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Forget stats. Tampa Bay Rays' Johnny Damon simply is a clutch hitter

ST. PETERSBURG

The story is better if you believe. Keep that in mind as you think about Johnny Damon rounding third and heading toward acclaim.

Because modern thinking says there is nothing transcendent, nothing mystical, nothing particularly clutch about hitting a game-winning home run in the bottom of the ninth.

These things happen because odds, happenstance and other factors eventually conspire to make a hero out of most every ballplayer if given enough opportunities.

So that's the reality. That's the data. That's the logic.

Still, the story is better if you believe.

"I understand the statistical perspective. And I get that maybe this is not borne of the data, but I do believe you want certain guys at the plate at certain hot moments," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. There is still a human component to this game.

"It's like the guy who wants the last shot in a basketball game, the quarterback who's not afraid to throw it over the middle when it matters or the hockey player who wants the puck at the end. All sports have guys who really want to be there when the moment counts, and all sports have guys who cower from that moment."

Which brings us back to Sunday. To a tied score in the bottom of the ninth. The Rays were scheduled to send up Damon, Evan Longoria and Ben Zobrist against the Mariners.

The statistics say Longoria was the one most likely to hit a home run. The numbers say Zobrist was most likely to get an extra-base hit.

Yet they never got the opportunity.

"Some guys are able to slow the game down and handle the pressure and the excitement and just focus in on what's going on in front of them," rightfielder Matt Joyce said. "I absolutely believe in clutch players, and Johnny has been one of the best I've ever seen."

Damon turned on the first pitch he saw from reliever Dan Cortes in the ninth and drilled it into the rightfield seats.

It was the seventh walkoff home run of his career. That's more than Willie Mays hit. More than Ken Griffey Jr., Mark McGwire, Manny Ramirez, Ernie Banks or Ted Williams, and they all have more than 500 homers on the back of their baseball cards.

Again, much of that is circumstance. Is a walkoff home run in the bottom of the ninth any more clutch than a go-ahead homer hit in the top of the ninth? Not really, it's just a difference of whether you're in the visitor or home dugout.

Still, were you happy to see Damon with a bat in his hand at that moment?

"I truly believe some guys are much better than other guys in that situation," bench coach Dave Martinez said. "It's just something inside of them. You can almost see it. Everyone wants that chance, but some guys live for it.

"I think Johnny Damon fits that description."

There are certain measurables that leave little to interpretation. Joyce has shown more power than Damon this season. Zobrist has worked better counts. Casey Kotchman has made more consistent contact.

And yet Damon has often found himself in the middle of Tampa Bay's biggest moments. A walkoff homer against the Twins in April. Another walkoff hit two days later. A two-out infield single on a routine grounder that saved an eighth-inning rally Friday.

On a team that has struggled in bases-loaded situations (his teammates are hitting .184 with a .289 slugging percentage), Damon has been a godsend (a .462 batting average and a .692 slugging percentage), including his seventh-inning double Sunday.

Does all this make Damon a clutch hitter?

The website baseballreference.com breaks a hitter's career into what it terms low-leverage, medium-leverage and high-leverage situations. Under that criteria, Damon's combination of on-base and slugging percentage has increased from .770 to .793 to .821 when the situation has grown in importance during his career.

"You play 17 years, you're eventually going to come through in some clutch situations," Damon said. "But yeah, I think some guys might be better at it than some guys who are more tentative. You have to embrace it. If you don't embrace it, you won't succeed.

"I've always felt the heart of the player is more important than the talent."

In the end, it might be as simple as a leadoff hitter facing a rookie reliever who was being asked to work in his third inning. It might have been inevi­table.

Still, the story is better if you believe in Johnny Damon.

Forget stats. Tampa Bay Rays' Johnny Damon simply is a clutch hitter 08/21/11 [Last modified: Sunday, August 21, 2011 11:13pm]
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