When Orioles first baseman Steve Pearce was sidelined for five games last week, his absence left a big hole in the lineup. Nobody realized it more than manager Buck Showalter.
"He's in a little bit different stage of his career where people are counting on him, and he's kind of become a guy that we're leaning on," Showalter said. "That's what I've tried to relay to him, that you're a valuable part of this club."
Pearce, who was released by the Orioles earlier this season — and for the first six years of his career was the definition of a replacement player — has been one of several unlikely contributors for a team that won the American League East crown and is preparing to start the postseason on Thursday at Camden Yards.
"It feels amazing," said the 31-year-old Pearce, who has played with three other teams since 2008. "I've put in the time, and it's paid off."
The Orioles had to replace three All Stars this season. Catcher Matt Wieters was lost to an elbow injury in May, third baseman Manny Machado suffered a knee injury in mid-August (after getting a late start while rehabbing a different knee injury and then being suspended five games earlier in July) and first baseman Chris Davis struggled and was then suspended 25 games for a positive test for amphetamines.
But the Orioles still ran away with AL East title, in part, because of their replacements. Catchers Caleb Joseph, 28, and Nick Hundley, 31, took over for Wieters, Ryan Flaherty, 28, filled in for Machado — and any other infielder — and Pearce became the first baseman, excelling both offensively and defensively.
"We have guys that have come up and made big contributions and helped win games in many different spots — pitchers, defense, hitting," Joseph said. "It's been fun to be a part of, and we've needed it, as a team that's lost so many crucial pieces of the puzzle.
"That's why this team has been so exciting and fun, because so many guys have been able to step up."
None have done so more than Pearce, whose .295 batting average is highest among club regulars. He played parts of 2012 and 2013 with the Orioles, but was shuffled off the roster on April 27 this year when the Orioles needed to add a pitcher. The team brought him back when Davis went on the disabled list with an oblique injury two days later.
All 21 of his home runs came after he returned, and Pearce has been one the team's steadiest offensive producers, along with outfielder-designated hitter Nelson Cruz.
"It feels amazing," Pearce said. "I've put in the time, and it's paid off."
He said someone in his previous position — the seldom-used reserve — can elevate himself because of the team's inclusive chemistry.
"You see the coaches playing cards with the players," Pearce said. "You see the video guys are in the fantasy football league. Everybody is involved with everything, and it's a great atmosphere. … You get treated no differently if you're in the lineup or not in the lineup."
When Pearce returned on May 11, he took the 25-man roster spot of Wieters, who had been dealing with right elbow issues and eventually opted for season-ending Tommy John surgery.
Days earlier, Joseph, who had spent 428 games at Double-A Bowie over four seasons and had very little Triple-A experience, was summoned to provide catching depth.
"I couldn't come in trying to be Matt Wieters because you can't," Joseph said. "You can't get caught in a performance trap there, because if you come in and try to be Matt Wieters, you're going to fail and then you're going to fall into a deeper hole."
Joseph and Hundley, who was acquired from San Diego in May for reliever Troy Patton, have combined to fill in for Wieters. Going into Saturday's game, Joseph was batting .209 with a .620 OPS and nine home runs in 81 games. Hundley was hitting .237 with five home runs and a .637 OPS with the Orioles before Saturday. But together, their defense and handling of the pitching staff has been sound.
Team leaders like Jones, right fielder Nick Markakis, and shortstop J.J. Hardy are part of the reason players whose names aren't on the marquee each night can contribute when called upon, Joseph said.
"They invite a culture of relaxed feeling, so I think when guys do come up, the only pressure they're feeling is what they put on themselves," he said. "We have such an inviting environment that guys are naturally able to let their talents flow out without feeling tight or stressed."
For Joseph, who toiled for parts of seven seasons in the minors with the Orioles before getting his shot, that culture is special. But for the slew of waiver claims and trade acquisitions who joined the team throughout the year, it's an opportunity that might not have existed elsewhere.
Utility infielder Kelly Johnson, whose trade to the Orioles allowed him to play on his fifth AL East club, said it's a place he always hoped to end up in free agency because of the meritocracy Showalter runs: the best players play.
Johnson is one of several players vying to take permanent hold of Machado's third-base position. Johnson, Flaherty and switch-hitting utility man Jimmy Paredes have alternated chances, with a spot on the playoff roster in the balance.
Flaherty, acquired in the 2011 Rule 5 draft from the Chicago Cubs, has been on the Orioles' roster since Opening Day in 2012, though he's been cast in many different roles. He knows as well as anyone that every man on the roster is expected to contribute.
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"It really is a team that's the sum of its parts," said Flaherty, who going into Saturday's game was hitting .223 with seven home runs. "That's something Buck mentioned early in spring training, that that's the way it's going to be. With injuries and other stuff, it's proved to be that way."
Even the team's many September call-ups are resources, both on the field and in the clubhouse. Flaherty said he's spoken about the playoffs and being ready with outfielder Quintin Berry, who won the World Series last year with the Boston Red Sox and played in the Fall Classic the year before with Detroit.
Berry served as a pinch runner for the Red Sox, occupying an extra bench spot with the smaller postseason pitching staffs, and stole three bases in three tries. Boston won all three games in which he appeared.
Berry said the key is for everyone on the roster to be able to contribute in October, not just the stars.
"You can't count on one person, especially in the playoffs," Berry said. "Guys are going to be cold, guys are going to be hot, but I've seen night after night, somebody else step up and do something big for the team. It's huge when you've got that kind of depth in your lineup, as well as starting pitching. Our starting pitching has been amazing, as well as the fire they've got in the bullpen. This is a tough team to beat."