The ultimate utility player

Saints slugger Dan Johnson trying to reinvent himself as a knuckleball pitcher for possible return to majors

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His resumé jumps off the page in much the same way the ball still jumps off his powerful bat.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 18/08/2016 (2361 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

His resumé jumps off the page in much the same way the ball still jumps off his powerful bat.

Nearly 2,000 professional games with 347 home runs and 1,250 RBI. More than 440 of those spread over 10 seasons with six different Major League Baseball teams. Fifty-seven MLB home runs — including one fans of the Tampa Bay Rays will never forget — and 203 RBI. A two-time most valuable player in Triple-A.

It’s impressive stuff. So just what the heck is Dan Johnson doing playing for the St. Paul Saints of the American Association these days?

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Dan Johnson has been wielding a potent bat for the Saints, but he’ll be pitching today when they close out a series with the Goldeyes.

“I’m here to pitch,” said the 37-year-old Johnson during batting practice Wednesday at Shaw Park. Your first instinct might be to laugh, considering Johnson has carved out a career as a slugging first basemen and had just launched two into orbit the previous night during a doubleheader with the Winnipeg Goldeyes.

But Johnson is serious. He’s come to independent baseball to work on reinventing himself as a knuckleball pitcher with the hopes of extending his career.

“It’s been interesting. Learning how to pitch is crazy. The delivery, how to control the game. I’ve had a lot of ups and downs and learn something new every time I go up there. I’m just starting now to get a bit of a grasp,” said Johnson.

Johnson has made six starts so far with the Saints since joining the team earlier this summer. He’s 4-2 with a 3.41 ERA. He’ll make his next start today in the series finale against the Goldeyes.

When he’s not trying to keep opposing batters in check, Johnson is still doing plenty of damage at the plate. He began the day Wednesday hitting .292 with five home runs and 12 RBI in just 13 games.

George Tsamis, the longtime manager of the Saints, said he’s never seen another player quite like Johnson. Or another situation where he can count on a player as both a big-time slugger and shut-down pitcher.

“He’s been a great story for us. It’s been a crazy-different situation,” Tsamis said Wednesday.

Johnson spent the 2014 season with the Toronto Blue Jays, and last year with the St. Louis Cardinals. He’d been toying with the idea of converting to a pitcher since a 2013 stint with the New York Yankees.

“They told me I kind of need to take it seriously. But I was still hitting, still producing so I kind of put it on the backburner,” said Johnson. That changed this past winter when he got an invite to spring training with the Tampa Bay Rays in an attempt to make their team in the bullpen.

But the dream died — for now — when Johnson got injured just five days into camp and was told he’d need to shut it down until at least June. That’s when the idea of going to play independent baseball for his hometown St. Paul Saints began to make perfect sense for the Minnesota native.

“He came in and only wanted to be a pitcher, he didn’t want to hit. My exact words to him were ‘If you’re good, you’ll stay. If not, you’re out,’ ” Tsamis said.

Plans changed when the Saints best hitter, Angelo Songco, hurt his shoulder at the end of July and was placed on the 30-day injured list. Tsamis suddenly had an opening he needed to fill in his lineup. Johnson agreed to do it — so long as he could continue to pitch every fifth day as a starter.

His dual-role took on even more importance last week when Saints pitcher John Straka had his contract purchased by the Toronto Blue Jays organization. Straka was one of the top hurlers in the league with a 10-3 record and 4.48 ERA.

“He’s here to pitch, that’s his thing, but he’s such a great team guy he will do whatever is needed,” said Tsamis. “He’s come up with some pretty big hits for us.”

Johnson said it’s been a perfect fit for him, allowing him to work on his pitching, still get his “rips” in at the plate and also be a mentor to many young players on the Saints.

“I’m almost like another coach. Players can come to be for advice. I’ll help anybody, give them the best advice I can,” he said.

Johnson said he could have continued toiling on the fringe of a full-time MLB job as a hitter but instead chose to try and add another valuable tool to his arsenal, which would make him the ultimate utility player.

“I’m trying to work my way back to the big leagues, maybe extend my career by three, four, five years,” he said. “It just takes time. I feel like I keep making steps towards it, getting comfortable to the point where I’m dictating what’s going on.”

Johnson’s career highlight is what has endeared him to Florida baseball fans. He hit a two-out, two-strike home run for the Tampa Bay Rays in the bottom of the ninth inning of the last game of the 2011 season. The blast tied the game, which Tampa went on to win and sneak into the playoffs.

Johnson is now hoping he has another MLB accomplishment to eventually add to his resumé.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Sports columnist

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

History

Updated on Thursday, August 18, 2016 7:37 AM CDT: Photo added.

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