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Arms and the Man

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Well, that was interesting. Spent most of the weekend installing and configuring a box-office for Mrs. SnakePit using osCommerce. Yes, even on my days off, I find myself doing technical support. I have to stop myself from telling Chris, "Please hold for a few minutes while I look into that for you," and asking her to contact us again if she requires further assistance, or if we can help her in any other way.

Long, interesting article by Jack Magruder in the Tribune today, on the topic of Randy Johnson and his back. It points out that he's believed to be the only professional athlete to have had three surgeries on the same herniated disk and still be playing, which personally, simply highlights Johnson's case as a medical marvel. There's a nice graphic in the article, which illustrates the problem Johnson has had: a disk, located between two vertebra in his spine, has bulged out of its usual spot, and then causes pain by pressing on the nearby nerves. The surgery involves removing the protrusion, thereby relieving the pressure. Johnson also talks about the situation he was in last year, feeling he rushed back because he "owed it to the Diamondbacks to show them I was ready to go." The article then continues:

The medical staff believes his core muscle group is in much better condition now, and no one can question his arm. The difficulty last season came between starts. Johnson did not have extraordinary pain when he pitched early in the season, but after the disk ruptured he would get severe pain about two days after he pitched, and the pain would not settle down quickly. He occasionally was forced to miss a start, and when he made one on normal rest did so without being able to adequately recover. Johnson was unable to regain his muscle strength and could not get into the appropriate mechanical position to have his best stuff.

It's partly as a result of this, that consideration is being given to dropping Johnson to the back end of the rotation. Originally, it was thought he'd be #2 and Davis #4, in order to separate the left-handed starters. However, an alternative possibility is to go Webb, Haren, Davis, Owings and Johnson. This would allow the Big Unit to be given additional rest, with the odd start being skipped naturally as a result of the schedule. If the need arises, Johnson can also be replaced for the odd spot start, whether it's by Gonzalez, the Petit Unit or Billy Buckner. Don't be surprised if Johnson is also given permission to stay at home for road trips, unless he's scheduled to pitch, to save his back the stress of unnecessary airplane trips.

On the other hand, putting him between Webb and Haren might be the best spot as far as bullpen use goes. Coming off a Webb start, they should be fairly fresh, and so having to put out four innings in relief of Johnson poses less problem than it might if he followed Micah. While he may not have to be replaced by a pinch-hitter, Owings still averaged less than 5.2 innings per start last season, and managed five or less in ten of his 27 outings. Compare that to Webb, who was only just short of seven innings per start, and had an absolute minimum of five innings, in each of his 34 games. Indeed, in the past three seasons and exactly a hundred starts, Brandon has only once failed to go five frames. [Four vs. the Padres, in the very last contest of 2006]

Looking at this list, which has the best streaks of 5+ inning starts since 2000, his current run of 34 is the longest active one in the NL. Well, unless you count Curt Schilling's streak of 73 for Arizona, which ended without being broken, instead terminating with his trade to the Red Sox. Randy Johnson had reached 59 in a row, until the three-inning performance which heralded the end of his season last June. I think Adam Wainright's 24 is next behind Webb, the only other pitcher to have more than twenty such consecutive games under their belt, as we head to the 2008 season. Of course, in the AL it's somewhat easier: Johan Santana pitched five or more in 123 consecutive starts, until the final one of 2007. Now, the leader is another ex-D'back, Javier Vazquez, who was perfect last year and carries a streak of 32 into Opening Day.

But I digress. [Hey, it's what I do] Johnson's first session of spring training looked solid on Sunday, throwing 27 pitches. He said afterwards, "Just keep doing what I've been doing, continue to make progress. The most important thing for me right now is to get on the mound. I did that three times before I got here, so you'll have to ask Bryan Price and [Bob Melvin] what they thought because that was the first time they saw me pitch since the last game against the Dodgers." Oh, alright then: what did you think, Bob? "First pitch, he's throwing bullets. Location unbelievable. He's ahead of the game. He's a competitor whether it's throwing a bullpen or pitching in a game. He seemed like he had a little edge when he went out there today so I kind of stayed away and watched and once again marveled at what he had to offer today."

Johnson will work on his conditioning for the next few days, and throw off the mound again on Thursday. It seems that he'll be doing very little outside of pitching this spring training; very little fielding practice, minimal batting, even bunting - and as for sliding, that's right out, according to Melvin. Especially into third-base, one imagines, since if I remember correctly, that's suspected as part of the cause of his problems last year. One other thing that will not apparently be troubling Johnson this year is his mustache, which was notable by its absence over the weekend. Whether this is just a bit of facial spring-cleaning, or if it's a radical change in what could be his last major-league season, only time will tell.

Some other bits and pieces on the pitching staff. Micah Owings spent some time this off-season working with Hall of Famer Bruce Sutter, who gave Micah some tips on polishing his change-up - nothing major, just trying to make it look the same to the hitter as his fastball. In addition, he has also standing on the opposite side of the rubber when beginning his motion; the aim there is to make it harder for right-handers to see the ball when it comes out of his hand. Perhaps most intriguingly, however, Dustin Nippert is experimenting with a slider, and feels he has now cracked it. "I was throwing it wrong in the past. I was trying to get around it rather than staying on top. I guess it was just inexperience on my part. The curve is such a feel pitch, so if I don't have a feel for it, now I can go to the slider." If he does now have a solid third pitch, to go with his fastball and curve, it could conceivably help lead to him returning to the rotation.

The position players are beginning to drift in too, though they don't have to turn up until Wednesday. Eric Byrnes is probably wishing he hadn't bothered though, since he was stopped by the police within an hour of arriving in Tucson, because they caught the Shaggin' Wagon - his beloved 2005 van - with an expired license plate. Oops! A trip to the Tucson DMV has been scheduled for tomorrow morning, even as Byrnes grumbled, "They should be giving me money for all the potholes in the street." In other semi-legal news, Juans Cruz and Gutierrez [should we refer to them as Juan One and Juan Two?] are expected to arrive in camp on Tuesday, but no sign of Tony Peña, who is presumably still apologizing to the State Department.

Finally, six quick questions with Melvin can be found in USA Today. Most interesting section if probably the discussion of Chris Young, and whether he'll bat lead-off or be moved down in the order. "He can do some things a lot of other leadoff guys can't. He can affect a game with one swing very quickly. You saw that in that last game against the Cubs (in the NL Division Series). That was a serious dagger... If we feel like we have enough production in the middle of the order, we might not need him down there. And he likes leading off." Certainly, it'd be nice if we could afford to leave a 30+ home-run hitter at the top of the order. Can't say I'm that optimistic the offense will be quite so good though.