Staff Photo: John Bohn Designated hitter Ernesto Mejia adjusts his batting gloves as the Gwinnett Braves host the Durham Bulls at Coolray Field Friday evening.
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Four years ago, it looked like Ernesto Mejia might be on the fast track to Atlanta.
The native of Venezuela won the home run derby and batted cleanup for the winning Carolina League in its annual Class A Advanced showdown with the California League en route to a 93-RBI season for Myrtle Beach,
That offseason, though, the slugging first baseman hit a career roadblock.
Mejia injured his right knee while playing in the Venezuelan Winter League and missed most of 2009.
"It was the worse year ever," the 26-year-old said.
The next season wasn't that good, either, as Mejia spent a year away from the Braves system after signing with Kansas City. But he rejoined his original organization in 2011 and everything is good again.
"This is my best season," Gwinnett's leading offensive threat said. "I love the Braves and I was so happy when they called and wanted me back."
After setting team records for homers (26) and RBIs (99) last season at Class AA Mississippi, Mejia has been even more impressive so far in his first year of Class AAA competition.
Mejia is batting .302 and ranks among the International League leaders in homers (17) and RBIs (59). As a reward, he will be the starting first baseman for the IL in tonight's AAA All-Star Game against the Pacific Coast League at Buffalo's Coca-Cola Field.
"I'm excited," said Mejia, who is in an all-star game for the first time since 2008. "It will be a lot of fun."
The game, televised by the MLB Network, is also an opportunity for Mejia to showcase himself for the Braves and other major league teams. He has been an invitee to major league spring training, but never on a 40-man roster.
"I want to always be a Brave," said Mejia, who can become a free agent again after the season. "But there are 29 other teams and I know that a lot of scouts will be at the all-star game."
Freddie Freeman is set at first base in Atlanta now, but Mejia could be a backup and right-handed pinch hitter. The American League, with the designated hitter, might be a better fit eventually, though.
"We'll see what happens," Mejia said. "I just have to play well and stay healthy. Everyone wants to get to the big leagues."
Mejia was left as the only G-Brave in the all-star game when Atlanta had reliever Cory Gearrin drop out so he could rest a fatigued arm.
The International League has won every AAA showdown since Gwinnett joined the league in 2009 and the G-Braves had always had multiple participants until this year. Three played in both of the past two games and it would have been four last year if Julio Teheran hadn't pitched in the All-Star Futures Game instead.
Gwinnett's Stefan Gartrell won the home run derby in Salt Lake City last season and Buffalo's Valentino Pascucci continued the IL's recent domination of that event on Monday night at Coca-Cola Field before a crowd of 17,242. The hometown hero defeated Dan Johnson of Charlotte in the final round as Mejia, a non-participant, could only watch.
"I would have loved to be in the home run derby," Mejia said. "They are a lot of fun."
Mejia and the other all-stars toured nearby Niagara Falls on Tuesday morning and then took part in team workouts in the late afternoon. A gala for players and officials was held Tuesday night and Hall of Famer Tom Seaver will be the featured speaker at a luncheon today.
The first AAA All-Star game was held at Buffalo in 1988, the year the downtown ballpark opened. The IL holds an 8-6 edge over the PCL since the resent format began in 1996, winning seven of the past nine games.