By Andrew Simon
It came as a surprise last Friday when the Orioles gave Steve Pearce his first professional start at second base. Pearce, never a middle-of-the-diamond player, has spent most of his career in the corner outfield and at first base.
But Baltimore was short on healthy infielders, and Pearce was willing. The experiment didn't end there, as Pearce not only started at second for all three games of the Orioles' weekend series against the Rays, but also handled all of his chances.
Other times, playing wildly out of position likely is nothing more than a one-time deal brought on by dire circumstances. Take Gold Glove center fielder Carlos Gomez spending an inning at second back on April 10 for the Brewers, after starter Scooter Gennett was ejected.
These situations are fun quirks that pop up in a regimented game that loves clearly defined roles. When an outfielder plays the infield, a catcher mans the outfield or a position player pitches, it throws them out of their routine-driven comfort zones. It also gives fans something to watch for, even in a blowout.
With that in mind, let's take a position-by-position look at some high-profile active players who have been pressed into service once -- and only once -- on unfamiliar terrain. Players were selected based on a combination of career success and lack of familiarity with their temporary assignment.
Catcher -- David Freese: All teams have someone on the roster who serves as the emergency catcher, but a manager rarely has to break the glass and deploy him in that role. Even with expanded rosters in place, former Cardinals skipper Tony La Russa did just that against the Brewers on Oct. 4, 2009, the final day of the regular season. By the time Troy Glaus pinch-hit for Matt Pagnozzi and made the final out of the ninth inning, preserving a 7-7 tie, La Russa had burned each of his three "real" catchers.
When the 10th began, Freese had donned the gear to handle Todd Wellemeyer. At the time, this wasn't World Series Hero David Freese. This was 26-year-old rookie David Freese, who was appearing in his 17th career game and playing catcher as a professional for the first time. Two years earlier, Freese had spent a few weeks learning the position while with the Padres, and perhaps that experience helped him make it through the inning. Although the Brewers scored twice to win the game, Freese allowed no wild pitches or passed balls and only one stolen base. He ended the frame by chasing a foul popup behind home plate, overrunning it slightly, then reaching back to make the catch while falling onto the seat of his pants.
Others: Don Kelly, Jake Elmore (who pitched in the same game).
First base -- Carlos Beltran: Alex Rodriguez had an awkward encounter with first base earlier this season, but it's quite possible the Yankees will run him out there again at some point. At least in A-Rod's case, he's an infielder by trade, even if he's used to playing on the other side of the diamond. No such luck for Beltran. When the three-time Gold Glove center fielder spent five innings at first last April 13, it was his first infield action since the Royals drafted him in 1995.
He only ended up there because starting first baseman Francisco Cervelli exited with an injury in the bottom of the fourth inning. Beltran had one thought at the time: "I was like, 'Oh, God, I hope they don't hit the ball to me,'" he said. His prayer -- but perhaps not ours -- was answered, as no grounders came his way, and he only had to catch a few throws at the bag.
Others: Rodriguez, Jayson Werth, Will Venable.
Second base -- Carlos Gomez: Although he had been an outfielder exclusively since beginning his professional career in 2004, Gomez played shortstop growing up in the Dominican Republic, and he still takes grounders in the middle infield during batting practice. So he was the choice on April 10, when Gennett was ejected, and then-manager Ron Roenicke already had used his other backup infielders.
Gomez called playing the infield in the Majors "one of my dreams," but this particular experience was a bit of a letdown. Milwaukee was trailing Pittsburgh in the ninth inning of a 6-2 loss, the Brewers' fourth consecutive defeat to open what has been a tough season. Plus, the Pirates went down in order without hitting the ball to Gomez, who will have to hope he gets another shot under better circumstances.
Others: Albert Pujols, Russell Martin, Rajai Davis.
Third base -- Alex Avila: Except for one game at first base, Avila was strictly a catcher in the Minors and in his first two big league seasons. But on June 17, 2011, Tigers manager Jim Leyland decided to give Avila his first start at the hot corner in order to get more bats in the lineup for a DH-free Interleague game at Coors Field.
Avila, who had played some third in college at Alabama, had been taking ground balls there in the weeks leading up to that game and said relearning the position was "kind of like riding a bike." Using one of teammate Don Kelly's gloves, Avila smoothly handled a chance in the first inning, but in the third, a hard grounder zipped right under the borrowed mitt for a run-scoring error. Almost four years later, he still hasn't set foot at third a second time.
Others: Geovany Soto, Brayan Pena, Michael McKenry.
Shortstop -- Albert Pujols: Though he played shortstop in high school and at Maple Woods Community College in Missouri, that was never going to be his position in pro ball. But Pujols did show versatility, spending significant time at first and third base and both corner outfield spots as a rookie in 2001. Fourteen years later, he has six positions to his credit, thanks to brief stints at short ('02) and second ('08).
The former came during the Cardinals' 11-5 loss to the Braves at Turner Field on Aug. 2. Pujols started the game in left field, but after Edgar Renteria was removed for a pinch-hitter in the top of the seventh, Pujols slid into his spot for an uneventful final two innings.
Others: Alex Gordon, Robinson Cano, Ryan Zimmerman.
Left field -- Kyle Lohse: Is it more fun to see a position player pitch, or a pitcher play a position? The former is more common, but both certainly have their merits. When the latter does occur, it's often a one-batter strategy that goes something like this: A left-handed reliever faces a left-handed batter, hides in the outfield while a right-hander comes in to face a righty, then returns to the mound for another lefty opponent.
Lohse's chance was something else entirely. On April 17, 2010, the Mets and Cardinals locked horns in a 20-inning marathon. By the 18th, St. Louis had run out of both pitchers and position players, so infielder Felipe Lopez took the mound, while Lohse -- who had thrown seven innings two days earlier -- went to left. Though the Cardinals lost, Lohse caught a pair of fly balls and called it a "pretty fun" experience. "I tried to pretend like it was [batting practice]," he said. "It was a little nerve-wracking. I just didn't want to drop it."
Others: Andrew Cashner, Sean Marshall, Carlos Santana.
Center field -- Juan Uribe: It's hard to imagine now that he's 36 years old and listed at 245 pounds, but Uribe came up as a shortstop with the Rockies and still has spent almost twice as much time there as at any other position. But over 18 professional seasons, Uribe has played the outfield only twice.
Both games came in 2003, one for Double-A Tulsa and one for Colorado, on June 15 at Detroit. Uribe started there and led off, making three putouts and no errors in nine innings. But the next day he was at second base, and he soon regained the starting shortstop job, making it a one-day adventure that almost certainly won't be repeated.
Others: Alcides Escobar, Howie Kendrick, Maicer Izturis.
Right field -- Joe Mauer: In high school, Mauer was a USA Today player of the year in both football and baseball, plus an all-state basketball player. But while he is an accomplished athlete, he wasn't entirely comfortable starting in right field for the Twins against the Yankees on Aug. 18, 2011. Not only had Mauer never played the outfield as a professional, he never did so as a prep star, either. "I can probably count on one hand how many times I've played in the outfield, ever," he said at the time.
Yet Mauer stepped up with the Twins in a bind due to a number of sidelined players. And while he didn't exactly look like Roberto Clemente out there, he did make three fairly routine catches over nine innings. Afterward, Mauer said he hoped the experience was "just a one-time deal." So far, wish granted.
Others: Russell Martin, Todd Frazier, Javier Lopez.
Pitcher -- Chris Davis: In one respect, May 6, 2012, could not have gone much worse for Davis, who went 0-for-8 with five strikeouts as the Orioles' starting designated hitter at Fenway Park. But with the game stuck in a 6-6 tie in the 16th inning and Baltimore out of pitchers, Davis was told to try his luck on the mound. "I'm like, 'Sweet, I get to try something different today, because hitting ain't working,'" he said.
A position player pitching tends to be an amusing sideshow at the end of a long-decided game. Not this time. In his first outing since he was in junior college in 2006, Davis turned in an amazing and crucial performance, tossing two scoreless innings with two strikeouts. When the Orioles broke through against Red Sox outfielder-turned-pitcher Darnell McDonald in the 17th, Davis became the first player since 1905 to go 0-for-8 at the plate and pick up the win in the same game.
Others: Michael Cuddyer, Ike Davis, Josh Harrison.
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Andrew Simon is a contributor to Sports on Earth and a reporter for MLB.com.