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Martin Fennelly Columns

One bad throw becomes two-game swing for Rays

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Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 11:12 AM
ST. PETERSBURG -

In the exact moment, he looked like he wanted the Tampa Bay Rays to build a new ballpark so he could hide under it.

But there was no relief, just agony. Elliot Johnson, a very nice guy, was all alone out there at second base in the seventh inning Wednesday night at Tropicana Field. It was a brutal thing. It was hard to even look at him.

Johnson had just fielded a Derek Jeter grounder hit right at him, infield drawn in. He hesitated. He rushed. He threw high and outside to home plate trying to get Ichiro Suzuki at home plate, and two unearned Yankees runs scored and they led 6-4 and that was how it ended, a gift-wrapped win.

The Rays could have pulled to within a half a game of the AL East lead with a win. Now they are two and a half games back, a two-game swing, just like that. E: Johnson. Elliot owned his 14th error of the season and this game. He stood up and took ownership.

"It was the play that cost us the game, you know?" Johnson said. "You never want to be in one of those situations, you never want to be that guy, but I'm a grown man, I can handle this sort of stuff."

It was still an excruciating moment in a tight race, all the more because Johnson hasn't had many starts lately, and was in at second to give Ryan Roberts a day off.

It wasn't about the try. The Rays have always gotten that from Johnson. He still wore angry red scrapes and bruises on his face from last Friday night in Toronto, when he crashed the catcher trying to tie the game in the top of the ninth.

It's never been about the try with Elliot. Goodness, way back in 2008, before the Rays were these Rays, it was Elliot, trying to win a job, who went against these Yankees in spring training -- in spring training! -- crashing hard into and over Yankees catcher Francisco Cervelli. In a small way, these Rays were born.

Now he was the father of a blown game, a golden opportunity.

There was no way to sugarcoat it.

"We had plenty of time to make the throw," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "It was all there for us. That play, if it's made right there, we're in really good shape moving forward."

Just as quickly, he backed up his second baseman.

"We're going to make mistakes," Maddon said. "Nobody on this team is perfect. Mistakes are mistakes. When you harp on a physical error, it only created more physical errors."

Elliot Johnson has fought for everything he has with the Rays. He made this team out of spring training and, for half a season he was a tough out. He was proving to be more than a utility man. He has already set career highs in games played and virtually every offensive category. He was hitting .300 at one point.

But the hitting went away, and the errors added up, and his playing time began to disappear, especially after Ben Zobrist moved to shortstop. Wednesday's start was just Johnson's eighth in the last 29 games. It was his first start at second base since May 11.

But a baseball game, even if you've been away a while, has a nasty way of finding you. It can be cruel.

There was Johnson at the plate in the second, runners on second and third with one out, the Rays already up 1-0, but he laid down a bad bunt and no one could move. The Rays came away empty after Sam Fuld grounded out. It was large.

In the fourth, Johnson tried to grab a short fly ball by Jeter in center field, but it just glanced off his glove, a tough play, so close. Jeter later scored. Later, right after Johnson's error, Jeter, who was all over this game, ran on those allegedly aging legs to grab a fly to short left and snuff a Rays rally. It's about moments.

"I know Ichiro's running," Johnson said of his play. "The ball's not hit particularly hard. I heard (Rays first baseman) Luke (Scott) yelling. So I looked up and see him coming down, just did my best to get rid of it as quickly as I could, get it there as fast as I could."

He stared at the plate, then at the ground. There are nights like this for every ballplayer.

But this was September, and the Yankees, and a tight race. It was hard to watch, grown man or no.

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