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VOL. 43 | NO. 19 | Friday, May 10, 2019

VU’s Bleday leads locally flavored home run barrage

By Chip Cirillo

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Vandy’s JJ Bleday leads the NCAA in home runs with 23 through Sunday’s games, followed closely by TTU’s Jason Hinchman and WKU’s Jake Sanford.

-- Photograph Courtesy Of Vanderbilt Athletics

JJ Bleday can’t explain his sudden power surge. The right fielder didn’t hit many home runs his first two seasons at Vanderbilt, but he leads the nation with 23 this year.

“No, never was,” says Bleday when asked if he’s always been a power hitter. “It just happened naturally.”

He’s one point of a home run triangle that stretches 70 miles north and 80 miles east of Vanderbilt’s Hawkins Field, and has local college baseball fans watching the box scores.

Western Kentucky’s Jake Sanford, a junior outfielder, and Tennessee Tech’s Jason Hinchman, a sophomore first baseman, are tied for third in the NCAA with 20 each through weekend games ending May 5.

Bleday hit two homers as a freshman and four last year when he missed 22 games with an oblique (abdominal muscle) injury.

But this year is a different story.

“He’s always been a strong kid,” Vanderbilt pitcher Patrick Raby says. “After being in the SEC for a little bit, I think something clicked, and I know he really took off in the Cape last summer, too.”

Bleday, a 6-foot-3, 205-pound junior, was named the top pro prospect in the Cape Cod Baseball League by scouts.

Bleday, who belted 15 homers in a 20-game stretch recently, has surpassed Pedro Alvarez for the single-season school record.

“He just hits the middle of the ball,” Commodores coach Tim Corbin says. “I mean, he’s older, he’s more mature, he gets at better counts, he’s aware of the zone.”

Bleday has been spending time in the weight room, which helps explain his increase in homers. “I’m trying to get stronger and trying to get better pitches to hit, and try to stay in my legs more,” Bleday adds. “If it gets out, it gets out.”

Bleday does squats, dead lifts and bench press with his teammates in the weight room. The first two lifts have strengthened his legs, which helps add more power to his swing.

Western Kentucky’s Jake Sanford

-- Photographs Courtesy Of Katie Stratman At Wku Athletics

“I’m not trying to do anything too crazy,” Bleday points out. “It’s just something to maintain your strength.”

The left-handed hitter doesn’t put a priority on driving the ball deep. “I just try to hit a line drive up the middle and if the pitch dictates where the swing is at then the rest goes about its own business,” Bleday explains. “If it’s outside, you can drive it away and if it happens to go over, it just happens to go over.”

His favorite pitch?

“I like a fastball in a fastball count,” Bleday says.

Most difficult pitch?

“It’s always the change-up,” Bleday acknowledges. “It doesn’t matter what level you’re at. That’s probably the hardest pitch to hit in baseball.”

Leg strength and bat speed both fuel Bleday’s power.

“Probably just staying in your legs and, yeah, bat speed,” Bleday says. “Just trusting your hands, letting your hands work and let your hands be quick and that’s where your exit velo (velocity) comes from and balls can carry.”

Bleday’s most memorable homer was a solo shot in the ninth inning that gave the Commodores a 4-3 win versus Mississippi State in Game 2 of the Nashville Super Regional in 2018.

“That was an unbelievable three-game series,” Bleday recalls. “That was just crazy to be part of.”

Vanderbilt lost 10-6 loss in 11 innings in Game 3, leaving the Commodores one win short of a return to the College World Series. The Commodores have made it to the CWS three times, including the 2014 national championship.

Bleday is hitting .339 with 58 RBI, a .746 slugging percentage and 35 walks. He’s reached base in 71 of his last 72 games.

“I try to keep every game separate from one another and take it pitch by pitch because even though you’re feeling good, it’s baseball and anything can happen,” he says.

Bleday, whose initials stand for Jeffrey Joseph, has two superstitious rituals on the diamond.

“I always strap my right batting glove on before my left and tie my left cleat before my right cleat.’’

This will probably be his last season at Vanderbilt since he’s likely to be taken early in the June draft. He’s MLB.com’s No. 5 prospect and highest-rated outfielder.

San Diego drafted him in the 39th round in 2016 after his senior season at A. Crawford Mosley High School (Lynn Haven, Florida), but he opted for Vanderbilt.

He’s led the No. 4 Commodores (38-9, 18-6 SEC following a three-game sweep at South Carolina May 3-5) to first place in the Eastern Division. Arkansas leads the West at 17-7, 37-12 overall.

“I love him,” Corbin says. “He’s low maintenance, he’s not moody, he’s just what you would want to coach, he’s bright-eyed, he’s smart. We do have a bunch of them, but he’s a special kid.”

Hurricane Michael, a category 5 storm with wind speeds as high as 160 mph, heavily damaged Bleday’s hometown in the Florida Panhandle. The storm claimed 59 lives in the U.S. and caused an estimated $25.1 billion in damages along its path.

“A lot of my friends had to deal with that,” Bleday says. “They had to move out of their houses. Their roofs were collapsing in. We lucked out. I was more on the beach side. It was more in the city in Lynn Haven-Callaway. That’s where it got really destroyed.”

Bleday holds six swimming records at his previous high school, Titusville (Pennsylvania), and also golfed, but baseball was always his best sport.

Western’s Sanford is from Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, but he picked America’s national pastime instead of Canada’s. NHL great Sidney Crosby, who has won three Stanley Cups with Pittsburgh, also is from Cole Harbour.

“His parents live right behind me, actually,” Sanford says. “I played street hockey with him a few times. I see him at the gym sometimes, but I’m not home that much.”

Sanford played goalie in hockey until he was 18. He also got a volleyball scholarship offer, but chose to pursue baseball.

Sanford’s favorite and least favorite pitches are similar to Bleday’s.

Favorite: “Inside fastball,” he says.

Least favorite: “Probably that outside change-up,” he adds. “It looks like a fastball and then it just drops off the table.”

Sanford (6-2, 215), a junior outfielder, gets much of his power from weightlifting and quick hands. He can dead lift 595 pounds and squat 455.

He leads the nation with an .865 slugging percentage and boasts team bests with a .416 batting average and 60 RBI for WKU (22-22-1).

“I’ve never had a player that I’ve coached that has the power he has to all fields,” WKU coach John Pawlowski says. “When you do that, a lot of doubles and balls in the gap. He’s just figuring this baseball thing out. He’s a hockey goalie. I tell you what, he’s come on very quickly.”

Big-league scouts have shown interest in Sanford, a McCook Community College (Nebraska) transfer.

Hinchman (6-3, 225), a sophomore first baseman for Tennessee Tech (19-26), is hitting .281 with 50 RBI and a .689 slugging percentage.

At a 2016 high school showcase, the Winston, Georgia, native hit a homer with the highest exit velocity speed (105.3 mph).

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