Johnson on Phillips' heroics: 'This is perfect!'

October 26th, 2020

Before stepped up to the plate in the bottom of the ninth inning Saturday night at Globe Life Field, play-by-play broadcaster Joe Buck quickly shared a few facts about the reserve outfielder’s young career. “Traded to Tampa Bay from Kansas City. Hit under .200 with both organizations this year. Hit two home runs,” Buck said.

Watching the game at home in Blaine, Minn., turned to his wife and smiled.

“This is perfect. This is exactly what it’s about,” Johnson said. “This is what it is, right here.”

Johnson would know. He was Tampa Bay’s quintessential unlikely hero long before Phillips played the role to perfection against the Dodgers in Game 4 of the World Series. The journeyman infielder authored two of the greatest moments in Rays history, clubbing two game-tying homers in key spots that helped Tampa Bay reach the postseason in 2008 and ’11.

Phillips didn’t need that history lesson on Saturday night. He experienced those moments as a fan. He was born and raised in Seminole, Fla., about 20 minutes from Tropicana Field. He was in eighth grade in 2008 and a student at Seminole High School in ’11. Nine years later, Phillips smacked a two-out single off Kenley Jansen that scored two runs to win the game for the Rays and even the World Series for his hometown team.

“I had all the confidence in the world, believing in him, that he would be able to do it. It had been like 10 days since he’d seen an at-bat. Just all the stuff -- sub-.200 batting average and only two home runs,” Johnson said in a phone interview with on Sunday afternoon. “This is perfect! This is exactly what the Rays build themselves on, getting the most unlikely heroes to come out.”

Johnson said Phillips’ moment was too special to be scripted, but he couldn’t shake the feeling all night that something good was going to happen for the Rays. Maybe it was because they asked him to throw out the first pitch before Game 4.

On Friday, the 41-year-old Johnson took his wife and four kids to a snow-covered baseball field at Blaine High School. He threw the pitch to his oldest son, and the Rays played that video before Ryan Yarbrough’s first pitch at Globe Life Field on Saturday night. Some time after Phillips smacked the game’s final pitch to center field -- after a celebration and dehydration and an IV -- the energetic 26-year-old sat in front of a camera and gave a “shoutout” to Johnson.

It is no coincidence, Johnson believes, that seemingly anyone can deliver in a big moment for the Rays, that they can turn unfamiliar names into cult heroes. The idea that everyone has a part to play is central to this year’s team in particular, and it’s been ingrained in the organization since its worst-to-first turnaround in 2008.

“I truly believe that they built it, starting in the Minor Leagues with the culture that they’ve built. Everybody has that same mentality when they come up, understanding that it doesn’t take big-name players to be successful,” Johnson said. “They really teach how becoming one as a group is way more important than any one special person on your team. They’ve done a great job culturally of building these teams around everyone instead of picking out a couple guys and trying to build around that. They use the whole core.

“As you see, anyone can get that opportunity there. It was another unlikely hero, comes off the bench, 10 days hasn’t seen a live pitch, here’s Kenley Jansen -- what are you going to do?”

That the 2020 Rays have somehow continued to find answers to that question, Johnson said, reminds him of the 2008 bunch that won the American League pennant.

“That’s what it looks like to me. They find a way. They’re grinders, and they find a way to get it done,” Johnson said. “They have great pitching, a great bullpen. That’s a big similarity I see from 2008. But you can just see how much fun they have out there, and that’s what I feel like we had with the 2008 team. It was awesome. You couldn’t wait to get to the ballpark to hang out with the guys and prepare for whatever was coming.”

Phillips couldn’t remember exactly where he was on the night of Sept. 9, 2008, but he was paying attention when Johnson arrived at Fenway Park, too late to start but just in time to get ready for a pinch-hit appearance. The moment came in the top of the ninth against Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon.

Johnson hadn’t played in eight days, and his last Major League plate appearance came five months before he stepped up to the plate in Boston. But Johnson, not intimidated by the moment, pulled a game-tying home run out to right field. The Rays rallied for another run after that and beat the Red Sox, 5-4, in a pivotal game en route to their first AL East title.

“I don’t know exactly where I was, but all I do know is that was a shot heard ‘round Tampa Bay, for sure. To be in the same sentence with him, he’s a hero,” Phillips said Sunday. “Those highlights always get played when they talk about Rays playoff baseball. It’s special to be in that group with him.”

Johnson did it again in Tampa Bay’s famous Game 162 victory over the Yankees in 2011. When Joe Maddon sent him up to pinch-hit for Sam Fuld against Cory Wade with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, Johnson owned a .108 batting average and had to think all the way back to April 27 to remember his last hit in the big leagues.

“It’s hard to explain, but for me, there was a sense of calm,” Johnson said. “You’re not supposed to win this battle. You have really nothing to lose in those situations.”

With the Rays trailing by a run and down to their last strike, Johnson pulled another game-tying homer down the right-field line. That kept Tampa Bay alive long enough for Evan Longoria to deliver his famous walk-off homer in the 12th inning, sending the Rays back to the postseason. There’s still a white seat in Section 140 of Tropicana Field to commemorate Johnson’s home run.

"That was one of the coolest moments ever back in '11 and '08. To be mentioned with his name now, wow, that's special. I feel blessed, especially in St. Pete,” Phillips said. “My hometown! Like, crazy! But shoutout to Dan Johnson. You've always got to give credit to the people before you, because they paved the way. He definitely was a hero, and still is, in the Tampa Bay area."

Phillips could be remembered the same way, and that will certainly be the case if the Rays win two of the next three games to capture their first World Series championship.

Is it too soon to call that the biggest play in franchise history? The man responsible for two other contenders doesn’t think so.

“If they go on to win it, this is huge. As far as right now, to this point, I think it has to be,” Johnson said. “This is the opportunity. Nothing else has led to a championship before. This has the opportunity to get them that ring. When you ask any player, that peak of being able to win a championship and say you’re part of the best team in the world, this has the opportunity to be the biggest play.”