When the final out was recorded last Sunday at Dedeaux Field on a slowly hit ground ball to the second baseman, the 17 men sitting in the stands behind home plate appraising the USC pitcher rose almost in unison.
As they filed out, some carrying suitcases containing radar guns, some with attache cases, others with notebooks tucked under their arms, the look on most of their faces was one of contentment.
The men, baseball scouts representing about a dozen major league teams, had indeed gotten an eyeful. And not only because the pitcher is 6 feet 10 inches tall, either.
They saw what they had come to see, what many of them had been coming to Dedeaux Field all season hoping to see--an impressively pitched complete game by Randy Johnson.
Johnson, a junior left-hander whose fastball was timed at 90 m.p.h. Sunday, is regarded as one of the top amateur pitchers in the country. He was rated the 12th-best college prospect--the No. 4 pitcher--in a poll of scouting directors and scouts conducted by Baseball America.
“It felt good,” Johnson said after pitching a six-hitter and striking out eight, including the side in the eighth inning, in an 11-5 victory over California. Only three of the runs were earned. “I think I might have impressed a few scouts,” he said. “I know they wanted to check my endurance and see how I finish. I finished strong. This definitely is one of the highlights of the season.”
The highlights this season have been few and far between for Johnson. The victory was his sixth in 14 decisions, and it was only his second complete game in 18 starts. His earned-run average is 5.30, and although he has 94 strikeouts in 112 innings, he has walked 98 and yielded 97 hits.
“It’s frustrating,” he said. “I thought this was going to be my year. I thought I’d win 11 or 12. I was 5-0 as a freshman and 5-3 last year. I’ve never had a losing record.
“I’m throwing better this season. My mechanics are good. But I’m pitching in spurts. I’m not consistent like you have to be in pro ball. I’m giving up too many walks. You can’t do that.”
A perfect example was the Stanford game the week before he beat Cal. He led, 4-3, after five innings and had given up just three hits while striking out five. But he walked the first five batters in the sixth inning and was taken out. The runners all scored and Stanford went on to win, 13-9.
“I’m not superstitious, but I had a shirt in the pocket of my warmup jacket,” Johnson said. “I took it out and put it in my locker before the sixth inning. Maybe if I left it in the jacket, I wouldn’t have walked those batters. But really, if I had pitched with poise and not issued the walks, we would have won.
“My record shows a lot of losses, but I should have won some of those. I left a lot of games while ahead, but our relief pitchers gave up hits and we lost.”
Johnson mentioned a game at UC Santa Barbara early in the season. He left in the ninth inning with a 2-1 lead after having given up a walk and a single. The relief pitcher walked a batter, loading the bases, then yielded a game-winning double.
Then there was the Arizona State game in Tempe. He left leading, 5-3, with one out in the ninth after walking two. The relief pitcher promptly gave up a home run, giving Johnson, and USC, another loss.
The defeat that’s especially difficult for Johnson to digest was the Pacific 10 Southern Division opener at UCLA. He had given up only five hits and led, 4-3, with two out in the ninth inning when Vince Lopez homered to send the game into extra innings.
With one out and a runner on first in the 10th, he was replaced by Rick Weible. The next batter, Torey Lovullo, forced the runner at second. Gary Berman then singled Lovullo to third. John Joslyn hit a grounder to first and Lovullo broke for home.
First baseman Tim Pawley hesitated, stepped on first, then threw to second trying to get Berman. Lovullo, meanwhile, scored the winning run.
What rankles Johnson is that he was charged with the loss even though his man was out. But according to the NCAA rules, a relief pitcher is not charged with any run scored by a runner who reaches base on a fielder’s choice that puts out a runner left on base by a preceding pitcher.
In all, Johnson has been charged with 15 earned runs after his removal from games. Had those runs not scored, his ERA would be 4.09, and he’d probably be 9-5, or perhaps even 10-4.
“It’s difficult going out there, knowing you have to pitch a shutout or only give up one run in order to win because of a lack of (offensive) support and our poor relief pitching,” he said.
It’s no wonder, then, that Johnson hasn’t always been his enthusiastic self when pitching this season. In his first two years, he was known as much for his antics on the mound as he was for his pitching skills or for being the tallest player in the country.
Johnson talks to himself, and to the ball. He scurries about the infield between pitches, shouting encouragement to his teammates, and he stops and congratulates players for making outstanding defensive plays.
“I did it a little in high school, but not extensively until college,” Johnson said of his routine. “In high school, you don’t see the real outstanding defensive plays you do here.
“I’ve learned a lot from my teammates this season, about how they react to things. When I go out there and don’t do my antics, the team is laid back. But when I go through my routine, they’re more alert and they play better for me. When I’m not doing it, (third baseman) Dan Henley will usually come and tell me to get pumped up.”
Johnson said he’s excited about the probability that he’ll be picked high in next month’s free-agent draft. Among the teams that have expressed an interest in him are the Angels, San Francisco, Houston, Toronto, Philadelphia and the Chicago Cubs.
“I’m looking forward to going out and playing pro ball, to see how I do against the best players,” he said. “Chances are I will sign.”
Johnson could have signed after a brilliant senior year at Livermore High, when he was selected in the fourth round of the 1982 summer draft by Atlanta. The Braves offered him $48,000, which is not bad for a fourth-round pick. But that was not enough to cover the cost of a college education, particularly at USC, a private school.
Johnson is glad he decided to attend college and play against good competition. He’s also more mature now, he said, and the exposure he has had is beneficial.
“I’ve received publicity from articles in Baseball America, Collegiate Baseball and the L.A. Times,” he said. “That’s helped me, and college baseball, too. People read about me and say, ‘Who is this 6-10 guy?’ Then they come out to games to see for themselves.”
What people have seen this season, besides Johnson’s own inconsistency, is the poorest performance by a USC team in school history. The Trojans have won only 5 of 27 Pac-10 games and will finish in last place. Their overall record going into this weekend’s final three games against UCLA is 22-41.