Bob Ryan

His HR went a long way; so did Johnson

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / September 10, 2008
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Dan Johnson went to bed Monday night as a Durham Bull. He will awaken today in Boston as a savior, or whatever you call a Tampa Bay Ray who hits a game-tying ninth-inning pinch-hit home run off Jonathan Papelbon in his new team's most important victory of the year.

The Red Sox had just gotten a two-out, two-run, eighth-inning go-ahead homer by Jason Bay, and thus were three outs from regaining first place in the American League East. It was going to be the fifth straight Boston victory and it was going to be the fifth straight Tampa Bay loss. Papelbon would take care of business in the ninth and Josh Beckett would follow by beating the Rays to sweep the series. The Rays would be in the rearview mirror, and that would be that.

But Dan Johnson must have misplaced the memo. Dan Johnson pinch hit for pinch hitter Justin Ruggiano when Terry Francona switched from Hideki Okajima to Papelbon, and he cranked a 3-2 Papster heater over the Mastercard sign, over the Red Sox bullpen, and into the bleachers. It was a stadium silencer here and it would have been the cause of immense celebration in the Tampa-St. Pete area if only anyone actually cared about baseball down there. Dan Johnson hasn't even been to the Trop as a member of the Tampa Bay Rays yet, but we can safely say those people don't deserve him.

This stuff only happens in the movies, right? A guy who has one spring at-bat before being waived spends the rest of the season in the minors in his new organization and is sleeping in Scranton, Pa., the morning after the first game of the Triple A Governor's Cup finals when the phone rings and the voice at the other end is telling him he's been called up and will be heading to Boston for a game that very evening.

Said guy has severe weather problems before making his way to the ballpark five minutes after the manager has decided to scratch him from the lineup. Maybe 3 1/2 hours later, he steps in against a premier closer and puts one over the Red Sox bullpen to tie a game his team will eventually win, 5-4.

"I'd like to thank US Airways for getting Dan Johnson here," said Rays manager Joe Maddon.

"It feels good," said Johnson. "But it really hasn't sunk in yet. I really haven't had much time to reflect on it."

He also hasn't had much time to meet his new teammates, but it's safe to say he'll be made to feel very welcome in the Tampa Bay clubhouse after that big hit.

If the name sounds familiar, it's because this is the same Dan Johnson who spent time with the Oakland A's from 2005-07, including an '07 season in which he had 18 homers and 62 ribbies. He was very much an A's kind of guy, given that he was second in the AL in pitches taken, which makes you wonder why Theo didn't scoop him up. Anyway, the Rays picked him up and shipped him off to Durham, where he went .307/25/83, including a very spiffy 1.095 OPS after the All-Star break. That's all very nice, but the fact is Johnson was resigned to being a Durham Bull for the duration until that phone rang yesterday morning and his great adventure began.

It was going to be simple: Scranton to Philadelphia to Boston. Uh-uh. Mother Nature had something else in mind. It was a bad-weather day in Pennsylvania, and they kept pushing back his flight. He did get to the Philly airport, which was a good thing because he was able to buy a pair of shoes there to augment the skimpy wardrobe ("two T-shirts, a pair of jeans, and a pair of shorts") he had brought from Durham for what was going to be a quickie trip north.

Somewhere in here, he found out that not only was he going to become a bona fide Tampa Bay Ray, but he was going to be in the starting lineup against Daisuke Matsuzaka, batting second. He was kind of fired up about that, which is why he was getting antsy when his flight from Philly to Boston kept getting delayed.

"First I'm thinking, 'Hope I get batting practice,' " he explained. "Then it was, 'Hope I get a swing in the on-deck circle.' "

Maddon waited and waited and finally decided at 6:45 to scratch Johnson and put Ben Zobrist in there. By that time, Johnson's plane had landed and he was making his way to Fenway while giving a traffic play-by-play via cell phone to Rays traveling secretary Jeff Ziegler.

"Getting here isn't easy," he pointed out. "Especially 20 minutes before the ballgame."

Maddon could have put Johnson back into the lineup once he arrived, but he decided against it.

"I didn't want him getting hurt," Maddon explained. "I told Zoey, 'You're in.' "

So Johnson sat back to watch a game that evolved from one of those dreadful Dice-K nibblefests to something quite interesting, especially when Bay hit a liner off Dan Wheeler that just made it over The Wall with Kevin Youkilis aboard. It was going to be a stirring victory for the home team and a crushing loss for the Rays. Until . . .

That would be until the lefthanded Johnson stepped into the box. Papelbon, working for the third straight day, labored from the start, falling behind, 3-and-0, slipping in the perfunctory strike, and then getting away with a hittable pitch that Johnson fouled back.

"Dan fouled that pitch back, but I knew he felt pretty good about that," Maddon declared.

"It went to 3-and-0, but I fouled back that 3-and-1 pitch and I got the timing," Johnson confirmed. "I felt like I put a pretty good swing on it."

He put an even better swing on the 3-and-2 offering. It was pretty much a no-doubter as it headed out to deep right-center and didn't land until it had cleared the Sox pen. One out later, Fernando Perez hit a double high off the wall in left-center and Dioner Navarro brought him home with an opposite-field double down the left-field line.

But the man who had jump-started the dying team, the man who put life back into the Tampa Bay Rays, was Dan Johnson, a guy who said he had absolutely no clue he was going to be called up when he went to bed the night before.

"Sometimes you just don't know why," he shrugged. "It just happens."

That one at-bat back on April 2? Against Bryan Corey of the Boston Red Sox. Of course. "I hit the ball hard, but it hit the rubber and went straight to the second baseman, who threw me out," he recalled. "Kind of the way my year was going."

Not anymore.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at

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