Nunez, a highly touted prospect, made his debut with the Johnson City Cardinals a memorable one, blasting a no-doubt grand slam and supporting a pitching gem from Julio Puello as the Cards beat the Elizabethton Twins 9-5 Monday night at Northeast Community Credit Union Ballpark.
After losing back-to-back heartbreakers in the Twins’ final at-bat, Johnson City got a bit of a breather thanks to Puello, who retired the first 18 batters he faced. He took a perfect game into the seventh before giving up a hit and, eventually, three runs.
“We sent him out for another inning and then see what happens,” Cards manager Roberto Espinoza said. “He was going to put us in a tough spot, but we were pushing for him.”
Meanwhile, Nunez, an 18-year-old from Cuba who is the No. 6 prospect in the Cardinals’ organization, lined out on the right field warning track in his first at-bat and smacked a solid single in his second. His grand slam came when he drilled a fastball from Twins reliever Erik Chia so hard, left fielder Max Smith never even moved. It put Johnson City up 7-0.
“He showed us and he’s really happy to be able to participate in the games,” Espinoza said. “He had some injuries and dealing with some stuff. Now he’s healthy and look at what he did.”
In 44 games in the Dominican Summer League last year, Nunez hit .415 with 13 home runs and 59 RBIs. An article on Bleacher Report carried the headline “The best hitter in baseball is Malcom Nunez, the Cards’ Cuban phenom.”
Hyperbole aside, Nunez was the most productive hitter in Elizabethton on Monday night, even though he later grounded into a double play and struck out.
Ruben Santana got the Twins’ first hit, a solid single to lead off the seventh inning and three batters later, Albee Weiss blasted a three-run home run, his league-leading ninth of the season. It made the score 7-3 and ended the night for Puello, who struck out eight batters in 6 1/3 innings and improved to 2-1.
“He was throwing a lot of strikes and made my job easy back there,” Cards’ catcher Zach Jackson said. “He was locating his fastball really well against those guys. He was pounding the zone.”
Weiss later added an RBI triple, bringing his RBI total to 24, tops in the league. He was promoted to Class A Cedar Rapids following the game.
The Cardinals’ first two runs came on solo home runs, the first by Raffy Ozuna in the third inning and the second by Jhon Torres in the fourth. Ozuna came in hitting .121 and it was his first home run. Torres’ shot was his third.
Seth Gray played shortstop for the Twins, the first time he’s played that position. He’s been working out at short after starting 14 games at third base and four in left field. He fielded the position flawlessly and turned a nifty double play in the ninth inning.
The two teams will close the four-game set Tuesday night at Northeast Community Credit Union Ballpark. Dalton Roach (1-0, 5.64 ERA) will start for Johnson City while Tyler Benninghoff (1-1, 9.49) is expected to get the nod for Elizabethton.