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Rays' season of unlikely guys gets unlikelier

In his first at-bat since being called up by the Rays, Dan Johnson hits a tying solo homer off Jonathan Papelbon in the ninth.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

In his first at-bat since being called up by the Rays, Dan Johnson hits a tying solo homer off Jonathan Papelbon in the ninth.

BOSTON — They began the day in different states, different leagues, really, different worlds.

A minor-league first baseman preparing for a playoff game in Scranton-Wilkes Barre, and a big-league manager wondering how to hold off the Red Sox in the American League East.

By the time the night was done, they had come together to create the baseball memory of a lifetime. And the journey was as off-the-wall ridiculous as the final result.

It was the kind of game people talk about in the off-season. The kind of story that gets re-told in the bleachers for years to come.

But was it the kind of victory that only happens for teams in magical seasons?

"You see stuff like this," manager Joe Maddon grinned. "You do see stuff like this."

• • •

Here is Dan Johnson, awakened by a phone call at 9 a.m. from Durham manager Charlie Montoyo to tell him he has just been called up to the big leagues by the Tampa Bay Rays.

"He said, "This is your favorite manager calling,' " Johnson said. "I said, 'That could be determined by the end of this conversation because it's 9 o'clock and if you're calling me and this conversation doesn't end the right way, I'm not calling you my favorite manager.' "

• • •

Here is Joe Maddon, waiting for his newest player to arrive at Fenway Park. Johnson was supposed to have landed in Boston by 4:30 p.m., but he didn't touch down until 6:30 due to flight delays.

His name has been on the lineup card all afternoon as the Rays No. 2 hitter and leftfielder, but at 6:45, Maddon finally scratches Johnson's name out.

"Danny Feinstein (director of baseball operations) was on the phone with us," Maddon said. "He said, "He's in a cab, he's near the Sheraton.' I said, "That's still not close enough. Forget it.' "

• • •

The Rays were desperate, and in more ways than one.

They had seen their 5-½ game lead in the AL East chopped down to a half-game in eight days. They had lost six of their past seven, and had yet to win a game in Fenway Park.

On top of all of that, their centerfielder had joined the third baseman and the leftfielder on the list of the (barely) walking wounded. Lose Tuesday, and they would be out of first place for the first time since the All-Star break.

This is what brought Dan Johnson to the Rays. After his morning phone call from Montoyo, he got to the airport in Scranton only to find bad weather had canceled most of the flights. He and catcher Michel Hernandez talked their way onto a flight to Philadelphia where they arrived just in time to find out their next flight was postponed, too.

If nothing else, the delays gave Johnson time to take care of needed business.

At the Philadelphia airport, he bought a pair of dress shoes on his way to the big leagues beause he hadn't packed any.

• • •

The Rays were still desperate, and things were looking worse.

After blowing a one-run lead in the eighth inning, Maddon had the choice of letting Cliff Floyd face Hideki Okajima to lead off the ninth, or to send up a right-handed pinch-hitter. The problem with sending up a right-hander is that would mean Boston manager Terry Francona would go to All-Star closer Jonathan Papelbon. Maddon talked to bench coach Dave Martinez and made his decision:

He sent Justin Ruggiano in to pinch-hit for Floyd, and waited for Papelbon to be called in.

Why do it?

"I wanted Dan Johnson in the game," Maddon said. "I thought he had the best chance to get on base. He was going to work the count, which he did, and that's what I was thinking. At least he could get on base. I wasn't thinking he was going to hit a home run. I'm not going to say that.

"We thought about sending (John) Jaso up first. We got him down from the bullpen, but then I said, "Wait a minute, let me think about it.' Then I decided on Johnson because his M.O. is working the count and getting on base. And if he got on, we were going to send (Evan) Longoria in to run for him. There was all sorts of s--- going on."

• • •

Back in Scranton-Wilkes Barre, Durham lost its playoff opener without Johnson, without Hernandez and without Joel Guzman, who had been released in order to free up a spot on the Rays 40-man roster for Johnson.

"Everybody was upset and down walking off the field after the game," Montoyo said. "Then we come in the clubhouse and turn on ESPN and see Dan Johnson hitting one out. It was beautiful. We were all jumping around and yelling for Dan."

Back in the visitor's clubhouse at Fenway, Johnson is surrounded by reporters at his locker and Maddon is sitting in his office with a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon from Tom Seaver's vineyard on his desk. He is talking about numbers, matchups and scouting reports.

That's when communications director Chris Costello tells Maddon about one more number. It is Johnson's career record as a pinch-hitter in the big leagues. Before Tuesday, he was 0-for-15.

"Is that right," Maddon said. "Holy s---."

Rays' season of unlikely guys gets unlikelier 09/09/08 [Last modified: Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:49am]
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