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Dan Johnson saves the day for the Tampa Bay Rays — again

ST. PETERSBURG — There for a while, we thought we had seen the grandest of all comebacks. We watched as a low-budget team from Tampa Bay scrambled back into a tie from nine games back in September. We saw them chase down a summer's worth of deficits in three weeks.

Not bad. As comebacks go, you can give it a solid B. It wasn't exactly loaves and fishes, but it was memorable nonetheless.

Then came Wednesday, and darned if we didn't see an even more impressive comeback. Staring at elimination, we saw a light-hitting team get back into the game from seven runs down.

Pretty cool. If you are scoring at home, give it an A-minus. It wasn't quite like healing the sick, but a comeback to cap a comeback is impressive stuff.

On the other hand, give a little credit to the red-haired kid who will not go away. Dan Johnson came back from the dead.

Now, that's impressive.

"I can't explain it," he said. "It's the best feeling in the world."

Johnson stood in a corner of the clubhouse. He looked something like a fountain. Teammates kept coming behind him and pouring various liquids over his head. To tell the truth, Johnson didn't seem to mind.

There was a time when the Rays thought that maybe, just maybe, Johnson could replace Carlos Peña as their everyday first baseman, a notion that was dismissed as quickly as the Rays noticed his .108 average after 30 games. Johnson will tell you his wrist was aching at the time and altered his swing.

It was a shame, everyone agreed, because Johnson once hit a very important home run in a very important game for the Rays. It is a legendary story, how Johnson rushed to Fenway Park from the minor leagues, whereupon he unloaded against the Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon. There is no better story of the 2008 Rays and their first step toward success.

On the other hand, this moment was better.

You can talk about your unlikely seasons, and you can talk about your unlikely heroes, and you can talk about unlikely moments. This home run beat them all. Thanks to it, the Rays were able to come back to beat the Yankees 8-7 and (coupled with Boston's loss) win the AL wild card.

For crying out loud, no one was sure why the Rays brought Johnson back to begin with two weeks ago. Certainly, it wasn't to save the day. Johnson had six at-bats, and no hits, since his return. He wasn't even an important enough ingredient to start on Tuesday night when Casey Kotchman left the stadium with chest pains.

In other words, it was almost as big an upset that Johnson even got to the plate in such a big game as what he did once there.

Had there been a runner on base at the time, manager Joe Maddon said he would have batted Sam Fuld instead. But with the bases empty, he thought of Johnson's power.

The thing is, Johnson wasn't on the bench. He thought he might pinch hit, but later in the game. So he was in the batting cage when a security guard told him the coaches were looking for him.

Then one strike from a loss that might have ended the Rays' season, Johnson turned on a fastball that tucked just inside the rightfield foul pole. Johnson had done it again.

And who had him in the pool?

"I kept thinking, 'Stay fair. Stay fair,' " Johnson said. "When it did, I thought, 'I can't believe it happened again.' "

This was better, of course. When Johnson homered against the Red Sox, there were still three weeks to play.

"Dan Johnson, God bless him," said teammate Ben Zobrist. "I said a prayer for him when he was up there."

This is what a career's worth of hanging around will do for a guy. Johnson is 32 now, and after almost 1,000 minor-league games, there must be days when he wondered if he would ever get another shot at the bigs. Still, he would not turn in his uniform. He played in Canada and in Japan, in Modesto and in Midland. He spent enough time in Durham to run for public office. He spent parts of eight seasons in Triple A.

Minor-league baseball is filled with players like Johnson, players who yearn for one more chance, for one more at-bat, for one more moment. They are like gold miners who will not give up on a stream. Most of them never get rich.

This one was for those guys.

For Johnson, stardom is too much to ask at this point. The fat contract is not going to come. Security is out of the question. Who knows what next year's uniform will look like?

Moments? Johnson can do moments.

After all, he is Dan Johnson, a legend once again. All he does is save the day.

Desmond Jennings, left, congratulates Dan Johnson for his tying homer that comes with two strikes and two outs in the ninth.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

Desmond Jennings, left, congratulates Dan Johnson for his tying homer that comes with two strikes and two outs in the ninth.

Dan Johnson saves the day for the Tampa Bay Rays — again 09/29/11 [Last modified: Thursday, September 29, 2011 1:17pm]

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