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Johnson could be Dan the 25th man for Sox

Dan JohnsB.J. Upton

Dan Johnson, B.J. Upton

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Updated: April 10, 2012 11:06AM

TEMPE, Ariz. — Dan Johnson knows the highs of hitting dramatic home runs. He knows the lows of playing hurt and being let go by a team for whom he was a hero.

As he battles for a spot on the White Sox’ 25-man roster, he’ll settle for a place in the middle.

Signed to a minor-league contract with an invitation to spring training, Johnson was last seen hitting a home run for the Tampa Bay Rays in the ninth inning against the New York Yankees on what many are calling the greatest night in baseball history.

That homer, on a two-out, two-strike pitch on the last day of the regular season, capped a Rays comeback from a 7-0 deficit. Evan Longoria homered in the 12th, and the Rays’ victory, coupled with the Boston Red Sox’ loss to the Baltimore Orioles, clinched the American League wild card for the Rays, who were nine games behind in the wild-card standings in September.

The left-handed-hitting Johnson had one other home run in 2011, a three-run blast against Matt Thornton to cap a big comeback. In between, he hit 13 homers, but they were for the Class AAA Durham Bulls as Johnson was battling his way back from wrist nerve damage, the result of getting hit by a pitch.

“Second week of the season, I took a 96 [mph fastball] right off the wrist,’’ Johnson said. “Because of the nerve damage, I was unable to control grip strength in the left hand. It was a long year trying to play.’’

A hockey player in college, the Coon Rapids, Minn., native did what hockey players do — play through it. He walked to the plate knowing he had one good swing to make because of the pain.

“I was playing handicapped essentially, making one-handed swings,’’ he said. “I became a slap guy, aiming where I was hitting it rather than being aggressive. It was tough, going from being a cleanup batter behind Longoria or Manny Ramirez to within a month you’re pretty much on the shelf, not worth anything. It was hard to swallow.’’

So was being designated for assignment to Durham after the season. Johnson declined it and is taking a shot with the Sox, who might have room for him as a 25th man. He’s primarily a first baseman but can also play third and some outfield. His bat would be valuable off the bench.

So far, so good in trying to make an impression. Johnson hit a home run in the ninth inning of the Sox’ Cactus League opening loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers. He singled in two at-bats in the Los Angeles Angels’ 6-2 win Tuesday.

“Being a power guy and coming in later in the game, if that’s what my role would be, doing the home runs late, that’s my thing,’’ said Johnson, whose flair for dramatic home runs includes a ninth-inning shot against the Red Sox’ Jonathan Papelbon in September 2008 that sparked a comeback that kept the Rays in first place. “I’m not afraid to get up there in those situations. If it can help the team win, I’m all for it. That’s how my career is going right now. I have to go out there and prove I’m healthy and show them I can do it.

“I’m trying to get the confidence back to where I feel like I’m on the right path.’’

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