At an emotional press conference in Cleveland on Monday, new Delta State coach Rodney Batts made a resounding statement about his plans for the team: “It’s gonna be no different. I am a product of this program.” Batts played at DSU for Bill Marchant, who played for Boo Ferriss, the patriarch of the proud program. Batts coached at DSU under Mike Kinnison, who played for Ferriss. Batts is just the fourth coach at DSU in the last 57 years. “That kind of stability has really benefitted our program,” Kinnison said while introducing Batts, who spent the previous five years as head coach at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College. Kinnison, now the DSU athletic director, said he wanted if at all possible to stay within the DSU coaching tree in hiring his replacement. He said Batts is “the right choice at the right time” as he symbolically turned over the keys to program. “I’m here because of you,” Batts said with a nod to Kinnison. Batts spent 19 years at DSU as a player, grad assistant, volunteer assistant and full-time assistant. He said through tears Monday that the DSU campus was home, and he knew he had made the right decision to come back when scores of former Statesmen players began texting him after the news broke last week. DSU, one of the strongest NCAA Division II programs in the country, owns a national championship – Batts was an assistant under Kinnison during that 2004 season – and expects to contend for another every year. Said Batts: “I understand the challenge. I understand what it takes.”
Ran across a good story on milb.com about former Jackson Generals manager Rick Sweet, who notched his 2,000th career minor league managerial win on June 25. Only 12 others have reached that milestone. Sweet was the manager of the first two Generals clubs in 1991 and ’92, winning 131 games overall with the Houston Astros’ Double-A affiliate. Sweet, 66, a former big league catcher, has logged 30 seasons as a manager and is now at Triple-A San Antonio in Milwaukee’s system. Sweet has had some other jobs in the game, including two stints as a big league coach, but managing apparently suits him best. “I love going to the ballpark every day,” Sweet said in the article. “The fact that I get to help and be a part of so many young people’s lives, even when I started managing 30-something years ago, that’s what resonates with me. That’s what drives me every day.” The mustachioed “Sweetie,” as everyone called him at Smith-Wills Stadium back in the day, was a very vocal kind of guy but was always easy to work with for those who covered the Gens. “He’s lasted so long because of his commitment to open, honest communication,” writes Joe Bloss.
Ronald Acuna, the former Mississippi Braves star, won’t be the only Mississippi-connected player vying for a Home Run Derby crown tonight in Cleveland. DeSoto Central High’s Blaze Jordan is in the final of the High School Home Run Derby, which is slated to be held between rounds 1 and 2 of the big league event at Progressive Field. Jordan hit 20 homers in Sunday’s competition to advance to the final against A.J. Vukovich from Wisconsin. Jordan, a Mississippi State commit, has reclassified to be eligible for the 2020 MLB draft and is expected to go high. The 6-foot-2, 218-pound corner infielder hit 10 homers in 37 games for DeSoto as a sophomore this season. He gained a measure of fame as a 14-year-old 8th-grader when he belted a 504-foot homer to win a national contest at Marlins Park in Miami. … For the record, Ole Miss’ Tyler Keenan finished second in the College Home Run Derby at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Neb., on June 29. Keenan led the Rebels with 15 homers in 2019. … Acuna, who has 21 homers this year and 47 all told in his two MLB campaigns, famously homered in his first at-bat for the M-Braves in 2017. He faces Pittsburgh’s Josh Bell in tonight’s first round. … An mlb.com article rated Bobby Abreu’s victory in the 2005 Home Run Derby as the No. 9 “best moment” in Derby history, which dates to 1985 (when Mississippi native Dave Parker won the inaugural event). Former Jackson Generals star Abreu, who was with Philadelphia at the time, blasted 41 bombs to win the ’05 Derby at Detroit’s Comerica Park. He hit 288 career home runs over 18 MLB seasons. P.S. Current M-Braves star Drew Waters, who somehow didn’t make the roster for the All-Star Futures Game that was played in Cleveland on Sunday night, put on a show at Trustmark Park in Pearl with his fourth four-hit game of the season in a 10-1 win against Biloxi. Waters, 20, a switch-hitting outfielder, is batting .335 with five homers, 31 RBIs, 53 runs, 29 doubles and nine triples.
Having made two trips to the big leagues this season, Nate Lowe looks like he’s ready for a third. The Mississippi State alum smacked three home runs for Triple-A Durham on Tuesday and is batting .350 over his last 10 games. Lowe went 10-for-38 in two short stints with Tampa Bay but was squeezed out of a roster spot. He slumped for a while after returning to Durham but has picked it up of late. He is batting .290 with 12 homers and 46 RBIs for the season with the Bulls and now has 50 career minor league bombs over four years. The left-handed hitting first baseman, 23, rocketed through three levels of the minors in 2018 and made his big league debut on April 29 of this season. He’s due another look from a playoff-contending Rays club. P.S. After getting five hits on Monday, ex-State star Adam Frazier banged out four more on Tuesday for Pittsburgh and will take a streak of seven straight hits into today’s game. Frazier, back in the leadoff spot where he began the season, hit his fourth homer of the year in the 5-1 win over the Chicago Cubs and boosted his average to .276. “I feel like I’m onto something,” he told mlb.com. … Former Harrison Central High star Bobby Bradley, who doubled in his first big league at-bat for Cleveland last week (see previous post), is just 3-for-27 (.111) in eight games. He has struck out 12 times.
Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle put Adam Frazier in the leadoff spot on Monday for the first time since early June. It was a salient move by the former Jackson Mets skipper. Ex-Mississippi State standout Frazier went 5-for-6, scored three runs, drove in a pair and etched his name in the baseball record book with four doubles. And the Pirates, who also got three homers from Josh Bell, beat the first-place Chicago Cubs 18-5 at PNC Park. Frazier was in a 2-for-18 funk before Monday’s breakout, which might lead to more opportunities at the top of the order. He joins an impressive list of players with four two-baggers in a nine-inning game. Among the others to achieve the feat are Lou Boudreau, Joe Medwick, Orlando Cepeda, Billy Williams, Kirby Puckett, Albert Belle and Jeff Bagwell. Frazier has become the Pirates’ regular second baseman this season with the departure of Josh Harrison, and the lefty-hitting four-year veteran is batting .266 with three homers, 21 RBIs and 41 runs. The Pirates are hanging around in a crowded race in the National League Central.
JaCoby Jones, an exceptional athlete, runs down a lot of balls in center field for Detroit. Check out the catch the former Richton High star made Saturday, taking a home run away from a Washington batter. Though he hasn’t been as good with the glove this year (.974 fielding percentage, four errors in 65 games), Jones actually topped all major league outfielders in 2018 with 21 Defensive Runs Saved. In 120 games and just over 1,000 innings, he made 284 putouts, some of those as a left fielder. He also had eight assists and just one error. As good as he might be, Jones isn’t likely to make longtime Tigers fans forget Chet Lemon. The Jackson native is the gold standard for Tigers center fielders. “The Jet” (aka “Juice”) recorded 509 putouts in center field for Detroit in 1977 to set a major league record, and he had five seasons of 400-plus putouts. Longtime manager Sparky Anderson called him the best center fielder he had ever seen. “(H)e plays each game as if it were the seventh game of the World Series. Chester doesn’t know any other way to play and that’s his greatest asset,” Anderson once said. Lemon, now a youth baseball instructor and coach in Florida, grew up in California, was a first-round draft pick by Oakland in 1972 and played 16 years in the majors, making three All-Star teams and winning a ring with the 1984 Tigers, who coincidentally, were honored at Comerica Park this weekend. He hit .273 career with 215 home runs and 884 RBIs. Jones (.252 this year, .213 career) hasn’t hit like that either.
While his Boston teammates are making the much-ballyhooed trip to London this weekend, Mitch Moreland is staying stateside. The Mississippi State alum remains on the injured list, recuperating from a quadriceps injury. He has been sidelined for all but one day since May 26. Moreland took live batting practice at Fenway Park this week and reportedly will head out on a rehab assignment soon. The Red Sox, the defending world champs, could certainly use Moreland’s bat (not to mention his glove at first base) as they try to chase down the New York Yankees in the American League East. When he initially went on the injured list with a back injury in late May, Moreland was leading the Red Sox in home runs with 13. He was activated on June 7, went 0-for-2 against Tampa Bay, then went back on the IL the next day with the quad injury. He is batting .225 (slugging .543) with 34 RBIs in 47 games. An All-Star in 2018, the injury woes have assured that Moreland won’t be going to Cleveland on July 9. P.S. Former Ole Miss standout Mike Mayers, on the IL (shoulder) since mid-April for St. Louis, has begun a rehab assignment at Triple-A Memphis. Mayers, in his fourth big league tour, had a 5.40 ERA in eight appearances for the Cardinals this season.
The college season in Mississippi ended with such cruel irony. Mississippi State, which won so many big games in comeback fashion, was eliminated from the College World Series by a bottom-of-the-ninth rally by Louisville. Having allowed time for the hangover to pass, we can now look back on the 2019 season as one with more than its share of thrills. State, under first-year coach Chris Lemonis, won 52 games, went 37-5 at the “New Dude” (renovated Dudy Noble Field), made its 38th NCAA Tournament appearance, hosted a regional and a Super Regional and made its 11th CWS trip. The Bulldogs earn top-of-the-class honors in the state, but quite a few others belong on the honor roll. Ole Miss made its 23rd NCAA appearance and fell one win shy of the CWS, losing at Arkansas in the Super Regional to end the year at 41-27. Southern Miss went on a late-season roll, winning the Conference USA Tournament and earning its 16th NCAA bid. The Golden Eagles fell in the Baton Rouge Regional to LSU and finished 40-21. Jackson State went 31-24, notching a 13th straight winning season under Omar Johnson. Delta State won another Gulf South Conference title and reached the Super Regional round of the Division II Tournament, falling out at Tampa. The Statesmen went 42-14 in what turned out to be the legendary Mike Kinnison’s last year as coach. Mississippi College also put up a second straight winning season (28-17) under fourth-year coach Jeremy Haworth and just missed a second straight D-II regional invite. Blue Mountain went 26-25-1 in the NAIA ranks, and Mississippi University for Women went 18-13 as a non-scholarship independent and made the USCAA postseason tournament. That’s eight four-year schools with winning seasons. William Carey (24-26), Millsaps (10-33) and Belhaven (11-29) endured rare down years, while Alcorn State (14-31), Mississippi Valley State (8-27) and Tougaloo (5-29) continue to seek the right formula for their programs. Fall ball will be here in a blink.
Matt Wallner belted his first pro home run on Thursday. Many more are expected. Wallner, Southern Miss’ career home run leader, hit a solo shot for the rookie-level Elizabethton Twins against the Bristol Pirates in an Appalachian League game. Wallner is batting .320 (8-for-25) in six games. Minnesota drafted the Minnesota native with the 39th overall pick earlier this month; it’s the highest any Golden Eagles player has been picked. Power is Wallner’s game. The 6-foot-5 left-handed slugger tied the USM single-season record for homers this year with 23 and finished his three years in Hattiesburg with 58. The Twins drafted Wallner in the 32nd round out of high school in 2016, but Minnesota’s Mr. Baseball opted to attend North Dakota, which abruptly dropped its program. He landed at USM, where he won several national freshman of the year awards in 2017 and earned All-America nods as a sophomore and junior. A prototypical right fielder, Wallner also has a big arm. USM occasionally used him as a closer his first two years. P.S. Mississippi State product Brent Rooker, Minnesota’s No. 7 prospect and another power bat in that system, was named to the International League roster for the Triple-A All-Star Game, scheduled July 10. The former SEC Triple Crown winner is batting .277 with 12 homers and 38 RBIs for Rochester. … Ex-State standout Reid Humphreys is back on the injured list at Double-A Hartford in Colorado’s system. The right-handed closer came off the IL on June 7, allowed 11 hits and five runs in four appearances and went back on the shelf on June 21. He had 39 saves in his first three pro seasons. … George County High alum Walker Robbins, who batted .170 with two homers over his first three pro seasons, is now pitching full-time at rookie-level Johnson City in the St. Louis system. The 21-year-old lefty, a fifth-round pick in 2016, has a 2.70 ERA in three relief appearances.
Once upon a time, there was a Double-A team at Smith-Wills Stadium in Jackson. Twenty years ago, the Jackson Generals, a Houston Astros affiliate in the Texas League, played their ninth and final season before bolting for Round Rock, Texas. Twenty years is a long time. No former Generals are still playing in the big leagues. There isn’t – or wasn’t — much left to remember them by here in central Mississippi. Until now. The Mississippi Braves will rekindle good memories for some old Smith-Wills fans on Friday night when they don throwback apparel and give away Generals replica jerseys at Trustmark Park in Pearl. Former Generals have been invited to attend. Con Maloney, former owner of the Texas League franchise, will throw out the first pitch. (Yes, the M-Braves are playing a team called the Jackson Generals, a Southern League club from Tennessee. Don’t let that confuse you.) The Mississippi-based Generals, who followed the Mets at Smith-Wills in 1991, won two league titles during their time at the ballpark on Lakeland Drive. Future big league stars such as Bobby Abreu, Lance Berkman, Billy Wagner, Freddy Garcia and Richard Hidalgo played there. (There’s a long list.) Former big leaguers Rick Sweet, Gary Allenson and Sal Butera managed there. Hall of Famer Jeff Bagwell rehabbed there for the Astros. If all goes well, maybe a Jackson Mets throwback game will be next — though the idea of putting Braves prospects in Mets unies seems a little weird.