ST. PETERSBURG — Okay, so maybe the setting wasn't quite as dramatic as 2008. Dan Johnson didn't make a harried arrival straight from the minors in a cab at Fenway Park, but instead drove himself to the Trop. The date wasn't early September, but late August. Rather than pinch-hitting against Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon, he was taking his turn in the order against middle reliever Scott Atchison.
But the result could end up being just as significant.
And the celebration was even wilder.
Having already hit what's considered the biggest home run in franchise history during the 2008 stretch run, Johnson delivered another stunning and memorable blast Saturday, a 10th-inning walkoff homer that gave the Rays a 3-2 win over the Red Sox.
"I think it's just a coincidence that I've come up in those situations against this team, and it's great to be able to succeed," Johnson said. "I'd like to think I could do it against any team, but it just so happens to be that I've been up against the Red Sox that I've done it."
The Sox didn't care much for the irony. "I don't care who hits it," manager Terry Francona said. "It hurts either way."
The Rays (79-50) remained tied with the Yankees for the sixth consecutive day atop the American League East. Of more importance, they knocked the rallying Red Sox back to 5½ games out in the wild-card race heading into tonight's ESPN nationally televised series finale.
With both Matt Garza and Boston's Clay Buchholz delivering strong starts, the game was tense throughout. "A wonderful game," Rays manager Joe Maddon said.
Twice the Rays rallied to tie, scoring on a sac fly — helped by some wicked bad Boston decision-making, including Buchholz making a bad pickoff throw and J.D. Drew catching a ball he probably shouldn't have — in the seventh, then answering another homer by Victor Martinez (whose .381 average against the Rays is the highest of any opponent) with B.J. Upton's leadoff shot in the eighth before a sellout crowd of 36,973 at Tropicana Field.
When Johnson came on in the ninth inning Friday to face Papelbon for the first time since the Sept. 9, 2008, ninth-inning blast that tied the score and led to a defining victory that kept the Rays atop the AL East for good, there was talk about a repeat performance.
Instead, it came Saturday. As the Rays escaped trouble in the top of the 10th, James Shields approached Johnson, who was going to lead off, and said, "You need to end this game." Up and down the dugout, Reid Brignac said, "We all were thinking it, just no one was saying it."
Johnson, who had hit just .130 since his early August callup, was just trying to get on base, and he battled after going down 0-and-2, taking two balls and fouling off three pitches.
He turned on an Atchison fastball then watched — and watched, in what seemed like slow motion — to see where it went. "I was like, 'Please get out, please get out,' " he said. "For that ball to get up and get out for me and win the game, that was real big for me."
Said Maddon: "An incredible moment for him."
So how did what may be the two biggest homers in Rays history compare?
"The first one, I had no idea what was going on. It was just kind of thrown upon me to go out there and, 'You're up,' when I arrived late and everything. … It was like, 'Holy cow, deer in headlights,' " Johnson said. "This one, I've been here a while, and I got some at-bats underneath me, and it's kind of time to contribute."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]mes.com.