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Tampa Bay Rays' Dan Johnson having award-worthy season

ST. PETERSBURG

The faint echo of cheers was surely still in the air.

A game had just changed in dramatic fashion, and consequently, the balance of power in baseball's greatest division was shifting once more. It was one of those nights with an unmistakable buzz and an unbelievable series of twists.

Yet beneath all this madness, in the quiet of the Rays clubhouse, the hero sat at his locker with a crossword puzzle.

And a few feet away, his manager reclined on the couch with a glass of wine.

It would be another two innings before the Rays finished off their 4-3 victory against the Yankees, but for Dan Johnson and Joe Maddon, the night seemed perfect enough already.

Johnson brought the Rays from behind not once, but twice with a pair of two-run homers Wednesday night that knocked the Yankees out of first place for the second time in three days.

And so, two years after his release in Oakland, one year after his summer of discontent in Japan, two months removed from exasperation as a 30-year-old in Triple A, Johnson continues to make an argument for a full-time job in the big leagues.

The resume at this point is almost too ridiculous to believe. Johnson's entire Rays career spans 35 games played from 2008-10, and already he has two game-winning hits against the Red Sox, a game-tying pinch-hit home run off Boston closer Jonathan Papelbon, and now Wednesday night's performance with the AL East lead on the line.

"If Roy Hobbs is the Natural, then I guess he's the Super­natural," Maddon said. "The other thing was fiction; this is nonfiction. What he has done to this point is really phenomenal."

Maddon's time card had already been punched by the time Johnson hit his winner. Just a few minutes earlier, Maddon had been ejected while arguing that Derek Jeter deserved an Oscar for best performance in a non-hitting role.

Maddon had to return to the clubhouse, where he watched Curtis Granderson put the Yankees ahead 3-2 in the top of the seventh with a two-run homer following Jeter's phantom hit-by-pitch.

So Maddon was reclined on a couch watching the game on television with a glass of wine (cabernet, Napa Valley, 2007) when Johnson did his just-another-winner routine with a 412-foot shot in the bottom of that inning.

"It's kind of fulfilling to be there with a nice cab, your team is down by a point and this guy drills it almost to the scoreboard," Maddon said.

"He came in, we all high-fived him, and then he sat down and did his crossword puzzle."

It is a trick Johnson said he learned from Frank Thomas years ago. A designated hitter has too much time to stew about bad at-bats, so Johnson heads to the clubhouse between innings to work on crossword puzzles and keep track of the game on TV.

"I do okay," Johnson said. "I knocked out the USA Today (crossword) without any help."

For a guy who has been close enough to the postseason to sniff the excitement, Johnson finally appears ready to walk to the plate in a playoff game. Johnson was on Oakland's postseason roster in 2006 but never got an at-bat. "I got as close as on deck," he said.

The Rays did not put him on the postseason roster in '08, but they had him travel with the team in case of injury.

This time his place on the roster is looking like a foregone conclusion. The bigger question is whether Johnson should have a spot reserved in the starting lineup as well.

He walks more than he strikes out, and that's a rarity on this team. He is averaging a home run every 13.6 at-bats, and no one on the team is doing better.

The Rays need Carlos Peña to be a force in the middle of the order, but he hasn't been that player for quite some time. Since coming off the disabled list in mid August, Peña is hitting .165 with a .353 slugging percentage. During that period, Johnson is hitting .293 with a .634 slugging percentage.

Granted, it is a small sample size. Peña has a much greater track record and is also superior defensively. It makes sense to have Peña at first base and Johnson at DH against right-handers. But it's at least worth wondering whether Johnson should play first base against left-handed pitchers. His career splits against left-handers is not vastly different from his work against right-handers.

About the only thing that has stumped Johnson lately was a ballot for the Players Choice Awards.

It was a few hours before Wednesday night's game, and ballots were being passed around the clubhouse. Outstanding player. Outstanding pitcher. Outstanding rookie. Some choices seemed obvious.

When it came to comeback player, Johnson was soliciting opinions.

Um, Dan, here's a thought:

How about Dan Johnson?

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Tampa Bay Rays' Dan Johnson having award-worthy season 09/16/10 [Last modified: Thursday, September 16, 2010 8:31am]

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