BRADENTON -- It had been a long time since Austin Meadows played a game that made him look like the top prospect in the Florida State League.
The nearest date could be June 6, the last time he had multiple hits in a game. That was before a bruised hand caused him to sit for 10 days and miss the FSL All-Star Game last Saturday.
The more accurate time, though, might be May 14. He collected a career-high five hits that day, and his batting average climbed to .336. Sixteen days later, he was below .300, and his average has steadily declined. Before Saturday's series opener against the Manatees, it was down to .263, his worst since April l1.
"You could tell he was getting close," manager Michael Ryan said after watching Meadows scorch balls into the outfield during series in Port St. Lucie and Port Charlotte.
Finally on Saturday he was back as the catalyst to Bradenton's league-best offense. The 20-year-old lefty went 4-for-5 while scoring three runs and driving in another to end a drought that never became an outright disaster for Pirates' top outfield prospect, but also left him without the awe-inspiring stat line expected from MLB.com's No. 38 prospect.
Following his lead, Pittsburgh's Single-A Advanced affiliate overcame a shaky start from Tyler Eppler to beat Brevard County 7-4 at McKechnie Field.
"I was seeing the ball really well tonight," Meadows said. "I felt pretty good at the plate."
Coming out of the All-Star break, Ryan decided to tweak the top of his lineup. Meadows, who had served as the Marauders' leadoff hitter prior to his injury, moved down to No. 2. Shortstop JaCoby Jones, one of Bradenton's other All-Stars and the team leader in the steals, claimed the leadoff spot.
Jones has been arguably the Marauders' best offensive player this season - he leads the team's active rooster with eight home runs, 110 total bases and a .383 slugging percentage - and moving him up even one spot gives him a chance for extra at-bats. For Meadows, it could influence his approach.
Ryan's hope, he said, is Meadows would stop, "thinking like a lead-off hitter as much anymore." He wanted him to be more aggressive, even if that meant sacrificing his team-leading .350 on-base percentage.
In the first inning, his new position set him up to drive in a run. Jones smoked the first pitch of the game off Manatee starting pitcher Johnny Hellweg's leg for a lead-off single. Meadows watched three pitches and fouled another off before clubbing a Hellweg (0-2) pitch up in the zone for an RBI double over Omar Garcia's head in center field.
"As long as I can help the team in the top two spots in the order, get on base and drive some runs in," Meadows said. "Wherever I'm at, I'm comfortable."
Two innings later, after Eppler coughed up three runs in the second inning to let Brevard County jump ahead 3-2, Meadows tied the game with his bat and his legs. He knocked a lead-off single into center, swiped second for his 10th stolen base of the year, then scored on second baseman Erich Weiss' game-tying double to center.
In each of his next two at-bats, Meadows knocked singles into the outfield, first to right and then an opposite-field liner to left, and each time he scored to pad the lead Bradenton claimed later in the third inning.
"You're gonna go through stages like that during the season where things are gonna be up and down," Ryan said. "It looks like he's gonna be going up, so that's good."
Offense has carried Bradenton to respectability through the first half of the season despite having the second worst ERA in the league. For the Marauders to continue their strong start to the second half -- they're 2-1 so far and have won 4-of-6 since the break -- the re-emergence of their best offensive player will be the most important factor unless the pitching can stabilize when reinforcements inevitably arrive from lower levels.
Nearly as important, though, will be the bullpen, which was one of Bradenton's few bright spots as it stumbled into the All-Star break and Sunday will lose Clario Perez when the closer is called up to Double A Altoona. On Saturday, Henry Hirsch struck out four and held Brevard County to one hit 2 2/3 innings before Miguel Rosario recorded a six-out save - his first save of any kind this season.
"Those are guys that are going to have to step up," Ryan said. "It's good to see them respond.