Garrett Jones is learning 'to let it fly'

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Garrett Jones had a good day on June 30, 2009.

Jones, then a Class AAA Indianapolis corner outfielder, was hitting .307 with 12 home runs in the International League. The next day, he found himself as the Pirates' starting left fielder.

Jones hit .293 with 21 home runs that season, his first extended time in the major leagues. He did so as a 28-year-old playing for his third organization, and he finished seventh in the National League rookie of the year voting.

"[I] had nothing to lose," he said. "I was happy to get back there. I was playing with reckless abandon, just letting it fly and trying to do some damage."

His production dipped after the 2009 season. He constructed short bursts of similar performance at times, then followed with periods of difficulty. His output has improved recently, and to sustain it he said he needs to rekindle the mindset from three years ago.

"Right now, I'm trying to have that same approach," Jones said. "Keeping it simple, clear mind up there, letting it fly."

In the past 17 games entering the game tonight against the Minnesota Twins, the team with which Jones first appeared in the majors, Jones hit .321 with three home runs and three doubles.

"I feel like when I'm getting a pitch to hit I'm not missing it," he said. "I'm putting it into play, putting it into play hard."

Jones, who turns 31 on Thursday, is in his 14th season of professional baseball. The Atlanta Braves drafted the Illinois native out of high school but released him after three seasons of rookie ball. The Twins signed him in 2002, and he spent parts of six seasons in their minor league system before breaking into the majors in 2007. He hit .208 in 84 plate appearances.

The Pirates scooped him up before the '09 season, and he needed only a partial season in Class AAA before they called him up for good. He led all rookies in home runs and slugging percentage and hit 10 homers in his first 19 games.

"I was feeling great in triple-A," he said. "I could have been sent down the next week. I was going up there and letting it fly, not really thinking too much, just doing my thing."

The homers remained, but the average and on-base percentage declined in '10 and '11, when he hit a combined .245 with a .312 on-base mark. He lost his arbitration case during the offseason, and is earning $2.25 million this year.

His role as a power hitter in a lineup that lacks power allows manager Clint Hurdle to find a spot for him, either at first base or in right field. It also caused the Pirates to balk when the New York Yankees were reportedly interested in acquiring Jones in exchange for A.J. Burnett before this season.

Jones still struggles against left-handed pitchers -- he has a .231 on-base percentage against them in his career and doesn't have a hit against one since August -- and as a result has only 10 at-bats against them this season. Hurdle usually platoons him with Casey McGehee or Matt Hague. He also has five walks and 40 strikeouts this season.

What he does well, though, is hit the ball hard against right-handers, and that skill can make him an effective part of the lineup. His outfield defense, an adventure at times last season, has improved, although Hurdle often has replaced him in the late innings of close games.

"He's worked hard in right field, he's worked hard at first base," Hurdle said. "I'm really pleased with the way he's gone about him being the best ballplayer he can be. The extra work in the outfield, the extra work in the infield, and him embracing this identity at the plate that, 'I don't have to be Babe Ruth. I just need to be me,' the guy who had some success when he first got here a couple years ago, and then almost tried to take it to another level and kind of lost his way for a little bit."

Right now, he's letting it fly, like he did three years ago.


Bill Brink: and on Twitter @BrinkPG.


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