The next Dan Johnson: Seeking a stretch-run hero

Tim Brown
Yahoo! Sports
Dan Johnson after his late season heroics in 2011 (AP)
Dan Johnson after his late season heroics in 2011 (AP)

ANAHEIM, Calif. – The at-bat, the thunderclap moment, some little in-between and impossibly deceptive hop, they’re coming. Maybe they’ll all come at once, or come scattered across an inning or two, even a city or two.

It’ll be a perfectly struck line drive, and it’ll be random and glorious and avoidable and regrettable. Or it’ll be a lob shot foiling months of scouting reports, and so embarrassingly timed and delicious it’ll launch a thousand Champagne corks. And prematurely end a season.

It’s out there in the flash of a bat barrel, in the darkness of indecision, in the rub of a game that can be lost in at least as many ways as it could be won.

It’s the beauty of the final hours of a baseball season, when only the runts have been eliminated, leaving, maybe, a seldom-used pinch-hitter to bat in the bottom of the ninth with two out and two strikes, with only six months of baseball on the line. And then, with one swing, this ballplayer strikes the blow that extends a season and fells a franchise.

Say, a ballplayer such as Dan Johnson.

Approaching the anniversary of the home run that changed the course of last season for the Tampa Bay Rays and many seasons to come for the Boston Red Sox, he said, “It just doesn’t seem real anymore.”

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In a garishly magnificent final evening spread across four ballparks, Johnson had become the symbol of all that could happen before the 54th out of the 162nd game. His first hit for the Rays in five months cleared the right-field wall, set up Evan Longoria’s game-winner against the New York Yankees in the 12th inning and, when the night was done, had pushed the Rays into the postseason and the Red Sox into a death rattle.

When Johnson joined the club three weeks ago, Kevin Youkilis, the former Red Sox star, found him, shook his hand and said wryly, “I’d really like to thank you for last year.”

The game leers and then finds its heroes. It found Johnson under the stands, taking some practice swings, and sent a security guard in after him. “DJ!” he cried. “You’re up! You’re up!”

Johnson’s wife, Holly, and two children were at home in Minnesota. The kids were asleep. Holly watched the game on the bedroom television. Johnson’s mother was down the hall, watching on another television. Their screams of joy met somewhere in between.

Johnson, 33, never took another at-bat for the Rays. He signed with the Chicago White Sox in the winter, spent the season in Triple-A Charlotte, and on Sept. 1 returned to the big leagues. In eight games, he’s batting .357.

In the White Sox clubhouse, he’s a reminder that the next big moment, maybe the last big moment, could belong to any of them. Russell Martin walked off against the Oakland A’s on Friday night in New York. Matt Kemp kept the Los Angeles Dodgers upright with a 10th-inning single in Cincinnati. Aramis Ramirez doubled home a game winner in the ninth for the Milwaukee Brewers in Washington.

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And Johnson stood with the White Sox, then two games ahead of the Detroit Tigers in the AL Central. With 12 days remaining in the season, 12 teams had no hope to play beyond Oct. 3. The rest wondered who among them might step forward. Given one last strike in one final at-bat, who might hit a changeup far enough and fair enough to grant them another hour, another day, another week.

Maybe he’s waiting in Atlanta or Detroit or Baltimore or Los Angeles. Maybe he’s again in St. Petersburg, where there’s a chair at Tropicana Field, section 140, row T, seat 10, painted white to commemorate where Johnson’s home run came back to earth.

Johnson said he has been sent two different books written about all those 162 games last season. He said he’s sat for interviews with three prospective authors with the same topic in mind. People enjoy the big moment. They love the man who conquers it, particularly if they’ve only just learned his name.

“It was the time and place for me,” Johnson said. “No doubt if the situation arises again, I know I’m going to be there. I’m going to feel comfortable in the situation. I’ll succeed. I really believe I will.”

Funny thing, his manager didn’t watch any of it. The final night, when the Rays and St. Louis Cardinals completed their ascensions, when the Red Sox and Braves finished their collapses, Robin Ventura hadn’t a clue.

“I missed the whole thing,” he said.

He laughed.

“I know,” he said. “Everybody tells me about it.”

Presumably, Ventura also knows what’s coming. The White Sox are in first place by a wisp, in a remarkable season. Ventura played long enough to have seen those moments, the ones that win and the ones that lose.

The White Sox lost to the Los Angeles Angels on Friday night. The Tigers were rained out. And the moment drew nearer.

“You hope,” Ventura said, “you have a situation like that you can use him again.”

He smiled. You know, c’mon, what are the chances…

Johnson shrugged.

“It’s hard to put into words,” he said. “I feel like I’m gonna do it, instead of hoping to do it.”

Somebody’s gonna.

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