The sky darkened and the first band of rain was imminent early afternoon Tuesday when Jorge Soler arrived at Blue Wahoos Stadium, greeted by a small contingent of autograph seekers dressed in Atlanta Braves gear.
He signed each request, posed for pictures and flashed a smile, while pushing two large luggage cases on rollers.
Soler was a free agent acquisition during spring training by the Miami Marlins, following his instant-legend status in Atlanta when he was the 2021 World Series MVP in the Braves championship win against the Houston Astros. It zoomed his popularity to another level.
Soler (pronounced So-Lair) extended his fan engagement in Pensacola prior to being in the Blue Wahoos lineup for their weather-delayed, 2-1 victory Tuesday night against the Chattanooga Lookouts.
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Soler went 1-for-4 as the Blue Wahoos designated hitter, while on a brief loan during his recovery from bilateral pelvis inflammation. He had two hard-hit outs in other plate appearances Tuesday, including a crowd-arousing deep flyout to center field in his first at-bat.
It was a good sign for the Miami Marlins that his rehab progression had gone well. The plan is for Soler to play in the outfield Wednesday night for the Blue Wahoos, and if all goes well, he will likely be headed back to Miami to be activated off the injured list and return to the Marlins lineup.
The Blue Wahoos opened their six-game homestand with a 2-1 victory against the Chattanooga Lookouts, the Cincinnati Reds affiliate, in a game that again showcased the Blue Wahoos pitching depth. Starter AJ Ladwig pitched six scoreless innings to get the win, then relievers Jefry Yan and Eli Villalobos shut the door in the final three innings.
Soler, 30, a La Habana, Cuba native, last played for the Marlins on June 28 going 1-for-3 in a game against the St. Louis Cardinals. The left fielder told Miami area media representatives after that game that his back ailments have been a season-long issue.
“It comes and goes,” he said then. “Sometimes it bothers me, sometimes it doesn’t.”
The Marlins hope the extended rest, the two games in Pensacola, can bring Soler a return to the form he had during the Braves’ magical post-season run last October.
“It really got to the point where he couldn’t do the work that he needed to do to be sharp,” said Marlins manager Don Mattingly in a Miami Herald story. “We had to get rid of it. He needed some time off as far as his swing and things like that.”
Soler appeared comfortable at the plate Tuesday, along with how he seemed to enjoy the close proximity to fans that Blue Wahoos Stadium provides.
There was little doubt of his popularity in Pensacola, which has its share of Atlanta Braves fans.
Prior to the game, which was delayed 52 minutes due to Tuesday’s weather, Soler accommodated every fan lining the Blue Wahoos dugout tunnel before the game, thanking fans who thanked him for delivering a World Series championship to the Braves.
Soler is one of the biggest Major League Baseball names to have an injury rehab assignment in Pensacola during the Blue Wahoos 10-year history. The other was Minnesota Twins slugger Miguel Sano, who wowed with some mammoth homers during his stopover in 2019 – the lone year the Blue Wahoos played as a Twins affiliate.
Earlier in 2019, Twins catcher Mitch Garver played a couple of games at Blue Wahoos Stadium while recovering from injury.
During their seven-year affiliation with the Reds, former MLB pitcher Homer Bailey, who threw two no-hitters in his career, twice had rehab stints in Pensacola along with former Reds All-Star catcher Devin Mesoraco.
But it was different with Soler, because of the Braves ties and the recent stage he shone in the 2021 World Series.
Soler, a Cuba native who ascended a couple of years ago into one of Major League Baseball’s premier power hitters – headlined by leading the American League in homers in 2019 with 48, was signed by the Marlins on March 22.
He hit .223 with 27 homers and 20 RBI last season while first with the Kansas City Royals, then acquired in a mid-season trade by the Braves, which proved pivotal.
In the World Series, Soler made himself beloved forever in Atlanta sports history, hitting three home runs in the World Series, putting together a .300/.391/800 slash line in winning MVP honors.
In brought him lifetime celebrity status among Braves fans, including a sizeable number who turned out to see him Tuesday night at Blue Wahoos Stadium.
And Soler wasn’t the only World Series hero in the ballpark. Pensacola’s TJ McCants, 21, the Pensacola Catholic High graduate, whose pinch-hit homer for Ole Miss in the College World Series, along with a base hit the next night, factored into the Rebels national championship triumph against Oklahoma, was saluted by the Blue Wahoos before the game for his own feats.
His younger brother Jordan McCants, 20, was the Marlins third-round pick a year ago in the 2021 MLB draft. Jordan is in his first full season with the Marlins organization, playing at Jupiter in the Florida Complex League (FCL), formerly the Gulf Coast Rookie League. He is batting .252 in 26 games with five doubles, four triples and 5 RBI.
WANT TO GO?
WHO: Chattanooga Lookouts vs. Blue Wahoos
WHEN: Wednesday 6:35 p.m
WHERE: Blue Wahoos Stadium
TICKETS: Available online at www.bluewahoos.com/tickets. Or purchase at the stadium box office (opens at 10 am on weekdays), or call 850-934-8444.
RADIO: ESPN-Pensacola (99.1 FM and 1330 AM and WYCT 98.7 HD4).
PROMOTIONS: Wednesday – Mardi Gras In July. Various Krewes from Pensacola Mardi Grass will parade shopping carts during pregame. It’s also One Price Wednesday with an $18 ticket for any available stadium seat, plus a hot dog, soda and chips. It’s also mid-week, post-game fireworks following the game.
Bill Vilona is a retired Pensacola News Journal sports columnist and now senior writer for the Pensacola Blue Wahoos. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.