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Bleday makes MLB debut at PNC Park

PITTSBURGH — JJ Bleday, in an idyllic world, would have made his major league with the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC Park.

Bleday grew up in Titusville rooting for the Pirates during their run of three straight appearances in the National League wild card game from 2013-15. His favorite players included Francisco Cervelli, Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker.

On Saturday night, Bleday’s dream partially came true.

He made his major league debut at PNC Park. However, it was with the Miami Marlins.

That certainly didn’t dampen the moment for the 24-year-old outfielder.

“Growing up, I dreamed about playing in the major leagues, playing at PNC Park,” Bleday said after the Marlins purchased his contract from Triple-A Jacksonville. “Lo and behold, here I am. It’s really amazing. It’s hard to believe. I’m just trying to let it all set in.”

Bleday saw his first action Saturday night in the Marlins’ 1-0 loss to the Pirates. He entered the game in the seventh inning to play left field and drew a walk off All-Star closer David Bednar in the ninth in his first plate appearance.

Sunday, Bleday was in the starting lineup as the center fielder and helped the Marlins win 6-5 in 10 innings. He batted fifth and went 2 for 4 with a double.

Bleday got his first MLB hit in the second inning with an infield single off Mitch Keller, beating a throw from strong-armed rookie shortstop Oneil Cruz.

Bleday no longer has any family in the Titusville area. However, he had family friends make the 105-mile trip to Pittsburgh, and the cheering section could be heard whenever Bleday came to bat.

The Marlins have had high hopes for Bleday since selecting him fourth overall in the 2019 amateur draft following his standout collegiate career at Vanderbilt. He hit 27 home runs in 71 games that year in leading the Commodores to the College World Series title.

However, Bleday struggled in pro ball until this season.

The left-handed hitter batted just .257 with three home runs in 38 games for High-A Jupiter. After the 2020 minor league season was cancelled because of the pandemic, Bleday hit a sickly .212 in 112 games for Double-A Pensacola last year with 12 homers.

Bleday finally found his footing this season at Jacksonville. Though his batting average was just .229, he hit 20 home runs and drew 60 walks in 85 games to give him a .365 on-base percentage and .470 slugging percentage.

For the first time in his professional career, Bleday has been able to strike the balance between hitting for power while still exercising good plate discipline.

“I don’t go up to the plate looking to walk,” Bleday said. “I go up to the plate looking to swing the bat and I let the walks dictate themselves throughout the course and the quality of the at-bat. But for the most part, I’m going up there trying to be aggressive and for the most part trying to get a pitch to hit.”

Marlins manager Don Mattingly believes Bleday possesses the attributes of a potential star.

Mattingly certainly knows what it takes to succeed in the big leagues. He was the 1985 American League MVP, a six-time All-Star and won nine Gold Gloves during his 14-year career as a first baseman with the New York Yankees from 1982-95.

“I think what I like is that everything JJ does, he does well,” Mattingly said. “He’s a good baserunner, he plays defense, knows what he’s doing on the field, handles at-bats, all of that. Now, it’s a matter of making adjustments at this level with the pitching. That’ll be the big step for him.”