If anybody understands misconceptions, it’s A.J. Pierzynski. He’s been voted baseball’s meanest and most hated player.
Have a conversation with him, however, and you may wonder why he has been cast in that light. He’s accommodating and insightful.
So Pierzynski just shakes his head at the questions surrounding Alex Rios’ motivation.
Rios had a publicized benching last month when Chicago White Sox manager Robin Ventura pulled him out of a game for not hustling out a double-play grounder that cost the team a run, and possibly a win.
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“Everyone has had a bad day and not hustled,” Pierzynski said. “Those things happen, and unfortunately it happened at the wrong time, so people guessed the wrong thing. That’s the way it works, but Alex plays hard and he wants to do well.”
Rios has shown just that in his first week with the Texas Rangers, making a favorable first impression. He has hits in four of his first five games with Texas, including an impressive debut with the team.
Rios drove in the game-tying run Saturday in Houston with a triple in the eighth inning, and then scored the go-ahead run by dislodging the ball from the catcher on a play at the plate — a hustle play.
Going from a last-place team to a first-place team certainly helped re-energize and rejuvenate Rios. After all, Rios is still searching for his first postseason action after more than 1,400 games. Adam Dunn and Vernon Wells are the only active players who have played in more games without a playoff berth.
“It is exciting because this is what we all play for, we play to play in October,” Rios said. “So for me to have this opportunity is unbelievable. It’s something that I never experienced and it feels good so far.”
That energy and excitement wasn’t there in Chicago, he admitted. The White Sox felt they would contend for the American League Central coming out of spring training, but they were 10 1/2 games back by June 20 and were 14 back going into the game when Rios was benched.
Rios, somewhat ironically, had a two-run double in the at-bat before he bounced into the fateful 6-4-3 double play.
“We thought we were going to have a pretty good chance to compete,” Rios said. “But when things like that happen, sometimes you lose focus, sometimes it makes it harder to come to the field and focus on the things you have to do.
“When you have that extra motivation of contending, it makes you focus better and it makes you go about your business in a different way. It’s a good thing to go from a last-place team to a first-place team, because it changes everything. It changes maybe your attitude, your mindset, it makes it more exciting. Right now, I’m in a different spot and hopefully I can continue doing good things.”
So far, so good for Rios and the Rangers.
He’s provided a much-needed boost to the team after Nelson Cruz accepted a 50-game suspension for his ties to the Biogenesis of America clinic.
Rios will not replace Cruz’s bat in the lineup, power-wise, but he adds more speed. He is regarded as a solid defensive outfielder, and the Rangers covet two-way, versatile players.
“In a short period, we’ve seen a little bit in each area of the game,” general manager Jon Daniels said. “He’s taken extra bases, stolen one, first to third once. He made a nice play in right field, and he’s had some hits. Just making a contribution, and that’s what we’re looking for.”
Rios, 32, has always been known as one of the more talented players in the game. The Toronto Blue Jays selected the Puerto Rican in the first round of the 1999 First-Year Player Draft, and he went on to become an All-Star in 2006 and 2007.
The White Sox claimed him off waivers in 2009, and he had a couple of disappointing seasons before bouncing back last year. The Rangers and White Sox discussed Rios before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, but nothing got too close.
That, however, came before Cruz accepted his suspension, and the Rangers claimed Rios off waivers earlier this month. They were able to work out a trade for Rios with the White Sox, sending infielder Leury Garcia back in exchange.
For the Rangers, it fills the void left by Cruz and also gives them a corner outfielder for next season with Cruz and David Murphy set to hit free agency.
Rios knew a trade would be coming at some point, at the latest this winter, and was pleased to end up with the Rangers.
“I knew my time was running out in Chicago,” he said. “I’m glad I went to a contending team and it’s been great so far. We’ve won most of the games since I’ve been here and that’s what we play for. That’s what makes us happy and keeps us motivated.”