Durham slugger makes his case

Staff WriterJune 28, 2010 

— Durham Bulls infielder Dan Johnson has made his best case that he belongs in the big leagues this season.

He's tied for the International League lead in homers with 18, leads the league in RBIs with 63 and is batting .302.

Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo said Johnson's the best hitter on the team.

"Right now, he's put himself into a position where if they need somebody, they're thinking about him," Montoyo added. "He's doing what it takes. That's all you can ask from these guys. Do what it takes, so if they need somebody, it's you."

But, so far, it hasn't been him.

"It's all about luck in Triple-A," said Montoyo, a reality that is not lost on Johnson, who signed with the Tampa Bay Rays this offseason, two months before the club signed Hank Blalock. "It's all about timing. It's just luck."

Blalock was promoted to Tampa over Johnson back in May. And the Minnesota native was passed over again in recent weeks after Jason Bartlett went on the disabled list. It made sense to instead bring up catcher Kelly Shoppach, who was with the Bulls on a rehab assignment.

Both times, Johnson's name came up in media reports. Johnson said he does his best to ignore such talk.

"You can't worry about it," Johnson said. "Nobody makes the decision except for our front office. ... You go about your business. The only thing that you can control is what you do, and if you start worrying about other things like that, then it's going to play mind games."

Johnson wants back in the big leagues. Any minor leaguer does, but Johnson has 328 games of major league experience over four seasons. Most of that was with the Oakland Athletics, who drafted him in 2001.

In 2008, the Rays picked him up off waivers, but he spent most of that season in Durham, where he had a .307 batting average in 110 games.

That led to the most memorable promotion of his career.

Montoyo called Johnson early and woke him up on Sept. 9, 2008, at a hotel in Scranton, Pa., where the Bulls were waiting to play in the Governors' Cup Finals.

"He's like, 'Hey, this is your favorite manager,' " Johnson recalled. "I'm like, 'You better have good news calling me this early.' "

Johnson fought through flight delays and arrived at Fenway Park, where the Rays were playing the Boston Red Sox, in time to hit a game-tying, pinch-hit homer off of Jonathan Papelbon in his first at-bat.

"It was a completely messed-up day to get there," Johnson said. "Then I had the biggest hit in my career."

The Rays went on to the World Series that year, but Johnson saw action in only 10 games, none in the postseason.

Playing in Japan

So, for financial reasons, he set out for Japan, where played with the Yokohama BayStars last season.

"I was going to fall short again of actually being able to make some money," said Johnson, who is married and the father of two young boys. "It was a decision I had to make for myself and for my family."

But while he enjoyed life off the field in Japan, he had a rough time on the field, specifically with the strike zone, which was rarely in his favor, he said.

"It was really big," Johnson said. "I was watching the game and was watching everybody else have a normal strike zone. And then I'd step up and it would be over my head, strike one. Ball in the dirt, strike two. Throw it directly at me, strike. Every time it was a strike."

He hit .215 with 24 home runs and 57 RBIs. He struck out 78 times in 325 at-bats, a ratio higher than in any of his four major league seasons.

He couldn't take another season of that, and while his agent was talking with other major league clubs this offseason, Johnson said, Tampa popped in near the end of negotiations and matched the other offers. He was expecting to play for the Rays this season, though.

"I wouldn't have signed to go play in the minor leagues," Johnson said.

But Johnson said the bad experience in Japan has made it easy to have a positive outlook, and his attitude hasn't gone unnoticed.

When he wound up in Durham in 2008, he wasn't happy about losing his job in Oakland while injured.

But, "Japan was worse."

Montoyo, a manager who makes an effort to see that everybody plays, has put Johnson mostly at third base this season, though he was drafted by the Oakland A's as a first baseman. It makes him more versatile.

"He's played well at third base," Montoyo said. "I just do stuff to help the kids. So I put them wherever I can get them to play so he can get a job with somebody else, if it's not here. Of course, I want him to get a job with us."

It might have to come that way, with another club, now that Rays first baseman Carlos Pena appears to be shaking a nasty slump. While Johnson doesn't dwell on what his major league employer might be thinking at a given time, he said he wouldn't be playing if he didn't believe he was ready.

"I take every at-bat seriously," Johnson said. "I take every play seriously. I don't have that screw where I can let it go. I don't have that in me. I have to play this game this way."

He'll be on his toes, if the call comes.

"I can be ready in 10 minutes," he said. "If I get the call, I'm packed. I'm gone. It's like a fire drill. You pack your car and you're gone."

javier.serna@newsobserver.com or 919-836-4953

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