JOE (DAVID) McEWING VS. RANDY (GOLIATH) JOHNSON
Deserved or not, certain players earn a reputation for “owning” certain opponents. Long in the tooth Met fans (like myself) will recall how Tom Seaver was able to dominate many of his era’s greatest hitters but would look like he was throwing batting practice to an otherwise unremarkable infielder by the name of Woody Woodward. Woodward bounced around the league for parts of nine seasons in the ‘60’s and 70’s playing for the Expo’s, Braves, and Reds, logging a lifetime batting average of .236, hitting exactly one home run, and generally failing to strike fear into the heart of most opposition moundsmen. But if Tom Terrific was toeing the rubber that day, the Wood-man would morph into a line drive machine and rattle number 41’s offerings around from line to line. For his career, Woodward tattooed Seaver to the tune of a .387 average by going 12-for-31 and threw in 3 walks for good measure to record an OBP against the Met ace of .441. Seaver did manage to strike him out-just once-to salvage a shred of dignity.
Although his overall numbers are not as compelling, erstwhile Met utility man (and current White Sox coach) Joe McEwing did score some remarkable successes against one of the most intimidating pitchers of his time: the towering lefthander Randy Johnson. The Big Unit was still active just four seasons ago, so most remember him well, a 6’10” behemoth with a fastball that regularly reached the upper 90’s (and occasionally hit the 100-mph mark) and a biting slider that ate otherwise proficient hitters for breakfast, bruch, lunch, dinner, supper, and a midnight snack. He holds the career mark for highest K/9 innings pitched among all starters (10.67), recorded 4,875 strikeouts-good for second all-time behind Nolan Ryan and the most of any left-hander in baseball history, pitched two no-hitters including a perfect game and- oh yeah- hit 188 batters, the third most ever. In one particularly memorable instance in the 1993 All Star Game, Johnson brought all of his knee-buckling powers to bear against the lefty-swinging John Kruk and deliberately fired a pitch well over Kruk’s head to the backstop. Kruk flinched big-time and stepped out of the box to collect himself before half-heartedly flailing away at three pitches to end the inning.
So stepping in to face the Diamondbacks ace was a matchup that few hitters likely relished. Yet during the 2000 season, the diminutive (by baseball standards) McEwing raked against Johnson like he was facing a mop-up reliever instead of many a batter’s worst nightmare.
“Super Joe” had come to the Mets in a trade for Jesse Orosco, by then a 43-year old elder statesman who had been obtained from Baltimore a few months earlier and was poised for a second go-round with the club he had helped lead to a championship 14 years earlier. The deal, consummated during the ’00 Spring Training, had happened much to the chagrin of Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa who requested a pair of spikes from his departing player as a memento. Following his major league debut in September of 1998, McEwing had made the St. Louis squad to begin the next season and endeared himself to Cardinal fans and management alike with his versatility. Appearing primarily as a second baseman, Joe managed to log time at every defensive position on the field save catcher, providing LaRussa with an ultra-flexible roster component that he was loath to surrender. At the plate he was reliable, if not spectacular, batting .275 with a modicum of pop (28 2B, 4 3B, 9 HR’s) which, combined with his defensive versatility, was good enough to secure him a fifth-place finish in the Rookie-of-the-Year voting.
In 2000, Randy Johnson was on his way to the second of four consecutive Cy Young awards (he would finish with five total), and at age 36 was as dominant a starter as baseball had seen in decades. He would finish that year with 19 wins, 347 strikeouts and an ERA of 2.64., but had still more flashes of historic greatness to come the following season when he would record such mind-bending pitching feats as a 20-strikeout performance against the Reds and an “immaculate inning” (3 strikeouts on 9 pitches) in a game against the Pirates.
The Diamondbacks arrived at Shea for a three-game set on May 19, 2000, a season removed from their startling run to a division championship in only their second year of existence. Under the guidance of manager Buck Showalter, the Snakes had pulled off a “worst to first,” rising from a 65-win, dead-last finish in 1998 to the rarified air of a 100-game winner in ’99, thanks in no small part to the contribution of free-agent signee Johnson who won 17 games while racking up 364 K’s. Johnson took the hill to start the final game of the series on Sunday, May 21. The Mets had won the first two games by scores of 4-3 and 8-7 and were sending Rick Reed, the so-called “poor man’s Greg Maddux” to the mound to try for a sweep.
Johnson was coming off his first loss of the season, winding up on the short end of a 2-0 score in a contest against the Expos where he had nonetheless recorded a complete game while allowing only one earned run and striking out 12. The New Yorkers knew that they had their work cut out for them that day, and manager Bobby Valentine opted for an all-right-handed hitting lineup, sparing stalwart third-sacker Robin Ventura the daunting task of facing Johnson’s pitching arsenal and instead trotting out Kurt Abbott to man the hot corner. Leading off and playing LF he had slotted Joe McEwing. Joe had faced Johnson twice the previous season, nicking him for just one hit in 8 at-bats (a double) and striking out three times. He would find greater success that afternoon.
After the Diamondbacks had gotten to Reed for three singles and a run to grab a quick lead in the top of the first, McEwing led off the bottom of the frame with the first of three consecutive doubles by the Mets that shifted the advantage back to New York by a score of 2-1. After an uneventful second for both teams that included a groundout to short by McEwing, Arizona put together three more singles and a groundout in the third frame to score twice and reclaim the lead. The Mets tied things back up in the bottom of the inning on a homer by Mike Piazza– an omen of things to come.
After a scoreless 4th and 5th, the latter inning featuring another McEwing double down the left field line, the teams exchanged longball salvos beginning with Travis Lee’s 2-run shot off Reed in the top of the sixth that gave the ‘Backs a temporary 5-3 lead. In the bottom of the seventh, following a strikeout by Benny Agbayani leading off, McEwing cracked a shot to left that cleared the fence and drew the Mets within one. After Derek Bell struck out, second baseman Edgardo Alfonzo followed with another round-tripper, the Mets’ third of the day off Johnson, tying the score and knocking the Unit out of the game. Steve Finley homered off Mets lefty Dennis Cook in the top of the eighth to skew things back in the visitor’s favor once more, but Robin Ventura came off the bench in the Mets’ half of the inning to knot things back up with a blast of his own off Mike Morgan who had come in to relieve Johnson in the previous frame. After Turk Wendell (he of the bear claw necklace and dugout toothbrush) retired the Arizona squad in the top of the 9th, McEwing opened the bottom of the frame with a walk, stole second, and scored the winning run on a single by Bell. For the day, “Super Joe” had reached Johnson for a homer and two doubles, a not-so-shabby performance against even a pedestrian pitcher, much less a world-beater like Johnson.
Joe would make his mark against Johnson a second time that season when the Mets traveled to Phoenix for a series in the first week of August. In the first game of that set, the same two pitchers faced off but Reed fared considerably better than in his previous outing, notching the victory in a 6-1 win for New York. McEwing knocked in two of the runs against Johnson via another double and a sacrifice fly which contributed to an early 4th inning exit for the pitcher generally regarded as a nemesis by the rest of the league.
Regarding his performance against Johnson in the first matchup, McEwing was characteristically professional, stating “I think it’s the ultimate challenge for us to face a guy like him.” Clearly it was a challenge that Joe was up to.