Jerry Sands' debut gives Dodgers a lift

LOS ANGELES -- Forget the slumbering offense, the disappointing pitching, the slew of early-season injuries, the plummeting attendance, the cash-strapped owner and the already-gaping chasm between themselves and first place. The Los Angeles Dodgers' biggest problem, in a city where celebrity means everything, is that they lack star power.

Well, cross one item off the lengthy list of concerns and add another name to Hollywood's lengthy list of stars. For one night, at least, a guy named Jerry Sands, from a tiny town in North Carolina called Clayton, was the toast of Tinseltown.

In his long-awaited major league debut -- well, actually, it wasn't that long-awaited at all, given Sands wasn't even expected to be called up until much later in the season and possibly not even until next season, but he got off to a hot start at Triple-A Albuquerque and the Dodgers got off to a cold one here, but I digress -- Sands had a hard-hit double, a hard-hit sacrifice fly and two very rookie-like strikeouts.

The Dodgers won their second game in a row, 4-2 over the Atlanta Braves before 28,292 on Monday night at Dodger Stadium behind Ted Lilly's seven shutout innings, but that's not important right now.

Despite impassioned insistences before the game from both Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti and Dodgers manager Don Mattingly that Sands wasn't brought here to be the hero or the centerpiece or the savior -- Mattingly, as if to prove the point, made sure to bat him low (seventh) in the order -- Sands received loud ovations from the crowd almost every time he was involved in anything.

Begin your major league career with an opposite-field double against Braves ace Tim Hudson? Get an ovation. Go the other way again for a third-inning sacrifice fly against Hudson, picking up your first career RBI? Get an ovation. Catch a routine fly ball in left field for your first major league putout to end the second inning? Get an ovation. Make another catch in the fourth while falling down after initially losing the ball in the lights? You get the idea.

Those ovations eventually, almost inevitably, evolved into chants of "Jer-ry, Jer-ry, Jer-ry," reminiscent of "The Jerry Springer Show."

"I have had that happen in minor league stadiums before, but it's a little different when it's only a couple of thousand," said Sands, who admitted to having caught an episode or two of Springer over the years.

Shoot, Sands even got a loud cheer as he walked back to the dugout after whiffing badly against Hudson (2-2) in the sixth and again against fellow rookie Jairo Asencio in the eighth. That first strikeout came at the end of an at-bat that began with a welcome-to-the-big-leagues moment for Sands, who had to duck out of the way of a pitch from Hudson that was headed straight for his head.

While that could have been interpreted as a message -- Lilly (1-2) responded by throwing one behind the Braves' Nate McLouth in the seventh, resulting in a warning being issued to both teams -- Sands was able to shrug it off, especially after Hudson sent an autographed ball to him that included an actual, written message.

"He sent a ball over, which I appreciated, that said, 'It got away from me,' " Sands said. "It's happened before. There is no reason why he would be throwing at my head right there. We had a good at-bat and a good battle after that, and I didn't [read anything] into it at all."

So how did Sands, in a year's time, go from being a former 25th-round draft pick to whom no one paid much attention, to the organization's reigning minor league player of the year, to arguably the most celebrated Dodgers callup since Clayton Kershaw three years ago?

Well, the turning point probably came in the middle of last season, when Colletti sent two of his special assistants to see Sands play for the team's Double-A affiliate in Chattanooga, Tenn. Colletti sent each of them alone, in fact, at separate times, to preserve the purity of whatever opinion each of them would form. Those two assistants were Bill Mueller, a former American League batting champion, and Mark Sweeney, the second-most prolific pinch hitter of all time.

"Our scouts loved him from the get-go," Colletti said before the game. "They both came back and said the way this kid pursues his plan in an at-bat is better than some of the guys they even played with. He has that knack, that good ability to read a situation, to slow it down in his mind and to adjust. He hasn't done it at this level. But he has a very strong character and humility about him. He has that true confidence, where it's not based as much on hope as it is on true confidence."

For one night, it was enough to lift the Dodgers (8-9) back into third place in the National League West, 4 1/2 games behind the division-leading Colorado Rockies, and give the team's celebrity-starved fan base a guy to rally around, a fan favorite if you will. For one night, Hollywood had a new leading man. But fame can be fleeting in this town. So if the Dodgers are harboring any thoughts of building a marketing campaign around him or naming a section of the stands after him -- Jerrywood? -- they should probably hold off for now.

Perhaps it was Mattingly, who knows a little about coming from a small town to achieve big-city stardom, who summed it up best after the game.

"It's a good start for him," he said.

Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.