Way out West and deep into the night, a classic duel was waged on Wednesday. Meridian Community College product Cliff Lee of Philadelphia and San Francisco’s Matt Cain hooked up in a battle of aces that ultimately ended in a 1-0 Giants victory in 11 innings. Neither was involved in the decision, which seems absurd. Both had a profound impact on the game at the Giants’ AT&T; Park. Cain went nine, retiring the last 13 he faced. Lee lasted 10, posting seven strikeouts and retiring 12 in a row at one stage. “It doesn’t get any better than what we saw tonight,” Giants manager Bruce Bochy told mlb.com. The Phillies find themselves in last place in the loaded National League East. They’ll have to rely heavily on the arms of Lee, Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and new closer Jonathan Papelbon, the ex-Mississippi State star, to reach the postseason for a sixth straight year. Left-hander Lee, a former Cy Young Award winner, was 17-8 with a 2.40 ERA in 2011, sort of a down year by his standards. He appears to be back on form, though he doesn’t have a win yet in 2012. P.S. It’ll be interesting to see what happens in Starkville tonight. Mississippi State coach John Cohen has challenged his swooning Bulldogs to be mentally tougher. They’ll send ace Chris Stratton (7-0, 2.98 ERA) to the bump to face Tennessee in a 6:30 game to be televised by ESPNU. If Stratton falters and the Dogs fall in this one … .
Remember the great recruiting classes reeled in by the state’s Big Three for the 2012 campaign? All three programs were ranked in the top 14 in the nation by Baseball America and in the top 20 by Collegiate Baseball. What kind of impact have the freshmen in those classes had? At Southern Miss, quite a lot. Mason Robbins, Mr. Baseball from George County, is hitting a team-best .357. Connor Barron, from Sumrall, is at .287, pitcher Taylor Nunez has put up a 3.86 ERA (1-3 record) in 21 innings and Bradley Roney has five saves. Others have also contributed. The frosh at Ole Miss and Mississippi State have not contributed as much, though the Rebels’ Hawtin Buchanan stood out in Tuesday’s Governor’s Cup Game to record his first college win. Buchanan, a man mountain from Biloxi, has a 0.93 ERA and 18 strikeouts in limited action (9 2/3 innings). Josh Laxer, from Madison Central, is 3-0 for the Rebels but has a 6.43 ERA, highest on the staff. UM’s most touted recruit, two-sport star Senquez Golson from Pascagoula, who turned down major money from the Boston Red Sox, is hitting .204 in 54 at-bats. MSU started one of its heralded freshmen hurlers, Brandon Woodruff from Wheeler, on Tuesday, but he got knocked around and took the loss. His ERA is 4.24 in limited time. Jacob Lindgren from St. Stanislaus has a 3.18 ERA in 11 1/3 innings, but the shining star among Bulldogs newcomers has been Jonathan Holder of Gulfport. In 16 innings, he has not allowed an earned run and has recorded a W and a save. P.S. Props to Millsaps for claiming the Maloney Trophy on Tuesday with a 4-1 win over Belhaven. The Majors went 4-2 in the small college series, beating BU three times. The Blazers (2-3) and Mississippi College (2-3) finish off the series next Monday at Smith-Wills Stadium.
There’s a long, long, long way to go before a region champion will be crowned in junior college baseball. But we can compile a short list of viable candidates. There’s the defending NJCAA Division II Region 23 champion, Jones County, which began the year ranked No. 2. There’s Hinds, which also has made an appearance in the national top 10. And then there’s Itawamba, which moved to No. 4 in the poll last week. Yes, the Indians (29-7) lapsed by losing their first two games after getting the No. 4 nod — but they bounced back to sweep MACJC North Division challenger Northwest over the weekend. ICC’s got pitching. Ben Hudspeth is 7-0 with a 1.19 ERA and threw a no-hitter against Northwest. Dylan Earnest is 6-1 with a 1.09. On the offensive side, Cody Shrewsbury is a rare talent. The Tupleo product is hitting .438 with six homers and 28 RBIs. Catcher Zack Randolph, a Mississippi State signee, is regarded as the best defensive catcher in the league and is hitting .345 to boot. ICC has six division games left, then the mine field that is the juco postseason begins. When the smoke finally clears, the Indians just might be the last team standing. ICC hosts East Mississippi today, while Jones is at Copiah-Lincoln. Hinds hosts Southwest on Wednesday.
P.S. Former Mississippi State star Mitch Moreland reportedly has had surgery on an abscessed tooth but is ready to go again for the Texas Rangers. Hitting just .150 in six games, Moreland needs more bite from his bat.
If you don’t want to fight the crowd at Trustmark Park for Tuesday night’s Ole Miss-Mississippi State game, there’s an equally intriguing contest at Smith-Wills Stadium, where UM and State used to play the old Mayor’s Trophy Game. Millsaps and Belhaven will battle (at 6 p.m.) in a game that could decide the Maloney Trophy Series. The visiting Majors, who have won the small college round-robin series four times, are 3-2, with two wins over the Blazers. BU is 2-2 (with another game to play against Mississippi College next week). These are two good clubs, both of which should be eager to get back on track after lost weekends. Millsaps (23-12) dropped two of three at home to rival Rhodes to fall to 8-3 in the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference. Belhaven (31-18) was swept three straight on the road against Shorter to slip to 14-13 in the Southern States Athletic Conference. Belhaven is 22-4 on the synthetic turf at Smith-Wills and features a prime Ferriss Trophy candidate in Anthony Doss (.400, seven homers, 45 RBIs). But Millsaps counters with a big three: Stephen Gates (.412), Ryan Zemke (.398) and Wes Perkins (.371, seven homers, 46 RBIs). Smith-Wills doesn’t usually play as a hitter’s park, but it would not be shocking to see a bunch of crooked numbers go up Tuesday, especially if second-line pitchers get the call.
Drew Pomeranz, the touted Ole Miss product, is scheduled to make his 2012 MLB debut today. The Colorado left-hander will face Arizona at Coors Field. … Mississippi State alumnus Paul Maholm makes his second start as a Chicago Cub, hoping for better than his first start (six runs in four innings). He faces St. Louis at Busch Stadium. … Ex-Ole Miss star Lance Lynn beat the Cubs on Saturday and is 2-0 with a 1.50 ERA in two starts for the Cardinals. … Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College product Tony Sipp has a 19.29 ERA for Cleveland but somehow has managed to record two holds for the 3-4 Indians. … Ex-Southwest Mississippi CC star Jarrod Dyson, recalled by Kansas City last week, is 2-for-8 with two runs scored in his two games as the Royals’ new leadoff batter. … Itawamba CC alum Desmond Jennings has seen his average dip to .194 as Tampa Bay’s leadoff man. … Also scuffling are former Ole Miss standouts Alex Presley (.269 for Pittsburgh after a hot start) and Chris Coghlan (.158 for Miami). Coghlan, the 2009 National League rookie of the year, has not been the same player since suffering an injury during a postgame celebration in 2010. … Former Mississippi Braves closer Craig Kimbrel is 4-for-4 in saves for 4-4 Atlanta. Kimbrel hasn’t allowed a run, but not all of the saves have been tidy. … Ex-M-Braves catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, under scrutiny in Boston, belted one of the five homers the Red Sox hit on Saturday in a 13-5 win over Tampa Bay at Fenway Park. Salty is batting just .118. … Former M-Braves star Jeff Francoeur is now hitting second in the order for Kansas City and is off to a .333 start. … M-Braves alum Jason Heyward, who needed a good start this season, has had one, batting .346 for Atlanta. He appears to have made some adjustments in his set-up.
Colton Mitchell, a junior left-hander from Lake by way of East Central Community College, earned a very special place in the Delta State record book on Saturday by throwing the school’s first perfect game. Mitchell retired all 21 batters he faced in the seven-inning second game of a Gulf South Conference twinbill as the Statesmen beat New Orleans 4-0. Mitchell, now 5-0, struck out seven. He came into the game with a 4.05 ERA. His no-no was the 11th in DSU’s long history, according to a school release, and came exactly 50 years after the first, tossed by A.C. Williams against Mississippi College. DSU (26-10, 11-6 GSC) won both games on Saturday and goes for the sweep today at Ferriss Field in Cleveland.
Patience is a virtue, and Aaron Holbert seems to be a virtuous man. The Mississippi Braves manager has watched his team get off to a 2-6 start, but he is not throwing tantrums. (At least not publicly.) His team isn’t scoring: 22 runs so far, and eight of those came in one game (a victory over Montgomery on Wednesday). The M-Braves are hitting just .237 with one home run. “We’ve got a good group,” Holbert said before Thursday’s 3-2 loss to the Biscuits at Trustmark Park. “There are some things we need to do better, but we’ll come around.” There are several prospect-types in this year’s lineup. But it is a young lineup. On Thursday, it featured seven starters in their first year of Double-A ball. Some adjustment time should be expected. Mobile, which beat the M-Braves four of five in the first series, leads the Southern League in ERA. That might have had something to do with the sluggish start. Montgomery, on the other hand, is last in the league in ERA. Maybe the attack will perk up again in the last two games of this homestand. Patience, Holbert would say.
Welcome to the meat of the conference season in college baseball. The magnitude of each game grows larger, especially for the smaller schools, whose seasons are winding down. … NCAA Division III Mississippi College (14-19, 5-7 American Southwest Conference) faces a key series at home this weekend against East Texas Baptist. The Choctaws, who’ve dropped five straight games, are currently fifth in the ASC East; the top four make the postseason. … D-III Millsaps (22-10, 7-1 Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference) is sitting pretty at the moment but certainly wants to keep its momentum in a home series against rival Rhodes. … NAIA Belhaven (31-15, 14-10 Southern States Athletic Conference) goes on the road to Shorter. The defending league champion Blazers, beaten in a league series by in-state rival William Carey last weekend, are seeking consistency. … Carey, meanwhile, is 25-20 and 12-11 SSAC and also headed to Georgia for a league series against Emmanuel. … D-II Delta State (24-10, 9-6 Gulf South Conference) welcomes league newcomer New Orleans to Ferriss Field in Cleveland. The Statesmen surely are eyeing a sweep. … In the Division I SWAC, first-place Jackson State (21-10, 13-2) faces a road test at Alabama State, while in-state rivals Alcorn State (7-27, 6-6) and Mississippi Valley (7-26, 6-9) face off in a pivotal series in Itta Bena. … Ole Miss got a jump — sort of — on the weekend with a Thursday night game at Georgia. The nationally ranked Rebels (23-11, 6-7 SEC) were tripped up by the Dawgs as closer Brett Huber absorbed his second loss of the year and saw his ERA rise to 5.25. Ouch. … Mississippi State (21-12, 5-7) faces the unenviable task of taking on defending national champ South Carolina in Columbia, S.C. USC is just 5-7 in the SEC and very hungry. … And Southern Miss (19-13, 3-3 Conference-USA) gets nationally ranked Central Florida in Hattiesburg. There is no overstating how big that series is for the young Golden Eagles.
P.S. A nod to Blue Mountain, which is 19-20 and 7-8 in the TranSouth Conference in just its second season of baseball. Keep an eye on this NAIA program.
Zack Cozart’s impressive but injury-curtailed big league debut last summer apparently was no fluke. The former Ole Miss standout, starting at shortstop for Cincinnati, is batting .455 in six games. He has two triples, two doubles and two RBIs. According to reports, he is the first Reds rookie since 1947 to hit safely in the club’s first six games. Cozart, 26, said he feels very comfortable hitting in the 2-hole ahead of slugger Joey Votto. Cozart hit .324 for the Reds in 2011 but was KO’d by a shoulder injury. He looked fine in the spring, batting .345 and easily winning the shortstop job. Meanwhile, former Taylorsville High star Billy Hamilton, another Reds shortstop prospect, is batting .217 at high-A Bakersfield. Sports Illustrated suggested in its March 26 baseball preview issue that Cincinnati should push the 21-year-old Hamilton to The Show this season. Hamilton, whom SI calls “the fastest man in the minors,” stole 103 bases in low-A last year and has five in six games in 2012. But he also has three errors, giving him 61 in 247 career pro games. Obviously, his defense needs polish. One thinks Cozart’s job is safe for a while.
In the predictably unpredictable junior college ranks, Itawamba Community College celebrated its rise to No. 4 in the national poll by dropping a doubleheader at home to Holmes CC on Wednesday. ICC, 27-5 overall and 13-1 in the MACJC North going in, fell to Holmes (15-15, 6-8 going in) 4-2 and 9-2 in Fulton. The Indians managed just eight hits and committed six errors on the day. The Bulldogs’ Steven Blanchard, a freshman from Louisiana, got the win in Game 1 to move to 6-2 and homered in Game 2. Also getting swept on Wednesday was the North’s second-place team, Northwest, which fell to East Mississippi (now 14-19, 5-10). Northwest is 9-5 in the division, still 3 games back of ICC. In the South, No. 15 Hinds (26-8 overall) swept Copiah-Lincoln on Wednesday to move into a virtual first-place tie atop the division with Jones County. The Eagles are 10-5, the Bobcats 9-4. East Central is 9-5 after a split with Southwest. JCJC, which was swept by non-MACJC member Meridian (25-17 in NJCAA Division I) on Tuesday, plays Pearl River on Saturday. Stay tuned to this spirited race for postseason spots.