The Pittsburgh Pirates are 8-13 in the month of August, dropping them behind St. Louis for the second National League wild-card position just three weeks after they entertained dreams of winning the Central. Now the division-leading Reds are 8 1/2 games ahead and the Bucs are in third place, albeit with 38 games left in the regular season.
Much of what sustained the Pirates through their June-July surge has deserted them. Budding superstar Andrew McCutchen has fallen back from his incredible offensive pace since the all-star break and is striking out at an elevated rate. Starting pitchers James McDonald and A.J. Burnett have regressed to varying degrees during the past month. Even the surprising production of catcher Michael McKenry has dried up.
But there’s still reason for hope. Neil Walker missed just a few games with a dislocated finger and appears to be largely unaffected by what looked to be a significant injury. Late-game relievers Jason Grilli and Joel Hanrahan have still proven to be reliable, with journeyman Grilli even outperforming the more heralded Bucs closer. Jeff Karstens and Erik Bedard have been above average in the last several weeks, giving the starting rotation more depth than in seasons past.
And then there’s Garrett Jones. The 31-year-old’s Pirates career has been interesting from the start, as he crushed 21 homers in a half-season of work upon his initial call-up in July 2009. Prior to that, the rightfielder/first baseman had only 84 plate appearances in the big leagues, all with Minnesota in the 2007 season.
Predictably, the 6-foot-4 Jones was unable to replicate that initial rush of success in the following two years. He matched his 21-homer total in 2010, but his rate stats dropped considerably since he was given almost exactly double the playing time. Last year he produced in a similar fashion – batting average down but on-base and slugging numbers up – but revealed himself as a limited platoon-type player.
The Pirates nearly didn’t offer Jones a contract last winter, but decided to give him a one-year, $2.25-million deal to keep him in Pittsburgh. The initial plan was to protect him against lefties with Casey McGehee and Jose Tabata, but the struggles of those righty swingers gave Jones more of an opportunity – he is on pace to exceed his plate appearance total from last season.
Any discussion of Jones must include his deficiencies in the field and on the basepaths, but he is on the team to slug baseballs. He has done exceedingly well in that category, especially for the relatively-low salary he commands. His triple-slash numbers (.287/.320/.551) are approaching his 2009 levels (.293/.372/.567), when opponents hadn’t developed a “book” on him yet.
Despite playing in non-premium defensive positions and bringing a negative effect in fielding and baserunning metrics, Jones is still the Pirates’ fourth most valuable hitter, in the same neighborhood as Pedro Alvarez and Walker, according to Baseball-Reference.com.
He was quietly going about his business until the last two weeks. However, on Aug. 13, he exploded for four hits, three RBI and a stunning catch that probably saved a pair of runs in a 5-4 loss to Los Angeles. Three days later, he prevented a four-game sweep by the Dodgers with a two-homer, six-RBI afternoon as the Bucs prevailed 10-6.
Then, on Tuesday night, Jones added another clip to his highlight reel. His 20th homer of the season tied the score 2-2 in the sixth inning at San Diego, and he came to the plate in the ninth with two outs, a runner on and the Pirates down two. He promptly launched a line-drive blast to center to dramatically tie the game and match his career-high.
The Bucs would heartbreakingly lose that game in the 10th inning, but it doesn’t diminish how Jones has raised his level while the club has stagnated. It’s quite improbable that a guy who was nearly without a team in the offseason is playing such a large role at a critical time, but that’s sport for you.
Yes, he’s flawed and he’ll likely never be a true everyday player, but Garrett Jones has proven he can be a significant contributor to a winning team. Now it’s up to the rest of his teammates to take a cue from him.
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