Today’s can’t-miss game is St. Louis at Pittsburgh, a battle for first place in the National League Central. The Pirates won Friday’s series opener at PNC Park, forging the tie at the top and handing the Cardinals a second straight loss. Enter Lance Lynn to play the role of stopper for the Cards. This is an iffy proposition. The right-hander out of Ole Miss is winless in his last four starts and just 3-5 with a 4.48 ERA over his last 10. His 10-1 start in 2013 seems almost forgotten. For the year, he is 13-8, 4.02 with 158 strikeouts and 62 walks in 168 innings. There is a bright side for Lynn: He has been effective against Pirates stars Andrew McCutchen (4-for-23) and Pedro Alvarez (4-for-18). It’ll certainly be interesting to see how he handles things tonight. He’ll be opposed by A.J. Burnett, a veteran battler who is 6-9, 3.18.
Check off career ejection No. 66 for Ron Gardenhire, which moves him into a tie for ninth with the great Joe Torre on the all-time list for managerial ejections. Gardenhire, the former Jackson Mets infielder and current Minnesota Twins manager, was run Thursday during the Twins’ 3-1 home loss to Kansas City. (The Twins’ lone score came on a homer by Southern Miss product Brian Dozier, his 14th.) Gardenhire, generally an even-tempered and likable guy, is 989-923 in 12 years in Minnesota. He has won six division titles and was American League manager of the year in 2010. But his club will miss the postseason for the third straight year in 2013. Thursday’s loss was the Twins’ fifth straight and dropped their record to 57-75. Gardenhire has been run four times this season, a frustration that is perfectly understandable. And it’s also understandable why his job security is in question.
Seth Smith walloped a home run for Oakland on Tuesday night, his first since June 16 – and first since having Lasik surgery last week. Smith, the ex-Hillcrest and Ole Miss standout, is having a down year (.240, seven homers, 34 RBIs), but maybe the ocular tuneup was what he needed to get him going. His homer on Tuesday was a key blow for the A’s, who beat Detroit 6-3 and remained 2.5 games behind first-place Texas in the American League West. The Rangers, getting an RBI hit from Mississippi State product Mitch Moreland, beat Seattle 4-3. Oakland currently holds the No. 2 wild card spot in the AL, but there are a lot of dogs still in the fight. The last few weeks of the season are going to be fun to watch in that league. P.S. Miami has sent former Ole Miss star Chris Coghlan to Triple-A New Orleans for a rehab assignment. … Former Mississippi Braves right-hander Paul Clemens pitched six strong innings for Houston in his first MLB start (not his first appearance) on Tuesday, but the Astros’ bullpen blew the save against the Chicago White Sox. Jackson native Donnie Veal cherry-picked the win for the Sox. … The M-Braves, now tied for first in the Southern League South with five games left at Jacksonville, topped the 200,000 mark in attendance after a strong final homestand. The announced average for 2013 was 2,861, down slightly from 2012 (2,904). The average in 2005, the club’s first year at Trustmark Park, was 3,847.
The schedule says it’s the last home game of the season for the Mississippi Braves. But don’t put the foam tomahawks away just yet. There may be more chopping days ahead at Trustmark Park. The M-Braves (35-28) remain very much in the chase for the Southern League South Division second-half title and a playoff berth. They enter tonight’s game against Huntsville at the TeePee a game behind first-place Jacksonville, with first-half champ Mobile sandwiched between the two. The M-Braves finish the regular season with a 5-game series at Jacksonville. Mississippi’s first postseason appearance since 2008 will be there for the taking. The 2013 M-Braves (3.07 staff ERA) have had good pitching, which has been the norm since the club moved to Pearl. They’ve also become a productive offensive club, batting .252 (third in the league) and ranking fourth in runs. Christian Bethancourt (.283, 12 home runs, 44 RBIs) and Edward Salcedo (12 homers, 54 RBIs), both regarded as big league prospects, have made creditable strides this season. Tommy La Stella (.332 in 75 games) has had a breakthrough, while Jose Martinez (.288), Jaime Pedroza (.285), Christian Marrero (eight homers) and Barrett Kleinknecht (eight homers) have made significant contributions. And then there’s Mycal Jones, who rates some special notice. He first arrived in Double-A late in 2010, spent most of 2011 here after converting from infielder to center fielder and started 2012 in Pearl again. But he scuffled terribly (.141) and wound up back in A-ball. He got yet another shot with the M-Braves this spring and seems finally to have figured some things out. He is batting .261 with 29 stolen bases, 54 runs and 32 RBIs. Out with an injury since Aug. 11, he came off the disabled list on Monday and hit a key homer, his fourth, in a 2-1 victory over Huntsville. If the team, which let the first-half championship slip from its grasp, could somehow channel Jones’ perseverance over the last few days of the regular season … .
In the biggest game on the MLB schedule Monday night, Cincinnati at St. Louis, Zack Cozart came up big for the Reds. The former Ole Miss standout tripled and doubled, drove in three runs and scored another. He also made some good plays at shortstop. Unfortunately for Cincy, that wasn’t enough. With big home runs from Matt Holliday and Allen Craig (a game-changing grand slam off Mississippi Braves alum J.J. Hoover), St. Louis won 8-6, moved into first place alone in the National League Central and dropped the third-place Reds 3½ games back. Cozart’s recent exploits notwithstanding — he entered Monday having batted .281, up 40 points from his season average, over his previous 10 games — the Reds continue to have offensive issues. Among those is speed on the bases. The cure for that, of course, could be Billy Hamilton, the base-stealing demon from Taylorsville. Hamilton likely will be promoted when rosters expand on Sunday. He is batting .257 (.310 on-base percentage) with 73 steals, 73 runs, six homers and 41 RBIs in 119 games at Triple-A Louisville. P.S. Meridian Community College product Cliff Lee stifled the New York Mets for eight innings on Monday to notch his 11th win for Philadelphia; it was his first W since July 5. Jonathan Papelbon, the ex-Missisippi State star, worked the ninth for his 22nd save, just his second since July 11.
Louis Coleman’s ERA skyrocketed on Friday night. All the way to 0.40. Coleman, the former Pillow Academy star, gave up a home run in Kansas City’s 11-10 loss to Washington; it was the first run the sidearming right-hander had allowed all season. He had worked 21 straight scoreless innings before Jayson Werth took him deep in the fourth inning at Kauffman Stadium. For his MLB career, all with the Royals, Coleman has a 2.77 ERA in 133 innings. The Greenwood native and LSU alum was one of three Mississippi-born players who participated in Friday’s game, a matchup of two teams whose playoff aspirations have gone “poof.” Natchez native and ex-Southwest Mississippi Community College standout Jarrod Dyson stole a base (No. 23) and scored a run as a pinch runner for KC, which lost its sixth straight. One really has to wonder if Royals manager Ned Yost, the old Jackson Mets catcher, will be back next season. Brandon native and former Northwest Rankin/Meridian CC/Mississippi State star Tyler Moore went 3-for-5 for Washington and boosted his average to .203. Even with the win, the Nationals are 13 games behind Atlanta in the National League East. We already know that this is ex-JaxMets skipper Davey Johnson’s last season at the Washington helm. P.S. Former State star Mitch Moreland belted his 18th homer (as a pinch hitter) to help Texas beat the Chicago White Sox 11-5 and opened up a 3½-game lead on Oakland in the American League West. … If or when Freddy Garcia joins the Atlanta rotation, he would be the sixth former Jackson General to play for the Braves. The list: Shane Reynolds, Daryle Ward, Tom Martin, Billy Wagner and Julio Lugo. Garcia, who has 155 big league victories, was acquired from Baltimore on Friday. Just 3-5, 5.77 with the Orioles, the 36-year-old Garcia was 8-3, 2.84 at Triple-A Norfolk.
Paul Maholm, the ex-Mississippi State standout, will return to the mound for Atlanta today in a game that has suddenly taken on a lot more significance. It’s not just a test of Maholm’s left wrist, which sidelined him for about a month. It’s not just an opportunity for the veteran lefty (9-9 with a 4.41 ERA) to make his case for a fulltime spot in the rotation. It’s not just the series opener in a potential playoff preview against National League Central power St. Louis. It’s not even because it’s the MLB Network Showcase Game for tonight. Nope, more than all that, it’ll be the Braves’ first game SINCE. Since, of course, Jason Heyward’s frightening injury. Hit in the face by a pitch on Wednesday, the former Mississippi Braves star has a broken jaw that might force him to miss the rest of the regular season. The Braves have had a plethora of injuries and ailments this year, but this one kinda feels different. Heyward wasn’t having a great year overall — .253, 13 home runs, 37 RBIs — but since he moved to the leadoff spot at the end of July, he has batted .345, slugged .586 and led the Braves on a 19-4 splurge. Their NL East lead is a safe 15 games. But will the loss of Heyward, and the way it happened, send them into a funk? These are the times that try men’s souls – or at least their plate discipline. Heyward’s absence will mean more at-bats for ex-M-Braves such as Jordan Schafer, Evan Gattis and Joey Terdoslavich. Can they answer the call? Many will be looking for signs of a hangover tonight at Busch Stadium. A strong start from Maholm, who was scuffling before his injury, would certainly be a boost to morale.