ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — For almost eight minutes, Kelly Johnson tried to explain the flurry of production, the reasons behind his breakout May, the answer to why he has become so dangerous at the plate in his new home. He is grounded, soft-spoken and somewhat reserved, so it was little surprise the Tampa Bay Rays’ Mr. Versatile turned the topic into a self-warning for the future.
In a clearing home clubhouse Monday, Johnson addressed his torrid offensive pace, one that has him leading the Rays in home runs (10) and RBIs (32) after ripping the Miami Marlins with a line to remember: 4-for-5 with two home runs and six RBI in Tampa Bay’s 10-6 victory at Tropicana Field. He refused to recognize how special his streak could become if maintained, refused to consider how the Rays’ Mr. Versatile can become Mr. Valuable all season long.
“Eh, we’re not going to talk about all that,” Johnson said, to laughter. “It’s baseball. … It’s two months. That’s why we play six. That’s why we play some games. We’re not going to talk about stats until it’s Sept. 30. That’s the way I feel about it. As long you’re playing, you’ve got a chance to put up some good stats.”
So mark the calendars. Come Sept. 30, Johnson will be open to talking numbers. Come Sept. 30, he will be open to talking about how he lived a career renaissance these first two months. Come Sept. 30, if he preserves this pace, he could be open to talking about the Rays’ position in the postseason, made possible partly because of his contributions.
Yes, come Sept. 30, if Tampa Bay overcomes a ho-hum start to clinch a postseason berth, efforts like Johnson’s Monday will be remembered. Anything is possible, of course, but it was hard to foresee this first impression when he agreed to a one-year, $2.45 million contract in late January. Among the bullet points produced after a three-hour, 39-minute marathon:
— His pair of three-run home runs, a 399-foot shot in the second inning and a 403-foot screamer in the eighth, marked the eighth multi-home run game of his career. His six RBIs tied a career high, matching an effort on June 17, 2005, in Cincinnati, when he played for the Atlanta Braves.
— He became the first player in Rays history to hit two three-run (or more) home runs in the same game.
— He has 24 RBIs in May, a new career-high for a month, topping the 19 he had in September 2008 with Atlanta.
“I worked hard all spring trying to figure it out, taking in advice, listening to guys that were watching me, trying to step outside of my own skin and not act like I’ve got it figured out,” said Johnson, who came to Tampa Bay after spending last season with the Toronto Blue Jays. “Sometimes, there are some things out there that can help you coming from different spots — your hitting coach, your manager, your player. You just try to take it all in. You’re always self-evaluating.”
That self-evaluation is part of the reason behind Johnson’s emergence. Rays manager Joe Maddon has noticed subtle differences in Johnson’s swing compared to last season, the product of the player’s work with hitting coach Derek Shelton.
“I think it’s all the difference in the world between him doing what you’re seeing and not doing it,” Maddon said. “The fact that he’s able to get to those pitches and drive them to right-center is important. I think his body is in position. His hands are in position that permits that to happen.”
It has all become part of the eight-year veteran player’s evolution at Tampa Bay: From someone signed for his versatility, to someone asked to play everything from his customary second base to left field and even first base for the first time in his major league career (against the Baltimore Orioles on April 3), to someone who is on pace to streak past the 55 RBIs he produced last season and possibly threaten his career-high 71 gained with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2010. It has all become part of his journey.
But Johnson refuses to hear the chatter, the whispers of possible career seasons and other such noise. This is what makes Johnson capable of reaching those possibilities, of bursting through a glass ceiling he chooses to ignore.
After all, humility can enhance his tunnel vision: One day. One at-bat. One more game. One goal: Do the most to impact his team, a group that has the offense to contend in the American League East if its pitching — particularly the bullpen — improves in time.
Two months? It remains early. But it is not too early to consider what could come for Tampa Bay’s Mr. Versatile.
“I feel good about preparation and routine,” Johnson said. “That’s all I can really say. It’s nothing new. I’ve had good moments. I’ve had good months. I’ve had good seasons. I can do it. It’s not like it’s lost. I’m happy where I’m at. I’m confident. I’d like to continue on with the routine and that confidence as long as I can.”