Kelly Johnson signed a minor league contract in late January and reported to Braves spring training as a non-roster invitee coming off his worst season, with perhaps a 50-50 chance of making the opening-day roster.
Five months later, the versatile veteran was batting .282 with the second-most home runs (nine) and second-highest slugging percentage (.466) on the team, trailing only injured Freddie Freeman (12, .520) in both categories before Saturday night’s game against the Cubs.
Johnson hit .400 (12-for-30) with three homers and 12 RBIs in his past 10 games, including two key hits in Friday’s 4-2 win against the Cubs, when he singled to drive in a run in the first inning and doubled and scored the go-ahead run in the eighth.
“It’s been a good year,” said the amiable Texas native, an original Brave and one of the best of the “Baby Braves” rookies of 2005. He played in six other organizations during the five seasons between his departure from the Braves after the 2009 season and his return this spring.
Johnson, 33, has six seasons with 16 or more homers, and hit .284 with 26 homers and an .865 OPS with Arizona in 2010. But he had a meager .215 average with a .296 OBP and seven homers in 297 plate appearances in 20014 with the Yankees, Red Sox and Orioles.
He gives a lot of credit to Braves hitting coach Kevin Seitzer for helping revive his career.
“I got off to a good start in the spring,” Johnson said, “just having Seitz get with me and working on approach, shortening my swing and things like that. And it’s paying off. Just trying to stick to that routine of getting ready and doing the things that we work on.”
The Braves would not like to think where they’d be without Johnson, 33, who has started 45 games at five positions – including 13 at first base in place of Freeman — and one at designated hitter. This despite missing four weeks during May and June with a strained oblique, an injury that occurred soon after he had begun to sizzle at the plate.
“He’s been terrific,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “It’s a nice piece to have that we didn’t expect to have come spring training. We knew what kind of character and what kind of person Kelly Johnson was, but to come up with some big hits, it’s nice. Good for us.”
Johnson hit .345 (19-for-55) with a .393 OBP and .527 slugging percentage in his past 20 games before Saturday, and had .301 average with 16 RBIs and a .340 OBP in 31 games since returning from the disabled list June 10. More than half (24) of his starts have come in left field, but he’s also made six starts at third base, two in right field, and played some at second base.
“We feel comfortable (with him at several positions),” Gonzalez said. “He plays left field, he can play third, he can play first base. And he’s filled in and done a nice job. Him and Chris Johnson platooning over there at first base — I don’t know exactly what their numbers are, but they’ve given us nice production at first base. And (Freddie) Freeman’s been out almost a month.”
Johnson is one of the seasoned veterans who’ve provided plenty of leadership for the many younger Braves this season, and been an upbeat presence in the clubhouse even when the team has struggled at times.
After the Braves snapped a five-game skid Friday, Johnson was asked if they still had the same goal of making the postseason that they had before being swept in a four-game series at Colorado just before the break.
“Why not? It’s still within reach,” he said. “Our division, nobody’s really pulling away. As we’ve seen in the past, it takes good stretches. You get hot when the teams in front of you don’t, you never know. There’s still so much baseball to be played.”