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Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Mr. September helps Sox reduce their magic number

Posted by on 09.25.12 at 01:27 PM

Dan Johnson at spring training in February
  • Tom Cruze/Sun-Times Media
  • Dan Johnson at spring training in February
If you ask White Sox fans who was responsible for the team's big win over Cleveland last night on the south side, few of them would say Dan Johnson.

Adam Dunn certainly did the heavy lifting. His solo shot in the sixth sailed well over the center-field wall, pulling the Sox within a run. The Indians were still up 3-2 in the eighth when Dunn came to the plate again, with two on and two out. He fell behind 0-2, then sent a fastball soaring over the Patio sign in right-center. The Sox survived a nervous ninth to prevail, 5-4.

It was a very Dunnish night for the slugger: two Ks and two HRs; no fielders necessary for his at bats other than the pitcher and catcher.

Johnson's line in the box score: no hits, no official at bats, no runs scored, none batted in. But it's the little things that make the big things possible. It was Johnson's unofficial at bat that gave Dunn a chance to be the hero in the eighth.

I was glad I got to see the comeback win in person. On the spur of the moment at the Merchandise Mart el stop after work yesterday, I chose to head south to the ballpark instead of north to home.

It wasn't an easy decision. The evening was clear, with temperatures in the mid-60s. Like most Sox fans, I prefer 72 to 74 degrees. The Sox were one game up on the Tigers for the Central title with ten to play; I thought maybe I should wait until the race got a little closer. Since it was Monday, tickets were half price, which is half more than I like to pay. In spite of all that, I went.

I bought a bleachers ticket, which got me into the lower deck, but I sat in the "premium" infield boxes. Poor attendance has an upside for the frugal Sox fan (pardon the redundancy): it makes sneaking up easy. By the pivotal eighth, I was in row 11 of box 136, which is near the Sox on-deck circle. It's also near where the mayor of Chicago sits when the mayor of Chicago is a south-sider who prefers baseball to ballet.

Alexei Ramirez started the eighth with a feeble fly to center. Manager Robin Ventura then sent Johnson in to hit for Gordon Beckham, who's been struggling recently.

Johnson is a left-handed hitter with a fluid, powerful stroke. The 33-year-old first baseman has had a distinguished career with the Vancouver Canadians, Modesto A's, Midland Rockhounds, Sacramento River Cats, Durham Bulls, Yokohama Bay Stars, and the Charlotte Knights. But unlike Bull Durham's Crash Davis, he's also enjoyed some big-league moments, including a celebrated one last September.

Johnson had spent most of 2011 in the minors, but Tampa Bay had called him up in September. On September 28, the last day of the regular season, the Rays were tied with the Red Sox for the wild-card spot. They were down a run in the ninth with two outs and the bases empty when Johnson was sent up to pinch hit. With two strikes, he drove a pitch off the foul pole in Tropicana Field to tie the game. The Rays went on to win in extra innings. His last big-league hit before the homer had been five months earlier.

The Rays released him over the winter, and the Sox picked him up. Playing for Triple-A Charlotte, he led the International League in homers with 28. Johnson also knows how to work a pitcher—he had 94 bases on balls this year.

The Sox called him up September 1, and he got a hit that day—his first in the majors since the momentous homer for the Rays. He's done well off the bench this month for the Sox—five for 14 (.357), with four bases on balls before yesterday.

In the eighth last night, Johnson faced right-hander Vinnie Pestano. He took a strike, then took a ball. He pulled two hard fouls to the right side. He took two more balls, and fouled another off. And another. Then he took ball four, and trotted to first. Jordan Danks came out to run for him, and Johnson trotted to the dugout.

Alejandro De Aza grounded out—which would have been the third out if Johnson hadn't reached. Kevin Youkilis singled off the third baseman's glove, and then Dunn brought Sox fans roaring to their feet with his game-winning drive.

So the magic number has been cut from ten to nine. And Dan Johnson, at least, knows he had something to do with it.

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