ST. JOSEPH — Despite enough power to dwarf each ballpark in the MINK League, AJ Gardner was humbled by a first-round elimination in the league home run contest Wednesday at Phil Welch Stadium.
“I’m not much of a home run guy,” Gardner quipped in his postgame interview.
Gardner’s first at-bat in Sedalia was an emphatic introduction that suggested the contrary. His first home run not only cleared the dark green wooden confines at Liberty Park Stadium, but cruised above the iconic Dey Field scoreboard behind the 365-foot sign in center field.
Retreating from a barrel of lumber with major-league velocity, Gardner-struck baseballs produce violent, head-turning snaps. Despite a one-run lead in the second inning after Gardner’s introductory blast, the Bombers’ home-opening contest with the Ozark Generals — who met Sedalia in the championship series last season — seemed all but won.
Liberty Park Stadium buzzed with all the excitement of a funeral procession as Gardner rounded the bases.
When the Alabama State outfielder took his show on the road, ballplayers in opposing dugouts developed a routine to help break the silence: explicit language.
Joplin Outlaws left-hander Brett Briggs, who went on to pitch eight innings, grinned and shook his head. His is teammates muttered awestruck curses. A night after delivering two no-doubters in Sedalia, Gardner’s fourth home run of the season traveled with the speed and resolve of an arrow — crashing into the bleachers at Joe Becker with a pang.
“That might have been the hardest hit ball I have ever seen in my life,” said one Outlaw.
Entering the MINK League Home Run Derby with a league-high six home runs — including five over three consecutive games — the cat is, without a doubt, of the bag. Gardner’s power remained a relative secret after redshirting the spring season due to academic issues.
Gardner, who played five games as a freshman, said he came one class short of being eligible to play as a sophomore.
“That was kind of heartbreaking,” he said. “It just shows that you have to be responsible off the field just as much on the field. That was a lesson I had to learn the hard way, unfortunately.”
With moonshots and lasers and demonstrations of power that surprise even himself, “I was never this good in high school,” he said, Gardner’s lost sophomore season remains as much a point of humiliation it does motivation.
“The fact that I had to sit out a whole year,” Gardner said. “The fact that I couldn’t override the NCAA. That humbled me a lot. It made me realize there are so many other things to do than baseball.
“If you don’t do those things outside of baseball, you’re not going to have the success on the field. That’s something I had to learn. What whatever you do off the field translates to success on the field.”
Sedalia Bombers head coach Craig McAndrews, who recruited last season’s MINK League Player of the Year in Santiago Garcia from ASU, said he commends Gardner’s balanced approach.
“Most guys that can hit a ball that hard and that far, they try to do it every time,” McAndrew said. “He’s not doing that.”
McAndrews said Gardner is still building confidence, and appreciates that his summer-league slugger learned from time off the field and has kept his early-season success in perspective.
Gardner is currently the team leader in hits (24), RBIs (21) and on-base-plus-slugging percentage (1.374). Yet, desperate for a summer team, he was driven overnight from his hometown of Fayetteville, Georgia, to Sedalia three days before his game-opening home run.
“He knows what’s at stake,” McAndrews said. “If he gets eligible, that’s a draftee. … He can really throw it, he can run, he can hit. He’s not just a hitter. And he’s about as humble as they come.”
MINK League North 3, MINK League South 2
Brandon Babin, Jackson Schmedding, Justin Root, Jake Lufft, Tre Turner, Nick Hagedorn and Gardner represented the Bombers Wednesday, June 26, at Phil Welch Stadium in St. Joseph, where the group performed for professional and collegiate scouts ahead of the home run contest and All-Star Game.
The MINK League North All-Stars used a crooked eighth inning to defeat the South, 3-2.
The North had out-hit its counterparts through seven innings, but trailed 2-0.
Babin and Schmedding each pitched during the eighth and, in the bottom of the frame, Lufft accepted a bases-loaded walk to tie the game.
Turner, who reached second via error, scored on the go-ahead hit from Clarinda’s Nate Bentura, giving the North its first lead of the game, 3-2.
In the ninth, St. Joseph’s Austin Brooks worked around one baserunner to record the save.
Gardner and Lufft started at left field and third base, respectively.
Alex Agueros can be reached at 660-826-1000, ext. 1483 or on Twitter @abagueros2.