LAS VEGAS -- Few Little Leaguers, never mind nine-year major league veterans, enjoy being on a baseball field as much as Juan Pierre. Which is why the last month has been so tough for the Dodgers outfielder.
"I'm upset. I'm not happy that I'm hurt," said Pierre, who tore a ligament in his left knee four weeks ago, landing on the disabled list for the first time in his career. "It's the first time actually watching games that I know I can't get in."
But as difficult as the last month has been, the last two days have been especially eye-opening. That's because Pierre spent both of them on a rehabilitation assignment in the minor leagues, a place he hasn't seen since August 2000.
"It's very humbling, I'll tell you that," Pierre said Thursday before going one for four with a walk and a strikeout, leaving him three for six with a double, two walks and two runs scored in two games in left field for the Dodgers' triple-A affiliate in Las Vegas. "It's a grind down here. Nobody really comes to the game. It's 100 degrees. It tests your love for the game out here.
"I never take for granted being in the big leagues. Now I know I will not ever [think] of it."
Pierre, who was batting .277 in 73 games before Angels shortstop Erick Aybar accidentally fell on his knee during a play at second, could be back in the big leagues as early as tonight when the Dodgers, a game back in the National League West, play the Washington Nationals in the opener of a 10-game homestand. That's more than two weeks ahead of some doctors' estimates -- but not a moment too soon for the Dodgers, who clearly miss Pierre's speed at the top of the lineup.
Although Matt Kemp, who has batted first most often in Pierre's absence, has a .393 on-base percentage and a .532 slugging percentage in the leadoff spot -- both far superior to Pierre's .327 and .318 figures -- he has also struck out nearly a third of the time, and only six of his 22 stolen bases have come when he was batting leadoff.
Pierre, meanwhile, is the toughest outfielder in the majors to the strike out, and his 35 steals still rank second in the league despite the fact he has missed a month.
"He doesn't give us the power threat that Matt gives us. But he knows how to lead off," said Dodgers Manager Joe Torre, who promised Pierre would be at the top of the order when he returns but did not say where he would play him in the team's crowded outfield. "He's going to make the pitcher work hard and be a threat on the bases. He's a good spark plug for us."
And the Dodgers could certainly use a spark plug. Although they are 11-9 without Pierre, the Dodgers have hit .253 -- slightly below their season average -- during that span, scoring two or fewer runs six times.
"He's got speed, he's got everything," said Mike Easler, the former Dodgers batting coach and now their minor league hitting instructor. "He can turn a ballgame around."
And maybe a pennant race if Pierre can help make the Dodgers just two games better than Arizona over the final two months.
"I hope that I can add a little bit more to the lineup," offered Pierre, who said his knee feels fine two days into his comeback. "I don't get caught up in trying to do too much. I just do what I can do: get on base and score runs and play good defense. Wherever that leads us, it leads us."
Times staff writer Dylan Hernandez contributed to this report.