Dan Johnson, Impossible Hero: Past, Present, and Future

Last week, the Tampa Bay Rays announced they were signing 36-year-old former first baseman Dan Johnson and bringing him to camp as a knuckleball pitcher. Under normal circumstances, this wouldn’t be cause for much more than an “oh, okay” from the fans. 36-year-old position players aren’t necessarily known for the ability to suddenly reinvent themselves as pitchers—not even first basemen, who are often known for their strong arms. Johnson was never a particularly successful first baseman, either–he has a career .234/.335/.405 batting line, and a perfectly average 100 wRC+

Even his name is forgettable. Dan Johnson is perhaps the most generic-white-dude name of all time. Among Rays fans (yes, I’m almost sure it’s appropriate to refer to them in the plural), however, Dan Johnson’s name is one that will never be forgotten.

On the last day of the 2011 season, the Rays trailed the Yankees 7-6 with two outs in the bottom of the ninth. Then-manager Joe Maddon pushed an interesting button, sending Johnson to the plate with absolutely everything on the line. Entering the game, Johnson had a batting line of .108/.178/.157 with one home run. Johnson hadn’t had an at-bat in six days. He hadn’t gotten a hit since April. For the 2011 season, including the final game, Johnson had an fWAR of -0.9. He had cost his team almost a full win in limited playing time up to that moment.

Then he gave it back.

Let’s rewind a bit, though. It was the middle of the eighth inning, and Rays were trailing the Yankees 7-0…

No, let’s rewind a bit further. Heading into Game 162, Tampa Bay and Boston were tied…

Okay, sorry about that. It was September 4th, and I promise we’re done rewinding. The Tampa Bay Rays’ season was, for all intents and purposes, over. They trailed the Red Sox by nine games with just 24 games left to play, an all-but-insurmountable lead. But then Boston lost seven of eight games, while the Rays won seven of eight. That sequence ended with the Rays sweeping the Sox at The Trop, which cut their deficit to just three games. Days later, the Rays took another series from Boston, winning three out of four in Fenway Park, and shrinking Boston’s lead to two.

Okay, we’re back at Game 162. After an improbable month, The Red Sox and Rays entered the evening tied in the standings at 90-71. If one team lost while the other won, the winning team would advance to the playoffs. If both teams either won or lost, they’d go to a winner-take-all Game 163 to determine a Wild Card champion. The Rays were in St. Petersburg hosting the 97-win AL East champion New York Yankees, while Boston was in Baltimore visiting the last-place, 93-loss Orioles. Life’s not always fair.

The Yankees jumped all over the Rays early and often, scoring in four of the first five innings, with a Mark Teixeira grand slam in the second, to build a 7-0 lead. With their own game essentially out of reach, Rays players and fans nervously watched the out-of-town scoreboard as the Red Sox-Orioles game proceeded. After Baltimore took a 2-1 lead in the third inning, the Red Sox scored once in the fourth and and again in the fifth to take the lead back. In the middle of the seventh inning in Baltimore, the skies opened up, and that game came to a halt with Boston ahead 3-2.

That brings us back to bottom of the eighth inning in St. Pete, where the Rays still trailed the Yankees 7-0 with six outs remaining. According to FanGraphs, the Rays had a 0.2 percent chance of winning the game at this point. With many of their starters out, and most of their bullpen burned (Dellin Betances, who was not Shutdown Reliever Dellin Betances, Attorney At Law we know today, started the game, lasting two innings), New York began to unravel: single, double, hit batsman, walk, hit batsman. The Rays scored a pair and had the bases loaded before making an out. After a strikeout and a sacrifice fly made it 7-3 with two outs, Evan Longoria launched a no-doubter to left field to make it a one-run game. The rain intensified in Boston, literally and metaphorically.

Let’s push back ahead to where we started now: with two outs and the bases clear, Maddon brought in the left-handed Johnson to hit for Sam Fuld against Yankees righty Cory Wade. By nearly every statistic we keep, Dan Johnson was the worst hitter in Major League Baseball in 2011. Among players with at least 90 at bats, only Roy Halladay (!) had a lower OPS than Johnson’s .389. There were 469 players with at least 90 at-bats in 2011, and 15 of them played for Tampa Bay. Out of those 15, Johnson was the very last guy you’d want at the plate with the season on the line.

And then, the impossible happened. Down to his last strike, Johnson hooked the sixth pitch of the at-bat around the right-field foul pole to complete perhaps the most unlikely comeback of all time, tying the game at 7-7. 15 minutes later, the physical rain in Boston subsided, and Jonathan Papelbon blew the save on a game-ending single from Robert Andino. Four minutes after that, Longoria hit his second home run of the game, this one a walk-off winner that just crept over the shortened wall in the left-field corner, ending Boston’s season and sending Tampa Bay to the playoffs.

And so we remember Johnson, the journeyman first baseman (and now pitcher, apparently) who has played for five teams in five years. We remember him for a single moment of impossible greatness that turned a disastrous season into a triumph. Johnson was left off the playoff roster that season, and he hasn’t played for Tampa Bay since (though he did return to Tropicana Field with Toronto in 2014). Here’s hoping he finds a way to make it back to the bigs this year, to collect the hero’s welcome he richly deserves.

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Travis Sarandos is a former knuckleball pitcher turned writer. You should follow him on Twitter.

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