TBO.com: Tampa Bay Online, The Tampa Tribune and The Tampa Times - breaking news and weather.
Tuesday, Sep 02, 2014
Rays

Maturing Johnson earns chance with Rays

By
Published:   |   Updated: March 19, 2013 at 11:52 AM
ST. PETERSBURG -

There were the bus rides from one minor-league town to another when Elliot Johnson stared out the window and wondered what was going on with his career.

A bad night, a bad series, a bad week can plays tricks with your confidence.

"If you've ever gone 0-for-15 with 12 punch outs, you're wondering if you're ever going to figure it out, because those are stressful times, man," Johnson said.

But you move on to the next town, the next game, the next series and, if you're good enough, you eventually figure some things out for yourself.

Stop trying to hit home runs. OK.

Learn to steal bases. OK.

Learn to play a couple of positions. OK.

Do those and one day you might find yourself with a locker against the wall of a big-league clubhouse, just like Johnson, the utility fielder who made his second Opening Day roster this spring.

"He's been a classic example of good player development," Rays manager Joe Maddon said.

Once an unpolished athlete with no real home on a baseball field, Johnson has developed into a utility fielder who can play both the infield and outfield. What's more, he's handy with the bat because he can bunt, get on base, steal bases and score runs.

"I'm really comfortable with him," Maddon said. "He can do a lot of things well."

Johnson made the Rays 2008 Opening Day roster after Ben Zobrist broke his thumb during spring training. Johnson was tabbed because he was the best of the available replacements. He spent 28 days with the Rays before being sent back to Triple-A Durham.

He might have made his way back to Tropicana Field in 2009 as a replacement for the injured Akinori Iwamura or Jason Bartlett but was nursing a broken thumb of his own.

Johnson has his best minor-league season in 2010 - .319 batting average, 24 doubles, 11 home runs, 56 RBIs, 30 stolen bases - but the Rays didn't have the need or the room.

"Timing was really bad for me the last couple of years," he said. "Hopefully, the timing is really good for me this year."

The development was gradual. It began to take on steam when Johnson finally figured out what he wasn't, and what he wasn't was a home run hitter.

Maddon once told Johnson he had enough power to be a bad hitter.

"My approach growing up and even into pro ball was every count I was trying to hit a home run except with two strikes. Even 3-2 I was trying to hit a home run," Johnson said. "That's not conducive to a guy that's not a home run hitter."

Eventually, Johnson got the message.

"It took a little while," Johnson said. "I think last year was the first year I didn't really try."

Johnson hit .341 this spring with a team-record 12 stolen bases. He did have one home run. It came Wednesday during the Rays' 5-3 win against the Blue Jays at Tropicana Field.

"Pitcher made a mistake," Johnson said.

But it felt good to round the bases.

Johnson said he was 15 when he hit his first home run in an organized baseball game.

"Hitting it was the best thing ever," he said.

It became addictive.

"I'm pretty hard headed," he said. "It took me a little while, because there's nothing better than hitting a home run."

An undrafted free agent who signed with the Rays in 2002, the 27-year-old Johnson has spent the past nine years in the minor leagues. Johnson was waived after not making the squad last spring, passed over by the other 29 teams and re-signed with the Rays.

Motivation? Sure.

But Johnson also feels it was the year when everything came together.

"I've always been a good athlete with a lot of raw ability," he said. "It was just a matter of learning to hit. Hitting is the hardest part of this game. If you can hit, man, you're a big-league player. Whether I stay here or not is going to depend on whether I can hit or not."

ORIOLES AT RAYS

Friday: 7:10 p.m.; TV: Sun Sports

Subscribe to The Tampa Tribune

Comments