02/03/12 2:55 PM EST
Ex-Rays hero Johnson signs with White Sox
Clutch first baseman gets Minor League deal from Chicago
By Bill Chastain / MLB.com
While Johnson never produced for Tampa Bay the way he had hoped, he did manage to show his best in the clutch while with the team.
With the Rays trailing the Yankees by a run on the final day of the regular season, the pinch-hitting Johnson hit a game-tying blast with two strikes off Cory Wade to send the game to extra innings. And the rest was history, as Tampa Bay went on to win, 8-7, to earn the American League Wild Card.
Johnson also came through during the 2008 season. On Sept. 9, 2008, the day he was selected from Triple-A Durham, he hit a game-tying pinch-hit home run at Fenway Park off Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon. Prior to that at-bat, Johnson was 0-for-15 as a pinch-hitter.
"That's exactly what I remember most about being with the Rays, the real good times: in 2008, being called up and the first year making a run at the playoffs, then 2010 and 2011, both times getting to the playoffs," Johnson said. "In the three years with the Rays, all three years [we] made it to the playoffs. That's great."
Johnson, 32, said he could have signed with several other teams, but he felt like the White Sox gave him his best opportunity.
"I sure hope so, anyway," Johnson said. "Obviously after last year, I have to prove that I'm healthy enough to play. Not being able to perform even at Triple-A is rough, so I have to go out there and prove that I'm healthy and that I can compete."
Johnson had a monster season at Durham in 2010, hitting 30 home runs with 95 RBIs and 75 walks in 98 games for the Bulls, which earned him International League Most Valuable Player honors. He then played in 40 games for the Rays and hit seven home runs with 23 RBIs. Johnson parlayed that success into becoming Tampa Bay's Opening Day first baseman in 2011.
Unfortunately for Johnson, he struggled, hitting .115 in 25 games before getting designated for assignment. According to Johnson, the root of those struggles stemmed from an early season injury to his left wrist.
"It happened two weeks into the season," Johnson said. "I got hit on the wrist. It damaged the nerve in the wrist, so I didn't really have control in three of my fingers. The problem was holding onto the bat. I wasn't able to hold onto the bat to continue my swing through."
Johnson said his wrist now feels good.
"It's been getting better throughout the offseason," Johnson said. "[It's Feb. 1] and I'm taking some pretty good swings now, so I'm pretty confident that's going to hold up."
Johnson hit .119 with two home runs and four RBIs for the Rays in 2011. In three seasons with Tampa Bay, he hit .168 with 11 home runs and 31 RBIs in 259 plate appearances.
A seventh-round pick in the 2001 First-Year Player Draft by Oakland, Johnson debuted with the A's in '05. In parts of six seasons, he hit .235 with 53 home runs and 188 RBIs.
While Johnson is frustrated about not being able to make the most of his opportunity in 2011, he is hopeful about his future.
"It's kind of hard not to look back at the opportunity I had, at what might have happened batting cleanup for such a good team, from one month to the next, not being able to compete then going down to the Minor Leagues and trying to figure out a new way to hit to just survive," said Johnson. "It's tough to swallow, having such a great opportunity and not knowing what might have been. It's something I couldn't really control though."
Johnson has endured some hard luck throughout his career. He once got sidelined after a freak injury that saw him squirt sunscreen in his eye, and he had a sinus infection that led to his missing most of Spring Training with Oakland in 2008 and eventually led to him not earning a spot on the team. So if anybody is due some good luck, it's Johnson.
"That's what I'm hoping, that I can stay healthy and not have something freaky happen," Johnson said. "I went through this offseason healthy, so I guess that's a positive. Hopefully [I] go through Spring Training healthy and show that I'm able to go, prove that my wrist is ready and go out and make the team."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.