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Rays notes: Kelly Johnson quickly takes to No. 9 hole

Published:   |   Updated: April 4, 2013 at 08:50 AM
ST. PETERSBURG -

As he turned to flip his bat toward the dugout after drawing a leadoff walk in the sixth inning of Tuesday’s season opener, Kelly Johnson saw CF Desmond Jennings walking to the plate and thought, “It’s go time.”

“It’s exciting. Hey, man, we got top of the order coming up,” Johnson said. “This is exactly what we wanted, and we got some runs out of it.”

Johnson, running on a 3-2 pitch, scored from first base when Jennings doubled down the left-field line. Jennings scored on a sacrifice fly as the Rays turned a 2-1 deficit into a 3-2 lead.

It was that type of inning manager Joe Maddon envisions with Johnson batting ninth ahead of Jennings.

“I know he’s batting ninth, but I like the idea better of him hitting in front of Jennings,” Maddon said.

Johnson has had 88 plate appearances as a No.?9 hitter during his career. He responded with a .402 on base percentage that includes a .261 average.

“I think Desmond should get him a better pitch and he can drive the ball,” Maddon said. “Kelly, historically, will strike out a little bit and that’s OK. But in that spot right there I don’t mind. It’s a spot where he can drive the baseball or if he gets on base he can utilize his speed in front of Desmond like he did (Tuesday).”

Johnson has spent most of his career hitting at or near the top of the order. He said he doesn’t mind batting ninth to begin his first year with the Rays, especially giving Maddon’s history of juggling lineups.

“You draw a walk leading off an inning, if you’re hitting sixth, seventh, eighth, it’s not that exciting,” Johnson said. “But all of a sudden you got Dez, Sam (Fuld), Ben (Zobrist) coming up, it’s kind of cool. In a way, you really do treat it like you’re hitting at the top. It feels that way.”

Defense, defense, defense Tuesday’s four-run loss could have been a bit more lopsided if not for the defense of 3B Evan Longoria, SS Yunel Escobar, OF Fuld and 1B James Loney. Combined, they saved at least five runs.

“It was pretty outstanding,” Maddon said. “I would like to believe it’s the harbinger of the defense we expect.”

Escobar turned a 6-3 double play with the bases loaded to end the third inning. Longoria saved a run in the fourth inning with a diving stop and throw to first for the final out with a runner on second. Fuld’s sliding catch ended the seventh and got RHP Jamey Wright out of a bases-loaded jam.

“We always fed off our defense, a lot historically,” Maddon said. “That’s just how we play. Those were exceptional plays. If we make one or two a night, that’s a lot. But normally in the past when we’ve had our good seasons we’ve fed off those moments and I thought we did (Tuesday). ... I think we’re capable of doing that this year.”

Hernandez’s debut RHP Roberto Hernandez will end the Rays’ streak of games started by a pitcher 30 years old or younger at 1,060. He also will be the first free-agent pitcher to start a game since Hideo Nomo on July 15, 2005 — snapping a streak of 1,207 games started by a pitcher signed by or developed in the organization.

When asked what he hoped to see tonight from Hernandez, Maddon said, “Hopefully a lot of ground balls and hopefully (the infielders are) standing in the right spots.”

The gong show The banging of the gong in right field was modified Wednesday to a couple of bangs while the Rays took the field to the T. Rex hit “Bang a Gong.” Maddon expects it to become a much anticipated part of the Trop’s game-day experience.

The conversation quickly turned to the 1970s TV show, “The Gong Show,” prompting this from Maddon: “Here’s the big question, is Gene Gene the Dancing Machine still alive?”

He is. Eugene Patton turns 81 on April 25. Ironically, he lost both of his legs in 2001 to complications from diabetes.

Noteworthy Triple-A Durham begins its season tonight with this rotation: RHP Chris Archer, RHP Alex Colome, LHP Mike Montgomery, RHP Jake Odorizzi and LHP Alex Torres. … Fuld will speak before today’s game to more than 100 members of the USF College of Nursing about being an athlete who has Type 1 diabetes. … Former Olympic gold medalist wrestler Dan Gable threw out the first pitch Wednesday. … With his home run Tuesday, Zobrist tied Longoria and Gerald Williams for the most Opening Day home runs in team history with two.

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