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Pirates' Jones a real late boomer

Baltimore Sun

Here's your home run count from July 1 through the start of the weekend:

Albert Pujols, 19.

Garrett Jones, 24.

Just like you would have pegged it, right?

When the Pirates promoted Jones, 28, from Triple-A Indianapolis in the middle of last season, he was considered the epitome of a 4-A player - that is, a very productive minor leaguer who isn't consistent enough to last in the big leagues.

But since putting on a Pirates uniform, Jones has hit home runs at a rate that few - perhaps even Jones - envisioned.

He has been out-homered by only Ryan Howard (27) and Prince Fielder (26), matching the total that played a big role in the Diamondbacks signing Mark Reynolds to a three-year, $14.5 million extension.

Jones homered twice off the Dodgers' Vicente Padilla on Opening Day, including a first-inning blast hit so hard, it bounced into the Allegheny River. The PNC Park crowd chanted "M-V-P" after his second homer.

"I couldn't have dreamt it any better," Jones told reporters afterward.

His most impressive moment of the opening series came in Game 2: a lefty-lefty home run off Clayton Kershaw. He killed right-handed pitchers last season but struggled against lefties, batting .208.

Pirates manager John Russell came to spring training not sure how he would use Jones but quickly concluded he would be a regular, moving between right field and first base depending on whether Jeff Clement or Delwyn Young got a start. Russell hit Jones third against the Cubs' Randy Wells when he arrived in Pittsburgh last July and he has stayed there - something that almost never happens.

"I want to see what I can do over a full season," Jones said.

So do a lot of other people, although Russell insists he isn't waiting to see how long the late bloomer can keep it going.

"People continue to question him," Russell said. "I don't really know why. This guy is a good baseball player."

The Braves drafted Jones in the 14th round in 1999. He lasted a little more than three years in their farm system before being released, never getting beyond rookie ball. He got a second chance with the Twins and spent the next six years as a productive player in the organization but played only 31 games in the big leagues, all in 2007.

A minor league free agent after 2008, he picked the Pirates largely because he liked his chances to earn a spot given the corner-outfield void that followed trades of Jason Bay and Xavier Nady.

Jones never is going to forget what happened Monday. He became only the sixth Pirates player to homer twice on Opening Day, joining Dale Long (1956), Richie Hebner (1974), Willie Stargell (1975), Andy Van Slyke (1990) and Nady (2008).

"I always dreamed of playing on Opening Day in the major leagues, and it was even more exciting than I thought it would be," Jones said. "Everything is just so magnified. You have the big crowd, more press in the clubhouse before the game.

"There was a lot of excitement in the air, but what really stood out to me was the crowd. The fans were so loud and energetic. You couldn't help but get pumped up."

Our guy Curtis: Regular readers know there is a fondness in this space for Curtis Granderson. He is showing why with his play, going 4-for-12 with two home runs and a stolen base in the Yankees' opening series at Yankee Stadium. He pulled a 94 mph fastball from Jonathan Papelbon into the right-field seats to break a 10th-inning tie Wednesday.

He isn't letting the need to win the affection of New York fans affect him.

"So far, he has reacted well," manager Joe Girardi said. "That can't be said for everyone that comes to New York."

Granderson does much of his best work off the field. Evidence of that is the movie "Bilal's Stand," which has been accepted at the Sundance Film Festival. Students from the University of Michigan and Detroit public schools produced it as part of the EFEX Project, partially funded by the Grand Kids Foundation that Granderson established after signing a $30 million contract with the Tigers in 2007.

Family affair: Because the Padres opened the season at Arizona, Jerry Hairston Sr. was able to check out the team that includes his sons Jerry Jr., a former Oriole, and Scott.

The latter hit a three-run homer in his first at-bat, giving his dad an extra reason to smile.

"It's awesome," Jerry Sr., a coach for the White Sox's affiliate in the Appalachian League, told the North County Times. "There was a time they used to sit at my locker."

The well-traveled Jerry Jr., who picked up a World Series ring with the Yankees last season, is sharing second base with David Eckstein. Scott is getting time in the outfield alongside Tony Gwynn Jr.

The last word: "Every day you have to continue to earn your stripes in this game. It doesn't get easier." - Red Sox veteran Mike Lowell on David Ortiz's defensive reaction to questions about his 1-for-11 showing in the opening series against the Yankees.

Phil Rogers covers baseball for the Chicago Tribune.

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