Jay Johnstone, the Dodgers’ king of comedy, played straight man for the first time in months Monday and delivered the first big punch line of September, an 11th-inning pinch single that produced temporary insanity at Dodger Stadium, not to mention a 5-4 win over the Montreal Expos that ended a four-game losing streak before a sellout crowd of 47,496.
Johnstone, who had a home with the Dodgers as long as there was a place on the disabled list, was activated on Sunday. He hadn’t batted since the Fourth of July and hadn’t had a hit since the 14th of April, nearly five months ago. That was his only other hit of the season in 10 at-bats.
But after a single by Mike Scioscia and a double by Steve Sax with one out in the 11th, Johnstone stroked a line single to right off Montreal reliever Jeff Reardon, who came into the game leading the majors in saves with 33 and figured he was playing the percentages--pitching to a guy who had spent much of his time in stadiums riding bicycles, jogging, and playing practical jokes.
“There are 34 days left till Oct. 6, and that’s when the fun begins,” Johnstone said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that we’ll get in the playoffs. But my attitude is that I still have to make this club.”
If nothing else, Johnstone made this night for the Dodgers, who increased their lead over San Diego to seven games after the Padres lost, 12-4, to the New York Mets. Cincinnati, a 4-1 winner over St. Louis, moved into second place in the NL West, 6 1/2 games back.
“He was our secret weapon,” Bill Russell said. “We had him in reserve all the time. Yesterday was Opening Day for the guy. Everybody had forgotten about him.
“This was just like earlier this season, when a different guy won it for us each night. Only this time, it was a strange guy.”
Dodger Manager Tom Lasorda, who had watched a 4-2 lead evaporate in the ninth on four Montreal singles off reliever Tom Niedenfuer, didn’t hesitate to turn to Johnstone in his hour of need.
“I saved this spot for him all year,” Lasorda said.
Actually, Lasorda had used up five other pinch-hitters--including Terry Whitfield, whose two-run double in the sixth had broken a 2-2 tie--before summoning Johnstone.
“I wouldn’t say I was nervous,” said Johnstone, who had been announced as a pinch-hitter the day before but never got to the plate.
“I was more tired from watching guys parade past me. Finally, they got down to my name on the lineup card and Monty (Basgall) said, ‘Well, Jay, you can’t hide any longer.’ ”
The Expos, had they chosen, still could have stashed Johnstone on first base, which was open. But Montreal Manager Bob (Buck) Rodgers, suspecting that Johnstone’s swing was in an advanced state of corrosion, decided to have Reardon pitch to Johnstone with Mariano Duncan on deck.
“I had no thought of walking him,” Rodgers said. “The guy hadn’t been up.”
Johnstone fouled off Reardon’s first pitch, looked at a pitch high, then dropped a drive just in front of right fielder Andre Dawson, whose desperate attempt at a shoestring catch failed. Pinch-runner Jose Gonzalez crossed the plate with the winning run, and the dugout emptied to congratulate Johnstone.
When Johnstone saw that Sax--whose double was only his second hit in 19 at-bats--was leading the charge, he quickly covered up in self-defense.
“The first guy I saw was Sax, and he had red in his eyes,” Johnstone said. “He looked like he was going to pick me up. I wasn’t sure what he was going to do.”
No one, of course, has ever been able to keep track of Johnstone, whose return to the Dodgers after 2 1/2 seasons in Chicago had been something less than triumphant.
The laughs never stopped, but at 38, a bad hip and back had made Johnstone’s usefulness as a player suspect.
“It would have been very easy for me to say, ‘The hell with it, they’ve got to pay me anyway,”’ Johnstone said, “but I worked myself to death to be ready for these last 36 days.
“I know what I have to do to prepare myself. I didn’t have to stay for the games, I could have dressed, gone home, and said I had a great summer.
“But Tommy wanted me out here, keeping the team loose. He wanted me to put up the front that I was happy-go-lucky, even though it was tough not to go inside those lines.”
But for all his comic relief, the Dodger clubhouse could not have gotten a bigger lift than it did from Johnstone on Monday night.
“This was a big relief, especially after they came back in the ninth,” said winning pitcher Carlos Diaz, the last of four Dodger pitchers who combined to strike out 15 Expos. Bobby Castillo, a last-minute starter, struck out a season-high seven batters in five innings after giving up a first-inning, two-run home run to Dawson.
“We kept our composure and we got to him (Reardon) before they got to me,” Diaz said.
Bill Madlock, struck in the right forearm by a pitch from Montreal reliever Tim Burke in the sixth inning, came out of the game in the eighth, but said after icing the arm that he was OK. Madlock batted fifth in the order behind Pedro Guerrero, who had three hits after batting .214 (12 for 56) in his last 15 games. “When you’ve got a horse like that,” Madlock said of Guerrero, “you have to protect him as much as possible. I don’t mind (batting fifth).” . . . Rick Honeycutt had been scheduled to start Monday but had an injection in his left shoulder Friday. He was in the bullpen warming up as early as the first inning, after Bobby Castillo gave up a two-run home run to Andre Dawson. “It’s nothing I want to dwell on,” Honeycutt said about the pain in his shoulder, which in the past has affected his release point. “It’s somewhat under control. I don’t want it to be in my mind when I have the chance to pitch. The truth of the matter is, Bobby (Castillo) was throwing the ball much better than I have his last few outings, and I think that was the basis for their decision (to start Castillo).” Asked if the plan was for him to remain in the bullpen, Honeycutt said with a smile: “I’ll be there tonight, if you want to call me.” . . . Alejandro Pena is scheduled to pitch a simulated game today in the latest step in the rehabilitation of his right shoulder. . . . Manager Tom Lasorda, his roster expanded by the addition of six players from Albuquerque--including infielder Dave Anderson, who spent a 20-day rehabilitation period there, and Reggie Williams and Jose Gonzalez from San Antonio--on whether he planned to play the newcomers: “Whatever we need to win a ballgame.” Williams had the most active night. Inserted into the game as a pinch-runner for Terry Whitfield, Williams replaced Bill Russell in left field and caught Vance Law’s liner to the track in the eighth and threw out Herm Winningham when he tried to advance from first to third in the ninth. Williams lined out to short on his first big-league at-bat. Gonzalez entered the game as a pinch-runner for Mike Scioscia in the 11th and scored the winning run. . . . Russell was in left field, Pedro Guerrero at first and Greg Brock on the bench Monday night. Since his last home run July 26, Brock has batted .196 (21 for 107) with four RBIs.