ATLANTA — He has been baseball’s most prolific pinch-hitter for the past two seasons, and Reed Johnson hates that he’s still watching from the disabled list as the Braves try to clinch both a division title and home-field advantage for the National League playoffs.
The veteran outfield has been out five weeks with Achilles tendinitis, and this week lingering soreness forced him to stop the daily running he’d done for more than a week as part of his rehab program. He still hopes to be ready to play by late September so he can be ready for the playoffs, but he knows time has become an issue.
“It’s really frustrating,” said Johnson, 36. “It’s at that time of the year where I feel like I want to be a part of this. Definitely want to get myself some at-bats before we move into the playoffs. But at the same time, if I continue to do the same things that I’ve been doing in the past, as far as like irritating it every other day and testing it every day, I feel like I’m going to do that for four weeks and be watching the playoffs from home.”
Despite being out more than a month, Johnson’s 11 pinch hits were tied for second in the majors before Wednesday, and his .355 pinch-hit average led the majors. A year ago, he went 18-for-43 (.455) as a pinch-hitter and had five more pinch-hits than anyone else in baseball.
He has started games at all three outfield positions this season, and hit .327 in 49 at-bats against left-handers. He was 11-for-37 (.297) with a double, a triple and a .350 OBP in his last 16 games before going on the DL.
Johnson hopes a week or so without running will help calm the tendon and allow him to run with at least 70 percent effort, which he figures would be good enough at least for pinch-hitting. He’s continued hitting and throwing without difficulty since going on the DL, but straight-ahead running remains as problematic as it was weeks ago.
Watching from the bench has been difficult, but Johnson has taken one positive from the experience.
“Going through what I’ve been through, I really realized how much I still want to play,” he said. “You know, sometimes players maybe at the end of their career, they go through something like this and they’re like, ‘Oh, that’s it, man I’m sick of dealing with it.’ I look out there at them hitting and throwing and doing all this stuff, and I see a ball go up in the air and I feel like a dog — I just want to, like, go chase after it in the outfield.”
He smiled and continued: “Now I know why when my dog, when his leg’s bothering him or something, he’s like, crazy. He just mopes around the house with his head down like he’s all depressed. That’s how I am right now.
“But I think it’ll be OK. If I can just get it to that point where I can hit, function, it’ll be all right. At this point I’m not trying to take an at-bat and run 30 percent down to first base. If I can give enough to where I feel like it’s enough to get down to first or enough to be standing on second base if I hit a ball in the gap … but I’m not at that point yet.
“The last two days felt really good. That’s the risk you take — the first time I felt really good after I’ve shut it down, I felt really good and thought, I want to test it. And then you’re right back where you were. So I think the smart thing to do is (take a week or so). But as an athlete it’s tough to concede that doing absolutely nothing is the best thing for it. You feel like there’s always something that you can do.”
Kimbrel wins monthly closer award: After pitching 16-1/3 scoreless innings in 16 games and converting all 12 of his August save opportunities, Braves closer Craig Kimbrel was named Major League Baseball’s Delivery Man of the Month. He held opponents to a .138 average for the month, allowing just eight hits and two walks with 19 strikeouts.
He also won the award in August 2011 and September 2012, making him the fifth pitcher to win it at least three times.
Kimbrel leads the majors with 44 saves in 47 opportunities, and has converted 34 consecutive saves during a nearly four-month stretch of 44 appearances in which he’s posted a 0.20 ERA and .138 opponents’ average, allowing one run with 14 walks and 62 strikeouts in 44-1/3 innings.
Freeman nears 100 RBI: Freddie Freeman hit his 19th home run Wednesday, a solo shot that gave him 94 RBI to match the career high he set last season. He needs six to become the first Braves 100-RBI man since Chipper Jones (102) and Jeff Francoeur (105) each did it in 2007. Freeman finished with six homers and 17 RBI in 19 games against the Mets this season, and has career-highs of 12 homers and 43 RBI in 53 games against the Mets.