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Reed Johnson’s hot bat makes impression

The Cubs' Aramis Ramirez left Reed Johnsare congratulated by Carlos Penright after Ramirez hit two-run home run seventh inning Wrigley

The Cubs' Aramis Ramirez, left, and Reed Johnson are congratulated by Carlos Pena, right, after Ramirez hit a two-run home run in the seventh inning at Wrigley Field Thursday, August 11, 2011, in Chicago. | John J. Kim~Sun-Times

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Updated: November 16, 2011 1:24AM

Short of a complete overhaul that’s unrealistic, if not impossible, two of the biggest potential keys to a quick Cub transition back to respectability could be two of the biggest contributors over the past week or two:

Pitching and Reed Johnson.

Bolstering a pitching staff that suddenly is outperforming all but three teams in the National League this month is the obvious first step in any improvement next season – if not the first three steps.

And Johnson?

He’s the exit plan, insurance policy and prototype example for young players all rolled into one. Not to mention a .349 hitter after seven combined hits in victories over the Washington Nationals the past two games.

“Reed has been just amazing for us the whole year,’’ teammate Carlos Pena said after the Cubs finished off their third consecutive series win by beating the Nationals 4-3 Thursday. “He’s one of those guys you always want on your team, always hustling, always playing hard, running the bases hard, playing with a lot of aggressiveness and enthusiasm.’’

If Johnson’s value as a versatile, fourth outfielder has looked impressive the past week and a half as the Cubs ran off nine victories in 11 games, he might be even more valuable in a transitioning outfield next spring — especially if continued efforts to move the final three years of left fielder Alfonso Soriano’s contract are successful.

Johnson, who’s 11-for-21 (.524) in five starts — all Cub wins — since returning from back stiffness during the last road trip, could be a significant bridge piece, considering that would leave Marlon Byrd as the only reliable returning ­outfielder.

Byrd and Johnson could play important roles in grooming outfield prospects such as Brett Jackson, if not in helping Tyler Colvin get back on track.

Johnson, whose two-out single in the seventh Thursday set the stage for game-changing back-to-back homers for Aramis Ramirez and Pena, returned to the Cubs ­after a one-year absence on a ­minor-league deal and spring training invite.

He said he hasn’t talked to the team yet about a possible return.

But, he added, “Coming back for me would be a priority. Obviously, last year my choices were limited. I was on some minor-league deals [including with the Dodgers in 2010].

“Hopefully, this year will be a little bit different from an interest level. You never know.’’

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