Many eyes of the baseball world turned to Jacksonville on Tuesday night, a rarity considering the city’s Triple-A designation. But what drew the interest of many baseball fans, those of the Miami Marlins, Atlanta Braves, and beyond, was not the Jumbo Shrimp, or the Ray Charles bobblehead giveaway, but the return of Ronald Acuña Jr. to the field. Making his first rehab start, Acuña would face one of the Marlins top prospects, Max Meyer.
New Jacksonville Jaguars head coach Doug Peterson threw out the ceremonial first pitch to a rousing ovation in the shadow of his new stadium, TIAA Bank Field. Ticket requests jumped into the thousands for this game following Atlanta’s announcement that Acuña would begin his rehab stint with their Triple-A club, the Gwinnett Stripers. The announced attendance at 121 Financial Ballpark checked in at 5,153, nearly 1,500 more than the Athletics drew to their game in Oakland last night.
OF Ronald Acuña Jr. will begin a major league rehabilitation assignment tonight with Triple-A @GoStripers in Jacksonville against the Jumbo Shrimp.
— Atlanta Braves (@Braves) April 19, 2022
Coming off an ACL tear last July, Acuña’s moved through the recovery process quickly and looks to rejoin the Braves lineup less than a year after going down. Acuña looked loose during batting practice, launching four opposite field home runs in a row with relative ease. He wore a light knee brace during pregame workouts but moved fluidly, joking with teammates and staff during BP.
The Jumbo Shrimp players also looked loose during pregame, some relishing the idea that an MLB star was in their midst. Jacksonville returned home following a six-game road trip in Durham, where the team took four games, including the last three in a row.
Outfielder JJ Bleday, the Marlins No. 6 prospect according to MLB Pipeline, called Acuña “a good player to have for the game of baseball,” noting the two-time All-Star’s “swag.”
Acuña’s Return Sparks Intrigue vs Top Prospect Meyer
Acuña was tasked with facing one of Miami’s top prospects in pitcher Max Meyer in his first rehab start. Gwinnett manager Matt Tuiasosopo penciled Acuña at the top of the order and he played in right field.
In the first inning, Meyer went up-and-in with a 95 MPH fastball, drawing oohs from the crowd. Meyer worked ahead of Acuña 1-2 in that at-bat, ultimately getting the Braves star to fly-out to center.
Acuña next hit to leadoff the third inning. Meyer fell behind 3-0, just missing low in the zone. He managed a whiff before serving up a high fastball that Acuña crushed to right-center field. The ball struck a raised portion of the wall, missing a homer by less than 10 feet.
Ronald Acuña Jr. looking like his old self in his rehab stint 🚀
— The Athletic (@TheAthletic) April 19, 2022
When Acuña came up for his final at-bat in the fifth, Meyer attacked him in the zone. Acuña fouled off a well-placed fastball that rode over the inner third of the plate. Meyer followed that 0-1 pitch with a changeup that Acuña topped over to third base.
Atlanta’s All-Star ended his first rehab start there, exiting in the sixth during a double switch. All told, Acuña moved well throughout the night, handling right field with practiced ease and running the base-paths without any sign of struggle.
“I didn’t know if I would come back and be the same. Now I’m healthy again,” he told The Athletic’s Jeff Schultz after the game. “Actually, I feel I’m better than I was.”
Meyer Solid in Outing vs Acuña, Stripers
Max Meyer entered this ballyhooed matchup with Ronald Acuña Jr. following a perfect 5.0 inning outing in Durham. Meyer left that game against the Bulls after just 53 pitches because of a calf cramp.
Tuesday night was more of a struggle for the Marlins’ No. 3 prospect, though. While he went a season-high 5.2 innings, Meyer clearly didn’t have his best stuff. His command lacked the precision of his last start in Durham, as he issued two walks and regularly fell behind in the count to hitters.
Despite that, Meyer still recorded seven strikeouts, with most of those coming thanks to his nasty slider. The 23-year-old righty threw 85 pitches, getting 16 whiffs along the way. 47 of his 85 pitches went for strikes.
Other than the elevated fastball that Acuña tattooed to right-center, Meyer did a good job of keep the ball down in the zone. Catcher Nick Fortes handled a number of pitches in the dirt that many Stripers chased. Meyer induced six groundouts, including a double play ball in the fourth inning.
Before surrendering a pair of baserunners in the first inning, Meyer had gone 6.1 consecutive innings without allowing a batter to reach. He pitched into a few jams, but navigated those well and did not allow Gwinnett to score. Only one runner reached third base against him on Tuesday. Meyer’s now thrown 11.1 scoreless innings in a row.
— Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp (@JaxShrimp) April 20, 2022
Bleday, Other Marlins Prospects Quiet on Tuesday
All of the attention on Tuesday night rightly pointed toward the Acuña-Meyer matchup. Outside of those two, there was little else of note from this ballgame. As ESPN’s Jeff Passan noted on Twitter last night, this game lasted just one hour and 54 minutes.
The Marlins’ watchful eye saw a Jumbo Shrimp starting lineup featuring Bleday, Lewin Diaz, Fortes, Peyton Burdick, and Brian Miller, among others. Those players combined for three of Jacksonville’s five hits on the night, with Fortes coming through with the key single in the sixth inning.
Bleday went hitless, but extended his on-base streak to six games thanks to a hit-by-pitch. Bleday scored from second on Fortes’ two-out knock. Bleday’s now scored in five of the last six games despite having only four hits over that span. He’s hitting .146 (6-for-41) early on, but has a solid .327 on-base percentage.
Bleday acknowledged his struggles before the game, saying “I’ve been getting away from my approach sometimes and not trusting it.”
Discipline remains the key to Bleday’s approach. He sports a .375 batting average, with a .722 on-base percentage, when getting ahead in the count.
The 24-year-old outfielder remains confident, despite the struggles to start.
“It’s early in the year, and I’ve been here before,” Bleday said. “I just have to keep swinging it and trust the approach, trust getting something in the zone.”
Diaz went 1-for-2 with a single and a walk. His average sits at .289 with a .844 OPS, 10 RBI and two homers. Burdick ended 0-for-3, but just missed his fourth homer of the season with a deep flyout in the sixth. Fortes finished 2-for-3 and drove in the game-winning runs with his two-out, two-run single in the sixth.