SECOND CHANCE: Juan Pierre started the year on the bench but was thrust back into the starting lineup after Manny Ramirez was suspended for a positive dug test.Â In his first five games back in the line-up, Pierre is hitting just over .500 (10-for-21). Photo Credit: Jeff Lewis for Sentinel
In two years, Juan Pierre went from the main attraction at Dodger Stadium to a cameo. The $44-million man who was signed with much fanfare in 2007 reduced to pinch-hitting and relieving someone on their day of rest.
Funny how things change in two months.
With Manny Ramirez out until July 3 after testing positive for a banned substance, Pierre goes from a bit role to being thrust into the once-familiar spotlight.
The verdict? In the last four games of the team’s recent homestand, he hit .563 with four RBI’s, four runs scored and two walks.
“It doesn’t look like he hasn’t been playing at all,” James Loney remarked after Pierre went 3-for-5 last Saturday.
For the next two months, all eyes will be on the bald, soft-spoken veteran from Mobile, Alabama, filling in for the dreadlocked, gregarious Ramirez. He knows what’s at stake, but for Pierre, the challenge isn’t as hard as fans make it seem.
“I’m just taking it in stride right now,” Pierre said. “My name’s in the lineup so I’ll be ready to go.”
It’s easy to focus on how he’s not Ramirez. He doesn’t hit for power (only 13 career home runs) and his arm is average at best in the field. Even his batting average the previous two seasons (.290) was unbefitting a leadoff hitter.
Now look at what he can do. Get singles, steal bases (MLB’s active leader) and score runs. Play Gold-Glove caliber defense and hustle until the final out. It’s not always flashy, but it gets the job done.
Â “He knows what’s he doing leading off the game,” Orlando Hudson said, “Put him in the line-up and we’re not missing a beat.”
It’s a perfect fit for a team leading the National League in nearly every offensive category. Pierre gives the Dodgers essentially three leadoff hitters along with Hudson and Rafael Furcal.
But these next two months will serve as a reminder for Dodgers fans. Reminding them why he’s been one of the most consistent leadoff hitters this decade. Reminding them why – outside of Ramirez — he’s been the Dodgers’ best recent acquisition.
Jason Schmidt? Hasn’t pitched in a game since 2007. Andruw Jones? His 2008 campaign ranks among the biggest free agent busts in history.
Short of Hudson’s hot start, the team’s best move was trading Eric Gagne, the once-fiery reliever whose own legacy has been tarnished by his name being linked to steroids in the Mitchell Report.
Despite being platooned with Jones and later benched with Ramirez, he stayed ready by continuing to prepare for when his number would be called. So when Joe Torre moved him back in the lineup, it was old hat for a player who once played in 434 consecutive games from 2002-2008.
“You just have a free mind out there, not thinking about stuff you can’t control,” Pierre said, “The only thing I can control is the way I go out there and perform.
“I’m used to being out there everyday so that helps a lot.”
There’s been an underground movement by fans to rename the left field pavilion from Mannywood to JuanPierrewood – a play on the team’s recently suspended promotion. A website has been created to build on it (juanpierrewood.com) but Pierre laughed off any such talk.
“[Manny’s] good at what he does and I’m good at what I do,” he said.
But the fact is like Ramirez, he will be as far as attracting the scrutiny over his performance. Each at-bat, each defensive opportunity will be analyzed by fans who will either count down the days until Ramirez’s return or salute Pierre for a job well done.
None of that matters for the Dodgers’ new/old left fielder. He relies on confidence in his steady play, knowing his role and being confident in that.
“I’ve been doing this for almost 10 years so I’m just going to stay within myself and help the ballclub win.”
That’s all Dodger fans can ask for. He won’t replace their beloved icon but given the chance show and prove, he’ll remind them why he can fit in just fine.
Sentinel Sports Writer Tamara Latta contributed to this story.