But by the time Johnson exited Queens on Sunday evening, there was no doubt that he belongs in the Braves' lineup. Of course, based on the power he'd just displayed, one could have playfully wondered whether he'd be better served in the leadoff or cleanup role.
"That's one of the most exciting games I've ever seen between the Braves and the Mets," Johnson said after producing his second career multihomer performance in the action-packed 9-6 win that the Braves earned on Sunday afternoon.
It's been quite a week for Johnson, who in a span of six games has seen his batting average jump from .150 to .297. Along the way, he's collected 13 hits, none of which were as important as the game-winning three-run homer that he hit off right-handed reliever Aaron Heilman in the series finale against the Mets, who now find themselves trailing the Braves by one-half game in the National League East standings.
"We know Kelly can hit," said John Smoltz, who was fortunate to get a no-decision after allowing the Mets to claim a three-run lead with a five-run sixth inning. "Today was a big day. I don't care if he's hitting .700 or .100. To come back after a day like [Saturday] means a lot for a player."
After seeing Johnson strike out in each of his first four at-bats on Saturday, the Mets wondered how he would react. They wanted to attack him in an aggressive manner and thus, with the very first pitch of the game, Tom Glavine threw a fastball that the Braves second baseman deposited over the right-field wall.
Through their analysis, the Mets had overlooked the fact that the usually selective Johnson had homered on the first pitch that their own Orlando Hernandez had thrown in the first inning on April 8 at Turner Field.
"I don't do it often," Johnson said. "I just pick my spots."
Johnson certainly chose a good time to display his mental toughness. His eighth-inning shot, combined with Edgar Renteria's game-tying three-run homer with two outs in the seventh inning, allowed the Braves to win their second straight three-game set against the Mets. They've claimed victory in four of the six games they've played in '07 against the reigning NL East champs.
"I don't think it's too early for any kind of signature win," Smoltz said. "We were dead to right. We were going to lose this game. For all the ways they scored in the sixth inning, it just looked like it was too much for us to come back. For us to come back and win this game is just a tribute to everyone's effort."
Through the first five innings, the only damage Smoltz incurred came courtesy of Shawn Green's fifth-inning leadoff homer. After Jeff Francoeur touched Glavine for a two-out, two-run single in the top of the sixth, the Braves veteran hurler had a 3-1 lead.
But three soft singles, combined with a four-pitch walk to Green, sparked the five-run sixth, during which Braves manager Bobby Cox argued balls and strikes and earned his 127th career ejection. Jose Reyes' three-run triple highlighted the eruption that doomed Smoltz, who allowed a season-high six earned runs and nine hits in 5 2/3 innings.
"They found some holes, hit some bloops, got some balls just by the infielders," Smoltz said. "Next thing you knew, they threw five runs up in the sixth inning of a game that was well in hand. That's what makes them so good. Their lineup has no soft spots."
If the Mets have a definite weakness, it's their bullpen, which ultimately robbed Glavine of the chance to move six victories away from the immortal 300-win milestone. Scott Thorman began the seventh-inning rally with a pinch-hit two-out double off Ambiorix Burgos. That prompted the entry of left-handed reliever Scott Schoeneweis, who walked Johnson ahead of Renteria's game-tying homer.
"I put a good swing on it, and the ball went out," said Renteria, whose only two previous homers came on Opening Day, when against the Phillies, he hit a game-tying solo shot with two outs in the eighth and a game-winning two-run blast in the 10th.
Prolonging the two-out magic they'd benefited from an inning before, the Braves saw Johnson gain a 2-0 count before drilling the game-winner to right field off Heilman.
"It was a fun game, not quite the epic pitching battle that we thought it was going to be," Chipper Jones said. "But it was entertaining, nonetheless."
With Smoltz and Glavine, who have maintained a close friendship that was built during their 15 seasons together in Atlanta, there was no reason to think the game would turn into this kind of shootout. Both were stingy through the first five innings and then had to take a spectator's role when the Braves mounted their comeback.
Smoltz made a tremendous athletic play while retiring Glavine on a soft roller near the third-base line in the fifth inning. Then three batters later, with runners on second and third base, he got the dangerous Carlos Beltran to look at strike three. It was the 2,799th strikeout of Smoltz's career, moving him past Cy Young and into 18th place on the all-time list.
After Brian McCann tossed the ball into the stands, Smoltz retrieved the keepsake. As for Johnson, his keepsakes from this memorable weren't retrievable. They landed somewhere outside the playing field, which is where he'd also left the memories of Saturday's forgettable game and the first two weeks of the season.
"Slow starts [stink]," Johnson said. "To come back and get it going, hopefully that's going to carry on the rest of the year. You've got to get started some time."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less