Major League Baseball: Catawba standout Jerry Sands making history in return to big leagues

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, June 17, 2014

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Jerry Sands is likely the first major leaguer in history who returned a phone call 15 minutes after getting a message — and apologized for the delay.
“Sorry, I was just getting some breakfast with the guys,” explained the former Catawba College slugger on Tuesday morning.
The most popular topic of conversation between bites of toast and eggs probably was Sands, who was group-hugged by famous Tampa Bay teammates such as David Price and Evan Longoria on Sunday and again on Monday.
What Sands, who broke Catawba records for homers, RBIs and walks and has his number honored on the right-field wall at Newman Park, has accomplished for the Rays, is historic.
Sands, 26, was just a few days shy of his third birthday the last time an American Leaguer produced game-deciding, pinch-hit RBIs in consecutive games. The guy who did it was Harold Baines, a six-time All-Star. Baines was credited with game-winning RBIs for Oakland with a double on Sept. 21 and a sacrifice fly on Sept. 22, 1990.
Sands, a 6-foot-4, 220-pounder, has energized the struggling Rays with a pair of tiebreaking, eighth-inning pinch-hits. His single decided Sunday’s 4-3 win at Houston, while his towering homer provided the margin in Monday’s 5-4 home win against Baltimore.
“It’s been crazy, really crazy,” Sands said. “But mostly it’s been fun. Coming through and helping your team win games is a lot of fun.”
Sands’ amazing at-bat in Houston might win awards for comedy as well as drama.
“The craziest at-bat I’ve ever had in my life,” said Sands, who was sent to the plate by manager Joe Maddon with two men on base and the score tied 3-all.
Right-handed relief pitcher Jerome Williams splintered two of Sands’ bats as Sands fouled off cutters tailing away. When Williams came inside with a 3-2 fastball, Sands broke a third bat, but he was strong enough to muscle the ball into left field to drive home the run that put Tampa Bay ahead.
“I never cap a ball like I did that one,” Sands said. “He jammed me pretty good, but I got a little lucky. I’d never broken two bats on an at-bat. This time I broke three, but I got a hit we needed.”
Luck didn’t have much to do with Sands’ heroics on Monday.
The managerial chess match was working overtime in the bottom of the eighth in a tense 3-3 game at Tampa Bay’s Tropicana Field. When Maddon sent up lefty-swinging David DeJesus to pinch hit with one on and two out, Orioles manager Buck Showalter countered by bringing in lefty Brian Matusz from the bullpen to face DeJesus. Maddon promptly countered Showalter’s maneuver by calling on Sands, a right-handed hitter, to swing for DeJesus,
Matusz was a first-round pick by the O’s out of the University of San Diego in 2008, the same year the Los Angeles Dodgers drafted Sands in the 25th round out of Catawba.
But Sands didn’t recall ever facing him.
“I did get briefed in the dugout on what to expect from him,” Sands said.
Armed with a 10-second scouting report, Sands stepped into the batter’s box. Then he got into a favorable count when Matusz missed the strike zone with two fastballs.
“With a 2-0 count, I’m sitting dead red, and I got a decent fastball to hit,” Sands said. “Fortunately, I didn’t miss it.”
Matusz’s fastball came in at 91 mph and Sands sent it screaming skyward at 107 mph. Sands paused for an instant as he exited the batter’s box, not to admire his handiwork, but to plead with the ball to stay fair. It did. It traveled 402 feet and landed deep in the seats where nobody sits down the left-field line.
While Sands has belted 137 minor-league homers, this was only his fifth in the big leagues. It was his first since he drilled a liner over the 375-foot marker in left-center against San Francisco’s Tim Lincecum at Dodger Stadium on Sept. 20, 2011.
“My first big league-trot in a long time,” Sands said. “It was a pretty decent shot, and the guys had some fun with me about how far the ball went.“
It’s good to see Sands having fun again.
He was a country-boy, folk-hero meteor rising through the Dodgers farm system not that long ago. He was a minor league all-star in 2009 and he was named Dodgers Minor League Player of the Year after a devastating power season in 2010. Playing for the Dodgers’ Triple-A team in Albuquerque in 2012, he walloped two grand slams in one game and drove in 10 runs.
But he plummeted from mega prospect to former prospect in record time. After bouncing back and forth between L.A. to Triple-A for a while, he was traded to Boston. Then Boston shipped him to Pittsburgh before he ever played a game in Fenway Park.
Sands’ brief stint with the Pirates was disastrous. He didn’t make the club out of spring training, and then he struggled in Triple-A. He dug a hole and never climbed out. The Pirates, who are flush with young outfielders, had no reason to be patient. They waived him.
Tampa Bay picked Sands up two days before Christmas. The Rays were his fourth organization in a two-year span, but Sands felt comfortable from the start.
“The last few years were a whirlwind for me, with all the trades and changing organizations,” Sands said. “But winding up with Tampa Bay was a blessing in disguise.”
While Sands didn’t make the Rays despite a strong spring training, it wasn’t the end of the world. He landed with Tampa Bay’s Triple-A team in Durham.
“The ballpark in Durham was just 40 minutes from our house,” Sands said. “My wife’s pregnant, and I was able to be there with her for a lot of months. I got off to a good start at Durham (nine homers, 36 RBIs), and when injuries piled up (outfielders Wil Myers and Brandon Guyer are on the shelf), the Rays called me up.”
Sands married Morgan Pace in 2011. She’s been able to visit him in Tampa Bay, and she’s expecting in late July.
A baby on the way is even more incentive for Sands to finally establish himself in the majors.
He’s hit above .300 against lefties during his big-league career, and that ability could give him a niche in the big leagues, especially if he can produce late in games.
Sands’ hidden talent is defense. While he’s in some danger of being labeled as a hitter-only, he’s above average at three positions. He’s started 59 games in the majors at first base, left field and right field and has yet to make an error.
Sands hasn’t been asked to use his glove yet in Tampa Bay, but he’s thrilled to be back in the big leagues, no matter the size of his role.
“Maybe I can win three in a row as a pinch-hitter,” he said with a laugh. “Now that would be crazy.”