“Play ball” time arrives for NCAA Division III schools Belhaven University and Millsaps College this weekend, with the Blazers set to open on Friday at Smith-Wills Stadium and the Majors on Saturday at Twenty Field as part of a round-robin tournament. Belhaven coach Hill Denson has announced that this will be the final season of his long and heralded career. The swan song begins against LeTourneau, a D-III school from Texas. The Blazers, 12-27 in 2018, a rare losing season for Denson, were pegged to finish 11th in the 12-team American Southwest Conference. The team had two players get recognition on the league’s preseason Watch List: second baseman Evan Moore, who hit .297 with 23 runs and 14 steals as a freshman, and right-hander David Hall, who posted a 3-6 record and 4.71 ERA last year. Pitching was a 2018 sore spot for BU, which put up a 6.53 staff ERA. Millsaps will play LeTourneau on Saturday, launching coach Jim Page’s 31st year with the purple and white. He topped 750 career wins in 2018 as the Majors went 25-19. The team returns outfielder Jimmy Johnstone, a .361 hitter and second-team All-Southern Athletic Association pick in 2018; outfielder Brennan Ducote, who batted .374 with four homers and 33 RBIs; and right-hander Conner Haynes, 4-1, 3.22 ERA. … Belhaven and Millsaps will play the first of three Maloney Trophy Series games on March 6 at Smith-Wills.
The Cincinnati Reds, coming off a terrible season, beefed up their rotation by trading for three veteran pitchers in the off-season. What that means for Cody Reed is that cracking the starting corps this spring will be a lot tougher. The former Northwest Mississippi Community College star from Horn Lake will be in the mix based on his relatively strong finish in 2018. Reed, a 25-year-old lefty, posted a 3.99 ERA with 31 strikeouts in 29 1/3 innings over his last seven appearances, six of them as a starter, which is the role he has said he wants. After back-to-back scoreless starts, his final game of the season didn’t go so well (a loss to Kansas City), but he ended the year with a 3.98 ERA in 17 games. “It’s a tough one to end on if this is it,” Reed told mlb.com after that final outing. “I definitely feel like I (left a good impression). I’m going to come into spring fighting … .” Reed was a second-round pick out of NWCC by Kansas City in 2013 and was a highly rated prospect when traded to the Reds while in Double-A in 2015. He made the big leagues in 2016 but endured a rough baptism, going 0-7 with a 7.36 ERA. Reed has bounced between Triple-A and the big club the last two seasons, working as both a starter and reliever. Maybe he sticks in 2019. Reds pitchers and catchers report for work, officially, on Feb. 13.
Names to know from college baseball’s opening weekend, which was, for the most part, a rousing one for Magnolia State schools:
Darek Sargent, Delta State: 5-for-10, a homer, seven RBIs as the Statesmen went 3-0 against East Central University.
Hunter Riggins, DSU: 5 2/3 shutout innings, one hit, 10 strikeouts.
Billy Cameron, Mississippi College: 4-for-10, a homer, four RBIs as the Choctaws swept three at Harding.
Zack Ingram, MC: six innings, one run, nine strikeouts.
Kyle Bayles, William Carey: 5-for-15, five runs, four RBIs, five shutout innings as the Crusaders went 2-2 against Missouri Baptist and Ave Maria.
J.C. Sanner, WCU: six innings, no earned runs, 12 strikeouts.
Drake Wallace, Blue Mountain: 3-for-10, a homer, five runs, four RBIs as the Toppers went 3-0-1 against William Wood.
Mason Woolridge, BMC: two saves, three scoreless innings.
As a flight of fancy, ncaa.com recently picked an all-time starting lineup of Mississippi State alumni, a Maroon 9, so to speak. It’s a very impressive bunch: CF Dan Van Cleve, SS Adam Frazier, 1B Will Clark, RF Rafael Palmeiro, LF Brent Rooker, 3B Travis Chapman, C Ed Easley, 2B Jeffrey Rea and P Jeff Brantley. Of course, a lot of great players were left off. One of the more glaring omissions would seem to be Jake Mangum, currently the Bulldogs’ center fielder. The former Jackson Prep star has a .356 average, 49 doubles, 87 RBIs, 154 runs and 34 stolen bases over 195 games entering 2019. He has been the SEC’s freshman of the year, an All-SEC pick, a Ferriss Trophy winner and an All-America selection. He has been drafted twice by MLB clubs. He led State to the College World Series last summer and returned for his senior season to try again for that elusive national title. It’s hard to imagine a player having had a greater impact on the program. He certainly rates a spot in the Maroon 9.
The renewed rivalry between Mississippi College and Delta State might be as strong and compelling as it has ever been as the 2019 campaign gets under way. MC and DSU were ranked 1-2 in the Gulf South Conference’s preseason poll. MC, the GSC Tournament champ in 2018, is ranked No. 7 in NCAA Division II by Perfect Game and No. 18 by the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association. Delta State, which finished first in the GSC regular season standings, is No. 10 in Collegiate Baseball’s poll. DSU took two of three from the Choctaws in the 2018 regular season but lost to them in the conference tournament. Both went to the D-II South Regional, where the Statesmen won their first-round meeting and the Choctaws won an elimination game four days later. The rivalry will simmer all season, as the two don’t meet until the end of the schedule – on April 27-28 at Frierson Field in Clinton. MC returns the GSC Tournament Most Outstanding Player, senior first baseman Blaine Crim, who hit .383 with 13 homers in 2018. Billy Cameron, a senior third baseman, batted .354 with six homers last year. Both were named preseason All-GSC. Catcher Josh Russell is the lone returning starter for DSU, though there are a handful of other experienced position players back. Seniors Dalton Minton and Seth Hoguesen, both left-handers, should front the rotation, and Melvin Frazier, another lefty, is an experienced bullpen piece. And Statesmen coach Mike Kinnison is high on his crop of newcomers. P.S. Both teams opened with wins on Friday. MC beat Harding 12-6 as Cameron drove in three runs. DSU snuffed East Central University of Oklahoma 9-1 behind Hunter Riggins’ pitching and three RBIs from Darek Sargent.
In recognition of Black History Month, here’s a shout-out to Dave Clark, the ex-Shannon High and Jackson State star who is one of just 16 African-Americans to have managed in the major leagues. (Yes, that’s a shamefully small number.) Clark, about to begin his sixth season as third-base coach for the Detroit Tigers, was the interim manager in Houston for the last 13 games of the 2009 campaign. The team, limping to the end of a 74-88 finish, went 4-9 under Clark. Interestingly enough, he was the third Mississippi native to manage the Houston club; Harry Craft (1962-64) and Harry Walker (1968-72) were the other two. Clark was a first-round draft pick by Cleveland out of JSU in 1983 and played 13 years in the big leagues, batting .264 with 62 homers and earning a rep as a fearsome pinch hitter. Since retiring as a player, he has managed in the minors (two championships) and in winter ball and coached for three different MLB clubs. He has been interviewed and/or considered for several major league managerial jobs since his stint with the Astros. That door might still open for him someday.
Jackson Prep two-sport standout Jerrion Ealy will pick a college on football’s National Signing Day next week, and four months later a major league baseball club will pick him, possibly in the first round of the draft. A lot of folks are very interested to see what path Ealy, a 5-foot-9, 190-pound running back/outfielder, will take. “(A)ll options are on the table right now,” he recently told an ESPN writer. Ealy, who was once committed to Ole Miss but is now considering other schools, as well, could pass on the pro offer and play both sports in college. He could try to play pro baseball in the summer and college football in the fall, keeping the NFL in view. Or he could forget football and focus on baseball. Ealy is likely to go high enough in the June draft that he’ll receive an appealing bonus offer. “(He has) upside and athleticism you do see go very early in the draft just because there are such few kids like that throughout the country,” a scout told ESPN. From Perfect Game’s scouting report: “Has all the tools to be an All-Star type player.” For what it’s worth, ex-Petal High star Anthony Alford tried the pro baseball/college football duet and wound up dropping football; he is currently on Toronto’s major league roster. Ole Miss star receiver A.J. Brown, who’ll go high in the upcoming NFL draft, also has a pro baseball contract; a 19th-round pick out of Starkville High by San Diego in 2016, he has gone to extended spring training with the Padres the past three years but has not yet played a minor league game. Former UM defensive back Senquez Golson passed on a lucrative offer to play pro baseball out of Pascagoula High and was ultimately drafted in the NFL; plagued by injuries – always a major concern in that sport – he has yet to play in a regular season game. P.S. Interesting that five of the players named to The Clarion-Ledger’s Dandy Dozen for 2019 are catchers, including the best player on what might be the state’s best team. George County High, runner-up in MHSAA Class 6A in 2018, is the lone Mississippi school appearing in Collegiate Baseball Magazine’s preseason Top 30 poll. The Rebels, 27-6 last year, are ranked No. 21. There were no state schools in CB’s final 2018 poll. George County’s top player is Logan Tanner, a pitcher/catcher who went 8-2, 1.64 ERA and batted .341 in 2018. The Rebels open Feb. 19 in Lucedale against Pascagoula.
William Carey University lifts the lid on the 2019 college season today with a home game against Missouri Baptist at Wheeler Field in Hattiesburg. There could be some karma at work for the Crusaders this season; 50 years ago Carey won the NAIA national championship. WCU lost many of the key contributors from its 2018 team, which went 36-25 and played in an NAIA regional. “Last year’s team was built on speed evidenced by their 150 stolen bases as a team. This year we should have a little more power in the lineup with the guys we have coming back and the addition of new guys,” longtime coach Bobby Halford said in a school release. Back are second baseman Caleb Ledet, who batted .336 with 31 runs in 43 games; outfielder Lucas Scott (.283, 11 steals, 47 games); right-hander Devin Smith (7-4, 3.65 ERA); and righty Lake Robertson (2-2, two saves, 6.11). Newcomers to watch include South Alabama transfer outfielder/closer Kyle Bayles, a onetime Meridian Community College standout, and Pascagoula High All-State shortstop Patrick Lee. P.S. On Friday, Delta State opens at home against East Central University, Mississippi College visits Harding in Arkansas and Blue Mountain launches at home against William Wood. Tougaloo starts on Saturday against Selma in Alabama. Next week brings the openers for Belhaven University (Feb. 8 at Smith-Wills Stadium in Jackson against LeTourneau) and Millsaps College (Feb. 9 at Twenty Field in Jackson, also vs. LeTourneau). The NCAA Division I start date is Feb. 15: Mississippi State begins the Chris Lemonis era at renovated Dudy Noble Field against Youngstown State, Ole Miss hosts Wright State, Southern Miss opens at home with Purdue, Jackson State welcomes Boston College and Alcorn State plays Prairie View A&M in the MLB Urban Invitational at New Orleans. Mississippi Valley State opens Feb. 19 at Stillman in Alabama.
Greg Hibbard, the former Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College standout, is still out there plying his craft as a pitching coach — 25 years after he last pitched in the big leagues. Hibbard is set to begin his second year with Texas’ Double-A Frisco team (which is managed by former Jackson Generals star Joe Mikulik). Hibbard coached in Cleveland’s system for 13 seasons and is now in his fourth year with the Rangers. The left-hander was a pretty good big league pitcher for a fairly short period, posting a 57-50 record with a 4.05 ERA across parts of six seasons. He played at Harrison Central High before Gulf Coast CC and then went to Alabama. Drafted by Kansas City, he broke in with the Chicago White Sox and won 14 games in 1991. The next year, he was taken by Florida in the expansion draft and then traded to the Cubs. He won 15 games for them in 1993 and parlayed that success into a three-year deal with Seattle. But shoulder problems limited Hibbard to 15 games for the ’94 Mariners and ultimately ended his career. He pitched for the final time in June of that year at age 29.
Jarrod Saltalamacchia’s 14-letter surname was the longest in MLB history. He also had a few distinguishing moments on the field. “Salty” was Atlanta’s No. 1 prospect when he arrived in Double-A Mississippi in 2006, and though the switch-hitting catcher didn’t really live up to that heady billing, he did play parts of 12 seasons in the majors and won a World Series ring. He announced his retirement on Monday. He batted .232 with 110 home runs and 381 RBIs for seven different clubs. He hit 25 homers for Boston in 2012 and drove in 65 runs for the Red Sox the next year, helping them win the championship. With the M-Braves in 2006, Saltalamacchia batted .230 with nine homers. He returned in 2007 and hit .302 with six bombs in 22 games before being called to the big leagues. … Former M-Braves star Ronald Acuna, the 2018 National League rookie of the year with the Braves, was selected in a fan vote to appear on card No. 1 in Topps’ 2019 basic set. Other recent recipients of this honor include Mike Trout, Aaron Judge and Kris Bryant, each of whom was on the ballot for 2019, along with Mookie Betts and Bryce Harper. Acuna, who homered in his first at-bat for the M-Braves in 2017, was honored with a Bobblehead Night at Trustmark Park last summer. … Twenty-four of the 40 players on Atlanta’s current roster are M-Braves alums, and 10 of the 20 non-roster invitees to spring camp played in Pearl the last couple years. Former DeSoto Central standout Austin Riley – one of eight Top 100 prospects (by mlb.com) in Atlanta’s system – received a non-roster invite for the second straight year. He spent parts of 2017 and ’18 in Pearl.