Randy Johnson was everything the Houston Astros wanted when they sacrificed their future to get him: Overpowering, dominating, intimidating. Everything including a winner.
"I can't say enough about the guys scoring those runs in the eighth," Johnson said. "I wasn't really nervous. I knew there was a lot of anticipation, and I wanted to give a good effort."
Despite battling jet lag, an unfamiliarity with Pittsburgh hitters -- he knew only a few even after studying box scores on an all-day trip Saturday -- Johnson was just as menacing for the NL Central-leading Astros as he was for the Seattle Mariners.
His 12 strikeouts gave him 225 for the season -- he led the AL before he was traded Friday for three prospects -- and are an Astros' season high. It also was the eighth time in his nine starts he had double-digit strikeouts, and gave him the overall major league lead in strikeouts.
"Strikeouts weren't a concern. Winning was," said Johnson.
By coincidence, Johnson's major league debut came against the Pirates in Montreal on Sept. 15, 1988, when he won 9-5 despite allowing two homers to Glenn Wilson in five innings.
"It's just fun to be back in the National League," said Johnson, who pitched 11 times for Montreal in 1988 and 1989 before being dealt to Seattle.
"It's nice to get the win because it puts everybody at ease. I've still got to learn the hitters and the balparks but, in time, it will come."
Apparently, it took barely two days, judging from the perplexed looks on the faces of Pirates hitters who couldn't catch up with a fastball that occasionally hit 98 mph and a slider that usually broke down and in.
"It was kind of tough on Randy and kind of tough on us," the Astros' Jeff Bagwell said. "Most pitchers like to concentrate and get into their own world. He flies all day yesterday, and then his first day in the park he has to pitch. I'm sure that was hard on him, but he obviously performed pretty well."
The Big Unit, who drew as many cheers during pregame introductions as the hometown Pirates, breezed through the first four innings in his first NL start since April 1989 for Montreal, allowing only two singles and walking one.
The Pirates finally got to him with 20-year-old rookie third baseman Aramis Ramirez's solo homer, leading off the fifth. They took a 2-1 lead on singles by Mark Smith and Ramirez, a hit batsman and Kevin Polcovich's sacrifice fly.
"I thought we battled him well, and I don't think he throws as consistently hard as he did when I saw him in the American League," said Pirates manager Gene Lamont, who once managed the White Sox. "But even against a premier pitcher, you score only twice and you won't win often."
But just when it seemed the much-traveled Todd Van Poppel would outduel Johnson, the Astros took the lead with a four-run eighth against reliever Jason Christiansen (1-2), himself rumored in trade talks.
Carl Everett's tying RBI single -- he was 5-for-12 as the Astros swept the three-game series -- followed a single, a walk and a force play. Ricky Gutierrez's two-run double into the gap in right field made it 4-2, and Tony Eusebio, batting for Johnson, added an insurance run with another double.
"I felt our hitters were a little overanxious until then," Astros manager Larry Dierker said. "Everybody was trying so darn hard to get him a bunch of runs and to get him a win to get him started."
Van Poppel, who didn't look like the pitcher who is 22-35 lifetime, gave up five hits and struck out five over seven innings.
"I wasn't intimidated," he said.
Still, Johnson's new teammates said he will make even better a team whose 67-44 record is the best in Astros' history to this point.
"Having him here makes this the best team I've ever played for," said Bagwell, who singled in Houston's first run. "This is what we've waited for. This is the best chance we've ever had to win the World Series."
Johnson (1-0), who walked one, hit another and threw 116 pitches, was replaced by the Astros' best pitching prospect, Scott Elarton, who sailed through the final two innings for his second save.
Johnson may not know these Pirates very well, but they have a history against him, beating him twice in three of his 11 previous NL starts in September 1988 and April 1989, before the Expos raded him to Seattle.
By coincidence, his major league debut came against the Pirates in Montreal on Sept. 15, 1988, when he won 9-5 despite lasting only five innings and allowing two homers to Glenn Wilson.
But while Johnson dominated the Pirates' entirely right-handed hitting lineup -- they even benched NL stolen base leader Tony Womack to add another right-handed bat -- the league's second best offense didn't give him much support until the eighth.
The Astros took a 1-0 lead in the fourth on Billy Spiers' double and Jeff Bagwell's one-out single off Van Poppel, who was tearing up Texas high schoolers when Johnson debuted in 1988, but has since gone through seven major league organizations.
That was Houston's only scoring against Van Poppel, who gave up five hits and struck out five over seven innings while barely resembling a pitcher with a 22-35 career record.
It was a smooth return all the way around for the 34-year-old Johnson, who didn't arrive in Pittsburgh until 9 p.m. EDT Saturday but chose to stay on his normal five-day rotation by pitching Sunday. He last worked Tuesday, losing to Cleveland.
"I'm tired, hungry and ornery, just the way I want to be before I pitch," he said.
His only worry about returning to the NL was batting again, but he didn't look overmatched at the plate, popping up once, hitting a sharp ground ball another time and striking out once.
About the only time he looked uncomfortable was when he warmed up before the first inning, when he shooed away several of the nine photographers who lined up behind home plate shooting his warmup pitches.
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