ST. PETERSBURG, FLA. - Dan Johnson to the rescue.
One of the unheralded contributors in Tampa Bay’s drive to the AL pennant two years ago is at again, hitting game-winning homers and helping the Rays make a push for another division title.
Johnson smacked a pair of two-run homers Wednesday, lifting the Rays to a 4-3 victory over the New York Yankees and back into first place in the AL East.
“My goodness,” Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon said. “This guy does nothing but get big hits.”
The teams with baseball’s top two records flip-flopped positions in the standings for the third straight night. The first two games of the important series went extra innings, with the Rays winning 1-0 on Monday and the Yankees regaining the division lead by a half-game with an 8-7 win on Tuesday.
The finale was filled with plenty of drama, too, even though the teams are far from finished. They’ll play four more games in New York next week. Tampa Bay holds an 8-6 edge in the season series.
“This is about as close to a playoff atmosphere as you can get without actually being in the playoffs,” said Johnson, who also drove in the winning runs in two victories over Boston last month, including a 10th-inning walk-off homer Aug. 28.
Two years ago, he hit a game-tying, ninth-inning pinch-hit homer off Jonathan Papelbon at Fenway Park just hours after being called up from the minors.
Johnson’s four RBI on Wednesday tied a career-best for the former Oakland prospect, and nine of his past 10 RBI have come with the score tied or the Rays trailing by one.
Both of the homers came off Phil Hughes (16-8), who retired two of Tampa Bay’s most dangerous hitters — Carl Crawford and Evan Longoria — before giving up a two-out single to Matt Joyce and Johnson’s winning homer in the seventh.