By Stephen Whyno
AP Sports Writer
WOODBRIDGE, Va. — Francisco Mejia stepped out of the clubhouse and into the dugout with little fanfare. He did his usual turns in the batting cage, and the 5-foot-10, 175-pound catcher looked like just another 20-year-old in the minors.
Yet Mejia is something of a modern-day Joe DiMaggio, plying his trade for the Lynchburg Hillcats of the high Class A Carolina League. The Cleveland Indians prospect went into the weekend with a 48-game hitting streak that ranked as the eighth-longest in pro baseball history and the best since 1954.
Mejia has gotten a hit in every game he has played in since May 25, a string that dates to his time with the Lake County Captains of the low Class A Midwest League. Neither Lynchburg manager Mark Budzinski nor hitting coach Larry Day has had a single conversation with him about the streak, which stands out because of Mejia’s age, his role as a catcher and the distractions he has faced along the way.
As one of Cleveland’s top 10 prospects, he took part in the MLB All-Star Futures Game in San Diego and would have gone to the Milwaukee Brewers at the trade deadline last month had the deal for Jonathan Lucroy occurred.
“It has not been easy for him,” said Carter Hawkins, the Indians’ director of player development. “This has not been put on a silver platter. He’s moved levels, he’s traveled around to different All-Star Games, he’s been a name that came up in trade rumors. There have certainly been a lot of different reasons or potential excuses to end this streak, but I think just focusing on his work and focusing on what he can do and what he can control has really helped him out.”
In the meantime, Mejia has moved closer to the record 69-game hit streak by Joe Wilhoit of the Western League in 1919.
DiMaggio owns the streak that most fans know about, the major league mark of 56 games in 1941 for the New York Yankees. Many fans don’t realize Joe D also owns the second-longest hitting streak ever in pro ball — as a teenager in 1933, DiMaggio hit in 61 straight for the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League.
Mejia, who signed out of the Dominican Republic at 16, reminds Budzinski of a young switch-hitting Vladimir Guerrero without the power, because of his ability to hit the ball so effectively out of the strike zone. An aggressive hitter, he doesn’t walk much.
It’s no coincidence that after the organization decided to make him repeat a year in the Midwest League, like a student who gets held back a grade, Mejia changed everything from his body language to his preparation.
“This year I got a better approach, better routines,” Mejia said. “I got routines this year.”
Last season, he said, it was simply “come to the stadium, let’s go play. This year everything is different.”
It has paid off. Mejia improved his batting average from .243 in 2015 to .348 this season, which Day credits to an improved all-field approach, especially left-handed. Before, the right-handed-throwing Mejia would pull from that side of the plate and cut off half the field.
Now he’s hitting the ball everywhere, early and often.
“It’s his gifted hand-eye coordination ability to put the barrel of the bat on the ball,” Budzinski said Thursday before a game at the Potomac Nationals. “The guys that are a little more aggressive and can hit the ball out of the zone hard, which he can do, that’s where you tend to see guys that can extend those hit streaks longer.”
The streak is even more remarkable because of Mejia’s catching responsibilities. The longest hitting streak by a catcher is 49, set by Harry Chozen in the Southern Association in 1954.
When Mejia arrives at the park, he first works with pitching coach Rigo Beltran and the day’s starter to prepare, then focuses on his defense and finally works on his hitting. It’s working out pretty well.
“You’re dealing with not only calling a game from a mental standpoint, working with a pitching staff, blocking balls, you’ve got all the gear on in the hot weather, foul tips off of you, you’ve got to make 100-some throws a night,” Budzinski said. “It is impressive to see a guy that can kind of maintain that through the course of a season and stay strong physically, mentally, emotionally.”
Handling the mental and emotional pressure of the hitting streak seems to be the least of Mejia’s concerns. He acknowledges it’s fun to keep it going and hear encouragement from his teammates, but he doesn’t talk to fellow players about his place in history.
That maturity and focus goes a long way as far as earning respect from the staff.
“He doesn’t make it about him,” Day said. “These games are not being played to see if he will or will not extend his hitting streak and he doesn’t act that way. He plays to win. He hits to win. He prepares to win.”
The Hillcats are winning plenty as Mejia has been hitting. But they almost lost him when the Indians tried to acquire Lucroy, an All-Star catcher.
As much as playing — and getting a hit — in the Futures Game gave him confidence and motivation, almost being traded made Mejia upset. Of course, he understood the situation like a grizzled veteran.
“A couple times I feel sad at that trade because I signed with this organization,” Mejia said. “I like (it) here. But Cleveland wants a World Series, so they have to do it.”
Lucroy vetoed the trade and went to Texas instead, leaving Cleveland with one of its top prospects still in the organization. Mejia, of course, still has a long way to go before he’s ready for the show.
“He’s still in A-Ball, he’s still extremely young, he’s still learning a lot of things about the baseball game,” Hawkins said. “If he continues to improve, if he continues to have the consistent approach at the plate, if he continues to improve behind the dish and manage a pitching staff, we absolutely see him as a guy that can help us out in the major leagues down the line.”