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As good as ever?

Hey, if anything's worth a little overkill these days, it's a perfect game.

So here are a couple of closing observations -- OK, a couple more closing observations -- from Randy Johnson's flawless night in Atlanta on Tuesday.

• After games, reporters all line up outside of the clubhouses and wait, giving the players a chance to gather themselves before the inevitable "How do you feel?" and "What pitch did you hit?" and "If you were a cactus, what type of cactus would you be?" questions. Once the doors to the kingdom open up, the press generally first stops at the manager's office to get his rundown on the game.

When the doors to the visitors' clubhouse at Turner Field finally swung open on Tuesday, a dozen or so of us dutifully made our way to the manager's office to quiz Arizona's Bob Brenly. On the way, we had to go by the corner locker assigned to injured slugger Richie Sexson.

As he saw us headed his way, the big first baseman turned, straightened up and puffed out his chest.

"I guess you all wanna talk about my BP today, huh?"

Nobody stopped.

• During the course of a typical no-hitter, a couple of plays often help define the accomplishment. A close play that's ruled an error instead of a hit. A great defensive stop. A bang-bang play somewhere. That kind of thing.

This game was beautifully short of those. Andruw Jones hit a line drive to left field in the fifth inning. Arizona's Luis Gonzalez first broke back on the ball, stopped, came in and caught it easily. Johnny Estrada had a near-miss double down the left-field line. Danny Bautista caught a couple of flies in right field. If Johnson had given up a couple of hits in the first inning, none of them would have been worthy of a replay.

The one bang-bang play was the dribbler off the bat of pitcher Mike Hampton that shortstop Alex Cintron fielded. Again, a fine play. But hardly great. And Hampton was clearly out. Jesse Garcia's attempted bunt to open the game, fielded nicely by first baseman Shea Hillenbrand, was close, too, but not that close.

Estrada said it after the game: "This was a legitimate perfect game, any way you slice it."

• Hampton, by the way, had his best game of the year in his complete-game loss, scattering eight hits and giving up the only two runs of the game. It's the Braves' only complete game this year.

• Because of deadlines, print and Internet reporters in the press box almost always keep one eye on the game while writing notebooks and background for the main story with the other. We're lizards, we are.

It was about the fourth inning, no later than the fifth, when the tapping began to slow down and most everyone in the Turner Field press box started paying closer attention to what was going on. From then on, Johnson had us.

Several times after that, especially when a high-90s fastball popped in for another of the Big Unit's 13 strikeouts, you could hear grunts of appreciation, and a little nervous laughter, from the normally cynical press corps.

There was no doubt. He had us.

• Long after the game was over, as Johnson was checking out the replays for the first time in the clubhouse, he noted the speed of some of his pitches.

He threw 18 fastballs at 97 mph or better, but it was his slider that caught his eye. It clocked in, most of the time, at around 87 mph. It was, he said, probably the hardest and most effective slider he had ever thrown consistently during a game.

• Johnson said he shook off 27-year-old catcher Robby Hammock maybe two or three times over the course of the night. That's not a lot, especially considering that Johnson has started more than 450 games in his career and Hammock was catching only his 55th.

How well were the two communicating? Johnson hung an 0-2 slider to Julio Franco in the fourth, and the 45-year-old hit a high fly to center field. The ball had not yet settled into Steve Finley's glove when Johnson was facing Hammock, signaling to him from the mound that the pitch was up, trying to get Hammock to understand that Franco wasn't to get that kind of pitch in that situation again.

• When Brenly came into the clubhouse immediately after the game, he went up to Hammock and said, "You have no idea how lucky you are."

Brenly, a former big league catcher, had caught a no-hitter in high school and one in college. That's it.

• The next day, in the Atlanta dugout before the game, the Braves were still in shock. Chipper Jones was explaining to Atlanta pitching coach Leo Mazzone how difficult it was to pick up the difference between Johnson's slider and his fastball, saying they both came out of Johnson's hand at the same angle and on the same plane.

Both men were laughing and shaking their heads incredulously.

• Brenly, on those who say Johnson is as good as he's ever been:

"I definitely think he is," Brenly said. "Athletes have to have a certain amount of pride to compete at the level they compete at. Randy is a very prideful athlete."

• Since Johnson turned 40 on Sept. 10, he has a complete-game one-hitter, a complete-game two-hitter and Tuesday's perfect game. He also gave up two hits in seven innings in one start and three hits in seven innings in another.

In his past seven outings, starting with his complete-game one-hitter against the San Diego Padres on April 16, Johnson has given up only 20 hits -- and struck out 68 -- in 50 innings. He's issued six walks in that span.

In his past seven starts, Johnson is 4-3 with a 1.62 ERA.

Is he the best lefty ever? Well, I'm not going that far.

But Tuesday was perfect. And you can't get any better than that.

Now, for an abrupt subject change: To the E-bag!

This week we have Braves boosters, the entire National League Central fan club, Pedro Martinez lovers and haters, and more mention of that blasted radioactive arachnid.

OK, so I wrote you an e-mail berating you for counting out the Braves, as you "media folk" do every year, and then look what happened Tuesday: 27 up, 27 down for Randy Johnson. I still stick by my word, however, that you will be writing an article in August praising the Braves as they close in on another pennant. The injury bug will clear up and these guys will come together. -- Jason Buffkin, Sandy Springs, Ga.

Yeah, Johnson's gem didn't do much to boost the "Braves aren't dead" crowd. Still, it's a big crowd, and I've heard from a lot of them. But I repeat: the Braves are just about done. Not completely. But just about. I'm not happy about it. I live in the Atlanta area. I'd much rather be in a ballpark where the home team is winning. Makes things a lot easier. The problem is, even when they get healthy, the Braves don't have the talent to hang with the Marlins and Phillies. Here's the deal, Jason. If I'm wrong, write me back, remind me of your e-mail, call me a name that I can use in this e-bag and I'll use it. Leave my mom out of it, though.

John, I just read your article about players wearing body armor in order to get hit and get on base. Why not propose a rule that says, "other than your helmet, if you get hit on the armor, it does not count as a HBP, just a strike or ball depending on the pitch location"? -- Jeff, Cleveland

Believe it or not, Jeff, I heard that suggestion earlier this week. All I'm thinking is that pitchers would start aiming at body parts if they thought they could get a strike out of it. And that wouldn't be good. To me, the whole issue is resolved by umpires making sure hitters are in the box, and umps enforcing the rule that says they have to try to get out of the way.

All this sentiment for the game is fine and good. But we do need to worry about the game and protect it. Otherwise, we will wake up one day, open our eyes and say "What the heck happened? This game used to be great." I'm happy for readers who can have "a beer" and a good time, but while that is going on, the game is changing and not always for the better. I'm an old timer. I love the game, too -- grew up memorizing stats to impress my Dad -- and I'm not thrilled by the changes in the game. -- David Mink, Chicago

Ah, for the days, David, when you could go to the park and simply cheer for a guy without thinking about what you just heard or read in the paper about him. Or cheer for a team without thinking about salaries, trade rumors or that you just spent next month's house payment for four tickets, a couple of hot dogs and a warm beer or two. I wish I could separate things that easily. Does that make me an old timer, too?

John, John, John. I read your column every time it comes out, and I seem to hear things only about the bigger teams ... the Astros, Cubs, Yankees, Braves, etc. What about the Cardinals? I don't think they can just be written out of the NL Central, given the experience they've gathered and the team they've put together. C'mon, surely you have something good to say about them? -- Martin O., Muncie, Ind.

The Cardinals have the lineup. Everyone knows that. The question has been whether their pitching is good enough to stay with Houston and Chicago. But Chris Carpenter has been a surprise, I think, and Jason Marquis, the ex-Braves right-hander who came over in the J.D. Drew trade, has been good, helping to solidify the rotation. But the Cards are still third best in the division. I'm not right on everything, though.

Why do the Pirates still get no respect? You count the Giants out of the playoff race because the Pirates swept them. Why can't it be that the Pirates are just better than people expected them to be? -- Grant, Pittsburgh

Depends on how you define respect, I guess. A quick story: I gave my dog, Crash, a treat the other day. When I said "Come," he actually came. He never does that. Never. Consider this start by the Pirates a treat, Grant. But don't expect the Pirates to surprise us all the time.

John, we're getting tired of your Brewer bashing. Enough already. This team has two, maybe three All-Stars this season in Lyle Overbay, Ben Sheets and Scott Podsednik, an underrated manager in Ned Yost and a terrific GM in Doug Melvin. How about some credit for once? -- Michael Neau, Milwaukee

Oh, good grief. Since I'm handing out treats, yes. The Brewers are much better than I expected them to be. Much better than most expected. Sheets was fantastic the other day, albeit against a bad Braves lineup. Overbay has been a surprise. How can anyone not like Podsednik? I'm personally writing a letter to the Pope to see about sainthood for Yost. When I hear back, you guys will know.

Would it be safe to say, at this point at least, that the NL Central is the toughest division in the Major Leagues? Of the six teams in the division, five have winning records, and the only losing team (the Pirates) is 17-18 (as of May 17). -- Bryan Fries, Cincinnati

Man. It must be Hold Me Day for NL Central fans. Last word on this: The Central is better than I expected at this point. I think, eventually, the lack of pitching in the bottom half of the division will take its toll. But right now, every team in the Central has a winning record against the East, and only one Central team (the Pirates) has a losing record against the West. That says a lot. At this point.

How can you claim Portland should receive the Expos over Washington, D.C., while at the same time make a big stink about the small market in Milwaukee? -- Brad, Washington, D.C.

I was kidding. I like Portland. There are fewer peripheral problems for a team there. Other than the fact that the city doesn't have a stadium, I mean. But I don't think the area is big enough. Sorry. The smart place for the Expos, probably, is in D.C. or Northern Virginia. And I think that's where they'll end up. I also happen to think that's blatantly unfair to the Orioles. But that's the way it'll have to be. It's funny. Only Bud Selig and Major League Baseball could make a sympathetic figure out of Baltimore owner Peter Angelos.

Felipe Alou needs to toss conventional wisdom out the window and bat Barry Bonds first. I don't think a manager in his right mind is going to walk the leadoff hitter to start a game. This should give Alou the ability to move the hot hitters around behind Bonds. Sometimes dumb ideas make perfect sense, and the fans will be rewarded with a couple of dingers. -- Mark Frost, Texas City, Texas

Heard this argument, too, because of Bonds' high OBP. A few things: I'd walk him anyway. Bonds doesn't want to run, and getting him out there on the basepaths right away would wear him down. Plus, there are no hot hitters on the Giants other than Bonds, who's not too hot himself these days. So there'd be no one to drive in Bonds with any regularity if he got on base. You can come up with all the ideas you want, Mark. But here's one the Giants really should listen to: GET SOME MORE HITTERS.

You write "It's not as easy as many Boston fans -- fed up with Martinez's 'I just want some respect' act -- make it out to be." I'm a lifelong Sox fan. I don't know any Sox fans who are "fed up" with Martinez. I know some media types in Boston don't like him, but to be frank, we don't respect those clowns very much. The media has been anti-Pedro for some time. Shape up! The fans love Pedro. But we're a bit concerned about the media. -- Rick Desper, Bethesda, Md.

Well, your concerns about the media are well placed. But I'm not buying the fan lovefest thing as far as Pedro is concerned. Look at some of those Red Sox fan sites. You'll see. Or read this:

Sorry, John, but I just can't agree with your assessment of the Martinez situation. Pedro is a needy, attention-getting crybaby/prima donna. He forgets there is no "I" in team. If he were smart, he would have let his pitching speak for itself -- but even that isn't working out for him this season. I say trade him before the deadline while you can still get something for him. He'll walk after the season anyway. -- JoAnn Bertrand, Acushnet, Mass.

Maybe I should just have you and Rick fight this out, JoAnn. I start things. You finish them.

Do you suppose anyone noticed that in all of the flak over the Spider-Man 2 ads on the bases, and MLB backing out of that, how much publicity and air time the movie got without paying MLB a cent? -- Tom Pacher, Seattle

No kidding. Just think of the exposure they could have pulled off if Selig would have just hemmed and hawed for a couple of more days, like he does with everything else. My concern on this whole issue is this: What's with the hyphen in the title of the movie? I mean, it's not Super-Man, is it? It's not Bat-Man. It's Spiderman. One word. And if I mention Spider-Man, or Spiderman, a few more times, can I at least get a couple of free tickets out of it? Would that be a violation of the ethics policy? Does have an ethics policy? Does any media outlet? Someone get J. Jonah Jameson on the phone!

Thanks for writing in, everyone. Let's do this again next Friday.