Jesus Sanchez, Lewin Diaz Off to Impressive Start in AAA as Jacksonville Welcomes Back Fans, Max Meyer Debuts

Photo by Vincent Wong/Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp

Not even 48 hours into the Minor League Baseball season, outfielder Jesus Sanchez and first baseman Lewin Diaz are lighting up stat sheets and proving they are on their way to big things in their MLB careers which could (re)commence in the not-too-distant future.

On Tuesday night at 121 Financial Ballpark in Jacksonville, Diaz, hitting second, homered on the second pitch he saw. An inning later, Sanchez struck a well-hit RBI single to left field, plating two runs. Five innings later, Diaz doubled to center and Sanchez connected for a three run bomb. The pair’s 4-10, 2 HR, 8 RBI barrage accounted for eight of the Jumbo Shrimp’s 11 runs and rout of the Norfolk Tides.

Less than 15 hours later, Diaz and Sanchez were at it again. Both back in the lineup for Wednesday’s 1:05 start, the two top 30 organizational prospects once again led the way in an impressive offensive barrage, combining for seven hits, eight RBIs, two homers and four XBH in Jacksonville’s 10-7 win.

Diaz, Fish On The Farm’s seventh ranked organizational prospect, had a busy winter and spring. After taking part in the Dominican Winter League where he hit .207/.301/.354 with three homers and 12 RBI against competition more than four years older than him on average. More so than the stats, the most impressive attribute to Lewin was the improvement in his physical build.

“I was eating well, I was hitting the gym a lot, I gained some muscle mass. I feel perfect right now,” Diaz told us this spring. “I feel like I’m hitting the ball a little harder.”

Through his first two games, Diaz is hitting the ball hard in virtually every AB. Diaz rode the opportunity to stay fresh and get bigger back home into spring training where he was among the most frequently used players, appearing in 16 of the Marlins’ 19 games. He went 5-22 with two doubles and a 5/4 K/BB. More important than the stats though was the experience and the ability to further prepare.

“I’m planning ahead this year,” Diaz said through a translator in early March. “I’m working on swinging at good pitches and getting good at bats so that I can go back to the major league level and stay there for a long time.”

Through two games, Diaz’s plans seem to be coming to fruition very early. Via extremely soft hands, excellent vision and insurmountable plate coverage, Diaz already looks locked in at the plate. Showing the ability to get to virtually any pitch and hit it hard, Diaz has already had a couple of “how did he do that?” moments.

Handling his newly added size with grace and ease, Lewin looks to have made the most of his winter league experience where he said he tried to learn as much as possible from guys veterans Robinson Cano and his spring training experience where he faced off against big league arms on the regular.

During spring, Don Mattingly told us it is “definitely possible” we see Diaz back with the Marlins sometime this season. If this early production persists, that possibility will be a foregone conclusion for the Marlins’ first baseman of the future.

While Diaz was getting reps and experience on the field for much of spring training, Jesus Sanchez was doing quite the opposite. After just eight ABs, Sanchez suffered a groin strain which kept him out of action for the rest of the Grapefruit League tenure and eventually saw him placed on the 10-day IL. This Tuesday, in his first AB in 64 days, Sanchez did this:

Despite missed time, Sanchez has flown out of the gates this year and is getting to pitches rarely seen touched, let alone hit for extra bases. His amazing raw strength is to thank for that. As he proved this week when he golfed a pitch out of 121 Financial Park, any pitch Jesus Sanchez gets under has a chance to leave the park. In his minor league career so far though, with a career ground ball rate around 50% and a ground ball/fly ball rate of 1.36, the consistency on which he’s been able to hit the ball in the air has been a bit of an issue and it is the main culprit keeping him from his 50-grade game power tool. If Sanchez has figured that out and if he can stay on the field, the 23-year-old slugger should be another one of the first promotees to the big leagues, especially with three expiry contracts currently manning the Marlins’ outfield.

For now, enjoy the show, Jacksonville.

Jumbo Shrimp Welcome Back Fans

While the other three Marlins MiLB affiliates started their seasons on the road on Tuesday, the gates of 121 Financial opened to fans for a Minor League Baseball game for the first time in 617 days. 

“I was overfilled with excitement,” Jumbo Shrimp emcee and in game host Jordan Price said about walking back into the park. “You miss seeing the season ticket holder fans and interacting with them. They become like family so you miss the game day conversations. The fans make the ballpark come alive and adding baseball back is icing on the cake.”

Jumbo Shrimp fans weren’t in their seats very long. Not even ten minutes after the national Anthem, Lewin Diaz took a ball deep for the first Shrimp homer of the season. It was far from the first time Shrimp fans rose to their feet. Jacksonville put on an offense clinic, banging out eleven runs in route to victory, the first Shrimp win since August 26th, 2019. The sell-out crowd wasn’t only treated to fireworks on the field during the game, they got to take in a postgame fireworks show as well, the perfect ending to a great first night back out at the ballpark.

“You could tell the fans have been waiting patiently for this game,” Price said. “They were so enthusiastic about every little detail that was happening within the game from the players being announced, the play ball kid, the National Anthem and even booing the umpires as they walked out. Everything the fans did, they did it with more enthusiasm.”

Jumbo Shrimp play-by-play announcer and director of media relations Scott Kornberg described the climate as a playoff atmosphere.

“Jacksonville has great fans to begin with. To be honest, it’s one of the very few places that actually gets LOUD. So we’ve felt that energy for months now, and even that extraordinary build-up did not exceed the actual moment,” Kornberg said. “From the instance the gates opened, you could tell everyone felt lucky to be there, myself included. It was one of the very, very surreal things I’ve been able to experience.”

Straight out of minor league spring training, the Shrimp as a whole looked to be in mid season form. After starter Braxton Garrett worked into the 4th inning, reliever Brett Eibner threw 2.1 scoreless innings behind an offensive explosion which included a five run 2nd inning and a four run 8th. Kornberg believes the fans played a big part in the players’ performance.

“These players have gone from either not playing at all in 2020 or playing in front of no fans. And they’re all aware upon coming to Jacksonville of what the atmosphere in the stands is like,” Kornberg said. “They all say it the first day they get here, how much they’ve heard about how great it is to play here. So for them, it was special, and then you add in our crowd? I think there was no question those guys love playing in front of our fans to begin with, and the atmosphere last night only added to it.”

The excitement surrounding the return of baseball in Duval county was far from exclusive to Opening Day. On a Wednesday afternoon, 121 Financial was close to allotted capacity. That crowd took in another Jacksonville victory. This weekend, a ticket to a Jumbo Shrimp game will be hard to come by.

“We are sold out pretty much every home game through this homestand,” Kornberg said.

Even without baseball in 2020, the Shrimp stayed active in the community and worked diligently with health and safety officials and county leadership to stay involved in the  community and keep the gates of 121 Financial open. Through that work, the organization was able to host a variety of socially distanced events such as movie nights and bingo nights. Undoubtedly, that continued community involvement is a harbinger for why Duval continues to rally around the Shrimp organization. 

“I think them being involved kept them top of mind with the fans and giving hope that things will be back to normal eventually,” Jacksonville fan Stoffer Cochran said. “I love Minor League Baseball and I’m proud of the Jumbo Shrimp.”

Max Meyer Debuts

On Wednesday night, 2020 third overall pick Max Meyer made his professional ball debut at AA Pensacola. He did not disappoint. The 23-year-old lefty worked five scoreless innings allowing just two baserunners (one hit, one walk) and striking out five. He needed just 65 pitches, 42 of which were strikes.

Meyer came as advertised, pumping up to 97 with his fastball (sitting 94). His famously sickening slider, labeled the best pitch in the 2020 MLB Draft, was on full display. Four of five of his strikeouts were finished with that pitch, including this one which, per the Mississippi Braves’ broadcast, had a spin rate of 2539. Major League Baseball’s average slider spin rate this season is 2453.

Meyer didn’t need his changeup at the collegiate level and he didn’t really need it in this start either, but he did show it a bit. It sits in the 84-86 mph range and Meyer flashed the ability to locate it similarly to the heater. It has some nice late plane, giving it ability to have some tunnel off the heat leading up to the wipeout slider.

While we need to see more than the few he threw in this start, it was encouraging to see Meyer mix it in and throw the changeup with conviction for strikes.

So how did Meyer, pitching in his first pro game and l for the first time in a game at any level in over a year, fly out of the gates in this fashion at such a high level? Postgame, manager Kevin “Smoke” Randel likened it to mixture of ability and blissful ignorance.

“He doesn’t know any better,” Randel said. “He’s never pitched in the Florida State League or even the (New York-) Penn League or low A. So it’s just the minor leagues to him. He feels like he needs to be up in the big leagues. He’s got the best stuff. That’s just how he pitches.”

Meyer’s next start should come next Tuesday in the Blue Wahoo’s home opener against the Birmingham Barons.

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