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Nationals' Johnson shows leadoff skills in Fall League performance

MLB.com @JimCallisMLB

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Daniel Johnson has made a habit of going from getting overlooked to grabbing a starring role. The Arizona Fall League is giving him yet another chance to do so.

Johnson wasn't part of the original contingent the Nationals planned on sending to the Mesa Solar Sox. But when Victor Robles made their National League Division Series roster, they needed another outfielder. Enter Johnson, who has been Mesa's primary leadoff hitter in the first week of the AFL season.

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Daniel Johnson has made a habit of going from getting overlooked to grabbing a starring role. The Arizona Fall League is giving him yet another chance to do so.

Johnson wasn't part of the original contingent the Nationals planned on sending to the Mesa Solar Sox. But when Victor Robles made their National League Division Series roster, they needed another outfielder. Enter Johnson, who has been Mesa's primary leadoff hitter in the first week of the AFL season.

Johnson sparked a pair of multi-run innings Tuesday night in an 8-5 victory over the Salt River Rafters. The Nationals' No. 10 prospect led off the game with an infield single, stole a base and scored the game's first run. He also drove in a run with a bases-loaded walk in the fourth, setting up a two-run double by Charcer Burks (Cubs' No. 22) that broke the game open.

Gameday

"I didn't plan on being here this year, maybe next year, but the fact that I'm here right now is a blessing," said Johnson, who went 2-for-4 to improve his Mesa slash line to .286/.348/.381 with three steals in as many attempts. "I'm going to take full advantage of the opportunity."

Johnson keeps doing exactly that. He was barely recruited as a California high schooler and got cut from the team in his first fall at New Mexico State, so he headed to Northeastern Oklahoma A&M Junior College.

Though he played on a Norsemen team with pro prospects Dean Deetz (Astros' No. 26), Ramon Laureano (Astros' No. 11) and Jake Jewell (Angels' No. 11), Johnson went undrafted in 2014. He returned to New Mexico State and went from a semi-regular in 2015 to the Western Athletic Conference player of the year in 2016, leading the league in hitting (.382), homers (12) and steals (29).

Video: Top Prospects: Ramon Laureano, OF, Astros

The Nationals made Johnson a fifth-round pick that June, allowing him to match Luke Hopkins (Blue Jays, 2006) as the highest-drafted players in New Mexico State history. He had a strong first full pro season, batting .298/.356/.505 with 22 homers and 22 steals between two Class A stops, boosting his prospect stock significantly.

Johnson has more well-rounded tools than the typical fifth-rounder. He has plus bat speed from the left side of the plate, well above average foot speed and similar arm strength. He's capable of playing anywhere in the outfield and handling several different roles in the lineup.

Johnson's biggest need may be to tone down his aggressive nature at the plate, especially since the Nationals began employing him more as a leadoff hitter once he got to high Class A in late July. He says he maintains the same philosophy no matter where he bats in the order.

"The only thing that would change is my approach in certain situations," he said. "But as far as mindset, being ready to hit the ball, it's the same. I could be batting sixth or seventh and have the same mindset."

Mesa's win improved its record to 3-4, tying the Scottsdale Scorpions for first place in the East Division. Salt River dropped to 2-5, the worst record in the league and a game back in the East.

AFL Standings

Johnson was one of six Solar Sox starters with multiple hits, with DH Ian Rice (Cubs) leading the way with a pair of doubles and a single. Second baseman David Bote (Cubs), the AFL's Player of the Week for the first week of the season, continued his torrid stretch with two more hits, including his league-leading fourth homer.

Right-hander Kyle McGowin (Nationals) gave Mesa a strong start with four shutout innings and five strikeouts, two on sliders and two on changeups. Salt River's top performers were shortstop Jack Reinheimer (D-Backs' No. 25), who reached base in all four of his plate appearances and left-hander Kirby Bellow (D-backs), who threw two scoreless innings and struck out the side in the seventh -- all on sliders.

Jim Callis is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow @jimcallisMLB on Twitter. Listen to him on the weekly Pipeline Podcast.