reach the 300 mark, he's also the fourth former Astro to reach the mark. (Nolan Ryan, Don Sutton, and Roger Clemens are the others. Alas, no pitcher has ever gotten his 300th win while actually in an Astros uniform.)

But I'll always remember those two-plus months Randy Johnson was the ace of the Houston Astros pitching staff. Those games were magical and electric. And in my humble opinion, Astros baseball has never been as good since.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
John Royal is a native Houstonian who graduated from the University of Houston and South Texas College of Law. In his day job he is a complex litigation attorney. In his night job he writes about Houston sports for the Houston Press.
Contact: John Royal