Bleday accepts his award

JJ Bleday (41) was given the Robert A. McNeece Most Outstanding Pro Prospect Award, which is given out yearly by MLB scouts to the player who is deemed the most ready for success at the professional level, after posted a .311 batting average in 36 games with the Orleans Firebirds of the Cape Cod Baseball League.

There’s no question that 2018 was a breakout year for Titusville native J.J. Bleday on the diamond.

In a season that featured a walk-off home run in the NCAA Nashville Super Regional and the recognition of MLB scouts as one of the most pro-ready prospects in the country, Bleday couldn’t have written a better script for himself.

It didn’t matter whether the 21-year old was suiting up for the SEC-powerhouse Vanderbilt Commodores or sporting the colors of the Cape Cod Baseball League’s Orleans Firebirds, he consistently played at the highest level.

However, Bleday’s 2018 screenplay wasn’t an easy walk in the park by any stretch of the imagination.

After starting out the Vanderbilt campaign swinging a hot bat — posting a team-high .372 batting average along with three doubles and three home runs — the sophomore sustained an oblique injury that caused him to miss 22 games spanning from March 30 to May 6.

Vanderbilt, which compiled a 17-8 record prior to Bleday’s injury, struggled in his absence, going just 8-14 in that span. Understandably, Bleday was frustrated about having to watch his teammates from the bench, unable to help them out on the field.

“It wasn’t that fun sitting for 22 games and watching the team on TV sitting in my dorm,” Bleday said. “It was tough, but I was just trying to take advantage of seeing the game from that vantage point. I tried to take it as a positive, and kept working, while healing as quick as I could. I saw how guys were getting pitched to, and I took advantage of that, which helped me out when I came back. I got right back in the lineup like I’d never left.”

Bleday came back with a vengeance after successfully rehabbing from his injury. In his first game back on May 8, he reached base four times, and a week later, he tied a Vanderbilt record by drawing five walks in a single game. Bleday batted .400 while scoring eight times and driving in five runs during Vanderbilt’s final eight games of the regular season.

Although the Commodores didn’t reach their ultimate goal of winning the NCAA Championship, Bleday tallied at least one hit in each of Vanderbilt’s postseason contests, and belted one of the loudest home runs of the entire College World Series that even had followers in the Titusville area celebrating into the night.

In a game that began on June 9, with Vanderbilt on the brink of elimination in the NCAA Nashville Super Regional, Bleday launched a walk-off home run over the centerfield fence off of Mississippi State southpaw Zach Neff to give the Commodores a 4-3 victory just after 1 a.m. Eastern Time on June 10.

“I was zero for five going into that at-bat, so I was ready to try and put a good swing on it,” Bleday said. “My coaches and teammates were on my back telling me I could do it. I wasn’t really trying to hit a home run that at-bat. I was just trying to get something good to hit to start a rally, and, hopefully, win the game. The reliever got behind 2-0 [in the count], and I put a good swing on it. I pretty much just blacked out rounding the bases. It was a cool experience. You don’t realize it while it’s happening, but the next day, I woke up, and it hit me that it actually happened.”

After establishing a presence on the national stage with his walk-off home run, Bleday was looking to keep up his production while he transitioned to a new team and league.

 Following a brief nine day break away from live game action, Bleday suited up on June 20 for his first game with the Orleans Firebirds of the Cape Cod Baseball League — a league known as as one of the best amateur summer leagues in the country — and promptly doubled and drove home his first run.

“My goal was to get up to Orleans as quickly as I could after the [Nashville] Regional so I could get those 22 games that I missed back and try to get better with the best competition,” Bleday said. “I stayed confident and positive, and really took advantage of that time. It’s like pro ball, playing every day. You’re not going to have your best game every night, and you just have to figure out how to deal with it and grind it out.”

Despite new opposition on the mound, Bleday churned out the same level of production as he did for the Commodores earlier in the season. Bleday led the Firebirds in hitting (.311), runs (29), hits (46), and triples (2) en route to being selected as a East Division All-Star on July 22. Although Bleday went 0 for 2 in the contest, he was honored to be a part of the game.

“It was cool to have the coaches recognize what [I] did and vote [me] into playing in that game,” Bleday said.

Bleday was not only one of the top hitters for his club, but he was also one of the best hitters in the entire Cape Cod Baseball League during the 2018 season. His .311 batting average was 10th in the league, while his nine doubles were good for eighth among qualifying hitters.

His numbers showed that he was one of the top prospects in the league, and Bleday was later given the formal recognition he rightly deserved as he was honored with the Robert A. McNeece Most Outstanding Pro Prospect Award.

The award, which is given out yearly by MLB scouts to the player who is deemed the most ready for success at the professional level, has recently been given to current MLB players Sean Manaea (Oakland Athletics pitcher), Andrew Miller (Cleveland Indians pitcher), and Matt Wieters (Washington Nationals catcher). If there was ever a track to be on for players who want to become Major Leaguers, Bleday seems to have found it.

“It’s a tremendous honor,” Bleday said. “I honestly didn’t even know the award existed until I got it. I wasn’t trying to win it or anything, but to realize that you are in the same class as those guys is just unbelievable. It makes me want to work harder to get to where they are.”

With his breakout season at an end, Bleday continues to focus on getting ready for his junior year at Vanderbilt. If he continues to showcase his ability at the plate, there is no reason why, in the near future, the Titusville native shouldn’t improve upon his 39th round selection by the San Diego Padres in the 2016 MLB Draft.

“We’re trying to get to Omaha [for the National Championship],” Bleday said. “I’m just looking to help my team out and be a good leader.”

No matter how far Bleday goes in his pursuit of a career in baseball, he always has his Titusville roots in the back of his mind.

“I grew up in Titusville and always consider myself a Pennsylvania boy,” Bleday said. “That’s where I got my personality from and where I grew up. It’s where I dream about coming back and helping out the community one day. It’s cool to have [Titusville residents] appreciate what you are doing and know that you are still working hard. I know I have a lot of support [from the Titusville community].”

Borland can be reached, by email, at sports@titusvilleherald.com.

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