Johnson solidifies his spot in the lineup

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - Kelly Johnson is again just going by Kelly Johnson these days, not the Kelly Johnson Experiment.

Atlanta Braves infielder Kelly Johnson signs autographs for fans. Johnson cemented his place as the team's leadoff hitter and at second base after a strong spring training.  Associated Press
Associated Press
Atlanta Braves infielder Kelly Johnson signs autographs for fans. Johnson cemented his place as the team's leadoff hitter and at second base after a strong spring training.

No, the laboratory is closed on the former left fielder and minor league shortstop's conversion into the Atlanta Braves' starting second baseman.

He passed.

"Moving to a new position," manager Bobby Cox said this week. "Kelly's been exceptionally great."

Cox said when he's watched the infield this spring, he hasn't even noticed Johnson as anything other than a right-side infielder. He hasn't thought that he's some half-hearted stand-in for Marcus Giles, released in December by the Braves.

Cox can't even recall Johnson's only error of the spring, a failed scoop to first all the way back on March 8. ("You guys told me about it," he said to a group of writers Tuesday.)

Johnson successfully made the same play that inning and then turned his first double play of the spring an inning later.

His quickly turned third-to-second-to-first double play Saturday in Lakeland earned high marks from Cox, who called it one of the best turns he's seen since the 1980s. The best, Cox said, since Johnson's mentor, Glenn Hubbard, was getting rid of the ball rapidly and accurately for the Braves.

"I think there's a lot of pressure on him," said Hubbard, now Atlanta's first base coach. "I mean, Marcus was an All-Star second baseman and had become a very good second baseman. He knew all eyes were going to be on him down here. But he was up for it. He was ready for it."

He was ready for it, in large part, because of Hubbard.

As Johnson, 25, returned from Tommy John elbow surgery, he began toying with the idea of second base.

The Braves had talked with him some about moving there before surgery, and that made him wonder if there would soon be an opening at the position. Turns out, because they planned to trade or release Giles, there would be.

Johnson started taking ground balls late last summer and early fall. He initially could do nothing but drop the balls where he fielded them because doctors wouldn't allow him to throw yet with his surgically reconstructed right elbow.

As the elbow healed, Johnson upped his defensive workout at second. He asked Hubbard if he'd like to be a part of it, "trying to get him out there every once in a while."

Then a funny thing happened.

"He started showing up every day," Johnson said.

He continued, day after day. And so did Johnson. They'd take grounders early in the morning and talk about what it takes to play the position in the majors.

One day, during one of their talks, Hubbard told Johnson that he "needed to work his butt off."

His commitment carried right through the winter months. And contrary to what folks up north think, yes, it does get cold in Atlanta. Chilly enough that being outside isn't all that comfortable.

Yet Johnson and Hubbard continued with their routine, pushing one another by starting their days at Turner Field.

"And we went out there and froze," Hubbard said.

And, on the other side of it, Johnson's bat and eye at the plate are coming around. His ability as a potential leadoff hitter is one reason the team wanted him to make the shift to second.

He's been on base via a hit or walk in eight of his past nine games, his spring on-base percentage up to .343 after a slow start. He has a pair of homers and seven RBI.

Reach Travis Haney at travis.haney@morris.com.

FRANCOEUR GRAND IN WIN


Kyle Davies was shaky early but steadied himself enough to get through five innings (three earned runs) and beat the New York Mets on Wednesday. Jeff Francoeur's first-inning grand slam propelled the team to the eventual 8-3 victory. ... Starter Tim Hudson represented the Braves on Wednesday as Disney celebrated the 10th birthday of its Wide World of Sports complex. Atlanta concludes its Florida schedule today at Disney against Cleveland.


- Travis Haney


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