BRADENTON -- The Baltimore Orioles brought several of their regulars to McKechnie Field on Sunday for the "A" game of a split-squad meeting with the Pittsburgh Pirates -- and still they were floundering.
For five innings, a lineup featuring former All-Stars Adam Jones, Manny Machado and Chris Davis managed only two hits.
Still, when Steve Pearce stepped to the plate in the top of the sixth, he represented the tying run. If what followed had transpired during any of his years with Pittsburgh, he may have been sitting in the opposite dugout Sunday.
The former Pirate launched a game-tying, two-run home run toward the boardwalk in left field -- and it wasn't even a surprise. During the past year, Pearce has emerged as a bonafide slugger, pulling monster home runs against MLB pitching with his wide-open stance and impressive natural power.
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"He's always been able to hit," said shortstop Jordy Mercer, who played with
Pearce in Pittsburgh during 2012. "His role early on was pinch hits and spot starts and stuff like that."
Home runs like Sunday's, which capped a 2-for-3 day that rose his Grapefruit League batting average to .400, are a product of the tools that once made Pearce an intriguing prospect for the Pirates.
An eighth-round pick in the 2005 MLB draft after two years at Indian River Community College in Fort Pierce and two more at South Carolina, Pearce made it to the majors as a September call-up in 2007 and after the year was regarded by Baseball America as Pittsburgh's No. 3 prospect.
But then his career stagnated. The Lakeland native made major-league appearances in each of the next four seasons for the Pirates but never got more than 186 plate appearances. After an injury-plagued 2011, during which he batted just .202 for Pittsburgh, Pearce was granted free agency. His career with the Pirates was over.
"I think if we had seen those signs we would've kept him," manager Clint Hurdle said of Pearce's breakout 2014. "He poured everything out he had here every day. ... There's nobody happier for him outside of that Oriole clubhouse itself than his teammates over here and the coaches that had the opportunity to work with him."
For the next two years, Pearce bounced around, making appearances for Baltimore, the Yankees and the Astros before finally finding a home with the O's during the 2014 season.
That was when Orioles manager Buck Showalter finally gave Pearce his chance. Two thirds of Baltimore's 2014 outfield was set with Adam Jones and Nick Markakis. Pearce would get a chance to compete for a full-time role in left.
He started the season 1-for-7 and the O's designated him for assignment with the intention of bringing him back when a roster spot opened up. Pearce had so much faith in the Orioles that he rejected a claim by the Blue Jays at the time, electing for free agency and a chance to return to Baltimore.
"The opportunity was there for me to play every day," said Pearce, who now projects as the O's starting right fielder on Opening Day.
It was during that second stint that he took off. The slugger went 3-for-4 in his first game back and was batting .344 with a .998 on-base-plus-slugging percentage and seven home runs by mid-June.
"When I got the chance to play I was locked in," Pearce said. "I started off hot, which was one of the main things. Everyone wants the hot bat out there, so they kept throwing me out there every day and I kept on doing well."
Last time Pearce stood inside McKechnie in a Pittsburgh uniform, the recently renovated stadium looked different and his future as a professional ballplayer was murky.
From the visiting dugout, he came to share hugs and pleasantries with former teammates and Pirates staff members during batting practice. And with him he carried a confidence that has come with his newfound success.
"I feel a little more comfortable this spring," Pearce said. "Not stressing as much, but at the same time I'm still working hard."