BALTIMORE -- Nick Johnson missed most of the 2010 season with a wrist injury and spent 2011 playing Triple-A ball. Johnson made the Orioles this spring but stumbled to an 0-for-28 start.
But Johnson's been hitting much better since then. He came through again on Friday night, hitting a two-run homer in the bottom of the seventh inning that gave the Orioles a come-from-behind 4-3 victory over the Rays before 26,669 at Oriole Park.
The victory gave the Orioles a one-game lead over Tampa Bay in an early-season battle for first place in the American League East. Baltimore, which leads the Major Leagues with 53 homers, used its power once more, thanks to solo shots from Adam Jones and Nick Markakis, plus the Johnson shot.
The game-winning homer was Johnson's first in the Major Leagues since May 5, 2010 -- playing for the Yankees against the Orioles -- and he finished this game 2-for-2 with a walk. He also stole a base, the first time ever that Johnson's homered and had a steal in the same game. Johnson has gone 7-for-15 since the poor start, and Orioles manager Buck Showalter said he didn't lose faith in the veteran.
"He's very professional," Showalter said. "You know that he's grinding. You trust guys with Nick's make-up and the things that he's been through to get to this point. [He] had a lot of good at-bats tonight."
Johnson said he saw something on film that's helped him adjust. The Rays held a 3-2 lead with two outs in the seventh when Chris Davis singled followed by Johnson, who hit a 3-2 fastball off Joel Peralta just into the right-field seats.
"I was seeing the ball pretty well tonight," Johnson said. "I had my legs under me. I wasn't hitting with skates on the way I have been all year. I think the wind blew it out. I put a good swing on it."
Peralta said the fastball he threw Johnson wasn't in the right spot.
"I got ahead in the count like I was supposed to and threw some really good pitches I felt he was going to swing at," Peralta said. "He didn't. Then I throw a fastball, supposed to be down and away. It was [in the] middle, up a little bit. And he got it."
The Orioles never had the lead before that. They recalled left-hander Dana Eveland, and he battled control problems to give up three runs on five hits in six innings.
He kept the Orioles close, but it wasn't easy because Eveland walked six and hit two batters while striking out just two.
"Dana bent, but didn't break," Showalter said. "He battled his way through it, but six walks and [two hit batters] won't work in the future, and he knows that."
A walk and hit batter helped the Rays take a 1-0 lead in the second before Jones tied it with his solo shot in the bottom half. The Rays scored twice in the fourth for a 3-1 advantage, but it could have been worse.
Tampa Bay loaded the bases with one out when Elliot Johnson singled to deep right. Markakis quickly relayed it to second baseman Robert Andino, who made a perfect throw to catcher Matt Wieters. He then blocked the plate and held on after a thunderous collision with Sean Rodriguez.
"They always have the option to go around, but at the same time, if you take away the plate, at the same time, they always have the option to run you over, too," Wieters said. "So it's part of the game. Thank God, I hung on to the ball."
Wieters said he bit his lip and needed a moment to get everything back together, but that out kept the game at 2-1. Eveland then walked Ben Zobrist to load the bases and forced in another run by hitting Carlos Pena.
The Orioles couldn't do much against Jeremy Hellickson in his 6 2/3-inning stint but they cut the lead to 3-2 when Markakis hit his solo homer in the sixth. Johnson gave the Orioles the lead in the seventh, and the bullpen slammed the door.
Darren O'Day took over for Eveland in the seventh and retired the side in order. Pedro Strop did the same in the eighth, and closer Jim Johnson recorded his 10th save with a perfect ninth.
The Rays didn't get a hit after Luke Scott doubled to start the fifth inning. Orioles pitchers retired 15 of the final 16 Tampa Bay batters.
The best part for the Orioles might have been that it was Nick Johnson who hit the game-winning shot. Showalter said that, with all of the injuries the team's suffered in recent days, they'll be needing help from different places.
And Johnson certainly wants to give it.
"You want to get on base and let guys drive you in and produce," he said. "But I kept pushing, am going to keep pushing, and we're going to continue to win ballgames."
Jeff Seidel is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.