GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- One of the first questions Jerry Sands was asked in the visiting clubhouse at Goodyear Ballpark on Tuesday, just after his towering, seventh-inning home run off Kelvin De La Cruz had given the Los Angeles Dodgers their only run in a 2-1 loss to the Cleveland Indians, was about coming from nowhere to become the organization's reigning minor league player of the year.
Sands, a 25th-round draft pick, can sense a good story well enough to play along.
"I definitely came from the bottom," he said. "That is how it's been my whole career. I came from a small school and a small high school. I have always kind of liked that persona of being the underdog. It allows me to kind of pop up and surprise people.
"I try to be as low-key as possible."
Sands has pretty much used up any element of surprise he might have had. The only way he could shock the world now is if he were in the starting lineup for the Dodgers' season opener. Sands only has half a season at Double-A, and he is pegged to at least begin the season back at Chattanooga. But on the long road from Catawba College in North Carolina -- where he set a school record with 61 home runs in three seasons -- to the major leagues, Sands already has a lot more pavement behind him than in front of him.
Sands, 23, hit 35 home runs in the minors last season, then launched three more while playing for Don Mattingly in the Arizona Fall League. He also has a career on-base percentage of .388 in the minors. A natural corner outfielder, he isn't a speed demon, but he can cover enough ground that he proved more than adequate on the few occasions in the low minors when he was asked to play center. He also is versatile enough that when he was asked to play first base for the first time two years ago at Class-A Great Lakes, he mastered it almost immediately.
"He is a baseball player," said DeJon Watson, the Dodgers' assistant general manager for player development, offering one of the game's highest compliments. "And it's not true that he came out of nowhere."
Watson said the Dodgers figured out what they had in Sands almost from the moment he reported to the Gulf Coast League after he was drafted and signed in summer 2008. For that reason, Watson pushed him hard, moving him from extended spring training to rookie-level Ogden to Great Lakes in a single season in 2009.
Watson knew Sands probably would struggle in the Midwest League, which he initially did, striking out 32 times in 104 at-bats. But after working extensively last spring with Dodgers minor league hitting coordinator Gene Clines, Sands was primed for a big season. He wound up having a colossal one, earning a midseason promotion to Chattanooga and augmenting all those home runs with a combined .301 batting average, a .395 OBP and 18 steals. When the season ended, he found himself standing on the field at Dodger Stadium, being honored in a pregame ceremony in September along with the organization's minor league pitcher of the year, right-hander Rubby De La Rosa.
Sands doesn't have to be added to the 40-man roster until next winter, but his performance last season earned him an invitation to the big league camp anyway.
"That has been awesome," Sands said. "It's just a great opportunity to come up here and see how these guys do things and be around all these great guys who have played for the Dodgers. It has been a lot of fun."
Dodgers pitcher Chad Billingsley was superb in his first Cactus League start, shutting out the Indians on three hits over three innings. Billingsley struck out three without a walk, and he retired six of seven over the final two innings.
Mattingly said he has liked what he has seen of Billingsley all spring after the once-enigmatic right-hander seemed to take a giant step forward last season while going 12-11 with a 3.57 ERA.
"His work has been good, his sides, the batting practice he threw the other day out on the back field," Mattingly said. "He has been sharp. ... He does seem more relaxed. He threw the ball well last year, I thought. For me, his overall demeanor is better. I know in the past, they talked about how he was having trouble throwing to one side of the plate, the ball in to righties and away from lefties, but he seems to be able to do that now.
"If you're able to do that, that can change the game."
Billingsley began his outing with back-to-back strikeouts of Ezequiel Carrera and Asdrubal Cabrera, then gave up consecutive singles to former Dodgers catching prospect Carlos Santana -- who was traded to the Indians for Casey Blake in July 2008 -- and Travis Hafner. Left fielder Tony Gwynn Jr. overran Hafner's ball for an error, but chased it down quickly and fired to shortstop Rafael Furcal, whose perfect relay throw cut down Santana at the plate.
The rest of the game wasn't quite as memorable for the Dodgers from a pitching standpoint.
Billingsley was followed by a parade of non-roster relievers, all of whom face long odds of making the club and none of whom did themselves any favors Tuesday. The quartet of Wilkin De La Rosa, Jon Huber, Roman Colon and Oscar Villareal combined to walk eight batters over the final four innings, seemingly going to one deep count after another while somehow holding the Indians to one unearned run on a wild pitch by Colon (Carrera had reached on a throwing error by Dee Gordon).
Colon threw so many pitches, in fact, he couldn't complete his prescribed one inning, meaning Villareal had to get the final four outs.
"I think when you look at our bullpen, there may be some spots open out there, but there is a competition for those spots," Mattingly said. "We have some guys who figure pretty strongly in our plans, and we know what they're capable of. [For everybody else], it's a competition."
Mattingly said his tentative plan for the primary batting order when the season begins is what he used Tuesday: Furcal, Blake, Andre Ethier, Matt Kemp, James Loney, Juan Uribe, whoever is playing left field and Rod Barajas. He said that could change on nights when the starting left fielder is Gwynn, whom Mattingly could possibly slot second in the order, and that Loney and Uribe could be flipped at times depending on the opposing starting pitcher. The Dodgers were held to two hits, with Sands' homer their only hit after the third inning. Through five games, they have a collective batting average of .193 (29 for 150). The Dodgers (2-3) will host the Kansas City Royals on Wednesday, with left-hander Ted Lilly scheduled to make his first start of the spring.
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter. Follow him on Twitter.