29 Feb

the undefeated

As the curtain closes on February, only one Mississippi junior college remains unbeaten. Jones County JC, under first-year coach Chris Kirtland, moved to 12-0 on Sunday by sweeping a twinbill from Kaskaskia (Ill.) in Ellisville. Mason Irby and Erick Hoard had big hits for the Bobcats on Sunday, which is what they’ve been doing all along for a team averaging over 10 runs a game. Irby, an All-America candidate, is batting .590 with five home runs and 19 RBIs. Hoard is at .436 with three homers and 15 RBIs. Seven regulars are hitting over .400, including Clint Sasser at .581 with 15 steals. The pitching staff is topped by Ben Stiglets (3-0, 0.75 ERA), Mason Strickland (1-0, one save, 0.79) and Will Brand (2-0, 3.75). Kirtland, a longtime JCJC assistant and former Southern Miss player, took the reins this year from Christian Ostrander, who had quite a nice run with the Bobcats, including an NJCAA Division II World Series appearance four years ago. “This is the kind of place that sets you up for success,” Kirtland said when he was introduced as the new coach back in December. To his credit, he has pushed all the right buttons so far. … There are four one-loss teams remaining in the MACJC (Meridian, Itawamba, Southwest and Northwest) and one with two losses (Delta). Hinds, the only state team ranked in preseason, is off to a 4-6 start. Conference play, which starts in mid-March, promises to be a lot of fun, as usual.

28 Feb

power plays

Power isn’t everything in baseball. You can win without it. It can be pitched around. But power is something special. It jolts the ballpark. It dents the memory. You remember home runs years later. Billy Beane. Barry Lyons. Randy Milligan. Wesley Walls. Adell Davenport. Ray Montgomery. Fred Cooley. Daryle Ward. Tommy Bost. Jeff Francoeur. Jason Perry. Hunter Renfroe. Evan Gattis. Drug testing, much needed, took some of the wallop from the pro game, making legit power even more valuable. College baseball started turning down the power a few years ago with new bat specs, concerned that too many games were ending with scores like 15-12. Only 0.39 homers were hit per game in college baseball in 2014, the lowest figure ever. In 2015, after some changes to the ball, the home run started to make a comeback. Homers rose 43.5 percent over 2014. Wouldn’t be a surprise to see the number rise again in 2016. Did you notice what Delta State did on Saturday? Seven homers in one game, three by Trent Giambroni. (Unfortunately for the Statesmen, their pitching gave up 17 runs and the game was lost to Lee University.) Southern Miss is also enjoying a power surge to start 2016. The Golden Eagles have hit 14 home runs during their 6-0 start. Taylor Braley has four, Tim Lynch three. Sikes Orvis, who hit 16 homers for Ole Miss last year, is gone to the pros, but Colby Bortles and J.B. Woodman are threats to go deep for the Rebels. Woodman has two in six games to date. At Mississippi State, keep an eye on newcomers Jack Kruger, who has two homers already, and Nathaniel Lowe, who belted 17 bombs in junior college a year ago. Jackson State’s Jesus Santana hit 12 homers in 2015 and has three already in 2016. Alcorn State also has a slugger of note in Collin Carroll. No one really likes a 15-12 game – and those will be rare – but it’s good to see power back as a threat in the college game. Power is something special.

25 Feb

changing places

Chris Coghlan, whose playing time figured to be limited with the Chicago Cubs this year, is off to Oakland, where the ex-Ole Miss star might find greener pastures. Coghlan, a lefty-hitting outfielder, was traded today for pitcher Aaron Brooks. Penciled in as a fourth outfielder (at best) for the Cubs, Coghlan, who hit .250 with 16 homers in 2015, could battle Khris Davis and Coco Crisp for the starting job in left field with the A’s. Crisp, a switch-hitter, hit .175 in an injury-dampened 2015 season. Davis, a right-handed hitter with power, was acquired recently from Milwaukee. Sam Fuld is also in the picture. Oakland appears set with Josh Reddick in right and Billy Burns in center. Coghlan, the 2009 National League rookie of the year with the Florida Marlins, revived a slumping career in Chicago the past two seasons, posting a .346 on-base percentage and a .447 slugging average. He credits a new approach. “When you value (slugging percentage) and on-base, now you swing at pitches that you can slug and you take pitches that you can’t slug,” he recently told mlb.com. If it worked at Wrigley Field, it ought to work at O.Co Coliseum.

25 Feb

up in arms — again

Pitching was a Southern Miss trademark in 2015, when the Golden Eagles put up a 3.14 staff ERA en route to a 36-18-1 finish. Three pitchers from that team were drafted and a fourth signed as a free agent. Four games – and four wins — into 2016, with a lot of new arms in key roles, Eagles pitching is soaring again. The staff has a 2.00 ERA, and the bullpen hasn’t allowed an earned run in 16 innings of work. Quickly emerging as a player to watch is true freshman Nick Sandlin, a sidearming right-hander from Evans, Ga. He notched his first save on Wednesday night in a 7-4 win against UNO at Taylor Park in Hattiesburg. In three innings in two appearances, Sandlin has yielded one hit, one walk and fanned five. “I feel good when he gets the ball,” coach Scott Berry said in a school release following the UNO game. “He’s like (former All-America closer) Daniel Best. He’s very similar to what Best was. Very athletic, great mound presence.” Sandlin, listed at 5 feet 11, 148 pounds, was a dominant pitcher at Greenbrier High School, posting a 1.23 ERA with 211 K’s in 159 innings.

24 Feb

statistically speaking

Southern Miss’ Taylor Braley isn’t going to hit 50 home runs this season, but he is on a good pace with three bombs in three games. He is also batting .444 with six RBIs and five runs. Stats don’t mean a whole lot at this stage of the college campaign, but some jump off the page just the same. Blue Mountain’s Miciah Heard has scored 16 runs in 12 games. Mississippi College’s Logan Ferrell has 16 runs in just 10 games, and he is hitting .459. Mississippi State’s Jack Kruger has nine hits, nine RBIs and eight runs in four games. William Carey’s Adrian Brown has a .471 on-base percentage, eight RBIs, six runs and three steals over 11 games. Delta State’s Ben Pickard has three homers, 12 RBIs and a .409 average in 11 games. Millsaps’ Isaac Glenn is hitting .406 with nine runs and five RBIs in eight games. Ole Miss’ Tate Blackman has rolled sixes in hits, RBIs and runs over three games. Jackson State’s Jesus Santana has two homers, four RBIs and seven runs in four games. P.S. On the subject of numbers, Jones County Junior College’s Mason Irby tallied nine hits, two homers, nine RBIs and four runs in four games last week to earn MACJC player of the week honors. The catcher-turned-outfielder is a USM signee. Jarod Wright, a right-hander at Northwest CC, was named pitcher of the week after throwing six shutout innings with eight strikeouts in a win over Rend Lake (Ill.).

23 Feb

going forward

If you’ve been recently to an Atlanta Braves game or a Mississippi Braves game – maybe even a Rome Braves game – you’ve seen them in the crowd. Jeff Francoeur replica jerseys. Francoeur, who starred for the M-Braves 11 years ago, last played a game for Atlanta in 2009. But his jersey had staying power — and now “Frenchy” himself is back in the fold. Signed to a minor league contract, he’ll be in the big club’s spring training camp this week. Though Francoeur’s first tour with the Braves didn’t end well, there is still a soft spot for him in the hearts of many fans, especially so in Pearl. He wasn’t the first M-Braves product to make The Show, but he created the most buzz back in 2005. The question now is, Can Francoeur, who had a good 2015 season in Philadelphia, win a job in Atlanta’s outfield? … As spring training begins to heat up, there are quite a few interesting questions surrounding Mississippians. To wit: How will Taylorsville’s Billy Hamilton and Ole Miss product Zack Cozart bounce back from injuries in Cincinnati, and will they become trade bait? How will ex-Meridian Community College star Corey Dickerson, traded from Colorado to Tampa Bay, fare in a new league and new home park? What will UM alum Chris Coghlan’s role be with the Chicago Cubs, who look loaded for bear in the National League? What kind of numbers will Mississippi State product Mitch Moreland, a free agent after this season, put up for Texas, which rewarded his strong 2015 campaign with a $5.7M deal? And, while everyone is saying all the right things, is former State star Jonathan Papelbon really going to fit in with Washington?

22 Feb

the way it was

There were hot starts (see Ole Miss and Southern Miss, who registered Opening Weekend sweeps). And there were lukewarm starts (Mississippi State went 2-2, with both losses to Florida Atlantic, and Jackson State also split its four games). Alcorn State celebrated the first win of the Brett Richardson era (6-2 vs. Southern University on Sunday) but lost its other two games in the MLB Urban Invitational. On the colder end of the scale, Mississippi Valley State went 0-4 at Nicholls State. Among the small four-year schools, Blue Mountain, now 8-4, swept three games over the weekend from Tougaloo, which fell to 0-14 on the year. William Carey beat NAIA No. 21 Missouri Baptist two of three. Delta State took two of three from West Alabama to start its Gulf South Conference schedule. (Worth noting: Tre Hobbs, a lefty out of Mississippi Delta Community College, threw a six-hit shutout for the Statesmen and is now 3-0 with an 0.47 ERA.) Mississippi College won one of three GSC games against West Florida, and Millsaps went 1-2 in a tournament at Piedmont College. Which brings us to the most inspiring performance of the weekend. That has to go to Belhaven, which bounced back from a 25-0 loss in its season opener last Tuesday to sweep a road series at Louisiana College. Senior slugger Adam Kowalczyk led the way with two homers, five RBIs and six runs in the three games. BU is slated to play at Millsaps on Tuesday in the first game of the Maloney Trophy Series.