'You see what he's doing now. Play a full season, he might hit 30 home runs, you know?'
September 4, 2009 4:00 AM
Pirates outfielder/first baseman Garrett Jones has become a candidate for the National League's rookie of the year award.
By Chuck Finder Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
This time last year, the man now known as The Legend had one last swing, one last hope.
He remained stuck for a fourth summer in Class AAA, finishing the first few September days that were his last at home in Frontier Field, polishing off a brilliant career as a Rochester Red Wings fan favorite. It was a curtain call. And it was an audition.
"Maybe somebody else would see me, and I'd get an opportunity with their team," Garrett Jones recalled.
Sept. 2, 2008, in their International League season finale, he strode to the plate with a tie game, the usual public-address introduction for most of the home versions of his 1,940 Red Wings at-bats -- Garrett Joooooooooooones -- and a fidgety crowd of 11,374, because most everyone there knew it was his closing Rochester bow. He promptly stroked a walk-off, three-run homer to beat rival Buffalo and walked away. "Very cool," Rochester announcer Josh Whetzel called the moment.
Sept. 2, 2009, in an otherwise humdrum National League Central affair, he strode to the plate with a one-run, early innings deficit and stroked the 10,000th homer in Pirates history, with 11,541 on hand in Great American Ball Park. He had to trade an autographed baseball and bat to get back the artifact, yet another career first for Jones. "It's fitting that Garrett got it," said fellow Pirates rookie and Pittsburgh native Neil Walker, "because he's been swinging the bat well, he's been looking great at the plate and he's been hitting the ball far."
• Game: Pirates vs. St. Louis Cardinals, 7:05 p.m., PNC Park.
• TV, radio: FSN Pittsburgh WPGB-FM (104.7).
• Pitching: RHP Kevin Hart (4-4, 4.34) vs. RHP Adam Wainwright (16-7, 2.47).
• Season series: Cardinals, 8-4.
• Key matchup: While the Pirates have lost seven in a row, St. Louis is Major League Baseball's hottest team, having won 23 of 31.
• Of note: The 19-game disparity between the Pirates' home (35-29) and road (18-50) records is the greatest in the majors. The 2006 Pirates had a similar gap between home (43-38) and road (24-57).
Now he is a 28-year-old candidate for National League Rookie of the Year, an everyday outfielder-first baseman hitting 18 homers in just 55 games since his July 1 Pirates debut and a burgeoning Legend, as online followers dubbed him. With two walk-off homers and a piece of franchise homer history in his scant Pirates portfolio, his tale borders on baseball fiction. A homer-bashing hero from western New York? Wasn't that "The Natural?"
"Aw, shoot, I'm having fun watching him, dude," Cincinnati's Darnell McDonald added. "Especially the ball he hit in the river out there."
McDonald was referring to a Jones bash against the Reds Aug. 21 at PNC Park, long before Jones came to McDonald's end of the Ohio River and clubbed Pirates franchise homers No. 9,999 and No. 10,000 Tuesday and Wednesday. McDonald has deep, minor league-system roots with Jones. He batted No. 3 in Rochester's lineup last year just ahead of Jones. An eight-year veteran of Class AAA, an even longer stint than Jones, McDonald also played against him for a career.
Despite the vast difference one year has made for Jones, McDonald sees a common storyline.
"The first half of [last] season, I didn't know where Garrett was," McDonald began. "The second half, he was swinging it like he's swinging it now. I've never seen anyone as hot as he was then and is now. See, that's what I know he can do. I was hitting in front of him there. To see him in the second half [last year], he was hitting balls all over the field -- and he didn't get called up. The way he was swinging it, I thought he would.
"You see what he's doing now. Play a full season, he might hit 30 home runs, you know?"
Jones remembered going into the 2008 International League all-star break "around .220 with nine homers. I saved my season. And that saved me a chance for this year. That's the funny thing about baseball. I mean, you're going to have cold streaks, you're going to have hot streaks. It's just a matter of staying positive through the tough times."
The 6-foot-4, 245-pound quiet giant from Tinley Park, Ill., knew plenty of those times. Flaming out after parts of four summers in the low minors with the Atlanta Braves, who drafted him in the14th round in 1999, Jones signed with the Minnesota Twins in May 2002 and started all over again. In three seasons he climbed to Class AAA Rochester, though he could never grasp that final rung. He spent 31 games amid three separate call-ups with the Twins in 2007, mashing all of two home runs in 77 at-bats, or one every 38.5, and batting just .208.
Look at him now: 18 homers in 214 at-bats, or one every eight, and a .294 batting average with 34 RBIs (a dozen of his homers have been solos), 14 doubles and -- get this -- nine stolen bases in 10 attempts. He has a higher on-base percentage, .363, and slugging percentage, .621, than at any time in his 10 1/2-season, minor league journey, and there is a reason. After signing with the Pirates two days after Christmas, Jones has worked on putting the ball in play to all fields and cutting down his strikeout totals.
A few big league blemishes remain, though. He possesses a .136 average with runners in scoring position, though it balloons to .313 with two out. He is batting just .271 in lefty-friendly PNC Park. He is dogged still by wonders about his age, his minor league tenure, his legendary nine-week flourish.
"There's always skepticism," Pirates manager John Russell said. "I don't think we saw it as much as people tried to lean on us, whether it was the media or people saying, 'He can't last ... there's something wrong, because he hasn't been in the big leagues.' You go back to spring training, what he did, the consistency that we saw, the low-maintenance swing, the strength -- we thought he could be consistent.
"He'll go through stretches like any power-hitter does, where it doesn't quite click for you. But he's been able to fight through that. He's adjusted to the league as they've adjusted to him. Andrew [McCutchen] has done the same thing."
The other rookie McCutchen, pitcher Daniel, who played with him in Indianapolis this year and against him previously, used to wonder the same thing as Pirates fans now: Why wasn't Jones in the majors before?
"That's what we said ... we were wondering why he doesn't have more [service] time," Daniel McCutchen said. "Even with speed he has for his size. In Indy, he had 15 infield hits. An all-around good player. Personally, I don't think it's a fluke. He's a professional hitter."
This time last year, the Twins no longer wanted him. They had made that clear earlier, in spring training, when they placed him on waivers. Problem was, no other major league team claimed him, either. No other team wanted him. Until the Pirates came along at Christmas.
"Ah, you can't ask for anything more," Jones said. "To get a chance to play every day, that's all you can ask for. It's up to you as a player to take advantage of that opportunity and try not to let it pass you by. Give everything you got, when you get that chance.
"Only got one month left in the season. Trying to finish strong and help the team win. I'll sit back, kind of soak it in a little bit more, once the season is over. Then get prepared for next season."