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JOHNSON BRINGS TO BLUE JAYS EMPHASIS ON SITUATIONAL HITTING

Jose Canseco brings his home run bat to Toronto and slugger Carlos Delgado will be rehabilitated from his knee and wrist surgeries sooner than expected, but those aren't the big stories for the Blue Jays this spring.

Roger Clemens, Pat Hentgen and their pitching colleagues are now supported by Randy Myers, one of the premier closers of the '90s, but that isn't the big story, either.

Nor is the fact that Ed Sprague is back hitting well again, so the Jays won't have to be one pitcher shy on their roster in order to carry an insurance third baseman.

No, the big story here is Tim Johnson, managing in the major leagues for the first time but already having changed the way Toronto plays baseball. The last time Johnson managed, his Iowa Cubs were swept by the Buffalo Bisons in the 1997 American Association championship series.

That Bison team was a powerhouse, but the series result had no bearing on the decision of Toronto general manager Gord Ash to hire Johnson. After 1,316 games and two World Series championships under Cito Gaston, Ash felt the Jays needed something else: a teacher and an attitude adjustment.

The change was dictated by the Jays' fifth-place standing in the American League East in 1997. They finished 22 games behind champion Cleveland and 10 games under .500.

"We're going to run a lot. We're not going to wait until someone hits a three-run homer," Johnson said. "We're going to move the runners around, move them from third base to home plate with situation hitting. Running is going to be our style."

So is doing the little things that win games. That's where the teaching comes in.

"The coaches I hired have reputations as good teachers," said Johnson, who has been a bench coach for Felipe Alou in Montreal and for Kevin Kennedy in Boston. "I consider myself a teacher."

That's why he urged Ash to sign Montreal catcher Darrin Fletcher as a free agent. Fletcher hit .277 with 17 home runs last year, and he is a skilled handler of pitchers. He came with an obvious flaw, however. Last season he threw out just 16 of 88 runners attempting to steal a base.

"We knew about that flaw before we signed him and we addressed it," Johnson said. "Sal Butera (the new bullpen coach) has been working with Fletcher since he got down here and there has been a major improvement."

One of the big worries for the Blue Jays' brass during the winter was the injuries suffered by veteran catcher Benito Santiago in a Florida automobile accident. Santiago is recovering, but it's obvious that he has been pushed aside in Johnson's planning for the time being.

Gaston was close to an ideal manager for the Blue Jays when they were loaded with expensive talent and his approach of "let the players play" was the soundest idea. This team, while it still has many veterans, requires a different approach.

"I keep emphasizing how important it is to get that man in from third base," Johnson said. "That's where our situational hitting comes in."

To help him get what he wants, Johnson hired former National League slugger Gary Matthews as his hitting instructor. Matthews has been the Cubs' roving minor-league hitting instructor for the last three years.

"When Johnson and Matthews haven't been getting what they want in situational hitting, there have been mini-tantrums," says a daily observer at the Toronto camp.

It's early, but indications are that the Jays like their new style of offense, especially the part about running in so many situations. Johnson is helped by the turnover on the roster. The first four hitters in last year's opening lineup, including longtime star Joe Carter, are gone. That means there are few in camp resisting the new skipper's way of doing things.

The conventional wisdom around the American League is that the Jays, despite their admirable pitching, don't have enough muscle in their batting order to make a dramatic move up the standings. Johnson disagrees.

"I'm a positive thinker," he said. "Now we have Canseco and Mike Stanley, two established power hitters, to go with players like Sprague and Delgado."

Could be, but if Johnson and Matthews hope to fill the run-production chasm created by Carter's departure, they will have to work their "get-the-man-in-from-third" philosophy on two of the team's most promising hitters, Jose Cruz Jr. and Shawn Green. Cruz, 24 next month, hit 26 homers and drove in 68 runs with Seattle and Toronto as a rookie last year. Green, 25, averaged 53 RBIs in his first three major-league seasons.

Johnson needs more from each of them.

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