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Elliot Johnson an unlikely savior for Tampa Bay Rays

ST. PETERSBURG — Elliot, unleashed.

He moves toward the plate, and for a change fans do not race toward the popcorn stand. He cocks his bat, and just like that, the Rays have possibility. Elliot Johnson is at bat, and what do you know, the Rays' season is still afloat.

Elliot Johnson?

Who figured?

Sometimes a baseball team can look in all the wrong places to be rescued. Take Johnson. The Rays found him at the end of their bench. Waaaay at the end. At the time, Johnson was what you call a complimentary player. When someone else did anything at all, it was up to Johnson to compliment him.

Except for that, no one thought much about Johnson, or to be honest, much of him. He was going to fill in once a week, and he was going to pinch-run now and again. Except for that, he was insurance against the situation no one wanted to consider — oh, like Evan Longoria grabbing the back of his leg because of a partially torn hamstring.

And then Johnson was in.

And lo and behold, he has been unexpectedly good.

Who knew? Outside of Johnson himself, who even suspected? Johnson didn't drop a lot of hints back in 2008 when he hit .158, or in 2011 when he hit .194. There was nothing in Johnson's decade in the minors to make you think he could tag in for a player such as Longoria.

Yet, he has. Johnson, 28, has had the kind of run that makes understudies everywhere dream. He has been solid in the field. He has been good on the bases. And he has hit like a man trying to earn a new nickname. Thumper, perhaps.

Consider: After the Rays' 2-1 victory over the Red Sox on Wednesday night, Johnson has an eight-game hitting streak, which is particularly impressive when you consider this is the only time he has started eight straight games in his career. Going into the game, Johnson had hit .500 over his previous 22 at-bats, and he was the third-hottest hitter in major league baseball over the previous seven games (second in the American League).

Has such a run surprised Johnson? "Absolutely not," he said.

Who has it surprised? "Probably everyone else," he said.

Johnson grinned. "I'm here because Andrew (Friedman, the Rays' executive vice president) is market-driven. My market value had been down."

So he was a bad stock?

"I was the 2008 housing crisis," he said, laughing.

These days his stock is soaring. No one saw that coming. Oh, he could catch it, and he could throw it, and everyone marveled at what a terrific athlete he was.

Ah, but with the bat? Johnson went to the plate with the idea of hitting the ball as soon as he could and as far as he could. The Rays kept talking to him about how he had to have a more organized strike zone, how he needed to slap the ball around instead of clubbing it to death. Johnson? He kept not hearing the message.

"It's my at-bat," Johnson said. "It's what I want to try to go up there to do. These are my numbers. It's trying to balance 'Should I take to heart what they're telling me to do' or, if it doesn't work, do I go home and say 'I should have done it my way.'

"I've tried it my way so many times now. You get to a point where you say 'Let's give this a try. What do I have to lose at this point? If I'm going to make an out anyway, I might as well try to do it their way.' I'm just going up there and not trying to hit it over everyone's heads."

If Johnson strikes you as a little stubborn, well, that's true. On the other hand, that stubbornness kept him driving back to the park during a 10-year minor-league career. But yeah, the adjustment at the plate was overdue.

"There are certain hitters who are blessed with enough power to be a bad hitter," manager Joe Maddon said. "You know, when you reach the seats once in a while and it feels so good to do the trot, and you get to do it six, seven, eight times a year when you're hitting .210, .220 and (have) a high number of strikeouts and a low number of walks … guys have to understand that doesn't work.

"Especially guys like him, because he's very gifted athletically. He can dunk a basketball easily. He might have the best arm on the team. Running wise, probably B.J. (Upton) would beat him , but in a 30-yard dash, he'd be right there."

Turns out, the guy can play a little baseball, too.

"You feel you're contributing, like you're helping the team," Johnson said. "I feel like I'm carrying a little more weight and earning my paycheck a little more."

And the compliments?

These days, Johnson is on the receiving end.

Elliot Johnson an unlikely savior for Tampa Bay Rays 05/16/12 [Last modified: Thursday, May 17, 2012 12:28am]
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