There are hurdles ahead for Chuckie Robinson, but the former Southern Miss star certainly has built a head of steam. After one full season in pro ball, the 23-year-old Robinson is the second-highest rated catcher in Houston’s system and the No. 27 prospect overall in the world champion’s organization. He has made a couple of appearances in big league spring training games and has earned a great reputation. “He’s one of our most-liked players by staff just because he’s such a hard worker,” Astros director of player development Pete Putila told milb.com in a recent feature on Robinson. “Physically, he’s an explosive player. It shows up in his arm strength and bat speed.” Robinson threw out 40.9 percent of baserunners attempting to steal last season at Class A Quad Cities while also batting .274 and mashing 15 homers with 77 RBIs. He was a driving force behind the River Bandits’ run to the Midwest League pennant, belting four postseason bombs, and was named an MWL All-Star. Robinson, an Illinois native, was a 21st-round selection by the Astros in 2016 and, though he had a big junior year at USM, didn’t enter pro ball with a lot of hype. “I know good ballplayers. I think I’m a good ballplayer. I know what I’m capable of and, honestly, I just wanted to get an opportunity,” Robinson said in the milb.com article. He is making the most of it.
Conference play starts this weekend for the state’s Big 3 Division I schools. Each is playing at home, and there should be an upbeat vibe for all three. Southern Miss is nationally ranked, sports a 12-4 record and just blasted Tulane 12-3 on Wednesday night in New Orleans. And there’s even more good news for Golden Eagles fans: Matt Wallner is heating up. The 2017 national freshman of the year homered against the Green Wave, just his second of the year but second in the last three games. Wallner, a .336 hitter with 19 bombs in 2017, is batting .298. USM opens Conference USA play against Texas-San Antonio in Hattiesburg. Ole Miss, which welcomes Tennessee to Oxford to launch SEC play, is on an even steeper roll. The Rebels, a top 10 team, bashed Georgia State 16-2 on Wednesday in Atlanta to move to 17-1. Who’s hot? Cole Zabowski, to pick just one. He went 3-for-4 with a home run and four RBIs vs. the Panthers and is at .310 with three homers and 13 RBIs on the season. Mississippi State stumbled on Wednesday, losing to Southeastern Louisiana 11-5 in Biloxi. Jake Mangum continued to swing a hot bat, however, going 2-for-5. He is hitting .351 with 11 runs and seven steals. The Bulldogs take a 10-7 record into their SEC series against Vanderbilt in Starkville, but note they are 4-1 at renovated Dudy Noble Field, where the home-field edge is palpable. P.S. Jackson State, 5-1 in the SWAC, takes on Alabama State (4-2) this weekend in Montgomery in a key league series. JSU is 12-4 overall after a twinbill split at Morehead (Ky.) State. In a 4-0 win that was halted by snow on Tuesday and completed Wednesday, Jesus Santana hit his fourth homer of the year. Jarvis Warner has boosted his average to .364.
A rookie outfielder appears poised to crack Atlanta’s opening day roster, but it’s not top prospect Ronald Acuna. Dustin Peterson, who had a huge year for the Mississippi Braves in 2016, has had an outstanding spring for the Braves and is in the mix for playing time in left field. Peterson, 23, is batting .318 with two homers and six RBIs. The 6-foot-2, 210-pound right-handed hitter, acquired from San Diego in 2014, was a Southern League MVP candidate two years ago when he batted .282 with 12 homers, 88 RBIs and 38 doubles for an M-Braves team that played for the league title. Peterson played well in big league camp last year but suffered a broken hand that pretty much wrecked his 2017 season. “It’s a shame he got hurt because who knows what his story would be right now, the way he was swinging the bat last year,” Braves manager Brian Snitker told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Peterson batted .248 with one homer in 87 games at Triple-A Gwinnett, but indications are he’s got his power back this spring. P.S. Seven other M-Braves alums are currently projected by mlb.com to make the initial 25-man roster: Freddie Freeman, Ozzie Albies, Dansby Swanson, Johan Camargo, Julio Teheran, Arodys Vizcaino and A.J. Minter.
MGM Park in Biloxi would be a nice place to post up today. The home of the Southern League’s Shuckers is hosting a college doubleheader: Mississippi College-William Carey University at 1 p.m., Mississippi State-Southeastern Louisiana at 6:35. The Bulldogs are 10-6, having recovered – apparently – from their 0-3 start at Southern Miss and the dismissal of their head coach for off-field issues. This will be their final tuneup for SEC play, which starts Friday against Vanderbilt in Starkville. Unsung Southeastern Louisiana, which always seems to have a good team, is 11-6. The Lions’ roster includes several Mississippians, notably Trey Shaffer, last year’s state Gatorade Player of the Year at Biloxi High, and ex-Hinds Community College star Kyle Schimpf. No less intriguing is the MC-Carey game, which could evolve into an annual rivalry. Both are nationally ranked, MC (15-3) in NCAA Division II, Carey (18-5) in NAIA. The resurgent Choctaws claimed two walk-off wins last weekend, one on a homer by Blaine Crim. Crim, at .351, is one of six regulars batting .350 or better, topped by Billy Cameron, a former Mendenhall High and East Central CC standout, at .464. He has four homers and 17 RBIs. This will be just the fourth game away from home for Carey, which went to the NAIA World Series in 2017. Christian Smith, from Carriere, has been the Crusaders’ sparkplug, batting .329 with 21 runs and 20 steals, leading a team that has 55 bags. David Pimentel adds pop with three homers and 16 RBIs.
Jones County Junior College slipped out of the top spot in the new NJCAA Division II poll, replaced by LSU-Eunice, which beat the Bobcats 3-2 last week. Jones is 13-3. Rising on the chart was East Central CC, up to No. 5 from 10th in the previous poll. The 11-1 Warriors have won seven straight. Wyatt Ball has led the charge, batting .500 with two homers, 14 RBIs and 14 runs. George Farid is hitting .441, and Southern Miss signee Jacob Edwards is at .390 with 16 RBIs. On the bump, Delta State-bound Payton Griffin is 2-0 with a 2.93 ERA, and Kolby Crowley has a 0.84 in six appearances. Four other MACJC schools are ranked, though each slipped a bit from last week. Itawamba (12-2) is eighth, Hinds (11-2) 13th, Gulf Coast (16-2) 16th and Pearl River (9-3) 19th. Holmes, at 11-2, isn’t in the Top 20, nor is Copiah-Lincoln (10-2). Only two of the 15 teams in the league are under .500. Conference play, which starts this weekend, will sort a lot of this out.
Lance Lynn is slated to make his spring debut today with Minnesota, pitching against Baltimore in a Grapefruit League game. The Ole Miss product formally signed a one-year deal with the Twins on Monday. He is among several free agents inked by a Minnesota club which has its sights on a playoff berth in 2018. “People want to win and be part of a good atmosphere,” said ex-Southern Miss star Brian Dozier, the Twins’ best player (and a pending free agent). Lynn went 11-8 with a 3.43 ERA in 33 starts for St. Louis in 2017. With ace Ervin Santana currently out with a finger injury, Lynn is penciled in as the Twins’ No. 2 starter behind 23-year-old Jose Berrios. … Mississippi State alum Brandon Woodruff, vying for a spot as a starting pitcher for Milwaukee, also goes out today against Texas in the Cactus League. In three appearances, Woodruff has yielded five earned runs over 3 2/3 innings. He may be ticketed to start the season in the minors. … Former Petal High standout Anthony Alford, not expected to make Toronto’s opening day roster, is batting .323 after a 1-for-4 on Monday. Blue Jays manager John Gibbons, the ex-Jackson Mets catcher, raved recently on MLB Network about the progress Alford has made since he began playing baseball fulltime in the fall of 2014. “The sky’s the limit,” Gibbons said. Alford will get another shot with the Jays sometime this season. … Mississippi State alum Chris Stratton appears on track to earn a spot in San Francisco’s rotation. The Tupelo native allowed two hits and one run with three strikeouts in four innings on Monday, cutting his spring ERA to 2.25. … Ex-Bulldogs star Hunter Renfroe has hit three homers for San Diego this spring but is batting just .216 with nine strikeouts in 37 at-bats. The team’s regular right fielder much of 2017, he isn’t currently projected to start. … Ole Miss product Alex Presley, in Baltimore’s camp on a minor league deal, has hit well (.323) but is probably a longshot to make the 25-man roster. … Ex-State standout Jonathan Holder has had a good spring with the New York Yankees, posting a 1.42 ERA in five appearances, but is far down the pecking order in the team’s stacked bullpen. USM product Cody Carroll, in New York’s camp as a non-roster invitee, has also impressed: 3-0, 1.80 ERA in four games. … Tony Sipp, the veteran out of Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, has a 7.71 ERA in five spring outings but likely will stick in Houston’s bullpen again, possibly as the lone left-hander. …Meanwhile, veteran big leaguers Seth Smith, Tyler Moore and Chris Coghlan remain unsigned.
There was no Baseball America jinx evident in Oxford over the weekend. Ole Miss’ three starting pitchers – touted as a “three-headed monster” in a BA feature that posted last Friday – fared just fine in the Rebels’ sweep of Eastern Illinois at Oxford-University Stadium. Ryan Rolison, Brady Feigl and James McArthur devoured the Panthers, allowing just five runs all told as UM improved to 15-1. Feigl, a junior right-hander, had the best outing, tossing seven shutout innings with seven strikeouts. He is 4-0 with a 1.03 ERA. Rolison, a draft-eligible sophomore lefty, went seven in the first game of the Friday twinbill, yielding two runs and fanning eight. Rated the top prospect in the June draft by Perfect Game, Rolison is 3-1, 2.28. McArthur, a 6-foot-7 junior right-hander, worked 5 1/3 on Sunday, allowing three solo homers but nothing else, and improved to 2-0 with a 1.74. “The thing that we lacked last year (in a disappointing 32-25 season) was we didn’t have the star power, we didn’t have the Friday night ace,” Rebels coach Mike Bianco said in the BA story. “They’re all a year better, a year more experienced.” The Rebels, now ranked No. 11 in BA’s latest poll, have a staff ERA of 2.27. Veteran closer Dallas Woolfolk (five saves) hasn’t allowed a run in 6 2/3 innings. After a two-game midweek trip to Georgia State, Ole Miss starts conference play next weekend against Tennessee. The three-headed monster will be summoned again.