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Johnson sliding toward mediocrity?

NEW YORK -- Randy Johnson may or may not be making the most important start of his Yankee career Sunday against the Oakland A's, but it'll be watched closely by club officials wondering what's happened to their ace. The Big Unit is in free fall, having lost command of his fastball, the bite of his slider and most significantly, his self-confidence.

Johnson's ERA is a whopping 5.01, but the more telling stat is the American League's .389 average against him with runners in scoring position, a hike of 138 points from last year. Even more damning is the whopping .476 average with runners in scoring position and two out -- further proof that Johnson is missing a blow-away weapon to close out a rally.

So, what, exactly, is wrong? The Yankees went as far as to order an MRI on Johnson's shoulder this week. It revealed no structural damage, meaning his problem is either mechanical, or psychological, or both. Pitching coach Ron Guidry bluntly likened Johnson to "a lost little boy."

Wandering through a desert of mediocrity, the Unit lasted only 3 2/3 innings against the Red Sox on Tuesday. He dragged the Yankees down to a 14-3 loss that was so ugly, owner George Steinbrenner couldn't help but take a jab at the culprits.

Only, it wasn't Johnson whom the Boss tweaked. It was Alex Rodriguez, who made two errors and was referred to coldly as "the third baseman." Two days later, the Yankees were distracted by another crisis, Hideki Matsui's broken wrist and the prospect of losing him for the rest of the season. All of which means Johnson has temporarily disappeared from the news cycle.

But no one's forgotten how Johnson was booed off the mound Tuesday night. The sold-out crowd at the Stadium was in no mood for forgiveness, as it rarely is when the Red Sox are in town. Fans grew impatient as Johnson fell behind six of the eight batters he faced in the third inning, when the mood turned particularly ugly in an eight-pitch sequence to Jason Varitek and Mike Lowell, during which Johnson missed the strike zone seven times.

When Johnson finally threw a strike to Lowell, he was mocked -- rewarded by a sarcastic cheer from the crowd. The Red Sox were paying close attention, stripping away the Unit's final layer of invincibility soon after. They had runners on second and third and two out in the fourth inning, and Mark Loretta at the plate with a 3-0 count. Instead of taking a pitch and possibly loading the bases for Yankee-killer David Ortiz, Loretta was given the green light against Johnson and promptly smacked a two-run single that doomed the Bombers once and for all.

It was a sobering, if not embarrassing night for the Yankees' lefty, who was uncharacteristically contrite afterward.

"I don't remember the last time I pitched a good ballgame," Johnson said quietly. "It looked like I didn't have a clue out there."

Although the radar gun still clocks Johnson in the low to mid-90s, one American League scout in attendance said those numbers were deceiving. "[Johnson] is trying to prove he can still throw hard every single pitch -- and it's killing his location and it's killing his slider," said the scout.

Indeed, the Unit's once-unhittable slider has hurt him more often than not. Manager Joe Torre said, "it's either a ball, or it's in the middle of the plate." Gone are the days when Johnson could take apart left-handed hitters on the outside corner and take away the inner half of the strike zone against righties. Now, it's as if Johnson is consumed with proving that he's as dominant today as he was three years ago.

The result is the kind of overthrowing common among rookies, not 42-year-old stars. Twice against Boston he sent fastballs sailing to the backstop. But of course, not every aspect of that blowout was his fault; A-Rod's errors hurt, and two of the runs charged to Johnson scored after he was out of the game, when Melky Cabrera dropped a fly ball in right.

But until Johnson finds his equilibrium, the Yankees are a team without a true ace. Mike Mussina is pitching brilliantly -- the league's .220 average against him is the lowest of his career -- but it was the Unit, not Mussina, who came to New York with the mandate to anchor the rotation. For now, the best the Yankees can do is get into Johnson's head, counsel him, praise him, all of which is what Torre does best.

Question is, does Johnson need to hear that he's still a deity, that his fastball is still elite-caliber? Or do the Yankees instead consider a soft landing, telling the future Hall of Famer he no longer needs to feel responsible for 20 wins and 200-plus strikeouts a year? Torre has asked Johnson to merely keep the Bombers close; the offense will do the rest. But that's not quite what Steinbrenner had in mind when he added Johnson's $16 million to the annual payroll.

None of this is lost on the left-hander, who told the New York Daily News recently he would "walk away" if he couldn't reverse his slide toward mediocrity. Although it's hard to imagine Johnson forfeiting the final $28 million coming to him through 2007, the fact that he's even mentioning retirement suggests his crisis is deeper than anyone knows.

Then again, it could all change Sunday against Oakland. At least that's what the Yankees are hoping for as Johnson continues his journey through this strange desert of errant fastballs and a slider that looks 42 years old. Every minute of it.

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