Big Unit no longer living on his power game

NEW YORK – For all the years George Steinbrenner was imagining Randy Johnson in pinstripes, it was the lure of big-name marketability and a big-strikeout profile that fueled the Boss' obsession.

Johnson had everything the Boss wanted in a star player, including just enough meanness to make a fastball dangerous. When it came time to choose between offseason needs – Johnson's gun readings or Carlos Beltran's grace in center field – Steinbrenner cast the final and overriding vote.

Johnson had to be a Yankee.

Six weeks into the Unit's new life in the Bronx, the left-hander has proved to be an asset, but not quite the way the Yankees thought. Instead of dominating the American League with double-digit strikeout performances, Johnson has evolved toward finesse pitching, relying on sinkers and sliders, and even introducing a splitter into his arsenal.

No one's arguing with the results. Johnson is 3-2, but more important, is keeping opposing hitters to a .213 average, third-best in the AL. And while Johnson has yet to fan 10 in any single game, the strikeouts haven't exactly shriveled, either. An average of 8.77 per nine innings places the Unit third behind the Twins' Johan Santana and the Orioles' Daniel Cabrera.

So why have opposing players and executives been whispering about Johnson? Because he's not throwing as hard as he used to. Instead of the 96- to 98-mph tallies from his National League days, lately Johnson is being clocked at a more modest 91-93.

The dropoff can be attributed, in part, to April's chilly temperatures in New York, no doubt a shock to Johnson's system after being housed in domed stadiums for most of his career. And since March, there have been injuries to his calf muscle and groin, which could've also slowed the progress of his fastball.

But Johnson is the third-oldest pitcher in the American League after Jamie Moyer and David Wells and admits age could be lowering his gun readings and softening the bite on his slider, too.

"Maybe it's not as good as it once was," Johnson said after beating the Mariners Monday night in the Bronx. "But I'm 41 years old now, and I've pitched over 3,000 innings. That takes some wear and tear out of you, but it's still effective.

"If you're expecting to see a big strikeout game [from me], it might not happen as much as it once did in Arizona and Seattle, but strikeouts are overrated."

The mercurial Yankees, who start a West Coast trip on Friday three games under .500, obviously need the wins more than the punchouts. They'll take whatever Johnson's offering, even if the weaponry isn't quite as in-your-face as they expected.

The longer-range question, of course, is where Johnson's trend lines are heading. If he's lost a few miles per hour off his fastball in the first year of his contract, what's in store for 2006 and 2007?

The Yankees might, in fact, be seeing the best of Johnson between now and the end of his contract. That's hardly a problem in 2005: his 3.68 ERA is perfectly reasonable for a 40-something American League pitcher. Even better news for the Bombers is that Johnson is philosophical in his fastball's decline, regardless if it's temporary or longer-range, and isn't too stubborn to diversify his portfolio.

After allowing Boston three home runs in his first 3 1/3 innings on April 14, Johnson – realizing he couldn't throw his fastball by the Red Sox – made an on-the-spot decision to experiment with a splitter, even though he'd barely used the pitch before.

News that Johnson was challenging hitters less frequently made its way around the league. Even in beating the Rangers 11-1 on April 24, Johnson made sure to live on the corners.

"He was a completely different pitcher," Mark DeRosa told the Dallas Morning News. "It was like seeing a whole new guy out there. I'm sure as the season progresses, he'll get his fastball up there, but he still dominated without it."

Can Johnson still get close to 100 mph? Actually, he was clocked at 99 in the first inning against the Mariners on Monday night, his first start in 10 days. Obviously rested and ready to test his arm strength, the Big Unit appeared to be on the verge of crushing the M's – until he tweaked his groin again.

The pain came and went in one pitch, but Johnson nevertheless chose to throttle back his fastball over the next seven innings of a 4-3 victory, keeping Seattle to seven hits while striking out seven and extending the Yankees' winning streak to three games at the time.

Afterwards, Johnson admitted, "I didn't have my best stuff, but it's nice to know I can still win without it."

He says so without trauma or panic. If Johnson is finding it harder to throw "The Perfect Fastball" after 40, he's no different than, say, Roger Clemens, who at 42 relies heavily on his splitter. And Johnson further likens himself to Nolan Ryan, whom he said, "wasn't throwing as hard in his last couple of years, either.

"It happens to all power pitchers, but it doesn't mean that you can't win," Johnson said. "Personally, I think it's more gratifying to win without a 95-mph fastball because it means you have to work harder. You can get away with a lot of mistakes when you're throwing 95 and up."

Bob Klapisch is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.