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Pirates' Jones finds consistency at the plate

| Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013, 11:39 p.m.
Christopher Horner
Pirates first baseman Garrett Jones connects on a pitch against the Rays on Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013, at McKechnie Field in Bradenton, Fla. (Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review)
Christopher Horner
Pirates first baseman Garrett Jones bats against the Rays on Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013, at McKechnie Field in Bradenton, Fla. (Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review)
Christopher Horner
Pirates first baseman Garrett Jones talks with hitting coach Jay Bell before a game against the Rays on Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013, at McKechnie Field in Bradenton, Fla. (Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review)
Christopher Horner
Pirates first baseman Garrett Jones warms up on deck next to Pedro Alvarez during a game against the Rays on Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013, at McKechnie Field in Bradenton, Fla. (Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review)

BRADENTON, Fla. — Garrett Jones caught everyone's attention when he put up solid numbers after a midseason call-up in 2009.

After debuting with the Pirates on July 1, Jones batted .293 with 21 home runs and a .938 on-base plus slugging percentage. He finished seventh in National League Rookie of the Year voting.

However, Jones' performance dipped slightly in each of the next two seasons. He fiddled with his swing mechanics. He fretted about his playing time. He got timid at the plate.

Last year, Jones began winning those mechanical and mental battles. Staying poised and focused, he put together what could be considered a breakout season.

“I worked on some things mechanically, a little bit here and there,” Jones said. “But overall it was about just keeping a good mindset.”

Jones played in 145 games, which was a handful fewer than he got in either 2010 or '11. Yet it no longer was a distraction for him.

“You can get frustrated when you're pinch-hit for a lot or coming out of the game in certain situations,” Jones said. “I was really focused on playing to win. When I was out there, I did my job. When I wasn't, I was still trying to do what I can to help the team win. I learned a lot doing that — not getting frustrated and keeping that same mentality, whether I had a good game or a bad game.”

Jones hit a career-best 27 homers and reversed the downward trends of his batting average, slugging percentage and OPS. He also avoided the slumps that had dogged him in other years. His longest stretch without a hit last year was four games, which included two games in which he only batted once as a pinch-hitter.

Those who like to nitpick will point out that Jones' 33 walks were a career low — seven fewer than in 2009, when he had 157 fewer plate appearances.

“I think it was because I was hitting the ball better, more consistently,” Jones said. “I was more aggressive instead of taking strikes. I think I'm a patient hitter. It's not like I wasn't getting pitches to hit. For me to be successful, I have to be aggressive. I'm not worried about trying to walk more. It's about having good at-bats.”

Until last year, Jones frequently tinkered with his swing, sometimes making big changes as he tried to find something that was comfortable and effective.

“It's been a battle,” he admitted. “You change things, and you end up getting away from what got you here. Last year, I was able to stick with one approach and one swing. I finally found what works for me.”

The only changes Jones made last year were little ones. He stood a bit more upright, cut down on his stride and loosened his top-hand grip to get more extension.

At the end of July, the Pirates traded for first baseman Gaby Sanchez and right fielder Travis Snider. Those are the two positions Jones plays — a reminder the front office is always seeking upgrades.

Instead of sulking, Jones responded by batting .323 with six homers in August. He and Sanchez split time at first base.

“Gaby and I have the same mindset,” Jones said. “We were able to make the adjustment pretty quick. We're putting all that personal recognition stuff aside.”

Jones and Sanchez will share first base again this season, although management shies away from calling it a strict platoon.

“There are some left-handers who Garrett matches up well against, just as there are some right-handers who Gaby matches up well with,” general manager Neal Huntington said. “The challenge is, you want two guys who want to play. You also want two guys who kind of understand and maybe not accept but acknowledge their role.

“We believe both guys are good people and team-first guys.”

Rob Biertempfel is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rbiertempfel@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.

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