BOSTON – His night nearly ended before it ever began, in the back of a Boston taxicab stuck in ballgame traffic. And wouldn't that have been about right for Dan Johnson, the minor-league callup who arrived at Fenway Park on Tuesday night five minutes after Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon reluctantly scratched him from the starting lineup?
But a guy who has had timing issues all year – Johnson lasted all of one game in April after the Rays claimed him on waivers from Oakland, then traded for another left-handed bat (Gabe Gross) on the same day and sent Johnson to the minors – produced the most improbable moment of the year for baseball's most unlikely playoff contenders.
With the Rays on the verge of falling out of first place in the American League East for the first time in 54 days, Johnson hit a ninth-inning, game-tying pinch-hit home run off Boston Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon, who hadn't given up a home run in nearly three months (June 14) but whose fastball was driven over the Boston bullpen by a virtual stranger to his own teammates.
"I was a Ray for a day, so I got to meet everybody, but when you get 35 new guys thrown at you, it's hard to remember everybody,'' said Johnson, whose home run was followed by back-to-back doubles by rookie Fernando Perez and Dioner Navarro, giving the Rays a 5-4 win that assured them of safe passage from Boston with first place still in hand.
"On behalf of the Tampa Bay Rays organization, we would like to thank U.S. Airways for getting Dan Johnson here in time tonight,'' Maddon said.
To say that Johnson was unprepared for the most frantic yet rewarding trip of his life is being kind. Until minor-league manager Charlie Montoyo called him in his hotel room at 9 a.m. Tuesday, telling him the Rays needed him because outfielder B.J. Upton had a strained quadriceps, Johnson had been planning to play for the Triple-A Durham Bulls in Scranton-Wilkes Barre, Pa., in the first game of the International League title series.
"It was only a two-day trip,'' Johnson said, "so I brought only two T-shirts, a pair of jeans, and a pair of shorts. I had to buy shoes in the airport.''
The Johnston & Murphy loafers he wore to the ballpark were purchased at the airport in Philadelphia, while he waited for a connecting flight to Boston repeatedly delayed by bad weather. "I'm sitting there watching the clock,'' he said. "I'm thinking, 'Wow, I'm not going to hit in the cage', then thinking, 'I'm not going to be able to loosen up my arm, to 'Well, maybe I'll get to swing on deck.' ''
Johnson finally arrived just before 6 p.m. at Logan International Airport, where he hopped into a cab. In similar circumstances two years earlier, the Red Sox had arranged for a police escort from the airport for newly acquired catcher Doug Mirabelli after he'd arrived just before game time from San Diego. Maddon knew all about it.
"We figured if we had done that, it would have taken even longer,'' Maddon said in a nod to the Red Sox rabid fan base, "so we decided against it.''
From the back of the cab, Johnson called Jeff Ziegler, the team's traveling secretary, with regular updates on his progress.
"I'm telling you, I was looking out the window at whatever street sign we're passing, saying whichever one it was,'' Johnson said.
Was the cabdriver aware of Johnson's circumstances?
"I think he figured it out when he had to take me to this certain gate, and they were waving him through," he said. "But I don't think he understood at the time.''
At about 6:45 p.m., 20 minutes before the night's scheduled first pitch, Maddon decided Johnson wasn't going to make it, and put Ben Zobrist in the lineup in his place. "I just didn't think there was enough time to get him in there and I didn't want to rush him, risking an injury,'' Maddon said.
Until Tuesday night, the most momentous plane ride of Johnson's life probably was the round trip he took to Oakland this winter for the team's FanFest. He developed a sinus condition on the way to Oakland; on the way back, it felt like his head was exploding.
"It was to the point I couldn't function because my head hurt so bad,'' Johnson said. "I had no clue. I thought I just had a bad headache.''
Johnson said doctors told him that either they had to drill a hole in his forehead to relieve the pressure – a procedure that would have meant he'd be out six to nine months – or he could stay in the hospital where they would pump him full of antibiotics. He elected to pass on the drill, but the hospital stay was his second of the winter; he'd earlier had a bout of viral meningitis.
Johnson's medical record already included vertigo, a summer-long bout with double vision apparently caused by prescription medication, and a torn hip labrum. Between the sinusitis and meningitis, he lost 30 pounds this winter, which left him at a disadvantage to compete for a roster spot in Oakland against free-agent addition Mike Sweeney.
The Athletics kept Sweeney (coincidentally, he was released Tuesday by Oakland) and designated Johnson, who spent the entire summer with Durham after his abbreviated stay with the Rays, batting .307 with 25 home runs and 83 RBIs.
"It was weird,'' he said of his instant demotion by Tampa Bay. "But the past is past. I'm not even thinking about it anymore. I didn't go down there to mope. I went down there to get better.
"My drive is never to be satisfied. I lost my job in Oakland, my attitude was, 'I'll bounce back.' ''
The Rays, who left 12 runners on base through the first seven innings, looked pancaked after Jason Bay hit a two-run home run off Tampa Bay reliever Dan Wheeler in the bottom of the eighth to take a 4-3 lead.
Papelbon was in the bullpen warming up when the ninth inning started, with left-hander Hideki Okajima on the mound for Boston. Maddon sent a right-handed pinch-hitter, Justin Ruggiano, to hit for Cliff Floyd. When Boston manager Terry Francona signaled for Papelbon, Maddon beckoned to Johnson.
Papelbon had gone to a 3-and-0 count just once this season. Pitching for the third consecutive day, he went 3-and-0 to Johnson, who took a strike, then fouled off a 97-mph fastball. Papelbon, who had not allowed an earned run in his last 18 appearances and had not been scored upon in 46 of his previous 59 appearances, threw another heater, and Johnson swung.
"I think the nerves worked to my advantage right there,'' he said. "I got a lot of nerves built up. It's been a while since I've been here.
"It's great, a good feeling. This is what I've been working for. Never get down. Just keep working.''
This time, Johnson can plan on sticking around.
"Tomorrow,'' Maddon said, "Dan Johnson gets to start.''