TRENTON, N.J. - When the season started, Aaron Mathews wasn't even on the Toronto Blue Jays' radar.
But just more than halfway through his first stint at the Double A level with the Blue Jays affiliate New Hampshire Fisher Cats, Mathews is second in the Eastern League with a .332 average, five home runs and 27 RBIs through July 15. He's been named to the league's North All-Star Team and has what some observers say is a shot at being the league's most valuable player if he continues his hot hitting.
That pretty much puts John Day native on the Blue Jays' radar now, right?
"He was a guy that really wasn't mentioned by our people as being a top flight guy. But he's having a great year," said Bill Masse, the Fisher Cats' first-year manager. "He's been my most consistent player since Day 1, and not just since the season started but since Day 1 of spring training. He has good at bats, a good knowledge of the strike zone and heís very aggressive."
Added Fisher Cats pitching coach Dave LaRoche: "Sometimes we have to slow him down, but he sure is fun to watch."
Mathews, 25, was selected by the Blue Jays in the 19th round of 2004 amateur baseball draft out of Oregon State University. He began his first season at the Double A level this year with a 12-game hitting streak right out of the box and then had another 16-game hitting streak that was halted in late June.
"I'm just trying to stay focused and trying to have fun playing the game," said the leftfielder before a July 14 game against the Trenton Thunder, the Double A affiliate of the New York Yankees.
The night before, Mathews had the opportunity to face righthander Phil Hughes, the Yankees top pitching prospect. Hughes was the 2006 Eastern League ERA champion whom after a three-game stint at the Triple A level to begin the 2007 season, was summoned to the big club on April 26.
Hughes lost his first start - surrendering four runs and seven hits in 4.1 innings to the Toronto Blue Jays and was working on a no-hitter in the seventh inning at Texas against the Rangers May 1 in his second big league start when he injured his hamstring. He is back in Trenton on a rehab assignment.
"I like facing those kind of guys," said Mathews, who doubled against the young phenom hurler Friday night. "It gets you more ready for the big leagues. It's exciting. You kind of know where your are as a hitter."
Against the Thunder, Mathews and his mates ran into another highly rated Yankees first rounder in pitcher Joba Chamberlain. Chamberlain handled Mathews the first two times up getting him to fly to right and strike out on a pitch out of the zone. But Mathews had Chamberlain measured the third time up and singled to left center, which broke a streak of 15 straight batters retired by Chamberlain. Trenton eventually went on to win the game 6-2.
"This is the level where you start seeing guys advance," said manager Masse. "Aaron still makes some mistakes but it's because he's so intense. He's got a football playerís mentality. Heís still learning how to play the game."
Mathews, who has been on the East Coast each summer since he was drafted by the Blue Jays in 2004, said being so far away from home was a "big change."
"It was culture shock, coming from Oregon," he said. "It's a lot flatter in the east. But I've adapted to it pretty well."
The Grant Union High School graduate is the son of Larry and Julie Mathews of John Day. Larry is a retired high school drafting and shop teacher and Julie just retired this year from teaching health in physical education. Sister Kim, 21, lives in Arizona.
At this point, Mathews is taking his career day by day.
"I'm not going to worry about it (making the big leagues) right now," he said. "I had to learn that it wasn't going to happen overnight. I believe in my heart that I will make it, and I can't wait for that day. But I've got to stay focused on tonight."
His manager sounds convinced as well.
"Hopefully, heíll keep doing what he's doing," said Masse. "I don't look at just his power numbers (which as they stand now, are considered below average for a big league corner outfielder). If he hits .350 in the big leagues and hits just 10 home runs, he'll be in the big leagues for a long time.
"Right now he's a real solid Double A hitter. If he keeps doing what he's doing, he'll be a real solid Triple A hitter. If he keeps doing that, he'll be a real solid Major League hitter."
Mike Morsch is executive editor of Montgomery Newspapers in suburban Philadelphia and a freelance baseball writer. He can be reached at email@example.com.