ANAHEIM -- A knee injury that hampered Jeff Clement for more than a month, and eventually led to season-ending surgery, has opened the door for veteran catcher Kenji Johjima to get more playing time lately, and he's taking advantage of it. "To me, Kenji has really come on in the past few weeks," Mariners manager Jim Riggleman said during his pregame media session on Friday. "He is catching better and swinging the bat better. There is no way, statistically, that he will have a typical Kenji year, but I don't think the numbers really reflect how well he has swung the bat." With slightly more than two weeks remaining in his third season with the Mariners, the 32-year-old former All-Star catcher in Japan is batting .212 with five home runs and 29 RBIs.
That compares to the .291 and .287 batting averages he had in his first two seasons, along with 32 home runs and 137 RBIs. But his offensive production has been better this month. He went into Friday night's game against the Angels with a .278 batting average (5-for-18) this month and became the first catcher this season to throw out Rangers center fielder Josh Hamilton on a stolen-base attempt. Asked on Friday how he would handle the catching duties during the final 18 games of the season, Riggleman hinted that Johjima would get more starts than either Rob Johnson or Jamie Burke, the two remaining receivers on the expanded roster. "I don't know that it will be split up that much," he said. "I think Kenji is getting closer to where he was last year, although I wasn't here." Johjima has been a good soldier throughout the most frustrating season of his professional career, which started in 1995 with Fukuoka. He became that team's daily catcher in '97 and maintained that status, when healthy, for the next nine years in Japan and two more with the Mariners. "I want him to feel he had an opportunity in September to fight for his job," Riggleman said. Johjima started the season slowly -- as did most of the Mariners -- and was batting .194 on April 25 when he signed a three-year, $24 million contract extension. He was on the bench for five games in May and 10 more in June as the Mariners tried to get more offense from the position. "He's just having one of those years," Riggleman said. "I know he is not hitting the way he's capable, but he's not hitting the ball like a .209 hitter, either. The two guys that I think have been hurt the most by hard-hit balls that were caught are he and Adrian [Beltre]. Both have hit balls on the button, but either go just foul or get caught." Riggleman said the reports on Johnson have been accurate in that he is a terrific defensive catcher. The best catcher in the Pacific Coast League this season, though, is still looking for his first hit, going 0-for-8 in five games.
Jim Street is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.