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Pearce shows it's never too late for breakout season

Oriole, 31, has been key component for AL East-leading squad @RichardJustice

At last count, Steve Pearce had played 622 Minor League games over nine seasons. So when he's finally done with this baseball gig, he can tell us about the places he has gone and the things he has seen.

His list of teams sounds like a roll call of America, from Altoona and Hickory to Lynchburg and Bradenton and plenty of teams in between. If you want to know where to get a good cup of coffee in Williamsport, Steve might just be the man to see.

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Here's hoping that's the end of that chapter of his career. At some point, a man has paid his dues, right? On the other hand, all those stops might just make this 2014 season even more special.

Pearce isn't just in the big leagues, although obviously that's the place he always wanted to be. He's also a major contributor, hitting .319 on a first-place team, the Baltimore Orioles, who've sprinted to the top of the American League East with a nifty little 16-7 run in which they've gone from six games out to three games up in a matter of just 23 days.

The Orioles are winning because Nelson Cruz and Adam Jones are playing lights-out, because the pitching has been solid and because manager Buck Showalter is working his usual magic.

These Orioles are a tribute to the good work of one of baseball's most creative general managers, Dan Duquette, and to a clubhouse in which the leadership and professionalism are second to none.

Best of all, there's a special vibe back at Camden Yards. Another large crowd, this one 45,389, showed up Friday night to see a 10-inning, 3-2 victory over the Yankees. None of these Orioles can be enjoying this kind of season more than Pearce, who is an overnight star at 31, after nine Minor League seasons, after being shown the door more than seems fair.

The Orioles are also winning because of Pearce, a star, finally. During this 16-7 run, he has batted .333 with seven home runs in 21 starts. He has contributed big hit after big hit as the Birds have reshaped the AL East race.

Here's the thing about Pearce. He always intrigued scouts and general managers and plenty of others. He didn't blow their socks off. No one was standing up and saying this guy might be a future All-Star. They simply looked at him and thought there would be a place for him on a Major League team, a winning team.

From the moment he left the University of South Carolina, he showed off a gift that talent evaluators absolutely love.

He hit with power.

He had 40 doubles and 26 home runs in his first professional season, 40 doubles and 31 home runs in his second.

Right off the bat, he got people's attention. If you didn't know one other thing about what kind of player he'd be or what position he'd play, those power numbers meant he almost certainly was going to get a chance.

He sprinted through the Pirates' system, making his big league debut in September 2007, at the end of just his second full professional season.

Thus began a five-year stretch when he was back and forth between Pittsburgh and Triple-A Indianapolis. He got some chances, but no one ever simply threw him out there and let him sink or swim.

In fairness, he'd never done enough to show he deserved that kind of chance, and after hitting .202 in 50 games in 2011, the Pirates let him go.

The Twins signed him in December 2011, and released him four months later. This is where it gets weird.

Pearce spent time with the Yankees, Orioles and Astros in 2012. He had two tours of duty with the Yankees, two with the Orioles.

When those clubs needed a right-handed bat, they saw enough in Pearce to give him a shot. He got 188 at-bats with the Orioles, Astros and Yankees, and batted .239 with four home runs.

The Orioles brought him back for 2013 because Duquette loves these kinds of reclamation projects. That is, where others might focus on what a player can't do, Duquette looks at a guy and attempts to understand what he can do and how those skills might help the Orioles win games.

But this, they never expected. At the beginning of the season, he had 17 career home runs in 743 at-bats. This season, he has 14 in 182 at-bats.

In his previous seven big league seasons, he never once had 182 at-bats, so his good work surely is partly a result of getting a real chance. He showed up at Spring Training with a shortened stride and no longer an all-or-nothing hitter.

He started hitting in May, and because he was producing, Showalter kept writing his name on his lineup card. That's another important thing about these Orioles. In Showalter, they have a manager who has the ability to make players believe in themselves.

Whenever a team has one of those special seasons, it's because the core players play the way they're supposed to, and also because some guys perform above expectations.

When Duquette was asked about Pearce on Friday afternoon, he gushed, "Steve deserves all [the] credit. He shortened his stride, and it shortened his swing, and his bat stays in [the] hitting area longer. Good kid, great work habits."

It's looking like this may be a special baseball summer in Baltimore, and Pearce is going to be a big part of it. Yeah, sometimes the good guys win.

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U.

Baltimore Orioles, Steve Pearce