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Mariners Classics: Big Unit’s 19 K game best remembered for another reason

Randy Johnson struck out 19 in a complete game loss against the A's in 1997. (AP)

With baseball season delayed for the foreseeable future, 710 ESPN Seattle is broadcasting classic Mariners games throughout the spring. This week is all about historic pitching performances from M’s history. Pinch hitting in this post for Mariners insider Shannon Drayer is editor Brent Stecker, who previews an airing of a game he attended as a fan in 1997 when Randy Johnson struck out 19 Oakland A’s. You might remember that game for another reason, however. Hear the broadcast at 7 p.m. Thursday on 710 ESPN Seattle.

June 24, 1997

My eyes had never been as focused on something as they were on this game. This was a chance to possibly see history.

Oh, there was history on this night. Just not the kind of history I or anybody else in the Kingdome was expecting.

For four-plus innings, Mariners ace Randy Johnson had sliced through the Oakland Athletics lineup like a hot knife through butter. He already had 12 strikeouts after punching out the first two batters of the top of the fifth inning. The MLB record for strikeouts in a game was 20, a fact most Mariners fans knew because Roger Clemens set that very record against the M’s back in 1986. Those of us in the crowd were doing the math in our heads, and it was adding up.

For years, the hope was that the Big Unit could break that record, exorcising that particular demon for the franchise. And if ever there was a chance, this was it. The crowd knew it early on, and the buzz in the dome made it feel like we were watching a no-hitter in the making. Johnson was going to challenge the record in this game, there was no doubt in any of our minds.

So with two outs in the top of the fifth, Johnson is facing his old college teammate from USC, Oakland first baseman Mark McGwire. He of course was one of the premier sluggers in the game at the time, coming off a 1996 season where he smacked 52 homers, and he was on his way to hitting 56 that year (half of which he spent with St. Louis after a midseason trade).

Big Mac had struck out once already, but he also had an RBI double to his credit. In fact, while Johnson was quite dominant on this night, he actually was pitching with a deficit. There wasn’t a lot of help from the Seattle offense, which was struggling to figure out Oakland starter Steve Karsay and in fact was able to scratch just one run across when all was said and done. But Johnson breaking the strikeout record could happen whether the Mariners won or lost, so we watched the battle with McGwire intently.

I just remember I was looking at the field, then suddenly I wasn’t. With whiplash-like speed, my head had jerked to look far, far to the left of my seat along the third-base line.

Because my eyes were staring at the back of the Kingdome.

Because this had just happened.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is what I would guess is the biggest, farthest, most impressive home run ever hit within the city limits of Seattle, Washington. It may be the biggest, farthest, most impressive home run ever hit period. That is what happens when the swing of Mark McGwire, at the peak of his… um… powers, meets a Randy Johnson fastball.

Ball. Will. Travel.

The final “guesstimate,” as Hall of Fame Mariners announcer Dave Niehaus called it on the KIRO-AM broadcast, was 538 feet. I’ll go ahead and say that counts as history.

As for the rest of the game, Johnson went as far as he could to challenge the record. He got to 19 strikeouts, throwing a staggering 142 pitches, allowing four runs on 11 hits to take an absolutely bizarre complete game loss. He had a legitimate shot at 20, too. He struck out Mark Bellhorn looking for the second out of the ninth inning, but Jason McDonald lined out to left field to end the frame. The crowd gave Johnson a very loud standing ovation, hoping that the M’s could somehow come up with three runs to force extras and give The Unit one more chance to match The Rocket.

It was not to be.

As sports fans, we always want to be able to say we were there for something truly historic. I didn’t get to go to a whole ton of games growing up, the reality of growing up in a small town that was a three-hour drive from the nearest pro sports team. Needless to say, I couldn’t believe how lucky I was that my godmother and her family just happened to take me to this particular game when I was all of 11 years old. I couldn’t wait to call my mom after the game and tell her what happened – not only did I see Randy Johnson strike out NINETEEN BATTERS, but Mark McGwire hit a ball to basically Canada. Now I can’t wait to tell her (and my godmother) that same game is airing again 23 years later.

Follow 710 ESPN Seattle’s Brent Stecker on Twitter.

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