44 elite players: 'Competition is very thick' at Aaron Invitational

August 1st, 2022

ATLANTA -- In recent years, the Hank Aaron Invitational has hosted and developed some elite talent -- star Braves rookie Michael Harris II and four first-round picks from the 2022 MLB Draft including Termarr Johnson and Elijah Green are among the recent alumni.

Time will tell if someone from the 2022 Invitational becomes a household name, but several potential stars were on display Sunday in Team Robinson’s 8-3 win over Team Aaron at Truist Park.

The Hank Aaron Invitational Showcase Game brought together the 44 best players from an initial group of 125 elite, largely Black and Latino high school players who had been practicing for 11 days at the Jackie Robinson Training Complex in Vero Beach, Fla. The program doesn’t give out an MVP Award, and Team Robinson manager Brian Hunter liked it that way. The pitching stuck out early in Sunday’s game, and both teams strung together multiple rallies.

“The competition is very thick,” Team Aaron manager Marquis Grissom said. “To narrow it down to 44 guys, you’ve got to compete, you’ve got to get your game up, and you kind of know where you stand as a player when you go back home to where you’re from. Now you work a little bit harder if you want to get that scholarship to go Division I, Division II, Division III, whichever one it is.”

Two of the most impressive performances came from pitchers. Team Aaron starter Kyle Johnson set the tone early with three strikeouts over two scoreless innings. Team Robinson right-hander LJ Mercurius raised the ante with four strikeouts in two scoreless frames.

Getting to do that at Major League stadium gave a surreal feeling to their outings. Many had never played in one before or just did for the first time days before this event at Perfect Game National in Tropicana Field.

“I don’t know if you can tell, but I’m hyped up right now,” Mercurius said. “When we were here earlier during the game, I was like, ‘This energy is crazy.’ One day, five years, six years, however long it takes, I hope I can get there. Being able to get a little taste of it, it’s just unbelievable. One day we could actually make this happen if we really work hard and put our minds to it.”

Although he wasn’t on the winning team, perhaps the biggest star of the night was shortstop Luther Ellis III. The South Carolina commit played silky smooth defense and was responsible in part for all three Team Aaron runs -- despite getting hit on the knee while leading off in the bottom of the first.

Ellis came around to score in the first on a George Baker single, singled in the second, and then hit an automatic double, stole third, and scored in the fifth. He singled again in the seventh, and his overly aggressive baserunning forced a pickle that allowed a run to score, although he was ultimately tagged out.

Ellis even completed his Ozzie Smith impression by doing a backflip at the suggestion of his teammates. He said the camaraderie and high-level competition will serve him well going forward, a testament to what MLB, the MLBPA, and USA Baseball have built since the program was established in 2015.

“This has helped me a lot with scouting,” Ellis said on MLB Network, “and just getting to the level of competition that I've seen, the speeds of the pitchers and just the all-around fast pace of the game has really helped me as a player.”

A few of the players knew each other before the Invitational. Team Robinson second baseman Trey Lawrence actually faced off against his travel ball friend Corey Battey and laced an RBI single in the seventh inning up the middle.

Getting the last laugh against a childhood friend in a Major League park is a memory for the books, but Lawrence said the new friendships he’s made working alongside MLB legends was what he really valued most.

“There’s no other place like this,” Mercurius said. “Coming from Las Vegas, there’s not a lot of dudes that look like me that are playing at a high level of competition like this, so being surrounded by all these great players and all this knowledge is unbelievable.”