Jones realizes big league dream at last

July 18, 2009

By James Bailey

Garrett Jones is making up for lost time. The Pirate right fielder homered twice Friday night, accounting for Pittsburgh’s only runs in a 2-1, 14-inning win over San Francisco. Those were his sixth and seventh home runs in 12 major league games this year. Not bad for a 28-year-old rookie who spent 11 seasons in the minor leagues.

“I always wondered if would feel like to hit a walk-off home run in the major leagues,” Jones told John Perrotto of PiratesReport.com. “It felt pretty good. I squared the ball up pretty good on the bat and gave it a good ride. That was fun.”

A good ride, indeed. His home run bounced into the Allegheny River. There was no doubt about it from the moment he connected.

It’s nice to see him enjoy this kind of success. Jones became a staple here in Rochester, where we became accustomed to seeing his name in the lineup from 2005-08. He hit 81 home runs for the Red Wings in his four years with the team, good for seventh on the all-time franchise list. In his final at-bat last season, on Fan Appreciation Day, Jones launched a walk-off shot to win the game against Buffalo. That gave him five RBIs on the day and sent the fans, who had roared for him every time up, home happy. We knew before the game that Jones wouldn’t be back in 2009.

Blocked by Twins star Justin Morneau, Jones moved away from first base and logged time on the outfield corners. The flexibility helped earn him three trips to Minnesota in 2007. He singled in his big league debut against the Indians, but after going 1-for-8 in four games he was shipped back to Rochester. Following a 10-day trial in July, he was back for good in August. Jones, then 26, homered twice in the season’s final week and finished the year with a .208 average in 77 at-bats.

The Twins had seen enough to decide he didn’t fit long-term. They dropped him from the 40-man roster in 2008 and despite hitting .279 with 23 homers and 92 RBIs in Rochester he wasn’t called up in September. Jones decided before the season ended that he’d look for another organization in the offseason, which made the final home run bittersweet.

“Everyone was very nice to me and everyone cheered for me,” he said after his final game as a Red Wing. “I couldn’t have asked for anything more. It was a lot of fun playing here.”

But four fun years in Triple-A is still four years in Triple-A. Jones signed with the Pirates as a minor league free agent over the winter, figuring he had a better shot at reaching the majors. The Pirates invited him to spring training, where he hit .294 with four homers and 11 RBIs in 51 at-bats. It wasn’t enough to break camp with the big club, and the tall lefty swinger opened the year back in the International League, this time with Indianapolis. He hit .307 with 12 homers and 49 RBIs in 72 games there before finally getting the call to Pittsburgh on June 30 when Eric Hinske was traded to the Yankees. All he’s done since then is hit home runs.

He’s connected now in four straight games, including each of the three games against the Phillies before the All-Star break. In 48 at-bats he’s hitting .313 with 10 extra-base hits and an .833 slugging percentage. At this pace he’s forcing his way into the NL Rookie of the Year picture.

The long-distance display is a pleasant surprise for the Pirates, a team in sore need of power. Even after 158 minor league home runs, Jones didn’t profile as a guy who would crank them out at this pace. His career best was 31, back in 2004 (1 at Class A Fort Myers, 30 at Double-A New Britain). That was his third season in the Twins organization. They had signed him as a free agent in May 2002 after he was released by the Braves, who selected him in the 14th round of the 1999 draft. Jones, despite hitting .289 for Danville in 2001, never made it out of Rookie ball in three years in the Atlanta system.

He’s hung tough over the years and is finally reaping some reward for his perseverance. His current pace is impossible to maintain, but it’s nice to see him get his moment in the sun at last after all he did for Rochester the past four years.