Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

Elliot Johnson is Tampa Bay Rays' unlikely goat in loss to New York Yankees

ST. PETERSBURG — This was never the plan. Not in a game like this. Not with so much on the line.

Out of all the discussions the Rays might have had, out of all the contingencies they might have considered, he was never supposed to be the player committing a gaffe that might haunt a baseball team for some time to come.

He is Elliot Johnson, after all. Role player. Spare part. Afterthought. He was never supposed to be the player to break your heart.

Yet, there he was, hands on his hips, anguish on his face after his throwing error in the seventh inning allowed two runners to score in a 6-4 loss to the Yankees on Wednesday night.

There for a second it looked like the Rays were going to get out of trouble. The infield was in, and the pitch was good, and the ground ball was routine. Johnson, the second baseman, double-clutched, then threw wildly to the third-base side of home plate. One run scored, then another, and an opportunity to move within a half-game of first in the AL East had been thrown away.

"That's the play that cost us the game," Johnson said later, the camera lights bouncing off the still-fresh scars on his face that came from running into a catcher in Friday night's game against Toronto. "You never want to be in that situation. You never want to be that guy. But I'm a grown man. I can handle this sort of stuff."

Yes, he kept saying, he should have made the play. No, he said, that he hadn't played much lately shouldn't have made a difference. Give him that, at least. For a long time, the 28-year-old stared into the questions and absorbed the blame.

"It's actually not as difficult a play as I made it seem," Johnson said. "The only thing that made it difficult was time. I know Ichiro (Suzuki, who scored the first run from third). I didn't think I could take my time and make a throw (to get him at home). I had to get it to (catcher Jose Lobaton) as quickly as possible, and it was offline. I've seen the replays enough. It was a bad throw."

It was a bad moment, too, for a player who has been more than anyone had a right to expect. For much of the season, Johnson has been a tough out, and until early June, he was a solid defender. As the season has gone along, however, Johnson's glove has become a little shakier. Going into Wednesday night's game, Johnson had committed 10 errors in the team's previous 67 games.

So, yeah, you can blame Johnson for a lousy throw. Certainly, a major-league infielder should be able to make an accurate throw home from the infield grass.

On the other hand, why was Johnson out there to begin with? After all, Johnson had started only seven games of the previous 28. It was his first appearance at second base since May 11. Why dust him off and start him in a game as big as this one? Why put him in the middle of this kind of moment?

"I was trying to get as many left-handed bats in the lineup as I could," manager Joe Maddon said. "And I wanted to give Ryan Roberts a break. Elliot had been our starting shortstop for, what, a quarter of the season? He works hard. He plays hard. He cares. He just made a mistake."

By Johnson's count, he made two. Johnson had a chance to make a catch on Derek Jeter's shallow popup to center to start the fourth, but the ball bounced out of his glove as centerfielder Sam Fuld approached. The Yankees went on to score three times in the inning.

"I should have made that play, too," Johnson said. "I feel bad that Matt Moore gave up those runs."

Yes, it happens. Still, this was a shame for the Rays. You can't help but wonder what sort of mental state a sweep would have left the Yankees in. As it was, New York was reduced to having before Wednesday's game the same sort of team meeting the common people have. What's next? A seance in which a medium conjures up images of the late George Steinbrenner, who would promptly yell at everyone?

Instead, the rich kids from the big city salvaged one game of the series. Just a thought here, but by the end of the season, that game might be a big one. The ones that get away often are.

Listen to Gary Shelton from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekdays on 98.7-FM The Fan. Follow him on Twitter at @Gary_Shelton.

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