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G-Braves slugger named league's rookie of the year

File Photo Gwinnett Braves' Ernesto Mejia watches the ball after making contact during a game earlier this season.

File Photo Gwinnett Braves' Ernesto Mejia watches the ball after making contact during a game earlier this season.

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File Photo Gwinnett Braves first baseman Ernesto Mejia tries to pick off a runner during a game earlier this season.

LAWRENCEVILLE -- There was no learning curve for Ernesto Mejia.

From the very beginning of the slugger's first season in Class AAA, the Gwinnett Braves first baseman and designated hitter maintained the hot-hitting pace he had established and built upon during his first nine professional seasons.

The career .283 hitter hit .258 in his first month with five doubles and three home runs in his first 21 games and took that start and built on it. He earned a spot on the Class AAA All-Star team and Tuesday was honored as the International League's rookie of the year.

"I felt really happy," Mejia said. "When you win an award, any kind of award, you feel happy because people are recognizing what you are doing."

Mejia, now hitting .303 on the season, is the third straight Gwinnett Braves player to win the league's rookie of the year honor. Pitcher Julio Teheran won it last year and in 2010 fellow first baseman Freddie Freeman took the league's honor as he developed into a major league first baseman.

With seven scheduled games remaining this season, Mejia is poised to set or match a number of Gwinnett Braves records. His 91 RBIs are tied with Stefan Gartrell's 2011 for the most in a season and he is one home run away from tying Gartrell's team mark of 25 home runs in a year. Gartrell set both marks last season, topping Freeman's 2010 record-setting year. He needs four more doubles to tie Freeman's 35 and six more hits to match Mauro Gomez's 154.

Gomez, who played parts of this season in the IL with Pawtucket was named the league's most valuable player. He is on the Boston Red Sox active roster now.

Mejia entered Tuesday with the most RBIs (91), hits (148), total bases (253), highest slugging percentage (.517) and at-bats (489) in the IL. His 24 homers tie him for second. He is third with 56 extra-base hits.

The extra-bases and hits are important to Mejia who spent this season focused on growing from just a power hitter.

"I have mixed my approach," he said. "I have tried to hit the ball the other way and not try to kill the ball and just make good contact with it. Because I am a power hitter, they don't throw too many fastballs to me and I had to be patient at the plate has helped me a lot, too."

A native of Venezuela, Mejia signed with the Braves in 2003 and rose through the organization, playing nine games in an injury-plagued 2009 with Class AA Mississippi. He signed with the Kansas City Royals and played 2010 in the Royals AA and high-A teams before rejoining Atlanta in 2010 as a minor league free agent. He hit .297 last year with the Mississippi Braves and re-signed for this season and has been in Class AAA the entire year. With September's big league roster expansion looming, Mejia is not on the Atlanta 40-man roster, which stands at 39 players. But that list does not include recently acquired Lyle Overbay, currently a teammate of Mejia.

But Mejia spent this season focused pitch-by-pitch rather than the big picture. He didn't let the team's poor record or even a franchise-long losing streak alter his approach or sap his effort. He never wavered. The numbers show it and Tuesday's honor means it didn't go unnoticed.

"For me, baseball is the same game everywhere," Mejia said. "You just have to put in the same effort and concentrate and keep your eye on the ball. You work hard. You work hard in the cage, outside and listen to the coaches. They teach you a lot. Baseball is always tough and you can't let the game beat you."