Jones picks up where he left off
Bucs' '09 breakout slugger homers in first two '10 at-bats
PITTSBURGH -- Everyone wondered. Everyone had their personal opinions, their predictions and prognostications. And in Pittsburgh, surely everyone hoped.Hoped, that is, that Garrett Jones in 2010 would be the Garrett Jones of 2009, but no one really knew if that was a realistic expectation or too far-fetched of a dream. One day won't convince the doubters or validate the optimists, but Jones certainly started the new season with a statement that likely secured the confidence of at least a few. In other words, maybe '09 wasn't a fluke after all. Making his first appearance in an Opening Day lineup, Jones took Dodgers starter Vicente Padilla deep in each of his first two at-bats in Monday's 11-5 win. He reached base three times in all, drove in three and scored a trio of runs as well. No, this single-game performance doesn't guarantee Jones a spot in July's All-Star Game or on end-of-season MVP ballots, though there were MVP chants resonating from the sellout crowd at PNC Park after Jones' second blast. But it does -- for at least a day -- justify some of that hope that Jones can be a middle-of-the-order power threat that the Pirates desperately need. "People continue to question him, and I really don't know why," manager John Russell said. "This guy is a good baseball player. He does a lot of things right." Everyone knows what Jones did during last year's stellar three-month rookie campaign. His 21 homers and .567 slugging percentages were not only tops on the team, but highs among all Major League rookies. Only four players -- Prince Fielder, Ryan Howard, Derrek Lee and Mark Reynolds -- had more home runs after July 1 than Jones. By no means is that shabby company. But was that three-month period long enough to project what to expect from Jones in a full season? How much weight can he be expected to carry in this lineup? And what will happen now that pitchers are seeing Jones for a second, third and fourth time, and making the appropriate adjustments? They are all good questions, and ones that will take a season to answer. But if Monday is any harbinger for what might be coming, the Pirates' offense just might be more potent than people are anticipating. "He's a guy that's dangerous," said teammate Ryan Doumit. "With one swing of the bat, he can be a game-changer. It's nice having a guy like that in our lineup." Outside of Jones, no one in the Pirates' starting lineup has posted a 20-homer season in the Majors, including Doumit, whose high was 15 in 2008. For that matter, only three players -- Jones, Andy LaRoche and Jeff Clement -- ever hit 20 in a Minor League season. That's what makes Jones such a critical cog in the batting order. Jones changed the complexion of Monday's game early and did so on a day when he admitted the butterflies and adrenaline were at a high. His mammoth blast came on a 1-2 fastball in the first. It cleared the right-field wall with ease, bouncing into the Allegheny River. The homer was estimated at 456 feet, which is just shy of the 461-foot blast into the river that Jones had in July. "He was elevating the fastball, and I just kept swinging through it a little bit," Jones said of his approach against Padilla. "I shortened up with two strikes, and I think he was trying to bury it in there and left it over the plate. It felt like a great swing. It felt effortless." It looked that way, too. Jones' third-inning blast wasn't as authoritative, though as Jones jokingly noted afterward, "Three-hundred twenty-one feet or in the river, they're still worth the same." The opposite-field shot narrowly cleared the left-field wall. But as it did, Jones etched his name into the Pirates' history books yet again, this time as just the sixth player to hit two home runs on Opening Day. The feat was last done by Xavier Nady two years ago. "I couldn't have dreamt it any better," said Jones, whose two Opening Day homers were matched by St. Louis slugger Albert Pujols on Monday. "That crowd it just gets the butterflies pumping and adrenaline going. You feel so strong at the plate and on defense. It felt great." Jones' show before the fourth-largest crowd in PNC Park history wasn't limited to his at-bats. He made highlight-reel-worthy diving catches in both the first and sixth innings to aid the Pirates' pitching staff. "Seeing a big man like that move, I think the earth shook," joked fellow outfielder Ryan Church. "When that big body gets going, it's tough to slow him down." After the game, Jones downplayed the significance of Monday's personal accolades. It was just one game, he insisted, and not necessarily a fair representation of what is to come. Sure, no one is predicting that he stays on pace to hit 324 home runs, but if this offense is going to be a formidable one, Jones' success in the No. 3 spot is crucial. His ability to produce will force hitters to pitch to Andrew McCutchen, who bats one spot ahead of Jones. And his ability to get on base should set up plenty of run-scoring opportunities for the middle of the order. And through all this, maybe, Jones can prove once and for all that despite his arduous journey through the Minors, yes, he does belong here. "I've just got to try and stay consistent and keep the same approach," Jones said. "It's good to get off to a good start, and I felt comfortable at the plate going into the first game. It's definitely a good feeling to be noticed when you're trying to help the team win."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.