Facing Cardinals sidearmer Pat Neshek with one out in the eighth Tuesday night at Turner Field and the Braves trying to bust out of a seven-game losing streak, Johnson was just looking for one thing.
"The ball," the third baseman said. "Seriously. I’m being serious. When a guy is that funky, it’s a see-ball approach."
Johnson singled on a sharp grounder to right field, scoring Justin Upton as Atlanta took a 2-1 lead. Craig Kimbrel would protect with his ninth save of the year, keeping the Braves from extending their longest skid in nearly two years.
"Anyone who’s watched me lately knows that was just a battle between me and him and me trying to get something in play," Johnson said. "I was finally able to stay on the ball and go the other way a little bit, which is nice."
From Gavin Floyd’s unexpected debut to Justin Upton’s dugout-lifting solo homer and Dan Uggla’s return to the lineup, here are three things we learned from the Braves’ win.
One day shy of the one-year anniversary of his Tommy John surgery, Floyd made his Braves debut and, similar to the outings that defined the Braves during the first month of the season, he defied expectations.
Floyd allowed one run — Matt Holliday scored Matt Carpenter, who Floyd walked to open the sixth — and six hits over seven innings with five strikeouts. It was Floyd’s 25th game of at least seven innings, one or less earned runs and five or more strikeouts and the first since Oct. 3, 2012 against the Indians.
"I didn’t expect that, really," said manager Fredi Gonzalez. "I expected a guy that would scuffle through five, six innings first time out, hadn’t been in competition in a year and coming through all that stuff. He passed with flying colors. You couldn’t ask for anything more."
He got into the act with his bat as well. A career .056 (3 for 56) hitter coming in, Floyd was credited with a hit in the sixth inning after a scoring change from an error on Cardinals third baseman Carpenter. It was Floyd’s first hit since June 18, 2010.
"You always wonder what’s going to happen and how you’re going to feel," Floyd said. "You know there’s going to be a high-level of excitement and energy and my concern going in was try to bottle that up as much as possible and be calm and stay focused."
But like the other starters during the Braves’ last nine games, he lacked run support.
Since an April 26 win over the Reds, just once did an Atlanta starter leave the game with a lead (Ervin Santana on May 1 vs. the Marlins). The last five starters have been backed by a combined four runs.
The question going forward for Floyd is when he’ll pitch again. A fill-in for Santana, who was skipped with a bruised thumb, Floyd could be moved to the bullpen as long relief or he could be used to give starters a break.
As of now there’s no definitive answer, though Gonzalez may have alluded to it in saying "he was really good. I can’t wait five-six days down the road and watch him go out there again."
Coming off a four-strikeout day and mired in an 0-for-12 slump, Upton broke through with a monstrous fourth-inning home run that sailed 457 feet and brought some energy to a Braves dugout in desperate need of it.
"He crushed that ball … man, that ball was way out of here," Johnson said.
That was Upton’s second homer of more than 450 feet this season — he owns the season’s third-longest blast at 477, coming April 10 — and the fourth of at least 420, all at Turner Field. Dating back to last year, Upton has 16 homers of 420-plus and is averaging 418.7 feet as a Brave.
Despite his small slump Upton, who went 2 for 4 for his first multi-hit game since April 27, is still hitting .329 since April 10 with 14 extra-base hits and 19 RBI.
"He’s swinging the bat really well right now," Johnson said.
While Atlanta was able to break through Tuesday and end its streak with some help from Upton, Gonzalez pointed to Monday, in which the Braves had nine hits by five players, as a sign that the offense is coming back around.
"Even though we lost the game, we saw some good progress," he said. "Hopefully this type of game like this will get us going," Gonzalez said. "We’re in position to win the series and that’s what we always ask for."
Dan Uggla went deep behind first base to make a diving stop on Matt Adams’ chopper in the fourth inning, but when he came up to go to Freddie Freeman, Uggla slipped and couldn’t make the throw.
A batter later, Jhonny Peralta hit into a double play that Freeman had to dig out to finish as Uggla’s throw skipped into the dirt.
The much-maligned second baseman made his return to the lineup for the fifth time in the last eight games, going 0 for 3 while Ramiro Pena, who had a home run and double in Monday’s loss, was back in his usual spot on the bench.
Gonzalez expected a strong reaction from fans after Tuesday’s lineup was announced, but as he stressed, Monday’s start for Pena was all about exploiting a matchup he is a .272 hitter vs. right-handers and Tuesday’s starter, Lyons is a lefty (though it is worth noting Monday’s HR came off Kevin Siegrist, a lefty reliever).
"In any sport, your bench players are your bench players for a reason," Gonzalez said. "And I think fans don’t understand that. For example, somebody off the bench goes out and shoots the lights out — ‘the Microwave,’ Vinnie Johnson with the Detroit Pistons … boom, boom, boom, 15 (points) real quick. And then people say, ‘How comes he never starts?’ Well maybe (coach) Chuck Daley knew exactly you handle that player.
"I think coaches don’t get enough credit (for knowing). People say, ‘How come you’re sitting Pena? He had a home run.’ Well, you kind of know you’ve got to match them up, put them in position — I always say, put them in positions where you know they’re going to be successful."
Speculation has been swirling about Uggla’s future playing time, and outings like Pena’s Monday and Uggla’s Tuesday are only going to add further fuel to the fire. The Braves could platoon Pena and Tyler Pastornicky or the promote Tommy La Stella from Triple-A Gwinnett. In his first season above Double A, La Stella is hitting .320/.376/.350 with three doubles and 16 RBI. While he doesn’t possess the same power as Uggla, he provides a contact bat.
That’s something Atlanta has lacked at second base for two-plus seasons, with a collective .206 batting average at the position since ’12 (worst in the majors) and a .254 average on balls in play (second-worst).