Pirela Shining In New Role

Pirela feels better at the plate this year

Jose Pirela's attempt for a successful season looked dubious on April 11. On that early-spring day, Pirela, as a member of the Double-A Trenton Thunder, was struck in the head by a 95 mile per hour heater courtesy of Portland Sea Dogs right-hander Chris Martin. The 22-year-old went on to miss over six weeks while dealing with concussion-like symptoms that arose from the hit-by-pitch.

"It's hard because you never think that things like that are going to happen," Pirela said through the help of a translator. "I had to work so hard for my mind to be prepared again. I thank God for giving me the chance and opportunity after my concussion to do well."

Since his return to Trenton on May 24, Pirela has made the most of that opportunity.

As of Monday, he was hitting .380 (27-71) with 14 runs, five doubles, one triple, two homers and eight RBIs through 22 games. Even more impressive, Pirela, who in 2006 signed with the Yankees as a non-drafted free agent, is hitting .465 (20-43) over his last ten games.

"He's doing great at staying balanced and staying behind the ball," first-year Thunder hitting coach Tom Slater said. "He is hitting everything right now, fastballs, off-speed pitches. It's been fun to watch.

"He's a gap-to-gap, line-drive type hitter. But he also has some pop and can be dangerous. If you leave a pitch up, he'll drive it out."

But the Thunder's hottest hitter was far from such last season.

The 5-foot-10, 191-pounder in 2011 hit a paltry .239 (112-468) with 50 runs, 21 doubles, four triples, eight home runs and 45 RBIs over 128 games while serving as the Thunder's primary shortstop.

It looks like a change in scenery has led to a change in fortune for Pirela, who since his return from injury, has yet to play shortstop.

Instead, the Valera, Venezuela native has played second base, third base and left field; confirmation that Pirela can now be classified as a full-fledged utility man.

"Yadil Mujica and Addison Maruszak have covered shortstop this year," Thunder manager Tony Franklin said. "[Pirela] will probably end up playing shortstop at some point this year because of all the injuries we've had.

"He's more of a utility guy right now and that's what I think we're trying to do, to find out if he's equipped to handle the utility role or eventually settle on a position. I think he's young enough where we don't have to settle on a position for him right now."

And Pirela is more than happy to accommodate his new job, which may be the main reason for his recent offensive success.

"At shortstop, I feel like it's not my natural position," Pirela said. "That made me think too much to get everything done the right way [last year], and sometimes, when you think too much, it takes part of the offensive side of the game away from you. I feel better now playing a different position."

Perhaps the best part of Pirela's new role, however, is the amount of long-term value it adds to him as a prospect.

Baseball arguably has a more grueling schedule than any other professional sport. With games nearly every day, players get injured frequently.

Trenton has been nailed by a seemingly never-ending amount of injuries this year. Three infielders [Walter Ibarra, Robert Lyerly and Kevin Mahoney] and one outfielder [Dan Brewer] are currently on the team's disabled list.

The Thunder's slew of injuries justifies why a versatile player like Pirela is such a coveted commodity in baseball.

"He is a good infielder and he's also done a nice job when we've put him in the outfield," Slater said. "I know he's kind of been playing all over, and it's a great thing about Pirela. He's athletic and he can play so many different positions.

"He is a guy who can play second, short, third, left, center, right. There is a lot of value in a guy like that, [especially when you have a lot of injuries], so we are happy to have him, that's for sure."

Although Pirela admits he is most comfortable playing second base, the sixth-year professional says he can handle shortstop duties better this year than he did in 2011, mainly because of the experience he gained during his rookie Double-A campaign last season.

And if that turns out to be the case, there is a good chance the seasoned Pirela will continue his strong play going forward.

"I know the league now," said Pirela. "And I'm much more comfortable now because I kind of know everything about Double-A. I also worked hard in the offseason at shortstop. Anytime I'm put at shortstop this year, I will feel better than any other year.

"For me to keep up what I'm doing I need to stay focused and then I can do it. I need to stay like that for all nine innings, every day. And then I'll be fine."

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