Chris Lofton opened some eyes back in the spring as a freshman left fielder and leadoff hitter for Jones County Junior College. The 5-foot-11, 175-pounder from Raleigh batted .391 with 9 triples, 4 homers, 30 RBIs and 14 stolen bases as the Bobcats won 36 games and reached the second stage of the state tournament. Lofton is also starting at cornerback this fall for the JCJC football team. He has been credited with 13 tackles, four assists and an interception through five games. But there’s more. He also returns punts and kickoffs. Still more: He holds for extra points and field goals. A major league club might draft this guy next spring on his athletic versatility alone.
Sigh. Game 1 of the highly anticipated Twins-Tigers matchup was rained out Monday night. They’ll play a day-night doubleheader today at Comerica Park. The Tigers were, however, able to hold a pregame ceremony in the rain Monday honoring their 1984 championship team. Has it really been 25 years? There were a pair of Mississippi natives on that Detroit club. Left fielder Larry Herndon of Sunflower, who caught the final out in the 4-1 series win over San Diego, hit .333 over the five games, including a key two-run homer in a Game 1 victory. Jackson native Chet Lemon, one of the game’s best center fielders, hit .294.
Huge series starts tonight at Comerica Park in Detroit, where the first-place Tigers play the first of four games against the Minnesota Twins, who trail by 2 games in the American League Central. There are Mississippi angles aplenty in this showdown. Former Jackson Met Ron Gardenhire manages the Twins, and his pitching coach is ex-OJM Rick Anderson. Former Ole Miss star Matt Tolbert has been playing a steady third base for the Twins down the stretch. For Detroit, there’s former Jackson General Carlos Guillen, who has been swinging a hot bat; Louisville native and ex-East Central CC star Marcus Thames, a DH/left fielder/pinch hitter with a big swing; and ex-Mississippi Brave Zach Miner, a middle reliever. MLB Network has Game 1.
P.S. Belated props to Jackson native Donnie Veal, who got his first big league win on Friday night by working two scoreless inning for Pittsburgh. Lefty Veal was a Rule 5 pickup in December by the Pirates out of the Chicago Cubs system. He pitched for the Tennessee Smokies of the Southern League last season.
Ole Miss started fall practice on Saturday, looking ahead — way ahead — to extending its streak of NCAA Tournament appearances to eight. Though both Mississippi State and Southern Miss have been to the College World Series in recent years, something the Rebels haven’t done since 1971, Ole Miss moved past the other two as the state’s preeminent program of the ’00 decade. State may have ruled in the ’80s and ’90s in Ron Polk’s heyday, but there has been a gradual sea change since Mike Bianco took over in Oxford. Ole Miss has been to a Super Regional four of the last five years. The Rebels had 10 players drafted last June off a team that went 44-20. They’ve had 14 drafted in the first five rounds over the last six years. Left-hander Drew Pomeranz has been pegged as the No. 11 college prospect for 2010 by Baseball America. The Rebels’ 2009 recruiting class, a key group for next spring, was ranked 18th-best by Collegiate Baseball (three notches behind rebuilding MSU). A new decade starts next spring. State has some work to do to knock Ole Miss off the mantle it once held.
The injury suffered by San Francisco catcher Bengie Molina in Thursday night’s game — badly bruised fingers on his glove hand — could mean more playing time down the stretch for former Delta State star Eli Whiteside. Raw rookie Buster Posey may also get a look. Whiteside is hitting just .197 with a homer and eight RBIs in limited time. His best asset is his defense; he made a nice play on a foul pop after replacing Molina on Thursday. And we shouldn’t forget that he was behind the plate for Jonathan Sanchez’s no-hitter this summer. If he’s looking to stay with the Giants as the primary backup to Molina next season, Whiteside needs to step up in the crucial games ahead as San Francisco chases the wild card in the National League.
Congratulations go out to Ron Gardenhire on the occasion of his 700th win as manager of the Minnesota Twins. Old-timers in the Jackson area will remember Gardenhire as the JaxMets shortstop in 1980. He had a good year for a team that made the Texas League playoffs under Bob Wellman. Gardenhire, who had been drafted in 1979 out of Texas, hit .258 with 16 doubles, 6 triples, 6 homers and 64 RBIs in his first and only Double-A season. He was a serviceable big league player. He’s been far more than that as a manager. Don’t bet against the small-market Twins catching Detroit in the American League Central and making the playoffs — again.
Meanwhile, back at the playoff race: Fred Lewis’ speed paid off again for San Francisco on Monday night. The former Stone High and Mississippi Gulf Coast CC star foiled a potential inning-ending double play, beating the throw to first as the go-ahead run scored in the eighth inning of the Giants’ 5-4 win over Arizona. Lewis got an RBI and San Francisco gained a half game in the National League wild card race, now trailing Colorado by 4. … Matt Tolbert started at third base for Minnesota again on Monday and the ex-Ole Miss star contributed two hits and a run in the Twins’ 7-0 win over Chicago. Minnesota is just 2 1/2 games behind AL Central leader Detroit. … Texas’ hopes for this year are essentially quashed, but Starkville native Julio Borbon isn’t mailing it in. He went 3-for-5 with two RBIs and two runs in the Rangers’ 10-3 win against Oakland.
He surely didn’t want it to happen this way, but Dave Clark became the interim manager of the Houston Astros today when Cecil Cooper was fired. The former Shannon High and Jackson State slugger, who had been the Astros’ third-base coach, will make his big league managerial debut tonight when the Astros host St. Louis. Clark has managerial experience, having won minor league championships in the Class A South Atlantic League (with Pittsburgh’s Hickory club) and the Double-A Texas League (with Corpus Christi, the Astros franchise that was previously located in Jackson). Clark played 12-plus years in the big leagues, hitting .262 with 62 homers.
Even though they are paid — and paid pretty well, actually — to play a kids game, it can’t always be easy showing up for work this time of year if you’re a Pittsburgh Pirate. The Pirates are so hopelessly bad, they have become almost tragic. The franchise that gave us Pie Traynor, the Waner brothers, Bill Mazeroski, Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell hasn’t had a winning season since 1992, when Barry Bonds was their 185-pound left fielder. Consider the plight of former Mississippi State left-hander Paul Maholm, who might be the ace of the current Bucs staff by default. While guys he played with and against in Mississippi are enjoying the thrill of the playoff chase, Greenwood native Maholm is stuck on a club that is 30 games out of first place in the National League Central. The Pirates have been out of the race, division or wild card, for weeks if not months and have lost 19 of their last 22. Maholm lost Sunday to San Diego, falling to 8-9. Considering that his club is 56-91, that’s fairly remarkable. His ERA is 4.46, high but not a disaster — unless you pitch for a club that is as offensively challenged as Pittsburgh, which traded away most of its best hitters weeks ago. The Pirates lost 4-0 on Sunday, the 15th time they’ve been shut out. If there’s a silver lining for Maholm, he might only have to start a couple more times.
Fred Lewis hasn’t had the kind of season the San Francisco Giants were counting on (.269 with 18 RBIs), but no one was thinking about that Friday night at Dodger Stadium. Lewis — Fast Fred from Wiggins by way of Mississippi Gulf Coast CC — sparked the Giants’ 8-4 win over Los Angeles, a victory that kept San Francisco in the National League wild card chase. Pinch hitting in the sixth inning of a 4-4 game, Lewis delivered an RBI double over the head of left fielder Manny Ramirez and scored an insurance run on a Eugenio Velez double. … Ole Miss product Chris Coghlan led off the ninth inning by reaching on an error and set off a four-run rally by Florida that took down Cincinnati 4-3 at the Great American Ballpark on Friday. The Marlins gained ground on wild card leader Colorado with that victory. … At the Metrodome, former Rebels star Matt Tolbert, the pride of McComb, had a hit and highlight-reel defensive play at third base in Minnesota’s 3-0 win over Detroit. The feisty Twins, managed by ex-Jackson Met Ron Gardenhire, are just 3 games behind the Tigers in the American League Central.