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Saturday, April 24, 2010

News photo
Special visit: Former MLB great Randy Johnson shakes hands with Tohoku Rakuten's Masahiro Tanaka at Tokyo Dome on Tuesday night. KYODO PHOTO

NPB NOTEBOOK

Big Unit empathizes with Kudo's struggle to get back on mound


Staff writer

As Randy Johnson stood on the mound at Tokyo Dome on Tuesday night, Chiba Lotte Marines leadoff hitter Tsuyoshi Nishioka could be forgiven for thinking he dodged a bullet.

Because even though the 208-cm Johnson was towering in front of Nishioka on the rubber, this was a scaled back Big Unit. His intensity replaced by a wry smile and intimidation factor by jeans and a pair of sneakers.

Still, Nishioka should count his lucky stars he was free to take an easy swing at a ceremonial first pitch, rather than have to deal with what Johnson can really bring.

"I'm 46 years old now, my baseball days are behind me," Johnson said, laughing off the suggestion fans were expecting him to hit triple digits prior to the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles game against the Marines.

"I'm here as a player for one day, one pitch, tonight."

The recently retired future MLB Hall of Famer, who is in Japan on a business trip, also made an appearance at a Saitama Seibu Lions game last weekend.

"I'm just in town doing some things," Johnson said. "I threw out the first pitch down at Seibu and tonight. Just enjoying Japanese baseball while I'm here.

"I came from Seattle. I played for Seattle for nine years and they had me throw out the first pitch on their Opening Day. So it worked out great. Because I went from Seattle and flew over here."

Johnson was a force of nature on the mound during his prime, hitting 160 kph with his fastball and also employing a slider that tickled the low 140s on the radar gun. Johnson used that devastating combination, along with the rest of his arsenal, to rack up 4,875 strikeouts, second only to Nolan Ryan's 5,714 in MLB history.

After achieving numerous records and feats, including a perfect game, over his 22 seasons in the big leagues, Johnson felt it was time to hang up his spikes in 2009.

"As time went on and I got older, my velocity wasn't what it once was. I started to have more injuries and so my velocity went down. It was increasingly harder to recover after every fifth day.

"It's natural as we all get older, it's harder to do things. It's a natural progression."

Johnson may be done playing baseball, but he's rooting for 46-year-old friend Kimiyasu Kudo, who is playing for the Seibu Lions, to get back on the mound.

"I talked to him a couple of days ago," Johnson said. "He's injured right now and trying to get better. I did a short interview with him, checking in to see how he's doing and trying to encourage him.

"When you get to be in your mid 40s, it's a little bit harder to recover. I know for him, he has a lot of pride and a lot of Japanese players and media know how good he once was. As you get older, it's hard to live up to those expectations. So I just told him, hopefully, he gets back out there and pitches."

Johnson was back at the other end of the age spectrum on Tuesday, doling out some words of wisdom to 21-year-old Eagles pitcher Masahiro Tanaka.

"I still enjoy talking about pitching to young pitchers," Johnson said. "I can't pitch that well anymore because I'm older, but still enjoy talking about pitching."

Vintage bats: The Hanshin Tigers will be bringing a lot of experience to key situations with slugger Tomoaki Kanemoto joining the Tigers' stable of pinch hitters.

The 42-year-old Kanemoto, Akihiro Yano (41) and Shinjiro Hiyama (40) will form what some are calling the "Trio of the Pinch Hit Gods" in Kansai the rest of the way.

With 41-year-old pitcher Tsuyoshi Shimoyanagi also on the roster, the right situation could see the Tigers sending a quartet of 40-somethings to the plate during a single game.



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