Brandon Jones is back on his old stomping grounds this week — and, for the most part, enjoying it. The former Mississippi Braves star, now with Southern League rival Huntsville, had two hits on Thursday night and two more tonight at Trustmark Park. The 27-year-old Jones, with his fourth organization since January 2010, is batting .324 with a homer, six doubles, two triples and 14 RBIs in 20 games for the Stars. The lefty-hitting left fielder went to big league camp with the Milwaukee Brewers but wound up back in Double-A, where he starred for the 2007 M-Braves. Atlanta seemingly gave up on Jones, once considered a prized prospect, after the 2009 season, most of which he spent in Triple-A.
The Mississippi Braves saw their record dip to 6-15 with another one-run loss on Thursday. To paraphrase the witty banter from “Bull Durham,” how’d they ever win six? It’s a miracle, is the response. Well, kidding aside, the M-Braves have a problem. But it might not be what you think. They are 2-10 in one-run games, true, but winning one-run games isn’t the best measure of a good team, as the sage folks from the old Elias Baseball Analyst staff once revealed. Studies show that good teams generally don’t play a lot of one-run games. They are more likely to win by blowing out the other team. They score early and often. The M-Braves aren’t choking away games in the clutch. Though they’ve had some bullpen breakdowns, their bigger problem is they’re just not scoring enough to take charge of many games. They are last in the Southern League in hitting (.244) and on-base percentage (.309) and next-to-last in scoring (79 runs). Until the offense begins to perk up, the M-Braves’ record, overall or in one-run games, isn’t going to improve.
Tournament play is back in the spotlight this weekend. Raise the curtain. Attention stage west: Mississippi College, which has made the American Southwest Conference postseason for 11 straight years, takes on Hardin-Simmons (not Concordia-Texas, as previously announced) in the best-of-3 opening round series. Game 1 is tonight at 6 in Abilene, Texas. Getting past HSU and into the four-team tournament proper could be a tall task for MC (22-16), which goes in as the 4-seed from the East Division. HSU (28-11) won the West. The Choctaws were nationally ranked in Division III in preseason but wobbled out of the gate as coach Brian Owens worked to get his pitching staff in order. Three starters emerged to have respectable years: Ryan Glover (2-3, 3.50 ERA), Ian Underwood (4-1, 3.72) and Bo Craig (4-1, 3.90). Carrying the load for MC much of the time was the Bashers Three: Spencer Brunson (.416), Brandon Benton (.372) and Stuart Magee (.361), each of whom hit nine home runs. Shane Bennett wasn’t far behind with six homers. MC last won the ASC Tournament in 2003. Now, attention stage east: Belhaven and William Carey begin play today in an eight-team Southern States Athletic Conference Tournament that features six teams ranked in the NAIA poll. Carey (26-23) meets No. 4 Lee (29-5) at 9 a.m. and No. 22 Belhaven (39-15) plays No. 16 Brewton-Parker (32-14) at 3 p.m. in Columbus, Ga. Carey scrambled late just to get into the SSAC event. The Crusaders’ top pitchers are Scotty Reese (4-5, 3.24) and Taylor Martin (3-2, 3.47). Javier Ortiz (.355) and Carlos Castro (.348) are the leading hitters, while Quin Stokes provides pop (10 homers). Belhaven, which reached the NAIA World Series in 2010, might just have the weapons for another run. Ace Brett Blaise is 7-1 with a 3.49 ERA and Allen Johnson 4-4 with a 2.24. They’ve also got six-game winner Alan McHenry and All-SSAC closer Josh Clarke (three wins, nine saves, 1.23 ERA). Jimmy Gilford paces the Blazers’ attack, hitting .374. Tyler Wrinkle (.363) and Lake Eiland (.353, 42 RBIs) also have swung steady bats for a team that hit more triples (30) than homers (27). Action.
Alcorn State’s team statistics are generally underwhelming. The Braves — yes, they’re still nicknamed the Braves — are seventh in the Southwestern Athletic Conference in hitting. They’ve got an unsightly staff ERA of 5.81, fifth in the 10-team league. Their defense is among the weakest in the league, with 81 errors in 29 games. But there they are, atop the SWAC East with a 16-4 mark. In 2010, his first season in Lorman, coach Barret Rey led the Braves to the championship game of the SWAC Tournament and a 27-26 finish. Alcorn may be better this year, those mediocre numbers notwithstanding. Rey has cast a wide net in recruiting; the Alcorn roster includes players from four different countries (plus Puerto Rico) and 10 different states. A pair of pitchers from an Illinois junior college (Oakton) have bolstered the Braves’ staff. Steve Easter is 6-2 with a 2.92 ERA, and Troy Williams is 5-3, 3.73. Harrison Gary, from Georgia (the state, not the country), has a 3.58 ERA with a win and three saves. That might be enough arms to get through the SWAC tourney, which starts May 18. The Braves have more, however. Kilby Perdomo, a native of the Dominican Republic, is No. 3 in the league in hitting at .389 and has six homers. Alvin Jackson, a Mississippi kid from Hollandale, is ninth in the league at .351. Floridian Eduardo Gonzalez leads the club in RBIs with 32. And these Braves make things happen on the bases. As a team, they top the league with 95 steals. Brandon Hollins, from Yazoo City, is the SWAC’s No. 1 individual base stealer with 29. Kenny Rowan, from Jackson by way of Hinds Community College, has 13 steals and Jann Butler (Moss Point, Gulf Coast CC) 11. This looks like a club that could nab the league’s NCAA bid — if the defense doesn’t let it down, as it did in 2010. That’s a big if. But a little pitching and a lot of speed might be the right combination in the SWAC.
Former Jackson area Double-A players are grabbing attention all over the map nowadays. On Tuesday night, ex-Jackson General Lance Berkman returned to Houston as a St. Louis Cardinal and went 2-for-5 with a big RBI. Former Mississippi Braves right-hander Charlie Morton delivered another quality start for Pittsburgh (only to get a no decision). A handful of M-Braves alumni contributed to Atlanta’s 8-2 win over San Diego, and hot-hitting Jeff Francoeur got another knock for Kansas City. Former General Bobby Abreu had a hit and two walks in the Los Angeles Angels’ win over Oakland. But the former JADAP scene-stealer was Brent Lillibridge, who M-Braves fans will recall as the swift shortstop on the 2007 club. He plays all over the field for the Chicago White Sox now — he was part of the 2008 Javier Vazquez trade — and on Tuesday found himself in right field in the ninth inning of a one-run game against the New York Yankees. With the tying and winning runs on base, Lillibridge made a catch crashing against the wall for the second out and then laid out for a sensational grab that ended the game. If you haven’t seen the video, check it out on mlb.com.
P.S. Cory Gearrin, No. 51 on your M-Braves to The Show list, pitched two perfect innings for Atlanta in its 13-inning loss to San Diego on Monday night.
Saw the item in the paper today. Marcus Lawton of Biloxi High hit two home runs in a win for the Indians last week. Yes, he is the son of the former big leaguer Marcus Lawton, a Gulfport native who played 10 games in The Show for the 1989 New York Yankees. But what the elder Lawton is better remembered for is his amazing base-stealing numbers in the minor leagues. He could fly. He swiped 379 bases in his career, including 111 in 1985 for the Class A Columbia Mets. In 1987, with the Double-A Jackson Mets, Lawton stole 44 bags and helped that club get to the Texas League championship series. His son has helped Biloxi make the state playoffs in Class 6A. Something to keep an eye on.
Starting pitching is the essence of a winning team, at every level, over the long term. Starters impact every game. But this isn’t to dismiss the value of a reliable bullpen. The pen can play a pivotal role — as the state’s Big 3 Division I schools witnessed over the weekend. Mississippi State’s pen collapsed on Sunday as the Bulldogs lost the rubber game of an SEC series with second-ranked South Carolina. Ole Miss’ pen suffered the defeat in both of the games the Rebels lost to Auburn in their three-game set. And Southern Miss, in a high-scoring series against Marshall, got saves from its pen in all three victories, moving into first place in C-USA as a result. State’s starting pitching faltered in the South Carolina series. The relief corps was no factor in the opening-game loss but stepped up with 5 2/3 scoreless innings in a 5-3 win in Game 2. Luis Pollorena got the win and Caleb Reed his seventh save. But in Sunday’s Game 3, when starter Daryl Norris was yanked after one shaky inning, the Dogs’ pen allowed 15 hits and 11 runs in a 13-4 loss. State actually led 3-2 early on. In Ole Miss’ one win against Auburn, a 10-7 victory in Game 2, Bobby Wahl recorded the last five outs for his third save. (The Rebels clearly miss ace closer Jake Morgan, who, because of an injury, has appeared in just eight games, only two SEC games.) USM’s ace closer, Collin Cargill, notched saves Nos. six and seven against Marshall, and freshman Boomer Scarborough got his first save, tossing two hitless innings in Saturday’s series finale.
P.S. On the subject of closers, former State star Jonathan Papelbon, who’s under the gun this season with the Boston Red Sox after a shaky 2010, picked up saves on three straight nights last week for the resurgent BoSox.