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Johnson proving perseverance pays

ST. PETERSBURG -- Injuries create opportunities.

Elliot Johnson probably understands that fact as well as anybody on the Rays' roster. He's lived both sides of the Major League injury coin, and the infielder is now making the most of his opportunity to show that he can be an everyday player.

Evan Longoria is on the disabled list with a partial tear of his left hamstring, which prompted Sean Rodriguez's shift from shortstop to third base and has allowed Johnson to move in at shortstop. Thus far the move has worked out well for the Rays and the native of Safford, Ariz.

Johnson is hitting .276 with two home runs, seven RBIs and eight stolen bases in 34 games.

If anybody should understand the concept that timing is everything, Johnson is the guy. He put up eye-popping numbers at Triple-A Durham in 2010 when he played shortstop for the Bulls, hitting .319 with 11 home runs, 56 RBIs and 30 stolen bases. But the phone never rang.

Jason Bartlett, Reid Brignac and Rodriguez handled the shortstop duties in 2010, and all remained healthy. Johnson then made the team in 2011 as a utility player and cobbled together a solid season, hitting .286 with two home runs and seven RBIs, eventually earning a shot to take over at shortstop. Two games into that opportunity, he suffered a left knee sprain.

"Athletically speaking, he's one of the more gifted athletes on the team. I mean this guy can dunk a basketball easily and make it look very simple. That's how well he jumps."
-- Manager Joe Maddon
on Elliot Johnson

When the athletic Johnson returned, he wasn't the same. After coming off the disabled list, he hit .149 (14-for-94) for the remainder of the season.

"I think when I came back from the injury last year, it felt like the ball was moving so much faster than it was before," Johnson said. "The timing was completely gone. It was look for the ball, and it was already past me.

"I think when I'm going good, I feel like I see the ball for a really long time, and it's a lot slower than it really is. But when I'm out of sync, 95 [mph] looks like 105. It just seems almost unhittable."

Regardless of the injury, Johnson knew he had a good opportunity in 2011 and didn't take advantage of it. Rather than mope around about his situation at the end of the season, Johnson looked for a way to earn future opportunities. So he asked the Rays if he could play winter baseball. When they said yes, the team pointed him in the direction of the Dominican Republic, considered the highest quality of winter leagues.

Johnson's stint in the Dominican Republic helped him regain his confidence, and he showed the club something in the process.

"You don't ever have to go to play winter ball," Rays coach Tom Foley said. "He didn't play that much last year, so he figured going to the Dominican and playing could only help him. Most guys want the time off. That shows you something about Elliot."

Johnson has appeared in 25 of the past 26 games -- 19 starts -- after playing in just nine of the first 19. And everyday play has suited him. He maintains that most anybody is going to play better when they see pitching on a daily basis rather than coming off the bench.

"I think that everybody that's done both will tell you it makes a difference," Johnson said. "I personally always feel better later in the game. You get into the flow of the game -- 10, 15, 20 pitches by then. You just feel more comfortable by then. The ball just kind of slows down a little bit for you.

"I think getting consistent at-bats certainly makes a difference. And I think if you ask anybody, they'd tell you that from a timing standpoint, there's no other way to get it."

Rays manager Joe Maddon has noticed the difference in Johnson's play.

"The biggest thing I'm loving is he's organizing his strike zone for the first time," Maddon said. "The other night in Toronto, against [Brandon] Morrow, runners in scoring position, gets ball one that he normally would have chased in the past. Ball two, a ball he would have chased in the past. And then he gets a changeup, he doesn't try to hook it or hit a home run, he hits it right back up the middle. That was total progress."

While Maddon has been pleasantly surprised by Johnson's success thus far in the season, he's hardly stunned.

"He's a very bright kid, he's very bright," Maddon said. "Athletically speaking, he's one of the more gifted athletes on the team. I mean this guy can dunk a basketball easily and make it look very simple. That's how well he jumps.

"You watch him throw from shortstop. He might have the best arm on the team -- just pure strength. Running-wise, in a good race, probably B.J. [Upton] over a length of time would beat him. But in a straight race, he's right there in a 30-yard dash. This guy, athletically, is very gifted. And he's always been."

How will it all shake out for Johnson once some of the starters return? Will he get a shot to remain the everyday shortstop? Foley noted that Johnson doesn't need to be worrying about anything more than the game he's playing that day.

"He can play anywhere as good as anybody on our club," Foley said. "But right now he's our shortstop. He feels comfortable. He's playing under control. He doesn't feel like he's got to go out and really make something happen. Just keep doing what he's doing.

"You can't put any more pressure on yourself saying, 'If I play better, I can take the shortstop job.' He just has to stay healthy and keep playing -- don't think about it. He's got the ability to be a pretty good player, and he's showing it right now."

Tampa Bay Rays, Elliot Johnson