Being a 29-year-old utility player, out of minor-league options, making barely the major league minimum, and mired in a 1-for-51 slump — that could be stressful. Then add a wife pregnant with twins due to arrive in four months.
That was the situation Elliot Johnson was in this summer with the Kansas City Royals. They cut him Aug. 15 after he made a costly two-base error at third base, leading to two unearned runs and a blown lead in a 5-2 loss.
There were eyebrows raised when the Braves claimed him off waivers Aug. 21, with a .179 average and no hits in his last 31 at-bats. Why add this guy? But a week later, there was Johnson doing a postgame interview on Fox Sports South, after his two-run triple lifted the Braves to a 2-0 win against Cleveland.
And Johnson didn’t just get interviewed. No, he broke out an impromptu, hilarious impersonation of a fast-talking, sponsor-thanking NASCAR driver, as Braves field reporter Tom Hart stood in awe.
His triple and instant-classic interview are indications of how Johnson has fit seamlessly — on the field and in the clubhouse — with his new team amid a pennant race. He’s 9-for-33 (.273) with three doubles, a triple and two stolen bases for the Braves and has played 12 of 13 games since they signed him.
“Switch hitter, can play all around the field,” third baseman Chris Johnson said. “He’s a great piece for a team to have. He’s a great guy in the locker room, too. Funny guy, works hard, great teammate so far.”
When the Braves claimed him, Johnson saw it as a chance for a fresh start. He’s made the most of the opportunities that manager Fredi Gonzalez has given him, starting five games at second base and two in left field.
“Fredi’s used me a lot,” Johnson said, “and fortunately for me I have some versatility, and it’s worked out well where I’m building confidence in his mind that I can play out there if they need me, and that’s what I’m here to do. I’m not going to take Justin (Upton’s) spot in left field; the guy is way too valuable as a hitter, obviously. But if he needs a blow down the stretch, you can throw me out there without having to worry about it being a liability. Same thing with Simba (Andrelton Simmons) at short, C.J. (Chris Johnson) at third, Uggs (Dan Uggla) at second, whatever.”
An Arizona native who grew up in tiny Thatcher (pop. 4,865), Johnson now lives in Raleigh, N.C., with his wife, Nicole, and 3-year-old son, Blake. They were together during a homestand that ended Wednesday, then went back to North Carolina on the team’s off-day Thursday to work on their house in preparation for the twins’ arrival in November.
Johnson has quickly gone from being released to being a solid bench piece for a team closing in on its first division title since 2005. Not bad for a former undrafted free agent who has a .215 career average and 12 home runs in 671 at-bats.
He spent six full seasons in the minors with the Rays before getting a sniff of the majors in 2008, when he played seven April games at four positions. He didn’t get back to the big leagues again until 2011. Yes, he’s paid his dues.
He came up as a shortstop with the Rays, but moved to second because they had a top shortstop prospect: B.J. Upton.
Johnson saw his first significant playing time for the 2012 Rays, batting .242 with 18 extra-base hits and 18 steals in 331 plate appearances at four positions, including 68 starts at shortstop. Then he was traded on the first day of spring training, as the player to be named in a seven-player December deal that sent James Shields to Kansas City and Wil Myers to the Rays.
Although he struggled mightily in his last eight weeks with the Royals, his skid was preceded by a 36-game stretch when he hit .277 and was 10-for-10 in stolen bases over 36 games. Gonzalez called Royals manager Ned Yost, a former Braves third-base coach, who told him he would be surprised by Johnson’s ability and versatility.
“He’s a baseball player,” Gonzalez said. “He’s not going to light you up, but he’s going to do the steady things. He can run the bases, he’s heads-up, he has awareness of what’s going on around him.”