The name still stands out in the Boston Red Sox lineup — and not just because the surname is 14 letters long. Jarrod Saltalamacchia, the former Mississippi Braves standout, will open the season as the starting catcher for a loaded Red Sox club that features established stars at every other position. But “Salty” looked like he belonged in the spring, posting a .405 average with a homer and 10 RBIs. He’s a switch-hitter, a valuable skill, and he appears to have conquered the defensive problems that plagued him in the minors with Texas last summer. It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out. … Meanwhile, another M-Braves alumnus who had a much-needed strong spring is Charlie Morton. The right-hander, who endured a dismal 2010 with Pittsburgh (2-12, 7.57 ERA in 17 starts), was 2-0 with a 2.63 ERA this spring. He’ll be back in the Pirates’ rotation this season; he’s got much better stuff than what his 2010 numbers would indicate. … Alas, ex-M-Brave Wes Timmons didn’t make Oakland’s opening day roster, but he made enough of an impression that he might get a call-up if a need arises. Meanwhile, Tim Collins did make the Kansas City club, and the little lefty could become the 49th M-Braves alumnus to advance to the big leagues. Unless, that is, he’s beaten to the field by Matt Young, the little outfielder who made Atlanta’s 25-man roster. Young is one of 10 former M-Braves currently with the parent club.
There were several openings in the Minnesota Twins’ depleted bullpen this spring, and Dusty Hughes grabbed one. The Tupelo native and former Delta State standout will fill a lefty setup role for Twins manager Ron Gardenhire and pitching coach Rick Anderson, the former Jackson Mets pair who do such a fine job with this club. Hughes, who pitched in the exhibition in Atlanta on Tuesday night (1 IP, 2 H, 0 R), was claimed by the Twins in the off-season from Kansas City, for whom he posted a 3.83 ERA in 2010. The 5-foot-10, 185-pound Hughes, drafted in 2003 by the Royals, took six years (and a Tommy John operation) to get to the big leagues. He may have found a role — and a team — that gives him staying power.
P.S. Former Mississippi Braves left-hander Scott Diamond did not make the Twins’ 25-man roster as a Rule 5 pick but was secured in a trade with Atlanta on Tuesday. The Braves got 6-foot-6, 225-pound right-hander Billy Bullock, who posted 27 saves at two levels in 2010. Bullock, out of Florida, looks like a good bet to make the M-Braves’ roster. … In an action-packed junior college doubleheader in Poplarville on Tuesday night, Pearl River won the opener 17-15 on Matthew Magee’s walk-off grand slam and Mississippi Gulf Coast rode six shutout innings from reliever Gavin Culpepper to a 5-2 win in Game 2. Gulf Coast still leads the MACJC South with a 6-2 record. East Mississippi, which has won seven of eight games overall, is 6-2 in North, in a virtual tie with Holmes (5-1). EMCC is in its first season under Chris Rose, the former Meridian CC coach.
Well, OK, it wasn’t The Show. It was just a spring training game at Turner Field. But, hey, it surely felt big-time for Mauro Gomez, who blasted a walk-off two-run homer for Atlanta tonight to beat Minnesota. It was the first big-league at-bat this spring for Gomez, who hit 16 homers for the Mississippi Braves last summer. There’s a chance he’ll be back in Pearl next week. He’s got power, that’s for certain. Gomez’s homer, incidentally, came off former M-Braves lefty Chuck James, who is trying to resurrect his career in the Twins’ system.
Just a note from out of the blue, so to speak: Blue Mountain College has held its own in its first season of competition. The Toppers of Holly Springs were 11-19 overall and 2-10 in the NAIA TranSouth Athletic Conference heading into a game today at Division II Christian Brothers. BMC lost 9-0 and 10-0 to Belhaven in its first two games back in February but notched its historic first win in Game 4 against Lambuth. The Toppers, coached by former New Albany skipper Curt Fowler and featuring a number of Mississippi juco products, are 6-0 against state rivals Tougaloo and Rust. They also beat then-NAIA No. 1 Cumberland on March 19.
On this date in 1979, Luke Easter was shot and killed. The first black Mississippi native to play in the major leagues, Easter was working as a security guard when he was gunned down by a robber outside a bank in Euclid, Ohio. Born in 1915 (by most accounts) in Jonestown, a small community in Coahoma County, Easter was a massive left-handed slugger who hit 93 homers in an abbreviated big league career. He was known for his prodigious home runs, perhaps most impressive a shot into the center-field bleachers at the Polo Grounds in New York. That’s a poke. Easter, who grew up in St. Louis, rose through the semi-pro and Negro Leagues ranks and finally made the big leagues — at age 34 — with the Cleveland Indians in 1949. He spent most of the next five years in the majors, played on in the minors until he was 48 and then went into coaching in the Baltimore Orioles system. Here’s a nod to one of the state’s pioneers whose life ended tragically and unfairly.
True, offense is down all around college baseball with the new bats, but let’s not let that diminish the remarkable pitching demonstrated by the state’s Big 3 Division I schools on Sunday. Southern Miss’ Geoffrey Thomas (remember the name) blanked Tulane on one hit — a bunt single — in one of the best outings by a state pitcher in recent memory. Thomas, a sophomore right-hander already pegged as a potentially high draft prospect for 2012, fanned six and walked two in the 12-0, seven-inning victory that gave USM a 2-1 series win. The series was on the line for Ole Miss, too, at Tennessee, and Austin Wright delivered eight shutout innings, allowing four hits and striking out eight in the 8-0 win. And Mississippi State completed a sweep of Auburn with a 5-0 win behind Nick Routt and Daryl Norris, who combined on a four-hitter. Lefty Routt, coming off elbow surgery, was limited to 3 2/3 innings. Norris, a freshman, stepped in and closed the deal by allowing just two hits over the final 5 1/3. As Belhaven coach Hill Denson recently said, “The fastball is back in college baseball.” It is the best pitch, and with the toned-down bats, fewer of them can be turned around into homers or wall-rattling doubles. More pitchers can and will attack the strike zone now. The arms race is on, and Mississippi’s Big 3 appear well-suited for it.
Matt Young made the Atlanta Braves’ 25-man roster, after all. The diminutive Young, who spent parts of four seasons with the Mississippi Braves, is the club’s fourth outfielder heading into the season. He beat out Joe Mather and Wilkin Ramirez when the final cuts were made today. Young has hit .286 with a .404 on-base percentage, seven runs and five RBIs in 25 spring games. He might not make a big splash statistically this season, but no one will out-hustle him. It’s great to see his perseverance rewarded.
Jackson State’s Desmond Russell had a game to write home about on Saturday. The Bahamas native, a freshman at JSU, picked up his third win of the year with a seven-inning, eight-strikeout performance against Alabama A&M; and also hit a grand slam, his second home run of the season. Quick now, name two other players from the Bahamas. How about ex-Big Red Machine outfielder Ed Armbrister and 2010 Mississippi Braves outfielder Antoan Richardson. … On the day when coach Mike Kinnison set what is probably an unbreakable record for career victories at Delta State (641), senior outfielder Michael Niemann set the career stolen base record, now 73. Niemann, from Washington state, is having a bounce-back year after a sub-par 2010. He’s hitting .356 with 16 steals and 39 runs in 27 games. Oh yeah, and the Statesmen are 5-0 in the Gulf South Conference heading into today’s series finale at Southern Arkansas. … Belhaven has a pretty potent 1-2 punch in its rotation: Alan McHenry is 6-0 and Brett Blaise 5-1 for the 24-10 club. And then there’s closer Josh Clarke, who has five saves and a 3-1 record, the loss coming in Saturday’s rain-interrupted second game at Auburn-Montgomery. BU also has welcomed the return to the lineup of outfielder Anthony Doss, the Southern Miss transfer who was out for an extended period with a wrist injury. Doss is hitting .359 in 18 games, second on the team to Tyler Wrinkle at .369.
Good to see that former Mississippi Braves standout Brandon Beachy earned the No. 5 starter job with Atlanta. He has a quiet confidence about him that should serve him well in the big leagues. Of course, he’s also got great command of his pitches, which will serve him even better. It doesn’t look like ex-M-Braves outfielder Matt Young will be with the big club at the start of the season, even though he’s had a great spring. The emergence of Wilkin Ramirez has hurt Young’s chances. Elsewhere, Jo-Jo Reyes has made the Toronto rotation, and fellow former M-Braves lefty Matt Harrison is in Texas’ first five. Scott Diamond, trying to make the Minnesota bullpen as a Rule 5 pick, has been stalled by a minor injury. The Braves might get him back. Tim Collins, the little lefty who passed through Pearl briefly last summer, appears to have a real shot at making the Kansas City staff. And Wes Timmons, the 2005 M-Braves third baseman, is still battling for a backup infield job with Oakland.
P.S. Nice piece in the current Sports Illustrated about Baltimore Orioles manager Buck Showalter, the former Mississippi State star. The Orioles played well under Showalter at the end of 2010 but don’t bet on them getting off to a good start this season. Check out their schedule for the first month. It’s tough.
Don’t expect to see Rocket Wheeler kicked back in an easy chair munching popcorn in the Mississippi Braves’ dugout. But his job will be a little different this season. He’s running a Double-A club now after eight years of managing at the Class A level in Atlanta’s minor league system. In Double-A, “you’ve got guys who know how to play the game,” Wheeler said Wednesday in a phone interview from spring training in Florida. “And the beauty of it is, most of the guys who’ll be on this team have played for me already. I can sit back and watch them go to work. We won’t quit teaching, of course, but these guys know what’s expected of them.” Wheeler, 55, has been in pro ball since 1977, when he was drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays out of the University of Houston. He played for six years, then began a coaching and managing career. He joined the Braves’ system in 2003 and won a championship at Class A Rome with the likes of Jeff Francoeur, Brian McCann, Blaine Boyer and Kyle Davies. Wheeler spent the previous five years at Class A Myrtle Beach. He calls himself a “fundamentalist” who likes to play an aggressive game. “But a lot of times the team will dictate how you play,” he said. The Braves’ minor league teams won’t break camp until April 3, so the roster Wheeler will have to work with in Pearl is still very much uncertain. “But if it falls into place like we think it will, it’s going to be a really good club,” he said. “We just have to wait and see.” It’s a team that could be loaded with pitching prospects, including Julio Teheran, Randall Delgado and J.J. Hoover, plus shortstop Tyler Pastornicky and outfielders Mycal Jones and Cory Harrilchak, also highly regarded prospects. Wheeler, given name Ralph, got his nickname as a freshman in college, when he would regularly outrun his teammates in pre-practice drills. He’s slowed down some over the years — but maybe not that much. Atlanta farm director Kurt Kemp calls Wheeler “a high energy guy.” “He’s a good baseball man. He focuses on fundamentals, doesn’t do too many things outside the box,” Kemp said. The Rocket is set to launch at Trustmark Park on April 7.