Dodgers’ Sweeney ready in a pinch

Players like Mark Sweeney don’t retire. They just give their uniform back.

At least that’s how Sweeney, one of the greatest pinch hitters ever, explained his endless passion for the game before playing for the 51s on Friday at Cashman Field in the second game of his rehabilitation assignment from the Los Angeles Dodgers for a strained right hamstring.

“It’s a joke, but it’s true,” said Sweeney, 38, who went 1-for-5 for Las Vegas in Friday’s 11-6 loss to Tacoma after going 2-for-4 on Thursday. “(A player like) Jeff Kent says he’s retiring, Nomar (Garciaparra) says he’s retiring. But bench players, utility players or whatever you want to call us, we play until they tell us there’s not a place to play.”

Fortunately for Sweeney, he still has plenty of places to play as his special services still are in demand in the majors. He hit .316 as a pinch hitter last year and led the majors in pinch hits, with 24 — the highest total since 1999, when Lenny Harris had 26.

“When you have a guy that can come off the bench and get you a base hit against your setup guy or your closer, there aren’t a lot of those guys floating around,” 51s manager Lorenzo Bundy said. “He’s been a proven commodity in the game for a long time, and he’s a guy (the Dodgers) are going to need down the stretch to come off the bench and produce.”

Sweeney, a .254 career hitter for seven teams, including the Padres for three stints, started this season with 163 pinch hits, which leads all active players, and is second all time only to Harris, who had 212.

Sweeney, who has a .271 career average as a pinch hitter, also leads all active players in pinch home runs (15) and pinch RBIs (97).

“I love the game. It’s always fun. I didn’t dream about being a pinch hitter, but it’s part of my job,” Sweeney said. “Getting opportunities to play are few and far between, so you learn to appreciate it a little bit more.”

Preparation is a key to success for Sweeney, who performs the same routine each game day, from checking the lineup and watching film and video, to hitting in the cage and during batting practice to warming up on the bench during the game.

“You’ve got to learn how to prepare and get that feel for your swing,” Sweeney said. “A lot of preparation work is important for me to say I’m ready. At the end of a full year, mentally, I am totally drained.”

Acquired by the Dodgers from the San Francisco Giants in August, Sweeney hit .273 (9-for-33) in 30 games for Los Angeles but has struggled this season, batting .094 (6-for-64) in 60 games.

“The way the year has gone for me and (the Dodgers) has been disappointing,” he said. “I don’t think we envisioned being less than .500 at this point, and I didn’t envision playing and hitting the way I have. I’ve had a bad first half. But I’m usually a pretty good finisher, and hopefully that’s the case and I can help this team.

“The consistency for me has been a struggle. Rhythm as a hitter is very important and getting confidence. Fortunately, I’m basing it on (64) at-bats. It’s disappointing I haven’t done enough to help the team, but I also have confidence in my ability, and I’m going to do it when I get back there.”

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