Confidence growing for Rays' red-hot Johnson

ST. PETERSBURG

They found him in the discount rack, buried there with the old beepers and the used Bananarama CDs. He was, as they say, priced to move.

There was a little wear to him, to be honest, a couple of dents. He was coming off a dreadful season. By trade, he was a second baseman, and the Rays were looking more for a utility player. His numbers weren't much to look at, but to be fair, the Rays didn't have a lot of numbers themselves. Why be picky?

Still, it is fair to say that nobody paid much attention as the team and the player went to the checkout counter together.

Well, look at Kelly Johnson now.

And join in the debate, won't you, over whether Johnson's first three-run homer Monday afternoon was more or less impressive than his second three-run homer.

This is how impressive Johnson was when he put the memory in the Rays' Memorial Day victory over the Miami Marlins. He went 4-for-5. He drove in six runs. He powered the Rays to a great start, and he powered them to a nice finish.

And how do you like his value these days?

From time to time, the Rays do this. They pluck a guy out of the 2010 season, and they give him a chance, and they watch as he squeezes a little more production out of his potential. That has been true all season with James Loney. It has been true, too, with Johnson, who, so far, has rediscovered the thunder in his bat.

"I feel good, and I feel confident," Johnson, 31, says simply. "I think you're always searching for something that's going to let you feel confident, and you just roll with it. It can be different daily, weekly. It's just the way baseball is."

How hot is Johnson? He is hitting .296 for the season. He has five three-hit games, all in the past month (he had only two all of last season). He leads the team with 10 homers. He has knocked in 24 runs in May. Playing in the outfield for the first time since his rookie season, he has thrown out six baserunners.

"He is really good," manager Joe Maddon said. "I think he's a very, very good outfielder. That part of his persona is underestimated. He runs well. You see the power. He's not this huge guy, but he has extreme power. He throws well. He can play several positions."

Take the second inning of Monday's game, when the Marlins' sensational 20-year-old Jose Fernandez (from Alonso High in Tampa) was still throwing seeds. Fernandez had hit 99 on the radar in striking out Johnson in the first (he would hit it three times against Evan Longoria).

At the time, the Rays had taken a 3-0 lead, but they still had only one hit when Johnson turned on a 1-and-2 curveball and drove it over the rightfield wall. That made it 6-0, and the Rays were on their way.

"The guy's got top three stuff we've seen this year," Johnson said. "You're obviously trying to shorten up, get the foot down and put the bat on something. I'm glad I was able to put the good part of the barrel on it."

Even after that, the game turned into an adventure for Johnson. He hit a soft single up the middle in the fourth. In the sixth, his high popup just short of second base left the Marlins infielders running patterns like clown cars and fell untouched for a double. And when the Marlins intentionally walked the next batter, Longoria, Johnson took off on ball four and stole third.

A heady play, Maddon suggested. A smart play.

Uh, not so much, Johnson said.

"That was dumb," he said. "I regret that. I'm glad I'm safe, but it was close. I should never do that ever again. I'm watching him not paying attention to me, and he's lobbing it in there. I felt like I was going to be a whole lot more safe than that. I had all these things in my head that I convinced myself."

When things are going well, however, a player can do no wrong. Not running. Not catching. Not hitting.

For the Rays, the kill shot came in the eighth inning, when once again, Johnson drove a two-strike pitch over the rightfield wall. It was a telling blow, because if the Rays offense has had a problem this year, it is that it hasn't padded early leads often enough, which has put the game in the hands of the bullpen.

Not this time. Johnson became the first Ray to ever hit two three-run homers in a game. He also ensured that when Fernando Rodney took the mound in the ninth, it was with a four-run lead instead of a one-run lead.

"That's the way we have to keep doing it," Johnson said. "We can't score early and put it in cruise control. We've just got to keep plugging away, keep trying to score as many runs as possible."

Odd game, baseball. A year ago, Johnson hit .225 for the Blue Jays. This year, a couple of adjustments, a dose of confidence, and he has people wondering why the Jays ever let him go.

"You're always looking to prove yourself no matter what," Johnson said. "That's the nature of the game, even when you're going well.

"I've had good moments. I've had good months. I've had good seasons. I can do it. It's not like it's lost. I have the ability to do some things that will get me in the lineup. Everyone should feel that way. It's a little bit of self-confidence in a game where it's hard to sustain self-confidence."

Production helps. Three-run homers help. Six-RBI games help. Days like this help bolster Johnson's confidence.

Everyone else's, too.

 Kelly Johnson hits a three-run homer to right center field off Jose Fernandez giving the Rays a 6-0 lead over the Marlins Monday at Tropicana Field.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

Kelly Johnson hits a three-run homer to right center field off Jose Fernandez giving the Rays a 6-0 lead over the Marlins Monday at Tropicana Field.

Confidence growing for Rays' red-hot Johnson 05/27/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 28, 2013 11:42am]

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