This time a year ago, Chris Stratton was a junior at Mississippi State, dominating hitters in the Southeastern Conference en route to earning the league’s pitcher of the year honor and the state’s Ferriss Trophy award. Much has changed. Well, maybe not that much. A first-round MLB draft pick (read: healthy bank account) last June, Stratton is now in the Class A South Atlantic League, pitching for the Augusta GreenJackets, a San Francisco Giants affiliate. He’s still dominating hitters. Through four starts, Stratton is 2-1 with a 2.38 ERA. He has 28 strikeouts and just eight walks in 22 2/3 innings. The strapping right-hander, the 20th pick overall, put up a 2.76 ERA in a rookie season that was curtailed in mid-August when he was conked in the head by a batted ball. No worries. He was fine, and he entered this season already rated the No. 3 prospect in the Giants system by Baseball America. He hasn’t disappointed. It may seem like a long way from low-A ball to The Show, but for Stratton, it’s probably not.
It’s time for eyes to focus on prizes in college baseball. Delta State and Jackson State clinched titles over the weekend, and Millsaps College stayed in the hunt for another one. The junior college playoff matchups are set. Postseason play is about to flow over us. … DSU, which won the Gulf South Conference regular season title with a 19-4-1 record, will play 8-seed Christian Brothers in a league tournament opener on Thursday in Chattanooga, Tenn. … JSU swept three games from rival Alcorn State to wrap up the SWAC Eastern Division title. The conference tournament is still a couple of weeks away, set for May 15-19 in Fort Worth. With games still left on the slate, Alcorn is third in the East at 11-10 and Mississippi Valley is fifth (last) at 1-16. … Millsaps, which had fallen into the losers bracket of its league mini-tournament, beat Hendrix twice at Twenty Field on Sunday to survive and advance to the Southern Athletic Association championship series. The regular-season champion Majors (32-11) will host Birmingham-Southern in a best-of-3 on May 7-8. … Belhaven, which lost two of three to William Carey over the weekend, heads to the Southern States Athletic Conference Tournament as the 4-seed. The Blazers play Southern Poly on Tuesday at Columbus, Ga. Carey, seeded third, meets Mobile on Wednesday. … In the MACJC, ninth-ranked Pearl River Community College (36-10) won the South Division and will host Itawamba in a best-of-3 on Friday and Saturday. North champ Northeast hosts Gulf Coast. South No. 2 East Central will be at home to play Mississippi Delta and North No. 2 Northwest gets a visit from Jones County. … Blue Mountain will play top-seeded Bethel on Tuesday in the first round of the NAIA TranSouth/Gulf Coast Unaffiliated Group Championships. … Southern Miss tightened its grip on first place in Conference USA with a sweep of UAB at Taylor Park in Hattiesburg. The Golden Eagles are 13-5 in the league with two series to play. … With three SEC series remaining, Ole Miss (11-10) is fourth in the West and Mississippi State (10-11) is fifth. The Rebels lost two of three to Kentucky over the weekend, while State was getting swept by Vanderbilt.
Mitch Moreland has been given a fair chance as the regular first baseman in Texas – and he is finally starting to heat up. The former Mississippi State star from Amory entered Sunday’s play with 10 hits over his last seven games. His average has risen from .157 to .225. Moreland, a left-handed hitter, has been a consistent power source since he crashed the big leagues in 2010. He belted 15 home runs last year and has 43 all told in roughly a thousand at-bats. Of course, his well-documented problem has been hitting lefties. And that problem hasn’t gone away. Through Saturday, Moreland was 6-for-34 (.176) vs. lefties this season, and that was after getting two hits off former Mississippi Braves portsider Scott Diamond on Friday. There was a lot of talk heading into spring training about Texas possibly moving Ian Kinsler to first base to open up a spot at second for rising prospect Jurickson Profar. The Rangers also had a talented first base prospect, right-handed hitting Mike Olt, in camp. Switch-hitting Lance Berkman even played some first base in the Cactus League. But Moreland held onto his job with a strong spring, and Rangers manager Ron Washington made a comment at the start of the regular season about giving players 100 at-bats or so to find a groove. Moreland’s at 80 ABs. He might have found his groove just in the nick of time. P.S. Ex-Ole Miss standout Cody Satterwhite, a former second-round draft pick whose career was derailed by injuries, has signed with the independent Sioux City Explorers.
William Carey University landed the first punch. The scrap between Carey and Belhaven University resumes today with a doubleheader starting at 4 p.m. at Smith-Wills Stadium. There’s not a title on the line, but this matchup is always compelling just the same. The schools are old rivals with proud programs and outstanding coaches in Bobby Halford and Hill Denson. The teams entered Thursday’s game tied for third place in Southern States Athletic Conference at 17-10. Belhaven (35-18) is ranked No. 21 in the latest NAIA poll. Carey (32-19) has been ranked much of the season. SSAC Tournament seeding hangs in the balance today. The host Blazers need to KO the Crusaders with a sweep to claim the 3-seed (behind national powers Faulkner and Lee). Carey’s Jake Fabre shut down BU 6-0 on Friday, allowing just four hits and fanning nine. The Blazers still have ace Chris Good (12-3, 2.37 ERA) to throw today. Still in the Crusaders’ stable are Vito Perna (6-3, 3.42) and J.D. Little (6-1, 2.89). Both clubs have hitters, too. Scott Fabre leads Carey with a .397 average and seven homers. Perna is a .360 hitter. BU is led by Jason Hicks (.359, six homers), Bud Britt (.301, eight homers) and Dominic Francia and Reagan Rutledge (41 stolen bases apiece). This ought to be good.
In juco land, the spotlight is on Pearl River Community College and Northeast Mississippi CC. Pearl River can clinch first place in the MACJC South Division with one win in Saturday’s doubleheader against Southwest in Poplarville. The Wildcats, ranked ninth in NJCAA, are 17-5 in the division after an impressive sweep of Jones County (15-9) on Tuesday. Ryan Deemes and Christian Talley, both 7-game winners, threw shutouts for PRCC. Second-place East Central (15-7) has a shot but needs to sweep Hinds (8-14) and hope PRCC gets swept. Gulf Coast is currently fourth in the South at 10-12. … Meanwhile, Northeast, which is 16-6 in the North, can win the division crown with one win against Mississippi Delta in Booneville on Friday. If Delta (14-8) sweeps, Northwest (17-7) will win the division. Northwest scored walk-off wins in both games of a doubleheader against East Mississippi on Tuesday. Jay King’s homer won Game 1, and Kramer Hollenbach’s RBI double ended Game 2. Itawamba is 11-11 in the North and needs to win one of two against Holmes in Fulton on Friday to claim fourth place and a 14th straight postseason berth. … The top four teams in each division make the playoffs, with the best-of-3 opening-round series starting next week.
Millsaps College won the Southern Athletic Association regular season title to earn the right to host a four-team tournament this weekend at Twenty Field in Jackson. The Majors (28-10) are 16-4 at home this year and 9-0 overall against the other three teams in their pod. (No. 2 seed Birmingham-Southern is also hosting a four-team tournament.) The Majors, led by Wes Perkins (.420) and Keith Shumaker (.392), can flat-out hit (.346 team average), and they’ve got a pair of stalwart starting pitchers (Shumaker and Will Edwards). They should be feeling pretty good about their chances to win this tournament and advance to the SAA’s best-of-3 championship series. But that’s the thing about postseason baseball. It’s different. It feels different. The end of someone’s season is always lurking. Every pitch, every at-bat, every play in the field can be a season-changer. We’ll see how the Majors handle it. They open with 8-seed Sewanee at 6 p.m. on Friday. With a win, they’d play at noon on Saturday against the Hendrix-Oglethorpe winner from Friday. The championship round is Sunday.
“Finding a way to win” is a somewhat hackneyed explanation for a team’s success. But how else to describe what the Mississippi Braves have been doing of late. The M-Braves won their sixth straight Sunday, beating Mobile 3-1 on the road, and climbed over .500 at 9-8. J.R. Graham, the highly touted right-hander, went seven innings for the W — the first win for an M-Braves starter this season. Even with early season pitch counts, that’s crazy. Overall, the pitching has been good but not great. The staff ERA of 3.60 ranks in the lower half of the Southern League, though that has kept them in most games while the bats have sputtered. The .231 average is near the league bottom and the team is last in home runs (with four). But they’ve shown a remarkable knack for late-inning magic. The only .300 hitter at the moment is Christian Bethancourt, the prized catching prospect who is batting .341. Minor league vets Jose Martinez (.296) and Kyle Russell (.292, a homer, seven RBIs) have been solid. Third base prospect Edward Salcedo (.255, one homer) hasn’t really gotten it going, nor have several others. Still, the M-Braves have found a way to put together this six-game winning streak, the team’s longest since July 2010. Perhaps they can ride that wave a little longer over the rest of the 10-game road trip. The next game at Trustmark Park is May 1. P.S. Add Brett Oberholtzer to the list of M-Braves who’ve risen to the big leagues. The left-hander, a 9-game winner for M-Braves in 2011, made his first appearance for Houston on Sunday. He joins Evan Gattis and Paul Clemens as ex-M-Braves to make MLB debuts this season.