Dan Johnson delivers for Tampa Bay Rays and himself, too

Until this moment against Scott Atchison in the 10th, Dan Johnson was hitting .130 this season.

Associated Press

Until this moment against Scott Atchison in the 10th, Dan Johnson was hitting .130 this season.

ST. PETERSBURG

You invest your life in a game, and sometimes you wonder why it hates you in return.

This is Dan Johnson. Chatty, upbeat, personable guy. Everyone's friend, and no one's idea of a loner. Yet, as the batting average withered, so did the chatter around Tampa Bay's auditioning designated hitter.

Five years removed from a splendid rookie season in Oakland. Long bus rides and cheap hotels as a 30-something in the minors. A mostly miserable season spent chasing paychecks in Japan. All of that, and what does he have to show for it?

A .130 batting average and talk of his replacement showing up any day now.

Johnson had one moment two years ago in Boston, when he walked out of a cab and into a pennant race at Fenway Park. It was his first big-league game in nearly a year, and he hit a tying home run in the ninth inning against Jonathan Papelbon that night in 2008.

Yet it was not, he said earlier this year, the way he wanted to be remembered. Not as a guy with one big home run. Not as a trivia question somewhere down the road. Johnson wanted more. He wanted a chance to create more memories.

Well, there you go, Dan.

If he does nothing else during the rest of his time with the Rays, Johnson should never have to buy himself another drink in Tampa Bay. He should never have to introduce himself to another stranger. He is an icon here. He is a legend. A legend with a now-.149 batting average.

Johnson led off the 10th inning Saturday night with a walkoff home run to beat the Red Sox 3-2.

"In the year 2100, they're going to be talking about Dan Johnson and what he did against the Red Sox in '08 and '10," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "He has not been a regular player; he made it to the big leagues with Oakland, he's battled and gotten back. He's persevered. That's a word I like to use a lot lately. And then he shows up here for two of our biggest hits we've had."

So where do you draw the line on pressure?

Is it enough to say his team was in danger of seeing a six-game wild-card lead reduced to 3 1/2 games in four days?

Is it enough to say his role on the team was now in jeopardy because Brad Hawpe had signed a contract two days ago?

Is it enough to say his career is in question because he is 31 years old with 12 big-league hits in the past three years?

Even when he hit the ball, as his teammates began climbing over the dugout wall to celebrate, Johnson would not allow himself the luxury of celebration. Not right away, at least. Johnson followed the ball's path into deep right-center and waited until it hit five rows deep beyond Boston rightfielder J.D. Drew, before he threw his arm in the air in celebration as he rounded first base.

"To actually hit that ball and not know exactly if it was going out or not because it's been so long since I've hit one good," Johnson said. "It was kind of like that. That sigh of relief after it went out. Because I was like, 'I hit that ball and I know it's gone,' but in the back of my head I'm thinking: 'Everything you hit is at somebody. That guy is going to pull one of those Japanese outfielder moves and climb the wall and catch it.'

"That's the way things have been going."

When you think of the pennant race of 2008, you recall the image of a team on the verge of collapse. At one point, Tampa Bay blew a 5 1/2-game lead on the Red Sox in barely more than two weeks in the middle of September.

Yet, in a way, the situation Saturday night was far more dire.

Even when things were at their worst in the AL East race in 2008, the Rays were never in any danger of falling out of the postseason. They had an eight-game lead in the wild-card race almost all of September, so the drama with the Red Sox was basically for postseason seeding.

This time, the Rays have no safety net. If they don't stay on top of the Red Sox, there may not be any October baseball here.

And for Johnson, there is even the question of how much future he has in Tampa Bay. He has worked good at-bats and drawn a ton of walks, but there is no getting around his lack of batting average. With the Rays signing Hawpe a couple of days ago, it is pretty much assumed that Johnson is now going to have to play his way on to the postseason roster.

"A week ago I was saying, 'I swear I'm not a .200 hitter.' Now I'm saying, 'I swear I'm not a .150 hitter,' " Johnson said. "That's not me. It doesn't make sense. But there it is, and I've got to deal with it."

For one night, at least, the batting average does not matter.

The game has finally given him another opportunity, and Dan Johnson has created another memory.

Dan Johnson delivers for Tampa Bay Rays and himself, too 08/29/10 [Last modified: Sunday, August 29, 2010 1:24pm]

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