Ex-Brave Kelly Johnson thriving with first-place Mets

Kelly Johnson lives in Atlanta and didn’t want to be traded from the Braves even though the team had begun to falter, losing eight of 11 games before a July 24 deal sent him and third baseman Juan Uribe to the Mets for two minor league pitchers.

But it didn’t take long for Johnson to realize he’d landed in a good situation, with a Mets team that was making moves to add to an already talented roster.

“It took all of one day – getting into New York, meeting everybody, seeing what everybody’s about, I realized real quick how good a group they had here,” Johnson said before Sunday’s series finale between the surging, division-leading Mets and the skidding Braves. “Obviously the pitching was good, but, like, the guys that were already here … a lot’s made out of (trades for) Juan, me, Cespy (Yoenis Cespedes) – Cespy more than anything – but the guys who were already here, really just getting that group on the field and healthy has been just as big.

“They had some good players, it was just a matter of getting some more depth, creating some more favorable matchups. Now we rest guys, and with the guys that are playing it’s a great lineup still.”

The Mets were 49-48 and three games behind National League East leader Washington on July 24, before the trade for Johnson and Uribe. They were 32-13 since then and had a commanding 9 ½-game lead over the Nationals entering Sunday.

The trade for Cespedes on July 31 was obviously the Mets’ major-impact move: Before Sunday, Cespedes had 29 extra-base hits, 16 home runs and 41 RBIs in 39 games since the trade, just the second major leaguer since 1920 to collect at least 15 homers and 40 RBIs in his first 40 games with a new team after a midseason trade.

“David (Wright) said it after the game the other day in Washington, people come up and want to know, have you ever seen anything like this?” Johnson said. “Well, yeah, actually I have. Andruw Jones did it, but he just didn’t change teams. But when I got called up in ’05, he had 12 home runs. And he finished with 52. And every one of them (seemed like) tied a game or won a game. Every one. Remember that? We’re losing 1-nothing, Andruw ties it. Tenth inning, Andruw home run.”

Johnson’s memory is impressive, the versatile veteran infielder/outfielder’s math only slightly off a decade later: Jones, the former great Braves center fielder, had 11 home runs on May 29, 2005, the day that Johnson was called up and played his first major league game for the Braves. Jones racked up 40 homers and 99 RBIs in 112 games the rest of the season to finish with career-best, league-leading totals of 51 homers and 128 RBIs, and was the NL MVP runner-up.

“Manny Ramirez, (Carlos) Beltran, Andruw – there’s always these guys that are this talented, and when they step up and do this it’s just, like, you’ve got to enjoy it,” Johnson said. “You don’t want to compare it too much because you’re in the moment, you’re actually getting to witness it. It’s not going to happen many times.”

But while Cespedes has had an emormous impact with the Mets, Johnson and Uribe have also made big contributions and produced plenty of key hits, including Johnson’s game-winning RBI on a ninth-inning single Saturday, after the Braves had tied the score on Adonis Garcia’s three-run homer in the eighth. Or Wednesday at Washington, when Johnson had a pinch-hit, game-tying homer.

Johnson was 17-for-50 (.340) with three homers and eight RBIs in his past 17 games before Sunday, and for the season the 33-year-old was batting .270 with 14 homers, 47 RBIs and a .775 OPS in 308 plate appearances. This after batting just .214 with seven homers, 27 RBIs and a .659 OPS in 297 plate appearances during a career-worst 2014 season with three American League East teams.

It’s been a career-resurgent season for a guy who signed a minor league contract with the Braves in January.

“I give a lot of credit to Seitz, man,” Johnson said, referring to Braves hitting coach Kevin Seitzer. “He really helped. I think if I had to try to pinpoint any issues offensively I’ve had in the last few years, it was trying too hard, trying too much, getting too big (with swing), things like that. And he’s just real good at, like, use the middle of the field, cut down (on your swing). To be honest with you, I end up getting more home runs and extra-base hits just trying to do that, letting it happen rather than forcing it. But just his approach has personally helped me. Maybe it doesn’t help everybody, but it’s helped me.

“(Braves centerfielder Cameron) Maybin and I talked about it a lot, how when we were together we kind of kept each other in check. Because it was like, the less we tried the better we are. That’s a hard thing about this game – you want to try to make something happen. Coming (to the Mets), it took me a month to finally settle down and say, dude, stop trying so hard. It’s hard to relax and not try to force it and make an impression here. You come over from another team and you want to do well, it’s hard to bring that down a notch.”