Need a break from football on Saturday? Check out the Arizona Fall League’s Fall Stars Game, which will air at 7 p.m. on MLB Network and features several Mississippi connections. Former DeSoto Central High standout Austin Riley, who spent part of 2017 with the Mississippi Braves, is on the West roster, along with fellow Braves prospects and M-Braves alums Ronald Acuna and Touki Toussaint. Riley is having a great AFL campaign, batting .345 with three homers and 13 RBIs; the third baseman hit for the cycle in game for Peoria last week. Braxton Lee, an Ole Miss product from Picayune, is on the East roster. Lee, a Miami prospect and Southern League All-Star this past season, is batting .333 in 10 games for Salt River. Also making the East squad is 2017 Biloxi Shuckers infielder Jake Gatewood, a supplemental first-round pick by Milwaukee in 2014.
Before Game 4 gets too far behind us, let’s make sure the record shows that Charlie Morton vs. Alex Wood – a matchup of onetime Mississippi Braves pitchers – was one of the great pitchers’ duels in World Series history. Neither went past the seventh inning — that’s the nature of baseball today – so it doesn’t quite measure up to, say, Morris-Smoltz from 1991 or McNally-Drysdale ’66 or Sain-Feller ’48. But for five innings Saturday night at Minute Maid Park, Houston’s Morton and Los Angeles’ Wood were spectacular, evoking references to the game’s greats. Left-hander Wood, who starred for the M-Braves in 2013, his second pro season after being drafted out of Georgia, didn’t allow a hit through five, becoming the first Dodgers starter ever to do that in a World Series game. Righty Morton, who reached Double-A Mississippi in 2007 (see previous post), his sixth pro year, yielded one hit – a leadoff single – through five and had seven strikeouts to that point. It was still scoreless in the sixth when Wood finally was touched for a hit – George Springer’s two-out home run that sent Wood to the bench. Morton left in the top of the seventh after yielding a one-out double to Cody Bellinger, who later scored the Dodgers’ first run. The Dodgers’ five-run ninth-inning outburst, which carried them to a 6-2 victory and 2-2 Series tie, somewhat obscured the brilliance of Morton and Wood. It was the first time in World Series history that both starting pitchers allowed four or fewer baserunners, according to mlb.com. There’s a chance we won’t see either of them again in the series, so let’s not forget the shining moment they shared. P.S. Props to Craig Kimbrel, another ex-M-Braves pitcher, for winning the Mariano Rivera American League Reliver of the Year award. Kimbrel is Boston’s closer.
There is a special nook in baseball’s Hall of Neat Feats for players who have stroked pinch-hit home runs in the World Series. Only 21 guys are in this club. Bobby Kielty, an Ole Miss standout in the 1990s, is one of them. Ten years ago this month, Kielty, playing for the Boston Red Sox, connected off of Colorado’s Brian Fuentes, a solo shot in the eighth inning of Game 4 at Coors Field. It gave the Red Sox a 4-1 lead and turned out to be a big run when the Rockies scored twice in the bottom of the eighth. Boston held on to win and sweep the series. That turned out to be Kielty’s last at-bat as a big leaguer. He played seven years in the majors all told, with four different teams. He hit 53 home runs, as many as 13 in one season. He hit one homer in 20 games for Boston in 2007 but made the postseason roster – and then made a little history, as well. The World Series pinch-hit homer club also includes Yogi Berra, Johnny Mize, Elston Howard, Bernie Carbo (who did it twice, also for the Red Sox), and, of course, Kirk Gibson. Who can forget the hobbled, first-pumping Gibson circling the bases after taking Dennis Eckersley deep for a walk-off blast in Los Angeles’ Game 1 win against Oakland in 1988? Many say it propelled the underdog Dodgers to the world championship. Kielty’s pinch-hit bomb wasn’t nearly as significant – but it was special all the same.
He won the Southern League batting title, made the league’s postseason All-Star team and was named the best defensive outfielder by SL managers. He received a coveted spot in the Arizona Fall League and through five games there is batting .500, including a 3-for-4 effort on Thursday. Oh, and he took a few days off last week to return to Mississippi and get married. Braxton Lee, the ex-Ole Miss standout from Picayune, is riding the wave, as the saying goes. Lee was a 12th-round pick by Tampa Bay in 2014 and was traded to Miami this past summer in the midst of a breakout year. After scuffling in Double-A in 2016, the 5-foot-10, 185-pound lefty hitter batted .309 this season with 81 runs and 20 stolen bases in 127 games split between Montgomery and Jacksonville. He has shown no sign of letdown in the AFL. What’s next? “I’m hoping I’ll be a big league invite (to Marlins spring camp) where I’ll be there and they can see me play and see what they think of me,” Lee recently told the Biloxi Sun-Herald.
Alex Jackson, who made a nice impression in a 30-game stint with the Mississippi Braves this summer, is back at it in the Arizona Fall League. The 21-year-old catcher went 4-for-5 with a home run on Wednesday as Peoria beat Surprise 6-4. Jackson is hitting .381 with two homers and seven RBIs in five AFL games. He is one of several 2017 M-Braves on the Peoria club – and one who might be back in Pearl in 2018. In his first year in the Braves’ system, the former first-round draft pick (Seattle, 2014) moved from the outfield to catcher, his high school position. “I enjoy being back behind the plate, it’s fun,” Jackson said in an mlb.com story. Jackson batted .255 with five homers for the M-Braves; he hit .272 with 14 bombs at high Class A Florida before moving to Double-A. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him back with the M-Braves next April, continuing to hone his catching skills. Jared James, a lefty-hitting outfielder, and right-handed starter Touki Toussaint are two other possible returnees for the 2018 M-Braves who have also put up good numbers in the highly competitive AFL. James is 4-for-12 and Toussaint has eight strikeouts in four scoreless innings.
Far from the bright lights of Yankee Stadium and Wrigley Field, Ferriss Field in Cleveland also will come to life tonight. Delta State fans will get a preview of the 2018 Statesmen team when the annual Green and White Series begins. Zack Shannon, everybody’s All-American from last year’s NCAA Division II College World Series team, is the big name on the Gray team. He hit .434 with 19 homers and 88 RBIs in 2017. Leading the White squad is Clay Casey, who batted .333 with 17 homers and 64 RBIs. Game 2 of the best-of-3 is slated for Friday and the potential Game 3 is Saturday. … Ole Miss has one more weekend of intrasquads ahead before next Wednesday’s Pizza Bowl, the culmination of fall ball in Oxford. Sophomore Thomas Dillard has had a particularly strong fall, batting about .480, and redshirt junior Brady Feigl threw four perfect innings on Sunday. Freshmen Anthony Servideo and Carl Gindl also have stood out. Servideo, a middle infielder, was hitting .348 before going 1-for-9 in last weekend’s games. … Southern Miss has been transitioning to new pitching coach Christian Ostrander during its fall session. Ostrander is a Delta State alum who previously coached at Louisiana Tech and Jones County Junior College, where he had some outstanding teams. The Golden Eagles lost two key arms, Kirk McCarty and Taylor Braley, from last year’s 50-win squad. “The unknown is going to be who steps up for us,” USM coach Scott Berry told d1baseball.com. … Mississippi State’s 2017 recruiting class has been ranked in the top 25 by three different publications. The Bulldogs, who started fall ball on Oct. 9, are blending in three freshmen who were drafted last June plus Alabama’s Mr. Baseball, Owen Lovell. Lovell, 6 feet 4, 220 pounds, could help fill the void left by slugger Brent Rooker, the SEC player of the year and Ferriss Trophy winner. State wraps up its fall season Nov. 17-19 at Jackson’s Smith-Wills Stadium.
Numbers generally don’t lie in baseball. And Zac Houston’s numbers are telling us this: He’s got strikeout stuff. Houston, the former Mississippi State star from Poplarville, fanned the side in an Arizona Fall League game on Monday, giving him four punchouts in two innings of scoreless relief for Mesa. The 6-foot-5, 250-pound right-hander, an 11th-round pick by Detroit in 2016, reached high-A ball this season. He had an 0.77 ERA and 20 strikeouts in 11 2/3 innings for Lakeland. Over 87 2/3 innings as a pro, Houston has 140 strikeouts, or 14.4 per nine innings. That’s strikeout stuff. He throws an upper 90s fastball and a quality slider. His walk totals are a bit high (4.6 per nine) but probably not a major concern at this point. Houston turns 23 next month. Baseball America ranked him as the Tigers’ No. 23 prospect entering 2017; MLB Pipeline doesn’t currently have him in the top 30. That should change.