When last we saw the Belhaven Blazers — on May 14 of last year — they were walking off the Smith-Wills Stadium turf following an 8-7 loss to Oklahoma Wesleyan. That heartbreaking defeat, in an NAIA opening round regional, ended BU’s season at 42-21. Today, the Blazers turn the page. They’ll walk back onto the Smith-Wills turf to start the 2015 season against Saint Francis (Ind.). Among Belhaven’s returning cast are two key position players: NAIA All-American Paul Pickerrell, who batted .345 with 44 RBIs, 48 runs and 38 steals, and Reagan Rutledge, a .278 hitter who swiped a school-record 64 bags, batted .278 and scored 60 runs. How those two go may well determine how the team goes. … Meanwhile, in Hattiesburg, William Carey also opens its season, facing NAIA nationally ranked Missouri Baptist at Wheeler Field, and a milestone watch begins in earnest. This is Bobby Halford’s 30th year as Carey’s coach, and he has 992 wins. The Crusaders (31-26 in 2014) are led by D.J. Johnson, who hit .305 last year.
Hunter Renfroe, the former Mississippi State standout from Crystal Springs, has been ranked as the ninth-best outfield prospect by mlb.com. Renfroe, a 2013 first-round pick by San Diego, has belted 27 homers in two seasons of pro ball. He reached the Double-A level last summer and played in the prospect-filled Arizona Fall League. Not yet on the Padres’ 40-man roster, he will go to spring training with the major leaguers.
Former East Central Community College standout Tim Anderson has been rated the No. 10 shortstop prospect in the minors by mlb.com. Anderson also has received an invitation to the Chicago White Sox’s major league spring training camp next month. A first-round pick in 2013, Anderson batted .301 with nine homers and 40 RBIs in an injury-interrupted 2014, finishing the season in Double-A. He also played well in the Arizona Fall League. … Other Mississippians who have received non-roster invites to big league camps include Petal High alumnus and former Mr. Baseball Anthony Alford (Toronto), Mississippi State product Hunter Renfroe (San Diego), ex-Hattiesburg High star Robert Carson (Los Angeles Dodgers) and Mississippi Gulf Coast CC alum Joey Butler (Tampa Bay). … Also of note: Former Mississippi Braves catcher J.C. Boscan has signed a minor league deal with Kansas City and will report to the Royals’ big league camp. P.S. Hinds Community College is ranked No. 2 in the NJCAA’s preseason poll, and Jones County Junior College is slotted at No. 11. Hinds, 40-21 and a Division II World Series finalist last year, opens on Feb. 7 against Mineral Area (Mo.) in Raymond. Jones, 46-11 and MACJC state champion in 2014, starts Feb. 7 against Jeff Davis (Ala.) in Ellisville.
Atlanta Braves fans looking for something to feel jazzed about do have this: Jose Peraza has been rated the No. 1 second base prospect in the minors by mlb.com. The speedy Peraza, who played for the Mississippi Braves last summer, could be playing in Atlanta sometime this season. Only 20, the right-handed hitting Peraza has batted .306 with 177 steals, 25 triples and 218 runs in 343 career minor league games. In 44 games for the M-Braves, he hit .335 with 25 steals and 35 runs. And, yes, his defense is good, too. If you didn’t see Peraza at Trustmark Park last summer, you’ve probably missed your chance. He’ll likely open 2015 at Triple-A Gwinnett.
Two players on Mississippi junior college rosters for this season batted over .420 in 2014. At least three reached the 10-homer plateau. Another stole 20 bases. There were several pitchers who posted an ERA under 3.00. There was a 9-game winner and a few who notched eight, including a certain right-hander who also had 10 saves. Those are some of the numbers that grab your eye from the NJCAA’s lists of top returning players in Division II Region 23. With the season fast approaching — most of the state jucos start on or about Feb. 7 — here are a few names (with numbers) to watch for from the MACJC: Trent Turner (Northeast Mississippi Community College), .423, eight homers, 50 RBIs; James Land (Gulf Coast), .422, 10 homers; Chase Hensley (Jones County JC), .373 and 8-1, 2.60 ERA; Marshall Boggs (Hinds), .366; Dalton Thomas (Meridian), .349, seven homers; Chad McNeil (Holmes), .341, 20 steals; Will Simon (Jones), 2.59 ERA; Goose Yates (Meridian), 6-2, 2.73; J’Daylin Jackson (East Mississippi), 8-1, 3.77; Austin Sanders (Hinds), 8-2, 2.95, 10 saves; Randy Bell (Hinds), 9-4; Brady Badon (Southwest), 3.18, seven saves.
Friday became Saturday and Saturday became Sunday and Jonathan Papelbon is still a member of the Philadelphia Phillies. The rumored trade that would have moved the former Mississippi State star to the Milwaukee Brewers is all but dead, a report in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel would seem to indicate. Money issues in Papelbon’s contract appear to be the snag. Papelbon, 34, has a no-trade clause and Milwaukee is on the list of destinations he must approve. Papelbon, who has 325 career saves (39 last year), would fill the Brewers’ need for a closer. He has said he wants to play for a contender, and the Brewers are much better positioned to contend in 2015 than are the Phillies. It seems like a move Papelbon would welcome, even if it meant making some concessions. P.S. The lists just keep on coming: Former Meridian Community College star Corey Dickerson, after a breakout year with Colorado, was rated the No. 8 left fielder in the game by MLB Network. Bobby Bradley, the Harrison Central High alum who had a sensational pro debut in the Cleveland system, was ranked the ninth-best first base prospect by mlb.com. And MSU alum Hunter Renfroe, who reached the Double-A level in 2014, is rated the No. 3 prospect in San Diego’s system by Baseball America and projected to make the majors by 2016.
MLB Network’s list of the top 10 center fielders in the game does not include Billy Hamilton. Rest assured, there are any number of teams that would love to have the Collins native and ex-Taylorsville High star – but he has work to do to crack the list of elite center fielders. Hamilton, in his first full MLB season with Cincinnati, stole 56 bases, scored 72 runs, drove in 49, hit six homers and legged out eight triples in 152 games. In the field, he made just two errors while registering 342 putouts and 10 assists. But Hamilton batted just .250, put up a sub-par .292 on-base percentage and drew just 34 walks while fanning 117 times. The apparent leader in the National League rookie of the year race much of the season, he scuffled late and wound up second to New York pitcher Jacob deGrom. For sure, Hamilton’s speed is off the charts. If he can get on base more in 2015, he just might climb into that top 10 chart heading into 2016. P.S. Connor Barron’s stock may be rising, which is good news for Southern Miss fans. The former Sumrall High star, a third-round MLB draft pick in 2011 who went undrafted last summer, has been rated the No. 8 senior in the country by Perfect Game. Barron was the Texas Collegiate League player of the year last summer after batting .344. The former shortstop, now playing center field for the Golden Eagles, hit .246 (.316 in C-USA play) with four homers and 20 RBIs as a junior. … Also on the rise is Greer Holston, a right-hander at St. Stanislaus High. The 6-foot-4, 210-pound junior reportedly made a big impression on scouts at last weekend’s Under Armour Preseason All-America Tournament in Arizona.