ST. LOUIS -- Ben Johnson grew up a Cardinals fan in Memphis, a four-hour drive from Busch Stadium. He cheered Ozzie Smith's acrobatics along with the exciting play of Willie McGee and the Wizard's teammates. Johnson recalls attending his first Major League game at Busch Stadium as a child, in awe of the surroundings. He was drafted by his favorite team as a 17-year-old high school phenom in the fourth round of the 1999 First-Year Player Draft, leaving football behind to come play baseball in Johnson City in '99, batting .330 in rookie ball. Dealt one year later by the Cardinals in a four-player swap that brought catcher Carlos Hernandez to St. Louis, Johnson spent four and a half years in the Padres' system before landing with the big club this season.
At 24, Johnson will make his first postseason start on Thursday in Game 2 of the National League Division Series against southpaw Mark Mulder, playing right field. "I'm excited -- this is what I came here for," said Johnson, who batted .213 in 31 games this season but came up big in several important assignments down the stretch. "Being drafted by the Cardinals was a thrill, but to be able to come back and play against them is even better." In the NL West clincher at PETCO Park against the Giants, Johnson had his first career triple and two other hits, spearheading the attack. He handled the final three outs behind Trevor Hoffman in right field. Manager Bruce Bochy will have veterans Eric Young in left and Brian Giles in center with Johnson, going with an all-right-handed batting order -- with the exception of Giles -- against Mulder. Johnson hasn't faced Mulder, the former Oakland A's star, but he can consult with the wily Young for advice. Young is a career .389 hitter against Mulder with three doubles and three walks in 18 at-bats. "I can't say what it'll be like until we get out there," Johnson said. "The biggest thing for me is to go out and relax. I want to stay controlled, but be aggressive at the same time." More reflective of his performance than his batting average is Johnson's .467 slugging mark with the Padres. He had eight doubles, a triple and three homers, delivering 13 RBIs. He homered in three consecutive games, starting Aug. 31. Johnson is not unfamiliar with the Cardinals' personnel. He played with MVP candidate Albert Pujols at Peoria in 2000 before getting dealt to San Diego. "He just told me he was wondering what took me so long to get here," Johnson said, grinning. "Easy for him to say. Playing together, you always knew he was special. But I didn't know then he was going to be the MVP-type player he is now."
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.