A showdown looms. Well, that might be a bit over the top, but Millsaps College and Belhaven University are both 1-0 in the Maloney Trophy Series headed into their makeup game on Monday at the Majors’ Twenty Field. Millsaps beat Mississippi College 5-2 on Tuesday, dropping the Choctaws to 0-2 in the round-robin series among the Jackson-area small colleges. MC, which got three hits from newcomer Marty Stringfellow, fell to 1-4 overall. The Majors, now 7-5, got three hits each from Isaac Glenn (.455) and Keith Shumaker (.388) and a sterling start from Smokey Ethridge (2-2). … Belhaven is 12-3 after a 5-1 win over Talladega on Tuesday. Ben Allison improved to 4-0 and lowered his ERA to 0.47 in 19 innings. Tyler Akins, the former Madison Central and Hinds Community College standout, drove in three runs and now has 13 on the season. BU plays Talladega again today at Smith-Wills Stadium. … Delta State (5-4) is on the road today against Arkansas-Monticello’s Boll Weevils, against whom the Statesmen hold a 76-5 series lead. Dex Herrington, a senior from Senatobia and reigning Gulf South Conference player of the week, is leading DSU in hitting at .394. … Tougaloo, which started 0-5, is now 5-7. … Blue Mountain, which won its opener, is now 1-9.
MLB spring training games start Wednesday. We start to look at box scores, start to crunch numbers, start to wonder. Here are some Mississippi-flavored questions to ponder as the 2014 season begins to unfold:
1. Will Billy Hamilton (Taylorsville) win the center field/leadoff job with Cincinnati? After swiping 13 bases in 14 attempts (and hitting .368 to boot), he’ll get a legitimate shot at filling Shin-Soo Choo’s vacated job.
2. Can Jarrod Dyson (Southwest Mississippi CC) earn an expanded role in Kansas City’s outfield? Dyson, who would give Hamilton a darn good race, stole 34 bases in 84 games last season primarily playing behind Lorenzo Cain.
3. Can Corey Dickerson (Meridian CC) win a job in Colorado’s crowed outfield? He showed impressive left-handed power as a rookie: five homers, five triples and 13 doubles among his 51 hits.
4. How will Seth Smith (Ole Miss) adjust in San Diego? He slumped to eight home runs (from 14 in 2012) for Oakland and Petco Park is even less friendly to hitters than O.Co Coliseum.
5. What does Brian Dozier (Southern Miss) do for an encore in Minnesota? After the move to second base, Dozier played great defense and even hit a surprising 18 homers.
6. Will Drew Pomeranz (UM) finally blossom in the Oakland bullpen? The former first-round pick, already with his third club, posted a 6.23 ERA in eight games (four starts) with Colorado.
7. Where does Tyler Moore (Mississippi State) fit in Washington’s plans? He scuffled in his second MLB tour, hitting .222 with four homers, but his right-handed power potential is valuable.
8. How will Mitch Moreland (MSU) fare in a new role (DH/spare outfielder) in Texas? Moreland hit a career-high 23 homers in 2013 but batted just .232 – and there is pressure to win in Arlington this season.
9. Will Cliff Lee (Meridian CC) and/or Jonathan Papelbon (MSU) be traded if Philadelphia’s season quickly goes bad? Lee went 14-8 with a 2.87 last year and Papelbon posted 29 saves; they’d certainly have suitors if they went on the block.
Reports from Tampa Bay’s spring training camp indicate that the Rays believe former Itawamba Community College standout Desmond Jennings, who had a fine 2013 season, is capable of more. More hits. More home runs. More stolen bases. For his part, Jennings is seeking more consistency in 2014. “I just want to be consistent and hit the ball well all year,” he told mlb.com. “Get on base and steal some bags.” Jennings — All Mississippi Baseball’s Cool Papa Bell Award winner — hit .252 last season with 14 homers and 20 steals. He was especially productive in September as the Rays made their playoff push. Jennings, the Rays’ center fielder, has shown up in camp reportedly looking bigger and stronger. P.S. Jackson State is off to a 5-2 start, and Desmond Russell, the diminutive Bahamas native, has been a big factor. He is batting .368 with eight RBIs and has a 2-1 record, two saves and a 1.08 ERA in five mound appearances. … Millsaps, nationally ranked in NCAA Division III in preseason, is 6-5. The Majors are batting .297 and have a staff ERA if 3.73. But, they’ve committed 26 errors that have led to 22 unearned runs. … Jones County Junior College improved to 10-0 over the weekend by sweeping road doubleheaders against Mississippi Delta and Meridian, all four W’s coming in just a little over 24 hours.
It’s probably a little early in the season for a defining moment, but Belhaven University might have had one — or even two — on Saturday at Smith-Wills Stadium. The Blazers dug out of early holes to beat William Carey in extra innings in both games of a doubleheader. Perhaps we should expect such games when longtime intrastate rivals and iconic coaches (Belhaven’s Hill Denson and Carey’s Bobby Halford) square off in an historic ballpark. The Blazers’ Reagan Rutledge delivered a two-out game-winning hit in the opener, a 6-5 win. In Game 2, Jo Jo Richards’ infield hit, combined with a Carey throwing error, scored Walt McCullough from second base for a 5-4 victory. BU, which had dropped the series opener (yet another one-run game) on Friday, improved to 11-3 and 2-1 in the Southern States Athletic Conference. Carey, ranked 24th in the NAIA preseason poll, is 7-8, 2-4. Jeremy Ferguson, a senior from Pontotoc, had a big series for the Crusaders, going 4-for-7 with six RBIs. The teams could meet again in the SCAC Tournament. If they do, memories of Feb. 22 will certainly be dancing in the heads of all involved.
LeDarious Clark, generally considered the top juco prospect in the state, rose to the occasion for East Mississippi Community College on Tuesday with a walk-off grand slam. Clark’s blast, his second of the season, beat Hinds 7-5 in the first game of a doubleheader in Scooba. (The Lions also won Game 2 to improve to 7-3.) Clark, a sophomore outfielder out of Southeast Lauderdale High, is hitting .321 with a .679 slugging percentage, 10 runs, eight RBIs and three steals. … The walk-off was also in style for Mississippi Gulf Coast’s James Land on Tuesday. The freshman from Harrison Central delivered his game-winning home run — his fourth hit of the game — in the bottom of the 11th inning to give the Bulldogs a crazy 17-16 win over Jeff Davis CC in Perkinston.
Mississippi College opens its season today with an eye on reversing a troublesome trend. The Choctaws — who play Belhaven University at Smith-Wills Stadium — have seen their win total drop each year since 2010, when they won 39 games and reached the NCAA Division III West Regional final. The Choctaws were 17-22 in 2013. The Choctaws have a decent collection of arms — led by left-hander Brooks Fortenberry (4-2, 2.85) — back from a staff that posted a solid 3.70 ERA. Improvement in 2014 likely will depend on better hitting. “The big story last year was big hits in key situations,” coach Brian Owens said. “We didn’t get enough of them. We lost a bunch of one- and two-run games. It’s tough winning close games without getting clutch hits, and it starts to weigh on you. It even affects the way your pitchers work.” MC hit .262 with just four home runs last season. Owens is counting on returning outfielder Kyle Blount (.333, 23 runs, six steals) and newcomers like Marty Stringfellow and Caleb Morris, both touted juco transfers, to fortify what he thinks will be a better balanced lineup. The Choctaws face a Belhaven team today that already has played 10 games, winning eight. It’s the first game of the Maloney Trophy Series, which adds to the significance. But every game is big for the Choctaws. In transition from D-III to D-II, MC is still playing in the American Southwest Conference but is ineligible for the postseason. The Choctaws are hoping for a bid to a National Christian College Athletic Association regional, and Owens said it’ll take 26 wins to get said bid. P.S. Even when you consider that Stetson went 26-31 last year and finished fifth in its conference, Ole Miss’ season-opening three-game sweep at DeLand, Fla., was impressive. The Rebels outscored the Hatters 22-3, hitting .364 as a team. Auston Bousfield hit .583 with six runs and three steals; Will Allen hit .542 with two home runs and 10 RBIs; Austin Anderson batted .462 and scored five runs; and Preston Overbey put up a .455 average and two homers. Next up for the Rakin’ Rebels is Tennessee-Martin on Wednesday at Oxford-University Stadium.
Northwest Mississippi Community College, ranked 14th in the NJCAA Division II preseason poll, finally got on the field on Saturday and – ta da – delivered a command performance. The Rangers swept No. 8 North Iowa JC 16-9 and 6-0 at Senatobia. Luke Latham and Taylor King homered in both games for Northwest, and Matt Ferguson threw a two-hitter in Game 2. … Pitching has been the story for Jones County JC, which is 4-0 after beating Jeff Davis CC twice on Saturday. The Bobcats have allowed just eight hits and two runs (with 40 strikeouts) in 30 innings. Former Terry High star Westin Stringer is 2-0 with two dominant outings. … Pearl River, which won 41 games in 2013, is off to a 6-0 start, including a sweep of Mississippi Delta on Friday. Luke McGee, a reverse transfer from Ohio State, is 2-0 for the Wildcats. … Patrick McMahon hit a walk-off homer for Gulf Coast in the first game of a doubleheader against Alabama Southern on Friday. … Northeast, ranked 20th, lost its first two games of the season. … Defending MACJC champion East Central has won three of its first four.
Weather has come out swinging this week, knocking out home openers at Millsaps (Tuesday), Delta State (Wednesday) and Southern Miss (today) and forcing Mississippi State to find a new opponent (Western Carolina replaces Hofstra). While USM will have to go on the road (Lake Charles, La.) to start its season on Saturday, there are some big games on state campuses this weekend. MSU, ranked as high as No. 2 in the nation, will play a three-day, three-game set at Dudy Noble Field. Jackson State plays Texas Southern and South Dakota State (two games with each) at Braddy Field starting today, and Alcorn State hosts Bradley for a three-game series at McGowan Stadium in Lorman. Millsaps, off to a 3-0 start, plays Trinity (Texas) in a doubleheader Saturday and single game Sunday at Twenty Field. Blue Mountain hosts a three-game set in New Albany with NAIA No. 1 Faulkner. Belhaven, 7-1 after a 9-2 win over St. Francis on Thursday, hosts Campbellsville today and Missouri Baptist on Saturday at Smith-Wills Stadium. William Carey has a three-game set at Wheeler Field in Hattiesburg against Spring Hill (single game today, twinbill Saturday). Delta State (1-2) hosts West Alabama for three games (two Saturday, one Sunday) in Cleveland. DSU went 25-3 at Ferriss Field last year and has a .772 winning percentage there all-time. But even the Statesmen can’t beat bad weather. Fingers are crossed all over the state, hoping the skies stay sunny.
Aspirations are high, as they always are, at Mississippi’s Big 4 NCAA Division I schools. Three of the four earned NCAA regional bids in 2013, and Southern Miss was one victory short. It would be sweet to see all four make it this season. And with that in mind, here are four players who could be key in making such a grand slam a reality. At Mississippi State, which won 51 games and reached the finals of the College World Series, there will be pressure to replace Hunter Renfroe’s thunderous bat. But pitching is more important in college baseball these days, and it would serve the Bulldogs well to get another season from Ross Mitchell like the one he had in 2013. The slightly built left-hander was brilliant in the middle relief role State’s coaches prize, posting a 13-0 record, two saves and a 1.53 ERA in 34 appearances (94 innings). At Ole Miss, which went 38-24 last season, keep a sharp eye on newcomer Braxton Lee, a left-handed hitting outfielder who transferred from Pearl River Community College. Lee hit .406 last year and .365 with 29 steals in 2012. He is penciled in as the Rebels’ leadoff batter and left fielder. “He’ll cause havoc out there,” UM coach Mike Bianco said. At USM, which went 30-27 and got to the final of the C-USA Tournament in 2013, Golden Eagles fans would love to see — but can’t really expect — a big year from highly touted, oft-injured ex-Sumrall High star Connor Barron. However, those fans likely can count on another solid year from Mason Robbins, the state’s 2011 Mr. Baseball from George County. The lefty-hitting outfielder, who can also take the mound, batted .317 with 40 RBIs as a sophomore and .330 as a freshman. He’s a gamer. At Jackson State, 34-22 and Southwestern Athletic Conference champion in 2013, much attention will be focused on conference preseason player of the year Charles Tillery, a senior outfielder from Starkville who batted .352 last year. Yet you can’t overlook junior right-hander Alexander Juday, who put up a 7-5 record with a 3.51 ERA. Juday is the kind of workhorse (115 1/3 innings in 22 games, 10 starts) that every successful staff must have. P.S. The Big 4 start Friday: State hosts Hofstra, Ole Miss is at Stetson, USM is home vs. Stony Brook and JSU hosts Texas Southern.
Roy Oswalt, the pride of Weir and Holmes Community College, retired today with 163 career wins and a 3.36 ERA. Forget his struggles the last two seasons. Remember that he made three All-Star Games, twice won 20 games in a year and claimed the National League ERA crown in 2006. Oswalt was drafted by the Houston Astros in 1996 (23rd round), when the team still had its Double-A club in Jackson. Alas, when he reached that level, in 2000, the franchise was in its first year in Round Rock, Texas. Oswalt spent 10 years with the Astros and might’ve enjoyed his finest moments in 2005, when he led the club to its only World Series appearance. Oswalt won three games in four starts in the ’05 postseason. He made one start in the Series and got a no-decision against the Chicago White Sox, who won in four. Oswalt’s MLB win total ranks second among Mississippi-born pitchers, behind only Aberdeen’s Guy Bush, who won 176. Simply put, Oswalt is one the state’s all-time best.