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With another opportunity, Steve Pearce playing key role for the Orioles

Steve Pearce celebrates in the clubhouse after the Orioles clinched the American League East division title at Camden Yards.
Steve Pearce celebrates in the clubhouse after the Orioles clinched the American League East division title at Camden Yards. (Mitchell Layton, Getty Images)

Three weeks into this season, Steve Pearce walked out of the Orioles manager Buck Showalter's office in Toronto, sat down and just stared into his locker.

It was an all-too-familiar feeling for Pearce, who had just been told he was being designated for assignment. The Orioles had an early season roster crunch and needed to add bullpen reinforcements. Pearce, who had just seven at-bats at the time, was the odd man out.

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Pearce's hope was that he'd clear waivers, be outrighted to Triple-A Norfolk — where he could receive regular playing time — and eventually rejoin the major league club. But because he was a bench player who could play first base and both corner outfield spots, he also feared his days with the Orioles might be over.

"I was shocked," Pearce said. "I was like, 'Dang. I really didn't even have the chance to do anything.' I had seven at-bats. But at the same time, I understood it. … Obviously, it stunk."

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At that point, Pearce definitely didn't expect to be back in orange and black five months later, spraying champagne around the Orioles clubhouse while celebrating both a division title and the best season of his journeyman career.

Three days after the Orioles designated Pearce, first baseman Chris Davis left the game with an oblique injury. Pearce's phone immediately started buzzing with text messages from friends telling him the news. He checked Twitter and shook his head at the timing. His next call was to his agent.

"I told my agent, 'Whatever you can do to get me back there, that's what I want to do,'" Pearce said of returning to Baltimore.

With few options at first base, the Orioles needed Pearce, who refused a waiver claim by the Toronto Blue Jays, briefly became a free agent and then re-signed in Baltimore, rejuvenated with the promise of playing time. After being with five different organizations over seven major league seasons, most of them hindered by injuries, Pearce's third official stint with the Orioles offered opportunity.

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Pearce, 31, entered the season with just 17 career homers. In Wednesday night's 6-1 win over Toronto, he recorded his second two-homer game of the season to give him 20 this year. He will go into this weekend's final regular-season home series with four homers in his last four games.

'A guy that you could count on'

Pearce, who might be the poster boy for the Orioles' resilient season, has become one of the most valuable pieces as the club has overcome losses of several key players. When third baseman Manny Machado was lost for the season in August with season-ending right knee surgery, the Orioles shifted Davis from first to third to make room for Pearce in the lineup.

And Pearce's presence is now even more critical as Davis serves a 25-game suspension for a failed drug test.

"Stevie, he's been a big part of it," Showalter said. "It always had a good feel to it, Steve being on the club. A good fit. A guy that you could count on. 'What does the team need? I'll be ready. Appreciate the opportunity. It's an honor to be in the big leagues.' "

Pearce's success hasn't come without trying times. After spending five years with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Pearce was taken off the team's 40-man roster at the end of the 2011 season. He became a free agent and signed with the Minnesota Twins in the offseason, but was released in the final days of spring training in 2012 right at the same time when he learned his wife, Jessica, was pregnant with the couple's first child.

Pearce considered going to play in Japan, and even thought about life after baseball, signing up to finish his college degree online.

"We didn't know what was going to happen," Jessica Pearce said. "I don't think we thought baseball was over, but it was definitely a thought. … It's definitely a reminder of where we've been."

Now, with the season he has had, he should get some votes for this year's Most Valuable Oriole award, which will be announced Sunday. One qualifier of a player's value, the advanced stat wins above replacement (WAR), ranked Pearce at a 5.9, the 10th-highest mark among all American League players.

"I think it's that he's just getting consistent at-bats," Orioles hitting coach Jim Presley said. "He's had that, and he really carried us for a month, month and a half. He swung the bat well. He's always capable of it. That's why he's here.

"We said it in the meetings in spring training, 'This guy is going to give you a good at-bat no matter if it's 2-0, he goes to 3-2, he's going to battle and battle. It doesn't matter if it's left of right, so what?' He knows what he's doing."

Pearce's entire career had been played as a part-time player. Before this season, he had never received more than 165 at-bats in one season. This year, he has nearly twice that many (323).

So when he was able to rejoin the Orioles this season after Davis' injury, he went into it with a "nothing to lose" mentality.

"Looking back on it, it was like, 'What's the worst that can happen? I've already been released …,'" he said with a laugh. "When I got released, it wasn't like I was playing, so if I [stunk], I would just be released again. It was like, let's just go out there and leave it all on the field."

"At least you could say I didn't hold anything back. It was like, 'You know, let's just go all out and play.' If I do something stupid, take a bad swing, who cares? Just playing the game of baseball and let it all out."

Pearce said he struggled with a part-time role, starting sparingly, often in day games after night games. In anticipation for coming off the bench, he'd go through an adrenaline roller coaster, disappearing into the tunnel to get loose only to not have his name called.

And when Pearce did get into a game late, it was against lockdown late-inning relievers. In pregame work, he sometimes overworked himself in the indoor batting cages, one of the reasons he landed on the disabled list last season with tendinitis in both wrists.

But now — as the Orioles gear up for the postseason after winning their first division title in 17 years — they can't lose Pearce, limiting his pregame work to ensure he stays healthy.

"We have to monitor him, especially when he starts playing every day, and he's still trying to do what he did when he wasn't playing every day," Presley said. "We have to give him 25 swings in the cage to get him ready for BP and then run him out there."

But that's nothing new for Pearce. Even as a 5-foot-7, 130-pound freshman at Lakeland (Fla.) High School, Pearce was seeking perfection.

"He'd ask us for different ways to challenge him," said Ron Nipper, Pearce's high school coach. "[Doing infield drills at shortstop], Steve would say hit it as hard as you can. Hit it is as far left and right as you can. Steve wanted to be challenged. In batting practice, it was, 'throw it harder.' Throw me more sliders."

Before spring training, Pearce still goes to work out with Nipper's team in the offseason before spring training.

"He comes in and steps right in our hitting groups," said Nipper, now coach at McKeel Academy in Lakeland. "If our guys are bunting in this round, that's what he's doing. If we were doing hit-and-runs, he'd do that, too."

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Pearce's path to his breakout season took many stops. He went to junior college out of high school before transferring to baseball power South Carolina.

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He was rated the best power-hitting prospect in the Pirates system by Baseball America after the 2007 season, but once he broke into the major leagues with Pittsburgh, he struggled to crack the starting lineup. Losing wore on him.

"I know when I was struggling with Pittsburgh, I wasn't doing too good and was thinking, 'Man, if I'm one of the worst hitters on one of the worst teams, does that make me the worst hitter in the big leagues?'" Pearce said. "The game is hard enough as it is, so coming to the park and you're working so hard and putting so much time into the game and the results aren't there and you're struggling, baseball doesn't seem fun after a while. You work so hard just to get beat down."

'He has to master everything he does'

Pearce's competitive nature is evident on the field. He has been one of the team's most active pingpong players throughout the season. And Jessica Pearce knew Steve was competitive from one of their first dates seven years ago.

"He does not like to lose," she said. "When we started dating, we went bowling, and I beat him, and he literally bowled every single day after that and now there's not a chance that I would ever beat him. He has to master everything he does."

After the Twins cut Pearce in 2012, the New York Yankees signed him to a minor league deal despite a nagging calf injury. He was then acquired by the Orioles that June as part of Pearce exercising his opt-out clause. He played 28 games for the Orioles, but was designated for assignment the next month in another roster crunch.

But Showalter left a message that resonated with Pearce at the time. He made it clear to Pearce that the club liked what he brought and wanted him back. With teams decimated by injuries, Pearce played 21 games for the Houston Astros, then 12 for the Yankees — switching from team to team all while Jessica was pregnant.

He was designated for assignment by the Yankees in the final days of the 2012 regular season as Jessica was about to give birth to a baby girl. The baby arrived three weeks early, and Pearce was at the hospital waiting outside the intensive care unit when he received a call from a Norfolk area code. The Orioles had claimed him off waivers.

"Ever since then, I thought this place is great," Pearce said. "They gave me a shot. They did what they said they were going to do. I understand business decisions have to be made, but they said, 'Hey we're going to keep you in mind if something happens.' They didn't have to."

Showalter initially wanted Pearce to meet with the team in Baltimore as the Orioles played the Red Sox. But upon learning that Pearce was with his wife and their baby in the ICU, he told Pearce to just meet the team in Tampa Bay.

Pearce didn't get an at-bat in the last three games, but he formed a loyalty to the Orioles. He also began wearing No. 28 because his daughter, Jensen, was born Sept. 28, 2012.

"He gets the good things about Baltimore and the organization," Showalter said. "Some people are here their whole careers then go someplace else and appreciate it more when they're gone."

Pearce wasn't on the Orioles' postseason roster in 2012, so this will be his first time in the playoffs after finding a home in Baltimore.

"I've been a lot of different places and this was the place I always felt most comfortable," Pearce said. "I had a great time with the Yankees. With the Astros, Pirates, I learned a lot, but even in 2012 when they designated me, I remember I was like no matter what happens, I really enjoyed my time here, and if a spot opens, give me a call. They did that. …

"This is where I belong. There's just something that this place has that fits me."

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