A host of 2009 Mississippi Braves are spending their winter vacation in Mexico — and seem to be enjoying themselves. Outfielder Concepcion Rodriguez, who’ll likely be back in Pearl next year, is hitting .280 with six RBIs through 14 games. Starting pitcher Tim Gustafson is 2-0 with a 2.45 ERA, and reliever Brett Butts has three saves and a 3.86 ERA in eight appearances. Those three are playing for Navojoa. Left-hander Edgar Osuna, with Mazatlan, has a 2.25 ERA in four relief appearances. … In Venezuela, Ernesto Mejia, the 6-foot-6 first baseman who missed most of the 2009 season rehabbing a knee injury, is at .269 with two homers and seven RBIs in six games, while lefty Jose Ortegano is 1-0 with a 2.57 ERA in three starts. (Also playing in Venezuela: ex-Jackson General Richard Hidalgo and the unforgettable former Senator Selwyn Langaigne.) … Meanwhile, back in the U.S.A., Freddie Freeman, who could well be back at first base for the M-Braves in 2010, hit his first home run in the Arizona Fall League today. He is hitting just .222. Brandon Hicks, the likely M-Braves shortstop in 2010, has been hot at .296. Jason Heyward has been out of action with a buttocks (no joke) injury.
Meridian Community College alumnus Cliff Lee has been given the honor of starting Game 1 of the World Series for Philadelphia on Wednesday night. That’s at Yankee Stadium. Yes, it’s new this year, but it’s still an intimidating place. The ghosts made the move from the old park, so they say. But Lee should feel rather comfortable. After all, the left-hander beat the Yankees in the first game ever played in the new park, back on April 16 when he was pitching for Cleveland. Plus, Lee has been very good this postseason, his first in the big leagues. He’ll face his former Indians teammate CC Sabathia in Game 1, which could be one heck of an opening act.
It is fairly remarkable that the Los Angeles Angels are still hanging around in the American League Championship Series considering the lack of production they’ve received from Bobby Abreu. The former Jackson Generals star — known as “Bobby A-Brew” when he hit .303 with 73 RBIs for the ’94 Gens — is batting .143 (3-for-21) in the five games with one RBI. During the regular season, his first with the Angels, he hit .293 and drove in 103 runs, his seventh straight year of 100-plus RBIs. But Abreu’s biggest contribution was helping the Angels’ other hitters become more disciplined at the plate. The team jumped from 18th in on-base percentage to third this season, taking its cues from the ever-patient Abreu. “We’ve changed because of Bobby,” Torii Hunter told Sports Illustrated. Against the New York Yankees in the ALCS, Abreu has seemed out of sorts, walking just four times and fanning seven. He could be the X-factor in what remains of the series, which New York leads 3-2 entering Saturday’s Game 6. If Abreu returns to form, watch out, Yankees fans.
Will Hawkins was named the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference’s hitter of the year last spring, when he mashed out a .406 average with 11 home runs and 55 RBIs. And the 6-foot-2, 230-pound junior from Nettleton hasn’t restricted his hitting to the baseball field. As a linebacker for the Majors football team, Hawkins has recorded three straight double-digit tackle performances, capped by a career-high 15 in a win over Rhodes last week. Maybe the Millsaps basketball team could use a board-pounding power forward …
P.S. Mississippi State’s recruiting class for 2010 is rated No. 8 in the country in the recently released Baseball America overview. An under-the-radar player to watch, according to the experts at BA, is Jaron Shepherd, a left-handed hitting outfielder signed out of Navarro (Texas) Junior College. He is described as raw but bursting with potential; his dad, Ron, played 115 games for the Toronto Blue Jays in the mid-’80s. Ole Miss’ class comes in at No. 12, highlighted by lefty-hitting juco catcher Miles Hamblin. BA is very high on Hamblin, who starred for a Howard (Texas) JC team that went 63-1 last season.
If you set out to document the greatest performances in League Championship Series history, you’d have a lot of ground to cover. After all, this is the 40th anniversary of the first expansion of baseball’s postseason. Yet any Mississippian who’s followed the game for a while — say, 20 years plus — could give you one for the list right off the top of his head. Will Clark, 1989. The former Mississippi State star put on a superstar show in the San Francisco Giants’ 4 games to 1 win over the Chicago Cubs. It was the postseason debut for Clark, who had a thing for debuts. He homered in his first pro at-bat and in his first big league at-bat, off Nolan Ryan, no less. In that 1989 NLCS, Clark went 13-for-20 (.650) with 2 home runs, 8 RBIs and 8 runs in the five games. He set the tone for the Giants’ dominance of the series in Game 1 when he went 4-for-4 with six RBIs. He was 3-for-3 with two homers, including a grand slam, against the Cubs young ace Greg Maddux. In the clinching Game 5, Clark delivered the tying and go-ahead runs with an eighth-inning single off Mitch Williams. In the World Series against Oakland — the infamous Earthquake Series — Clark had four hits but no RBIs as the Giants were swept. He never got back to the Fall Classic, but the sometimes irascible guy known as “The Thrill” gave us an LCS performance you can’t forget. And it’s a tale that will only get better as it ages.
Former Mississippi Brave Jason Heyward had two hits in his Arizona Fall League debut on Tuesday night and added another on Wednesday; he’s 3-for-9 with two doubles and an RBI. Ex-M-Braves Freddie Freeman and Brandon Hicks debuted on Wednesday and went a combined 0-for-7. Of note, Hicks, the M-Braves’ shortstop in 2009, played third base for the Peoria Saguaros. There was some speculation in the spring that he might be moved there someday. This is likely just a trial run. Odds are Hicks will be back at short and back with the M-Braves next spring. Three other 2009 M-Braves pitched for the Saguaros on Wednesday: Jeff Lyman started (2 innings, 3 hits, a walk and a run) and Lee Hyde and Craig Kimbrel worked an inning each. The starter for Scottsdale was Jackson native Donnie Veal, whom the Pirates reportedly are planning to convert to starting in 2010. The live-armed lefty was sharp in his AFL debut, tossing two perfect innings with three K’s.
Six players who toiled for the Mississippi Braves this season are among the Atlanta contingent in the Arizona Fall League, which starts today. Outfielder Jason Heyward, first baseman Freddie Freeman, shortstop Brandon Hicks and pitchers Jeff Lyman, Craig Kimbrel and Lee Hyde are joined by 2009 first-round pick Mike Minor, a pitcher from Vanderbilt, on the roster of the Peoria Saguaros. The AFL is sort of a select league for minor leaguers, and success there has propelled many a player to a big league job the next spring. Heyward is one to keep an eye on. Baseball America’s minor league player of the year has a legit chance to be Atlanta’s right fielder next spring. Lyman and Kimbrel are not far from being big league ready, either. Hicks had a tough year with the M-Braves; the AFL affords him a chance to get back on the rails. … Other names of note in the AFL: Ole Miss product Zack Cozart (shortstop/Reds) is on the Saguaros roster; ex-Rebels pitchers Cody Satterwhite (Tigers) and Lance Lynn (Cardinals) are with the Peoria Javelinas and Surprise Rafters, respectively; and Jackson native Donnie Veal (pitcher/Pirates) is with Scottsdale, where former Jackson General Dave Hajek is serving as hitting coach.
Boston took a lead into the eighth inning of a must-win game and sent two of the best closers of this generation out to preserve it on Sunday at Fenway Park. They couldn’t do it. Former Jackson General Billy Wagner and ex-Mississippi State star Jonathan Papelbon got knocked around by the Los Angeles Angels for five runs in a combined 1 2/3 innings and the Red Sox’s postseason came to a stunning and abrupt end. Whoulda thought it? Papelbon’s meltdown was particularly hard to figure. He had never allowed a run in the postseason. But on Sunday, he couldn’t drop the hammer. He relieved Wagner in the eighth and gave up a two-run hit. Still, Boston took a 6-4 lead to the ninth. Papelbon got two outs and then it all fell apart. Former Generals star Bobby Abreu (3-for-5 on the day) had a big two-out, two-strike double that drove in the first run of the ninth, and he later scored what proved to be the game-winner. Papelbon had to be pulled. In an inning of work, he was charged with 4 hits, 2 walks and 3 runs. He didn’t strike out a batter. He’s an intense kind of guy. Wonder how long he’ll stew over that final inning of 2009?
Minnesota Twins third baseman Matt Tolbert’s first postseason as a major leaguer may have been short and not so sweet. The former Ole Miss star started Games 1 and 2 of the American League Division Series against New York but left Friday night’s game with a strained oblique in his left side. He may be done, regardless of how much farther the Twins go. And down 2-0 to the Yankees, that likely isn’t far. Tolbert, who spent most of the season in the minors, played a key role for Minnesota down the stretch, hitting .333 the last 21 games and playing good defense at what had been a problem position for the club. At least he’ll go to spring training with some credentials for more regular duty in 2010.
Stumbled across some figures on ballparkdigest.com that caught the eye. The Mississippi Braves, in their fifth season at $30 million Trustmark Park, drew a paid (tickets sold) average of 2,996 fans per game in 2009. That ranked 105th out of 176 minor league clubs this year, according to the Web site’s data. The Atlanta Braves pulled their Double-A club out of Greenville, S.C., where it had resided since 1984, after protracted haggling over the building of a new ballpark there. They moved to Pearl, where the TeePee was built for them, and drew a paid 3,847 the first year, 2005. That seemed promising. Smith-Wills Stadium never drew anything like that during the 25 years (1975-1999) of Double-A baseball there. But the TeePee attendance figure has dropped each year since. And the 2,997 figure of this past season includes a lot of tickets that were never used. The actual average might have been closer to 2,000 per game, which is awfully close to what the old Jackson Generals drew in their best season (1,866 in 1996). Hmmm. Didn’t the Generals leave (for greener pastures in Texas) because of poor attendance? And here’s another number to ponder: 4,857. That’s what the new Greenville, S.C., club (a Boston Red Sox low A team) drew in the ballpark that was built there soon after the Braves left.