BALTIMORE – The Orioles are closing in on their first American League East title in 17 years and doing so without arguably their two most talented players. Manny Machado, a 22-year-old third baseman, is lost for the season after having knee surgery, and 28-year-old catcher Matt Wieters underwent Tommy John surgery in June.
Now would be a good time, then, to familiarize yourself with the rest of their roster. Perhaps you know slugger Nelson Cruz, who was caught in the Biogenesis scandal last year but may be the biggest free-agent bargain in baseball this year; centerfielder Adam Jones, a four-time All-Star, and Chris Davis, whose 111 home runs since 2012 are the most in the majors.
Then there's the strange case of Steve Pearce. The bald-headed, 31-year-old journeyman has played 85 games this season, the most in his career, and has suited up for four teams in his eight major league seasons. Since June of 2012, the Orioles have signed him three times and let him go twice, including late last April, when, needing a roster spot for a pitcher, they released him. After Davis was sidelined with an oblique strain, however, the O's re-signed Pearce to a contract just two days after they had kicked him to the curb.
It took a humbling phone call from Dan Duquette, Baltimore's Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations, to get him back:
“I had to approach Steve on bended knee. I called and said, ‘Are you still in town?’ He said, ‘I am,’ and I said, ‘It looks like we might have a job for you.’
“It’s a unique situation, but not unique to Steve. I’d say we got lucky.’’
“All I wanted to do is play for the Orioles,’’ Pearce says. “I love it here.’’
What's not to love? With 23 games remaining, Baltimore leads the Yankees by 9 1/2 games, the biggest division lead in baseball. Its high-powered offense leads the AL in home runs by a wide margin, topped by Cruz's AL-best 37. Pearce, with 16, is one of seven players with double figures in home runs. By the end of the season, that number could grow to nine, which would be one more than the homer-happy 1997 team, the last Orioles club to win the AL East.
“It’s a weird story, but that’s baseball,’’ Jones says of Pearce's unlikely journey. “Everything happens for a reason. I like Steve Pearce because he never complains. He never puts himself first. It’s always about the team. And he’s not too shabby of a hitter."
Indeed, Pearce -- who played primarily in leftfield when he first came back but moved to first base so Davis could replace the injured Macahdo at third in mid-August -- has been a big part of Baltimore's success. Although he had just seven at-bats in April before being released, he picked up 11 hits and three home runs in his first 10 games back after rejoining the team in May. He finished the month with a .309 average, then hit .361 in June.
Pearce then fell into a slump that shook his confidence. He hit just .231 in July and started August 1-for-13.
“I picked up a bat after the [All-Star] break and thought, ‘Oh man, this doesn’t feel right," he says. "I had the feel. I know the ABCs of hitting, but I lost the comfort zone. I started to panic. I was hitting so well, then I went straight south. It was frustrating. Everything was going well and then, all of a sudden, it went away all at the same time. You have just to work, work, work and think that it is going to come in your next at-bat, in the next game.’’
He started feeling good during an at-bat as a pinch-hitter in Cleveland on Aug. 16 when he hit long flyball to rightfield. “I made an out, but I could feel it coming back.’’
The stroke did. The next night Pearce embarked on an 11-game hitting streak during which he hit .333. But then another setback: he suffered an abdominal strain in his next game, on Aug. 29, and sat out for a week. An MRI was negative, and Pearce is expected to be back in the lineup this weekend when the Orioles play at Tampa Bay.
It's a minor setback compared to what he went though in April. After being let go in Toronto at the end of the month, he went home to Baltimore to hang out with his wife, Jessica, and daughter, Jensen. Davis was hurt just a couple days later, which Pearce found out about via Twitter and text messages from friends.
“I thought, ‘You’ve got to be kidding. That’s my luck right there.'"
The Orioles weren't the only team interested in Pearce, though. The Blue Jays wanted him too. But the Orioles offered $850,000 and more playing time. And Pearce knew where he wanted to be.
“I love the team, the city, the atmosphere at the ballpark and my wife loves the city,’’ Pearce says. “I didn’t want to go. I wanted to find a way to play for the Orioles.’’
Pearce's career has been defined by constant change. After starring at the University of South Carolina, where he led the team in all three triple crown categories in both 2004 and '05, the Pirates selected him in the eighth round in 2005. He was ranked by Baseball America as the organization’s best power-hitting prospect, and in 2007 he hit 31 home runs across three levels of the minor leagues.
He debuted in Pittsburgh that season, but, blocked by others at the major league level, he played just 120 games for the Pirates through 2009. In 2010 Pearce reported to spring training in great shape, but an ankle injury led to a knee injury and he wound up playing just 15 games with Pittsburgh.
The Pirates finally let him go after the 2011 season. He went to spring training with the Twins the next year, only to be released before the season started. Pearce began seriously thinking about life after baseball and contemplated retirement, but he didn't know what other career he could pursue, though he always wanted to try bowling or golf.
He stuck with baseball and signed with the Yankees. He spent two months with New York's Triple A team before being acquired by the Orioles in June. At the end of July he was claimed off waivers by the Astros. A month later, the Yankees brought him back only to put him on waivers a month after that, whereby Baltimore grabbed him yet again. All the while his pregnant wife had to deal with the additional stress of handling all the family's moves.
“It was a roller coaster of a season, but [Jessica] was the backbone," says Pearce. "I was on the road all the time. She kept it all together.’’
“First he’s playing against us, then for us, then against us and then for us,’’ Davis says. “This game is hard enough as it is, even when a player has stability. The most impressive thing about him is perseverance. That’s the beautiful part of this game. You put in your time. You survive injuries, work hard and then in your early 30s, you get a chance to play the game. It’s a great story. I’ve never seen anything like it.’’
Nor has Pearce seen anything like what he's going through now. He has never played in the postseason, and he has already set career-highs in virtually every offensive category, including games (85), plate appearances (314), at-bats (284), hits (82), runs (43), doubles (21), home runs (16), RBIs (37) and OPS (.885), all while batting .289. It might even be enough to ensure a return to Baltimore next season, and maybe even the first multi-year contract of his career.
Last week, before a game at Camden Yards, Pearce was walking through the clubhouse when a team employee reminded him to sign for charity the road gray No. 28 jersey he had worn when the Orioles played at Chicago’s Wrigley Field the week before. Pearce’s jersey was draped over a pool table alongside those of Jones, Davis and J.J. Hardy, each a big-time hero in Baltimore.
Pearce signed and smiled. He knows that his long road has allowed him to live a dream.
“It’s going to be a fun September," he says. "I’m on a good team with a big lead in the division. We’re all having a good time.’’
When you’ve finally found a home, that’s how it is supposed to feel.
Mel Antonen is a baseball writer in Washington, D.C., and a baseball analyst for the MLB Network on Sirius-XM Radio.