Jul 5, 2016

The All Time Mets Single Season Hits Leader: Lance Johnson (1996-1997)

Kenneth Lance Johnson was born July 6, 1963 at Cincinnati, Ohio. The five foot ten, left hand hitting Johnson, first attended the Trinity College, moving to the University of South Alabama. The swift outfielder was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in the sixth round of the 1984 draft.

Johnson had a fine minor league career as he matured into a solid ball player. By 1987 he won the AA MVP award with the Louisville Redbirds, batting .333 & stealing 42 bases. The speedy center fielder stole over thirty bases five straight seasons in the minor leagues, including three straight years of forty plus steals. At the time the Cardinals had Willie McGee in center field & had no plans for Johnson, except to trade him.

He was brought up to the 1987 Cardinals Pennant team for 33 games, he then appeared in one game of the NLCS & one game of the World Series loss to the Minnesota Twins. He stole a base in each game, scoring a run as a pinch runner on a Vince Coleman base hit in Game #3 of the World Series. That winter Johnson was traded, along with Ricky Horton, to the Chicago White Sox for Jose DeLeon.

In Chicago he became one of the best centerfielders of that era with speed, range and a strong throwing arm. He was among the top three centerfielders in assists four different times, posting eleven assists in two straight seasons.

His 70 career assists are 74th most on the all time list. He led all centerfielders in errors three times, games played twice & put outs one time each. In 1994, he led the league in fielding with a perfect .1000%. His range was considered the best of all outfielders during the 1992 & 1993 seasons.

Johnson spent eight seasons as the White Sox regular centerfielder, playing in both the old & new Comiskey Parks. Johnson wore the uniform number one and was known to his team mates as “One Dog”. In 1990 he played his first full season, he hit .285 while leading the league in caught stealing (22) times he stole 36 bases & hit nine triples. Over the next four seasons, from 1991-1994 he led the American league in triples each year. He hit 12 or more triples in each of those years & did that for six straight seasons.

During his White Sox years he would bat over .300 three times, while posting good on base percentages. He would steal 25 or more bases six straight seasons, including 30 plus steals three times. He was among the AL's top ten base stealers five straight seasons, excluding 1991. In 1993 he was second on the A.L. Western Champion White Sox club to Frank Thomas hitting .311, while posting 14 triples 18 doubles , 36 stolen bases (6th in the AL) with a .354 on base %.

Post Season: In the 1993 ALCS the White Sox lost the first two games to the Toronto Blue Jays. In Game #3 Johnson singled home two runs in Chicago's five run third inning leading to a 6-1 win. In Game #4 he had a big four hit day including a two run HR off Todd Stottlemyre, to get the scoring started in the 2nd inning. In the 6th inning with Chicago down 3-2, he tripled with two runners on, putting his team ahead for good in the 7-4 victory. The Blue Jays went on to win Game #5 & the World Series as well.

In 1994 the Sox finished in first place again, this time in the newly aligned AL Central, but the baseball strike killed any post seasons hopes. Johnson once again led the league in triples (14) but his average fell to .277.

In 1995 he was back over the .300 mark (.306), leading the league in hits (186) & at bats (607). Johnson had career highs up to that point, in runs scored (117) & RBIs (57), while stealing 40 bases (6th in the AL). During the winter he signed as a free agent with the New York Mets for the 1996 season.

The year ahead looked bright at Shea Stadium, with Johnson aboard in center field, Todd Hundley & Bernard Gilkey in the lineup coming off promising years. And of course the pitching was hopeful, as Generation K ready to take the mound. Unfortunately everything fell apart with the pitching staff & Manager Dallas Green eventually lost his job after going 59-72. He was succeeded by Bobby Valentine as the new era began.

Through it all, Johnson went on to have a career year and one of the best Mets seasons ever at the plate. He set a Mets single season record for hits with an incredible league leading 227. He also set a remarkable feat by becoming the first & only player to lead the league in hits in both leagues.

He also led the league in triples while setting the Mets club record, with 21. Johnson joined company with Stan Musial, Sam Crawford & Willie Wilson as the only players to ever lead the league in triples different five times. He became only the fourth player since 1947 to have over 20 triples, and his 21 were the highest mark since 1951.

He came in fourth in the NL batting race, hitting .333; while posting a .363 on base % (second on the club to Gilkey). Johnson stole 50 bases (second most in the league) while only getting caught 12 times. It was the most stolen bases by a Mets player, since Mookie Wilsons 54 in 1983.

The previous year (the '94 strike year) the Mets Bret Butler had led the team with 21. Johnson scored 117 runs (tenth in the NL) which were also a Mets single season record until Eduardo Alfonzo broke it, three seasons later. 

Johnson hit 31 doubles & played 160 games as the Mets leadoff man, setting a club mark (later broken by Jose Reyes). He also led the league in at bats (682) & plate appearances (724) posting a .363 on base %.

Johnson debuted on Opening Day 1996 going 1-4 batting leadoff & playing centerfield in the Mets 7-6 win over the St. Louis Cardinals. He hit in his first three games, then went on an eight game hit streak a few days later. In the month of April he had eleven multi hit games & scored 18 runs. In early May he had 16 hits over a six game stretch, also hitting his second HR of the year. On May 3rd, he stole three bases in a 4-2 loss against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field. He then hit safely in 14 of 15 games & had 13 multiple hit games that month to raise his average above .300. 

On June 4th, he had a four hit day in Atlanta, with a two run triple during a 12-6 Mets win. On June 17th he led the team to a win in Pittsburgh, as he hit a three run HR off the Pirates Esteban Loaiza.

Johnson then hit safely in 19 of 22 games to close out the month. On July 5th, he broke a 6-6 tie in the 8th inning at Montreal, by getting a base hit to drive in Chris Jones & Carl Everett for the eventual game winning runs. The next day, he had three hits while driving in three more runs in the 11-3 win over the Expos.

Lance Johnson was the National Leagues starting centerfielder, in the All Star Game played at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia. He led off the game with a double, off Cleveland's Charles Nagy & scored the first run of the game on a Barry Bonds groundout. Johnson would have two more hits before the night was through, as he played the entire game. It was a proud moment for him & a fine representation for a New York Met.

After the break he picked up where he had left off. On July 17th, he tied up a game at Shea, against the Philadelphia Phillies, with a single to left field scoring Rey Ordonez. The Mets went on to win it 3-2 on a Butch Huskey walk off HR.

Throughout that month he kept his average above .310, while a 13 game hit steak in August got him up to .320. On August 7th, he hit two HRs in an 11-7 win at Wrigley Field, as he had yet another four hit day. In August he had 14 multi hit games, as he continued to do it all, stealing bases, scoring runs driving in runs & hitting.

On September 1st, Johnson doubled, tripled & singled, driving in two runs in a ten inning, Mets 6-5 win over the San Francisco Giants. After driving in runs in two straight games, on September 14th Johnson hit a walk off base hit against the Braves Joe Borowski, in the bottom of the 12th inning. He hit safely in 24 out of 26 games in the final month, to raise his average up another eleven points, overall closing out the year hitting safely in 40 of his last 43 games. In twenty four games throughout the season, he had at least three hits in a game, including four different four hit games.

Defensively he led the league in put outs (391) made nine outfield assists (3rd best in the league) while posting a .971 fielding percentage, making 12 errors in 412 chances.

In 1997 he began the year just where he left off, starting in centerfield batting leadoff & getting a hit in the 12-5 Mets loss.

He began the year with a six game hit streak, hitting safely in 12 of 14 games. On April 15th, he drove in four runs of the Mets five runs, in an Armando Reynoso 5-0 shutout over the L.A. Dodgers. He then missed all of May & half of June with an injury, returning on the 16th. On June 22nd, he had a four hit day, with a HR at Shea Stadium in a 12-9 win against the Pirates, He got himself over the .300 mark going into early August.

On August 4th he hit a pair of triples driving in two runs, including the game winner in the 5th inning, leading the Mets past the St. Louis Cardinals 4-2, as Rick Reed picked up his tenth win of the year, his sixth win in a row. Then four days later on August 8th, after 72 games he was batting .309 with 6 triples & 15 stolen bases, but he got traded to the Chicago Cubs for Turk Wendell, Brian McRae, & Mel Rojas. (The Mets later sent along Manny Alexander & Mark Clark).

Johnson hit .303 the rest of the way but got slowed up by injuries as his career began to wind down from there. He spent two more seasons in Chicago, teamed up again in the outfield with his former White Sox sidekick Sammy Sosa. By this point, Sosa was a superstar chasing Mark McGwire for the single season HR record. Johnson finished off his career in 2000 with the A.L. New York team playing in just eight games.

Retirement: After his playing days he & his wife moved back to Alabama, where he had gone to college. Johnson has the rare distinction of playing for both New York & both Chicago baseball teams.

In his 14 season playing career, Johnson played in 1447 games batting .291, with 1565 hits, 117 triples (103rd all time) 175 doubles 34 HRs 486 RBIs and 327 stolen bases (130th all time).

In centerfield he posted a .983 fielding % with 70 assists (74th all time) making 62 errors in 3638 chances. He played in 1327 games in center (44th most all time).

No comments: