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Dan Johnson returns to Rays as knuckleballer

Dan Johnson

Dan Johnson

SARASOTA — Dan Johnson already has a place in Rays lore for hitting two of the most significant home runs in franchise history.

Now he's angling for a spot in their rotation, or maybe the bullpen.

Johnson — yes, that Dan Johnson — agreed to rejoin the Rays on a minor-league deal but, get this, as a knuckleball pitcher.

"This is something I really wanted to try out," he said Saturday in Port Charlotte, "with the excitement of being with the Rays again."

Johnson, 36, has been throwing a knuckler since he was a kid, toying with trying it in games at various times during his 15-year pro career spent mostly at first base and DH and working on it regularly in 2013 with the Yankees' Triple-A team.

"It's not the first time I've tried this out," he said, "but this is the first time I feel like I can take it seriously."

He reported to minor-league camp with a plan on how to be a pitcher — such as developing a repeatable delivery and getting consistent in strike-throwing — as the latest of a growing number of pupils for new coordinator Charlie Haeger, who threw the knuckler in the majors.

Johnson said he is committed to the process, with no timetable for progress or concern over where the path takes him. "I'm into it," he said. "It's completely up to the Rays how they want to work it. I'm coming in with an open mind. Send me to the Dominican league, I don't care."

Johnson is best known for hitting two dramatic ninth-inning-tying homers, one in a September 2008 game in Boston off Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon, the other the classic 2011 Game 162.

Isn't it crazy to think he could add to that this year with, who knows, a save in a game to get the Rays back to the playoffs?

"Wouldn't have it any other way," he said.

SMYLY GUY: LHP Drew Smyly was quite pleased after an impressive two-inning spring debut Saturday night against the Orioles' top hitters, retiring all six he faced on 30 pitches and striking out Chris Davis, Mark Trumbo and Matt Wieters in the second. "It felt great," he said. "It felt awesome to be back out there competing against a good lineup."

Smyly, whose spring shoulder problems led to two disabled list stints last year, said it was a good way to start the season.

"Every pitcher goes into spring's first game maybe a little anxious, a little nervous. 'How's my arm going to feel? How's my stuff going to be? How are the hitters going to see it?' Just going out here kind of reassures you that you're good, another year, go out, have fun," Smyly said. "Just a great first game."

GAME DETAILS: The Rays (2-2) rapped 17 hits in a 10-6 win, three each by CF Kevin Kiermaier and C Curt Casali. "It was fun to watch,'' manager Kevin Cash said. … Kiermaier made a running catch and a more impressive grab when his helmet fell off as he headed to third on a triple and he caught it behind his back. … Cash said LHP Enny Romero, who worked a scoreless third, "continues to impress with his approach, the way he is just attacking hitters.'' … SS Brad Miller's throwing was an area of concern coming into spring, and he bounced two for errors, but Cash said he just needs to "fine-tune some things and he'll be good."

Dan Johnson returns to Rays as knuckleballer 03/05/16 [Last modified: Sunday, March 6, 2016 12:37am]
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