Johnson could come through in pinch for Rays

Published Mar. 29, 2012 5:55 p.m. ET

CLEARWATER — The Tampa Bay Rays suddenly find themselves in a pinch.

Center fielder B.J. Upton will start the regular season on the disabled list with lingering back tightness from his collision with left fielder Desmond Jennings two weeks ago.

Backup outfielder Sam Fuld is in Cleveland getting medical opinions on his injured wrist, facing possible surgery next week that could keep him out of action for several months.

And shortstop Reid Brignac, competing for the No. 1 job with Sean Rodriguez, has been fighting through a painful foot condition.

What that all adds up to is a pinch-me moment for Elliot Johnson.

The perennial backup utility man, who entered camp with uncertain prospects of making the club, is not only looking at a spot on the final roster now, he could well plug holes in the starting lineup during the season-opening series against the Yankees next weekend.

Johnson’s situation could easily be summed by John Fogerty’s classic hit "Centerfield" and the song’s signature refrain: “Put me in coach, I’m ready to play.” In fact, the 28-year-old switch-hitter has been seeing some action in center with Upton out. And that could be one of the spots he temporarily mans come April, his misplay of a ball Wednesday night against Pittsburgh notwithstanding.

Johnson might get some playing time at shortstop depending on Brignac’s status. Or he could play some at second base, as he did Thursday afternoon as a starter in Tampa Bay’s 2-1 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies.

The encouraging development for Johnson, a longtime Tampa Bay minor leaguer, is that he’s been swinging the bat better lately, the part of his game that has undermined his big league role with the Rays. Johnson homered to center in a 10-4 win over Minnesota on Tuesday and collected two hits, including a double and two RBI, in a 6-4 win over the Pirates on Wednesday. He added a double in three at bats Thursday at Bright House Field — for a .333 clip (4 for 12) in his past four games.

That’s a welcome turn of events for a guy who hit .194 (31 for 180) last year in his first full season with the Rays, with a splash of power evidenced by his four homers, two triples and seven doubles. How much Johnson will actually wind up in the lineup remains to be seen, but his versatility and perseverance has put him in position to contribute.

“That’s part of my job description,” he said Thursday. “All these injuries are popping up. So that’s what I’m here for. It’s the luxury of being able to play all these other positions. It makes the job of the skipper easier when he can slide people in and out and have a guy who can play multiple spots on a short-term basis until [the starters] get back. That’s my job. And whatever opportunity comes up, I want to make the most of it.”

The Arizona native has been doing his best to impress Rays’ brass for years. He’s been in the organization for 11 years, second only to ace righty James Shields. Upton was drafted before Johnson, “but I signed before B.J. did, so I like to hold that over him.”

As a minor leaguer for most of his tenure, Johnson has certainly had his moments to shine. In 2006, his fourth season in the farm system, he hit .281 for Class AA Montgomery with 15 homers, 21 doubles, 10 triples. Two years later, Johnson batted .261 for Class AAA Durham with 28 doubles, five triples and nine homers. And in 2010, he batted .319 with 24 doubles, five triples and 11 homers. That success, coupled with his solid glove defensively, continued last spring training when Johnson finished with a .341 batting average (14 for 41 with two doubles and a homer). And that performance earned him a spot on the Rays’ Opening Day roster.

After a slow start in April, Johnson hit his first major league homer May 15 during a month in which he batted .286 (10 for 35) and seemed to be getting in a groove. But a sprained knee late in the month landed him on the DL for almost three weeks, and he struggled offensively the rest of the season, spending most of it well below the Mendoza Line.

“I got comfortable for a little while last year,” he said. “Joe was giving me more regular playing time and I played well during most of it, but then got injured and I just didn’t seem to have it like I did before. You’ve got to try and figure it out as quickly as you can, otherwise you’re not going to get as many opportunities.”

Johnson could be figuring some things out at an opportune time, with the prospect of increased playing time on the horizon.

“I’m swinging the bat much better lately, on the left side especially,” he said. “Things are really coming around the last week or so. Hopefully I’ll be able to keep it going.”

Manager Joe Maddon is glad to have Johnson’s versatility as part of the mix but knows Johnson has to improve offensively for his long-term security.

“The thing with Elliot is that we’re just trying to get him to be offensively a little bit more contact-oriented as the count gets deeper,” Maddon said. “You saw the home run he hit the other day in Fort Myers. He takes a two-strike pitch and puts a bullet over the left fielder’s head. He’s got power. To me, he’s in that category of hitters who have enough power to make them not as good a hitter as they can be. Because he’s always searching for the wall. Whereas when the count gets deeper, I’d like to see guys make adjustments.

“As he gets to be a more mature hitter, he’s going to learn that concept. That’s going to be make him a more valuable Major League Baseball player. And that’s going to make him more employable throughout the industry. That’s what I want our guys to understand. Of course, I want them to be here and do things for us first. … But I want them to be Major League Baseball players for many years to come.”

Johnson knows that his offense needs to improve.

“It’s more of a consistency with a bat issue,” he said. “B.J. was in the big leagues at 19 because he could really hit. I wasn’t at the big-league level until I was 24 because I struggled to hit. That’s always been the issue. Hitting’s hard, and I understand that. It’s just a matter of making a few small adjustments and putting the ball in play a little bit more — and I could be one of the guys who could sneak up on some people.”

Meanwhile, Johnson is doing his best to fine-tune his play in center if he’s called upon when the season starts, though that job could fall to Jennings with Upton out.

"I’m getting better all the time,” he said. “I’m trying to get a feel for the position. There’s a lot of space out there, so I’m trying to make sure I’m in the right place, but if they’re not yelling at me, I’m assuming I’m in the right place.”

The one thing Johnson doesn’t have to work on whatsoever is his impersonation of ESPN baseball analyst Tim Kurkjian. He was interviewed alongside Kurkjian and fellow analyst John Kruk and delivered a dead-on imitation, leaving Kruk in stitches and creating an instant YouTube hit.

Now all Johnson wants to do is keep hits of the other variety coming.

NOTES: Rays starter Jeremy Hellickson pitched his best game of a rocky spring, going six innings with seven hits and allowing one run, a fifth-inning homer by catcher Brian Schneider. It was just the kind of performance Hellickson wanted with the regular season approaching. “It’s nice to go out there and pitch like you feel, so it was good,” he said. Hellickson said he approached it more like a regular-season game than a spring training contest: “I’ve been working on some things the last few starts and stuck to more of my fastball-changeup this game. …  Also I just think I threw more strikes today.”

… Jennings, bothered recently by a sore shoulder, drilled a double off the wall in center and stole third. More important, he said he felt good throughout. “My body felt good, my arm felt good,” he said. “I felt like I was more into the game (than in) the DH spot.” Though he didn’t test his throwing arm, Jennings stressed, “It was no problem at all.”

… Brignac made a nice diving stop of a grounder to his left in the ninth and said he felt no foot pain during his brief stint. “I moved around well and had no issues at all. … I didn’t necessarily feel it at all today. Maybe just a little when I was getting loose.”

… Maddon went with an unconventional infield alignment in the bottom of the ninth, bringing DH Jeff Keppinger in as a fifth infielder – positioning him in between first baseman Carlos Pena and Will Rhymes (standing by second). But Hector Luna’s hard grounder went between Pena and Keppinger for the winning single off Ryan Reid. “For a righthanded hitter to slice it like he did, that’s a very unusual way for a righty to hit the ball,” Maddon said. “But he got it done. … We work on these things, so if it’s going to pop up, we might as well do it.” Keppinger raced from the bench and into the clubhouse to grab his glove, then sprinted to his spot in the field. “You’ve got to get them out there very quickly,” Maddon added. “Joyce was already coming in (from left) – he saw me walking out to talk to the umpire. So I’m glad everybody knew what to do.”