Johnson was a two-time unlikely hero for Rays

First baseman hit crucial homers for Tampa Bay in 2008, '11

September 23rd, 2018

ST. PETERSBURG -- Mention Dan Johnson to most baseball fans. Some might recognize the name; most wouldn't.

Mention Johnson's name to a Rays fan, and you'll get an entirely different reaction. Not only did Johnson get perhaps the most important hit for the 2008 American League pennant-winning Rays, he came through with an encore performance in 2011.

Johnson's legend began on Sept. 9, 2008, when the Rays called him up from Triple-A Durham to meet the team in Boston for a crucial series against the Red Sox.

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Manager Joe Maddon planned to start Johnson that night, but due to travel complications, Johnson didn't arrive until just before the start of the game. By then, Maddon had already scratched Johnson from the lineup, but he told Johnson to stay ready to pinch-hit.

Tampa Bay trailed 4-3 heading into the ninth with Boston closer Jonathan Papelbon entering the game to try to finish off the Rays. Maddon sent Johnson to the plate as a pinch-hitter to lead off the inning. The count reached 3-2 when Johnson got his pitch -- and fouled it off.

"I just started laughing to myself," Johnson said. "[Papelbon] was basically saying, 'Here's my best pitch, let's go.' I'm like, 'What are you up here for if you miss that pitch?' Fortunately, it worked out."

Johnson delivered a game-tying home run on the next pitch. Dioner Navarro added an RBI double in the inning to put the Rays up, 5-4. They held onto the lead, winning a pivotal game that helped them come from nowhere to claim the AL East crown.

If that didn't cement Johnson's place in Rays history, what happened on Sept. 28, 2011, did when he struck again. This time, he did so in the famed Game 162. Johnson homered with two outs in the bottom of the ninth against the Yankees to send the game into extra innings. won it with a walk-off homer in the 11th to send the Rays into the postseason.

"We thought we were out [of the pennant race]," Johnson said. "Coming down to the last strike, and the last out, the timing of it. The other teams being able to see what was happening. Hitting a pitch that would normally go foul stayed fair. The stars were just aligned."

Now 39, Johnson continues to try to make a go of it as a pitcher. He began throwing a knuckleball and the pitch showed enough promise to prompt the Rays to sign him to a Minor League deal in March 2016. While they released him later that month, he has continued in his pursuit of perfecting the mysterious pitch.

"I've had some success with the knuckleball," Johnson said. "Do I have a shot? I think from the feedback I've gotten from a lot of people, it's been going really well so far. If it wasn't, I wouldn't do it."