Kelly Johnson found himself playing first base Tuesday for the first time since, well, a long time ago. Nearly 16 years, actually.
Johnson was 16 and almost fully recovered from a fractured ankle when his summer-league coach had him play first base to get his bat in the lineup.
“I stood over there so I could still hit,” Johnson said. “It was nothing other than the ball gets hit, run to first, catch the ball. Nothing happened.”
Same position, different world now.
The Tampa Bay Rays will have Johnson play first base this season in an effort to get his bat in the lineup as often as possible, just as they will have the second baseman play left field.
As a first baseman, Johnson will be asked to provide the same quality of defense as the team expects from the other infielders, meaning Johnson will be asked to do more than simply run to the bag and catch a throw from an infielder.
“First base isn’t just put a glove on somebody and throw them over there,” Johnson said. “You can’t just pull somebody out of the stands. It isn’t that complicated, but there’s more to it than people generally assume.”
As a first baseman, Johnson will have to hold runners on, catch pick-off throws, play behind the runner, play in front of the runner, throw to second base to start double plays without hitting the runner, get in one position to cut off throws from the right field and in another to cut off throws from the center fielder, trail runners to second base on doubles, learn how to play the angles on balls hit down the first-base line and dig throws out of the dirt.
“For the guys who move there, I think they feel all that stuff coming their way,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said. “It’s more than just picking up a ground ball or catching a throw, and I don’t think people understand why these guys sometimes shy away from it or don’t like it as much.”
Johnson said he’s eager to play first base, though maybe not quite as eager as he is to return to left field for the first time since his rookie season in 2005. He admitted to having a mini panic attack about 10 minutes before game time but said he felt fine after going over some of the positioning with Rays infield coach Tom Foley.
Rays utility fielder Sean Rodriguez said he knows how Johnson felt. Rodriguez replaced Carlos Peña at first base during the seventh inning against the New York Yankees on July 31, 2010.
Peña hurt his ankle, and Maddon asked Rodriguez if he had experience playing first base. Rodriguez said he had.
He hadn’t. At least not since high school.
“I didn’t lie. I had played first,” Rodriguez said. “It just was a lot longer than Joe may have perceived through my answer. He might have been led to believe it was more recent than it really was.”
Rodriguez played first base nine more times, making three starts. He will play there this season as part of a right-lefty platoon with James Loney and Johnson.
“Anything for at-bats,” Rodriguez said.
Johnson feels the same way. After all, this is a guy who was converted from shortstop to left field at Double-A and left field to second base at the major-league level.
“I’ve had experience with the first game at a new position being in the big leagues,” Johnson said, “so I’m used to the uncomfortable, go get ’em, pat on the butt type of thing.”
Like everything else in baseball, confidence grows from repetition.
“When you haven’t been over there a lot, you have to remind yourself of all the things you have to do,” Rodriguez said.
Foley stayed near the first-base end of the Rays dugout to help Johnson with his positioning during Tuesday’s game. Johnson even asked pitcher Alex Cobb to throw over to first base a few times with a runner on just so Johnson could practice his technique on pick-off throws.
Other than chasing a foul pop-up to the fence along the dugout and watching it land in the stands, Johnson’s day was uneventful. He’s hoping for busier times when he returns to first base later this spring.
“Hopefully we get some interesting things happen in a spring game so I can go back in the dugout and they can tell me what I could have done different so if it happens in April or May I can’t say, ‘What can I say? I never had that situation come up,’