Johnson strikes out 20 for Diamondbacks

Part of the INSIDE PITCH series
Written by: Craig Muder

Officially, it was not a record. But for anyone who saw Randy Johnson dominate home plate on May 8, 2001, it was undoubtedly a masterpiece.

Johnson, the Arizona Diamondbacks’ All-Star left-hander, struck out 20 Reds batters over nine innings that night, allowing just three hits, no walks and one earned run.

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It marked only the fifth time in history that a pitcher had struck out 20 batters in any game, and just the fourth time it had happened in a nine-inning contest.

“This was a game to put in a time capsule and let people of the future watch it,” Johnson told the Associated Press following his outing.

Johnson, however, was not credited with the victory in a game that went to extra innings.

He struck out the side three times but left the game after nine innings – allowing his only run on a fifth-inning single by Ruben Rivera that scored Aaron Boone.

“I was asked if I wanted to go out there and I saw no point in going out there for the 10th inning,” Johnson told the Associated Press. “I surely could have went out there and done it, but what was the point in going out there and throwing 10 innings? I really didn’t see it.”

The 37-year-old Johnson was in the midst of a season that would see him finish 21-6 with a career-best 372 strikeouts and an NL-leading 2.49 ERA. He would win his third straight NL Cy Young that season and lead the Diamondbacks to the World Series title, winning three games in the Fall Classic.

Three times prior to Johnson’s 20-strikeout game, a pitcher had struck out 20 in a nine-inning contest. Roger Clemens of the Red Sox set the mark against the Mariners on April 29, 1986, then tied his own record Sept. 18, 1996, against Detroit.

The Cubs’ Kerry Wood then matched Clemens with 20 strikeouts against the Astros on May 6, 1998.

But because the Diamondbacks/Reds game went to extra innings – with Arizona winning 4-3 in the 11th – Johnson’s work was not recognized as tying the record.

Max Scherzer of the Nationals later officially tied Clemens and Wood with 20 strikeouts against the Tigers in a nine-inning, 3-2 victory on May 11, 2016.

The Senators’ Tom Cheney holds the record for most strikeouts in any game, fanning 21 Orioles batters in a 16-inning contest on Sept. 12, 1962.

“I’ve been blessed to be a part of unbelievable history – twice now,” Diamondbacks first baseman Mark Grace, who was on the Cubs when Wood struck out 20 batters, told the Arizona Republic. “In this day and age of offense, and the quote-unquote juice ball, when guys like Randy pitches, the ball is full of prune juice.

“When it gets like that, you put your glove on your head, because you just know they’re not going to hit the ball.”

Johnson was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2015.


Craig Muder is the director of communications for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

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Part of the INSIDE PITCH series