Tournament baseball is a different animal. White-knuckle moments are built in. But even then, you can’t anticipate the kind of high drama that Mississippi’s Big 3 experienced on Wednesday (and into the wee hours of today). Ole Miss, which can use some more wins, lost a late lead and fell in the SEC Tournament to Arkansas. Southern Miss, desperately needing more wins to make the NCAAs, pulled off a comeback for the ages in the C-USA Tournament against Rice. And Mississippi State, looking to pump up its NCAA Tournament resume, squandered an early lead, then rallied – twice – to beat LSU in the longest game in SEC tourney history. Ole Miss led 3-2 in the sixth inning at Hoover, Ala., fell behind 4-3, put the tying and go-ahead runs on base in the eighth but couldn’t get the clutch hit against Arkansas closer Matt Cronin. The Hogs won 5-3. At MGM Park in Biloxi, USM trailed 4-0 early, got a run in the seventh, three in the ninth to force extras and then won it 6-4 in the 10th on Matt Wallner’s walk-off home run. (You can almost feel Wallner’s MLB draft stock rising.) Back in Hoover for the SEC nightcap, State let an early 4-0 lead slip away, fell behind in the 16th inning, tied it and then won 6-5 in the 17th on a walk-off hit by Gunner Halter. The 6-hour, 43-minute emotional rollercoaster ended just after 3 this morning. Each of the Big 3 plays again today. There will be drama. That you can count on.
Bradley Roney, the former Southern Miss standout who reached Triple-A in 2016 in Atlanta’s system, pitched in an official game on Tuesday for the first time in almost two years. Roney, 26, worked two scoreless innings for Class A Florida. “It feels so goooooood to be back,” he tweeted after he was activated from the injured list on Monday. Roney, a 2014 draftee by the Braves, last pitched in July 2017 for the Double-A Mississippi Braves. He made 15 appearances that year, posting a 3.75 ERA, four wins and two saves out of the bullpen. If all goes well, he’ll likely get back to Pearl sometime this summer. … Ole Miss product and onetime big leaguer Aaron Barrett, who missed the 2016 and ’17 seasons with major arm injuries (see previous posts), has been effective in his ongoing comeback effort in Washington’s system. The 31-year-old righty has a 3.57 ERA and nine saves in 15 games at Double-A Harrisburg. He has 90 major league appearances on his resume, the last in 2015. … USM alum Cody Carroll, on the IL since the start of the season with a back issue, has begun throwing, according to reports. Carroll made his MLB debut with Baltimore in 2018, his fourth pro season. He was assigned to Triple-A Norfolk in spring training before he was shut down. … Former George County High standout Justin Steele, who is on the Chicago Cubs’ 40-man roster, has struggled since returning from a stint on the IL at Double-A Tennessee. A 23-year-old lefty, Steele has a 9.33 ERA in six outings this season. Steele had Tommy John surgery in 2017 and was limited to 11 games last year, plus some work in the Arizona Fall League.
At 6 feet 5, 280 pounds, Lance Lynn looks like a guy who could do some heavy lifting. On Tuesday night in Arlington, Texas, the former Ole Miss star did just that, throwing 120 pitches over seven innings to carry Texas to a 5-3 victory against Seattle. Making his 200th career big league start, the 32-year-old Lynn allowed just five hits, one walk and two runs while fanning 11. He took a shutout into the seventh, and Rangers manager Chris Woodward let him work out of a jam to finish that inning. Lynn is now 6-3, 4.67 ERA, and has won four of his last five starts, going seven innings – a rarity in today’s game — in four of those appearances. “If (Woodward had) told me I was going back out for the eighth, I would have done it,” Lynn told mlb.com. “That’s just who I am … .” Gotta like that attitude. P.S. Three Mississippians went yard on Tuesday. Mississippi State product Mitch Moreland hit his 13th for Boston, ex-Southern Miss standout Brian Dozier hit No. 7 for Washington and Richton’s JaCoby Jones got his fourth for Detroit.
The numbers look a little strange. Mitch Moreland, the Mississippi State alum from Amory, has more home runs than singles in 42 games for Boston. “Mitchie 2-Bags” also has more homers than doubles. His batting average of .239 ranks as one of the lowest among the Red Sox’s regulars, and yet, with just 32 hits, he leads the team in homers with 12, is tied for the team lead in RBIs with 31 and ranks second in slugging percentage at .575. In short, he has been productive. And the team, after a sluggish start, is winning, which is what matters more than any of those other numbers. As Moreland told the Boston Globe in a recent article: “I wanted to go up there, get my pitch, and put a good swing on it. In this game, that is really all you can control. Whatever I’ve got to do to help the team win, I’m fine with.” In a 12-2 bashing of Toronto on Monday, Moreland went 3-for-5 with two doubles and three runs. He is batting .292 over his last 15 games with five homers, 16 RBIs and 12 runs. The BoSox, 10-2 in games in which Moreland has homered, are 25-22 overall, 12-5 in May, and 4½ games behind first-place New York in the American League East. After the Toronto series, they close out May with Houston, Cleveland and the Yankees. Moreland’s continued productivity could be huge in that stretch.
Freddie Freeman already has achieved iconic status with the Atlanta Braves. The former Mississippi Braves first baseman is to the current generation of Braves fans what Hank Aaron, Dale Murphy and Chipper Jones were before him: the face of the franchise. Still, the occasion of Freeman’s 200th career home run – struck Sunday against Mississippi native Brandon Woodruff of Milwaukee – gives us a peg to celebrate what he has achieved in his 10 seasons in the big leagues. It has been a treat to watch. Freeman arrived in Pearl on July 4, 2009, as a highly rated prospect though not as celebrated as his buddy who arrived on the same day, Jason Heyward. Heyward put up better numbers as an M-Brave – Freeman, not fully healthy, hit .248 with two homers in 41 games that summer – and reached Atlanta first, famously homering in his first at-bat in 2010. But Freeman has clearly surpassed Heyward on the big league stage. Freeman is a career .294 hitter with 713 RBIs. He has made three All-Star teams, won a Gold Glove and finished in the top six in National League MVP voting three times. He is just the ninth player ever to hit 200 homers for the Braves. He has the second-most homers by an M-Braves alum; Brian McCann has 273, 179 with Atlanta. Only Lance Berkman (366), Darryl Strawberry (335), Bobby Abreu (288), McCann and Kevin Mitchell (234) rank above Freeman on the list of career bombs by former Jackson area Double-A players. The current Braves team, sprinkled with so many young stars, revolves around Freeman — and will go as far as he leads them.
Well, that was impressive. Pearl River Community College, riding a barrage of home runs, plowed though four top 10 teams in four days to advance to the NJCAA Division II World Series in Enid, Okla. The Wildcats, ranked No. 6, overpowered No. 1 LSU-Eunice 11-2 for the Region 23 title on Saturday, a day after beating No. 2 Itawamba 21-13 on ICC’s home field in Fulton. “We went through the toughest of teams and we finished it,” PRCC coach Michael Avalon said in a school release. “I’m so proud of them.” The Wildcats (40-12), wearing their “championship gold” unies on Saturday, got two homers from Dexter Jordan, another from Kasey Donald and a strong start from Colin Danley to end the season for LSU-E, the defending national champ. The Wildcats also hit three homers — two by Reece Ewing — in their shocking win over ICC and tallied 10 bombs for the tournament. They entered the event leading the state in homers and now have 87 all told. … It’s on to Tampa, Fla., for Delta State, which won its NCAA Division II South Sub-Regional in Cleveland and will next face Tampa in a Super Regional with a berth in the D-II World Series on the line. … It’s on to Hoover, Ala., for Mississippi State and Ole Miss and on to Biloxi for Southern Miss. The Bulldogs and Rebels will be playing primarily for NCAA Tournament seeding position in this week’s SEC tourney, while the Golden Eagles may be playing to keep their season alive in the C-USA Tournament. … It’s on to 2020 for Jackson State and Alcorn State, both of whom fell early in the SWAC Tournament at New Orleans. The Tigers, a 2-seed. went 1-2, losing twice to 3-seed Texas Southern. Alcorn did a 2-and-out. … Props to MUW for reaching the semifinals of the USCAA Small College World Series last week. … And props, too, to MHSAA champions DeSoto Central, West Jones, New Hope, North Pontotoc, Calhoun City and Smithville. Calhoun City beat Taylorsville in Game 3 of the Class 2A series on Saturday at Trustmark Park in Pearl.
As we await the announcement on Monday of the 2019 Ferriss Trophy winner, it feels like a good time to check in on the last two winners of the state’s top college player award, both now in the minor leagues. Southern Miss product Nick Sandlin, last year’s honoree, is dealing at Double-A Akron in the Cleveland system. The sidearming right-hander, a second-round pick last June, has an 0.79 ERA in 10 games (11 1/3 innings) with 17 strikeouts. He earned his first save with a two-inning effort on Thursday night, fanning four of the eight batters he faced. Sandlin zipped through four levels of the minors in 2018, topping out at Akron, and posted a 3.00 ERA, two wins and five saves in 25 games. The Indians moved Sandlin back to the bullpen after he served as the No. 1 starter for USM last year. The 2017 Ferriss winner, Mississippi State alum Brent Rooker, moved quickly up Minnesota’s ladder after being a supplemental first-rounder in June ’17, starting this season at Triple-A Rochester. But the righty-hitting outfielder/first baseman has scuffled at the new level, batting just .222 with six homers and 12 RBIs while striking out 43 times in 90 at-bats. Rooker hit 40 homers over his first two pro seasons and was a Southern League All-Star in 2018. P.S. Cody Reed, the veteran lefty out of Northwest Mississippi Community College, was recalled today by Cincinnati from Triple-A Louisville. He got into one game with the Reds earlier this season and has 40 appearances over the past four years.
Things went a little nuts Thursday in Starkville, where the runaway train that is Mississippi State scored 24 runs, its most in an SEC game in 22 years, to blow away South Carolina. The Bulldogs (44-10, 19-9 SEC and 31-4 at Dudy Noble Field) had a seven-run inning and two five-run innings. Twelve different players scored, with Jake Mangum and Tanner Allen crossing the plate four times each. Eleven different players got a hit, with Allen going 5-for-5. Four Dogs homered. Oh, and Ethan Small breezed through five innings to improve to 8-1.
Delta State, behind the pitching – again — of Hunter Riggins, beat Embry-Riddle 5-1 in an NCAA Division II South Sub-Regional game at Ferriss Field in Cleveland. Riggins, who somehow did not make the final five in the Ferriss Trophy voting, threw a seven-hitter with six strikeouts to move to 11-3 and trim his ERA to 2.03. DSU is now 40-12, winning 40 for the 15th time under coach Mike Kinnison. The Statesmen get Valdosta State in a winner’s bracket game today.
In the big juco showdown at Cresap Field in Fulton, No. 2-ranked Itawamba Community College took down No. 1 LSU-Eunice 5-2 in the winner’s bracket of the NJCAA Division II Region 23 Tournament. LaBryant Siddell drove in two runs and scored two for ICC (41-6-1). Justin Medlin (7-1) went 6 1/3 innings for the win, striking out 11, and Kyle Crigger worked the final 2 2/3 for the save. ICC next plays Pearl River, which beat Gulf Coast 12-11 in 11 innings as Shemar Page homered twice.
At Trustmark Park in Pearl, West Jones (Class 5A) and North Pontotoc (3A) claimed MHSAA state championships, New Hope rallied late to win its 4A opener and emergent draft prospect Jared Johnson pitched Smithville to a 4-2 win over Stringer in 1A. Johnson, a sturdy 6-foot-3, 200-pound right-hander, wasn’t particularly sharp but yielded just two cheap singles over seven innings, notching eight strikeouts and five walks. He hit 94 mph on the stadium gun and was consistently around 92. The MSU (and former ICC) commit is 9-0 with an 0.68 ERA.
While the debut — OK, the smashing debut — of Austin Riley in Atlanta was a compelling event on Wednesday, there was some other significant stuff going on closer to home. At Trustmark Park in Pearl, DeSoto Central High — Riley’s alma mater — beat St. Martin 3-1 in the first game of the MHSAA Class 6A championship series. West Jones beat Lafayette 10-1 in 5A, North Pontotoc beat Magee 12-2 in 3A and Taylorsville beat Calhoun City 8-1 in 2A. In Fulton, No. 2-ranked Itawamba Community College scrambled past Mississippi Gulf Coast 8-7 in the NJCAA Division II Region 23 Tournament. ICC’s Jackson Lancaster got the win in relief and also had a homer among his three hits. With the win, ICC (40-6-1) moves into a winner’s bracket showdown today with No. 1-ranked LSU-Eunice (49-6), which beat Northwest in its opener. Pearl River knocked off Jones, sending the Bobcats into an elimination game against Gulf Coast. In New Orleans, Jackson State lost to Texas Southern and Alcorn State fell to Grambling in the first round of the SWAC Tournament. JSU (30-23), which entered the tourney on something of a nice roll, now faces elimination today against Arkansas-Pine Bluff. Alcorn (14-30) plays a loser’s bracket game today against Prairie View. At Cleveland today, Delta State plays Embry-Riddle in the first round of the NCAA Division II regionals. P.S. For the record, by homering in his Atlanta rookie debut, Riley joins a list that includes Bob Horner, Marty Malloy, Jermaine Dye, Jeff Francoeur, Jordan Schafer, Jason Heyward and Evan Gattis. Like Riley, Francoeur, Schafer, Heyward and Gattis are Mississippi Braves alumni.
And the National League leader in wins is – drumroll, please — former Wheeler High and Mississippi State star Brandon Woodruff, who notched his sixth on Tuesday. Not what anyone would have predicted for mid-May. The big right-hander threw six innings of one-hit ball as Milwaukee beat Philadelphia 6-1 in a matchup of two of the NL’s best clubs. Woodruff walked five but fanned five in winning his fourth straight start. “The fastball is really overpowering at times, it feels like,” Craig Counsell told mlb.com. “He’s using it well, he’s throwing his off-speed for strikes; it’s a good recipe for success.” Woodruff is 6-1 with a 3.72 ERA in nine starts this season, his third in the big leagues. He also got a hit in three at-bats Tuesday and is at .350 for the year. … Though he doesn’t have the win total to show for it, ex-Madison Central star Spencer Turnbull actually has pitched better than Woodruff to date. The Detroit Tigers rookie right-hander is 2-2 with a 2.42 ERA, fourth-best in the American League, in eight outings. Over his last five starts, Turnbull is 2-0 with a 1.21. He last pitched on Sunday vs. Minnesota, allowing two runs in 5 2/3 innings and departing with a lead. He got a no-decision after the sub-.500 Tigers’ bullpen blew the save. P.S. Miguel Sano, who was at Trustmark Park in Pearl last week on a rehab assignment with Double-A Pensacola, has been activated by the Twins. Accompanying Sano on the rehab assignment was Sam Perlozzo, a Twins senior advisor who managed the Jackson Mets to back-to-back Texas League championships in 1984-85.