Pearce's stock on rise as he stars at Altoona

Still aims for arrival in majors this season

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ALTOONA -- In spring training, Steve Pearce, who had not played above high Class A, announced his goal for the 2007 season to Gary Redus.

"He told me his goal was to get to the big leagues this year," said Redus, the Pirates' minor league outfielder/baserunning coordinator.

"I'm an optimistic guy," Pearce said by way of explanation.

Now, there's nothing wrong with being optimistic. But a dash of realism doesn't hurt, either.

"I just told him, 'You'll [start the season] in Lynchburg. Take care of Lynchburg first. And, if anything else happens, you take care of that,' " Redus said. "I told him, 'Just take care of where you are at the time.' "

Pearce has done just that.

He took care of Lynchburg to the tune of a .347 batting average, 11 home runs and 24 RBIs in 19 games. That earned him a promotion to Class AA Altoona May 1. He is taking care of Altoona, too.

The stocky first baseman has a .330 batting average, 19 doubles, 2 triples, 11 home runs and 50 RBIs in 58 games with the Curve.

Simply by reaching Altoona this year, Pearce achieved another goal. He is a teammate of Neil Walker and Andrew McCutchen, two of the Pirates' most highly regarded prospects.

"That was definitely a goal," Pearce said. "There's a lot of talent in this organization, and [being with] Walker and McCutchen I hope I'm starting to get that respect from not just people in this organization but from every organization. It was a big step -- [getting to play] with these guys and to make it to the Double A level."

Pearce, 24, reached Altoona rather quickly after the Pirates took him with their eighth pick in the 2005 draft out of the University of South Carolina.

A right-handed batter, he hit .301 with seven home runs and 52 RBIs in 72 games with Williamsport in the New York-Penn League that first summer.

Last season, which he split with Class A Hickory (41 games) and Lynchburg (90), he hit a combined .272 with an eye-catching 40 doubles, 26 home runs and 98 RBIs.

His first month with Lynchburg this season was so impressive -- "It was like he was hitting the ball off a tee," Hillcat manager Jeff Branson said -- that the Pirates almost couldn't get him to Altoona quickly enough.

"He needed to be challenged more," said Brian Graham, the Pirates' senior player development director.

Not that the Eastern League has seemed to have been that much of a challenge for Pearce, who hit a home run in the first at-bat of his first start.

"He went right into the four-hole, and we didn't miss anything," Altoona manager Tim Leiper said. "He just has real consistent at-bats. He's ready to hit. He looks for the fastball. He doesn't chase a lot of pitches. He hits with guys in scoring position. And, if you throw him a fastball for a strike, there's a chance you might not get the ball back."

Pearce's home run/at-bat ratio isn't as good with Altoona as it was with Lynchburg in April.

"And that makes sense," Leiper said. "Pitchers have a little bit more command in this league. If they're going to throw fastballs in fastball counts, they're probably going to get them on the outside part of the plate a lot of the time."

Which perhaps has made Pearce a better hitter.

"In RBI situations, he's not so pull-oriented," Leiper said. "He's hit the ball to right-center for a lot of RBIs. He's hit the ball to right field with two strikes. He's become more of a complete hitter since he's been here. And because he's doing that right now, they're starting to try to come in on him to get some outs and, when they miss, that's when he's getting his home runs."

Those home runs usually are pleasant to watch.

"He gets every ounce of power out of his body," Walker said.

"I think he's the one guy in the organization who goes up there to punish the baseball," Redus said. "That's his whole plan when he goes up there. It's not going to be, 'I'm going to try to hit a soft single over here or hit one up the middle.' He goes up there to punish the baseball."

Pearce, 5 feet 11, 209 pounds, said he has used that approach for years.

"When I was growing up, I was just a little guy and, when I did hit one good, guys would say, 'Hey, you're not a power hitter. Hit it on the ground,' " Pearce said. "As I got older and got a little bit bigger, balls really started jumping off my bat. It just stuck with me.

"I want to go up there and hit. I think my offense is the best part of my game. I hate to throw at-bats away. If a pitcher makes a mistake, I want to make him pay for it."

Usually, Pearce cashes in.

"He can turn around a fastball," Branson said. "I don't care how hard you throw it."

Or who throws it.

"He believes he can hit just about anybody on the planet," said Jeff Banister, the Pirates' minor-league field coordinator.

Pearce, who will play for the United States in the Futures Game at the All-Star Game July 8 in San Francisco, brought with him to Altoona a reputation as a jokester who is not above using his sarcasm on anybody.

"I had to work my way in with these guys," Pearce conceded. "But I think now these guys have a little bit of respect for me."

Matt Freed, Post-Gazette
Altoona Curve's Steve Pearce hits a home run against Trenton Friday.
Click photo for larger image.

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