Charlie Morton, Houston’s scheduled starter today in Game 4 of the American League Division Series at Boston, spent a largely forgettable season with the Mississippi Braves in 2007. The right-hander, then 23 years old and in his sixth pro season, appeared in 41 games, all but six in relief. He went 4-6 with a 4.29 ERA. He was 0-for-4 in save opportunities. But he got the start for the M-Braves in Game 2 of the Southern League South playoffs against Montgomery at Trustmark Park and delivered what might have been a career-altering performance: seven innings, three hits, one run, eight strikeouts. He made the big leagues the next year after a strong showing in Triple-A. Morton’s MLB career has been unspectacular – 60-78, 4.41 ERA – and stunted by injuries. But he found a footing with the Astros this season, going 14-7, 3.62. Today, at what could be a soggy Fenway Park, he gets his second MLB postseason start. Former M-Braves star Brian McCann (Class of 2005) likely will be the Astros’ catcher today. Waiting in the Boston bullpen, no doubt champing at the bit for a save opportunity, will be Craig Kimbrel, arguably the most dominant closer to pass through Pearl these last 13 years. Kimbrel was 6-for-6 in save opps with two wins and a 0.77 ERA in 12 games for the M-Braves in 2009. … Should there be a Game 4 in the Los Angeles-Arizona National League Division Series, former M-Braves standout Alex Wood is slated to start for the Dodgers. The lefty, a spectacular 16-3, 2.72 this season, went 4-2, 1.26 in 10 starts for the M-Braves in 2013 and made the big leagues that same year.
Way back in 2010, the scouting department of the Cleveland Indians envisioned Drew Pomeranz pitching in big games. The Indians drafted the big lefty out of Ole Miss with the fifth overall pick and signed him for $2.6 million. He was the second pitcher taken – behind Jameson Taillon – and went ahead of Matt Harvey and Chris Sale. Though he no longer pitches for Cleveland – that was four teams ago – Pomeranz’s big game is here. He takes the ball for Boston today at Houston’s Minute Maid Park with his team down 1-0 in the best-of-5 American League Division Series. Pomeranz (17-6, 3.32 ERA) got the win against the Astros last week in the victory that secured the AL East title. That was a big game, too. But this is certainly bigger. It’ll be Pomeranz’s first postseason start. And he’s facing an Astros team that raked Red Sox pitching – including Sale — for 12 hits and eight runs in Thursday’s opener. And he’ll be opposed by Dallas Keuchel, the 2015 Cy Young Award winner who is 14-5, 2.90 ERA. Pomeranz may be able to draw on his success from last week, when he checked the Astros on three hits and a lone run in six-plus innings. “Kind of goes both ways,” Pomeranz told masslive.com. “They got to see me; I got to see them.” And that was at Fenway Park, with the backing of Red Sox Nation. Today will be different. And so much bigger. … It’ll be interesting to see if former Mississippi State standout Mitch Moreland, a lefty hitter, is in the Boston lineup against left-hander Keuchel. The Red Sox might want Moreland at first base for his defense.
Keep an eye on Mitch Moreland in today’s American League Division Series opener between Boston and Houston. The former Mississippi State star has very good numbers against Justin Verlander, the future Hall of Famer who’ll start for the Astros at Minute Maid Park. Moreland, the Red Sox’s lefty-hitting first baseman, is 10-for-29 (.345) against Verlander with six doubles and six RBIs. Moreland hit .246 with 22 homers and 79 RBIs in his first year with Boston; he has a .216 career postseason average in 33 games, all with Texas. Verlander, who has 188 career wins, went 15-8 with a 3.36 ERA this season, 5-0, 1.06 with Houston. … Tony Sipp, the Moss Point High and Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College alum, was not expected to make the Astros’ ALDS roster. Left-hander Sipp had a 5.79 ERA this year, almost two runs higher than his career mark. … There will be two Mississippians in uniform for today’s New York-Cleveland ALDS opener. Ole Miss product Mickey Callaway is in his fifth year as the Indians’ pitching coach, and Louisville native and ex-East Central CC star Marcus Thames is in his second as the Yankees’ assistant hitting coach. … Former Mississippi State pitcher Jonathan Holder, who had a 3.89 ERA in 37 MLB games in 2017, was not on the Yankees’ active roster for the wild card game and isn’t likely to be on the ALDS roster. … Belated props to Hawtin Buchanan, the former UM standout from Biloxi who won a championship with the York Revolution in the independent Atlantic League last Friday. Buchanan posted a 3.40 ERA in 38 games for York.
Three members of the Mississippi Braves’ original opening day roster from 2005 are on MLB postseason teams this year. Catcher Brian McCann, the first M-Brave to get the big league ticket, is with Houston – along with fellow ex-M-Braves Charlie Morton, Evan Gattis and James Hoyt – heading into the American League Division Series battle with Boston. Right-hander Blaine Boyer, who was the second M-Brave to be promoted to Atlanta, works out of the Red Sox’s bullpen, as does Craig Kimbrel. Outfielder Gregor Blanco, who waited a little longer – until 2008 – than McCann and Boyer to make The Show, is a bench player for Arizona, which hosts Colorado in tonight’s National League wild card game. Blanco has had a journeyman career but has played in 37 postseason games and won two World Series rings – with San Francisco in 2012 and ’14. Released by the Giants after last season, Blanco signed with the Diamondbacks. In 90 games, the speedy left-handed hitter batted .246 with three homers, 13 RBIs, 43 runs and 15 steals. He is also a good defensive outfielder. His advice for his D-backs teammates, many of whom are making their first postseason appearance? “Have fun and play the game,” Blanco told sfgate.com. “Whatever happens, happens.” P.S. Several other former Jackson area Double-A connections are with teams who made the postseason, including ex-Jackson Mets shortstop Ron Gardenhire, now Arizona’s bench coach, and ex-JaxMets infielder Dave Magadan, the D’backs’ hitting coach. Former JaxMets pitcher Neil Allen is the pitching coach for Minnesota, which was eliminated Tuesday by the New York Yankees. M-Braves alum Chasen Shreve, a Las Vegas native who threw out the ceremonial first pitch at Yankee Stadium, is a reliever for the Yanks. Dave Hudgens, a onetime Jackson Generals hitting coach, now fills that role for Houston. M-Braves products Alex Wood and Luis Avilan pitch for the Los Angeles Dodgers, and Jason Heyward and Tommy LaStella play for the Chicago Cubs. … Tuesday marked the end of an era in Tampa Bay with the unexpected departure – by mutual agreement? — of former Generals pitching coach Jim Hickey from the Rays’ staff. Hickey has been the Rays’ pitching coach for 11 years. He’ll have no trouble finding another job. Also on Tuesday, Seattle announced that ex-JaxMets shortstop Tim Bogar will not return as bench coach.
Chuckie Robinson, the former Southern Miss star, capped an ascendant season with a brilliant performance in the Midwest League Championship Series clincher. Robinson went 4-for-5 with a homer, three RBIs and four runs as Quad Cities, a Houston affiliate, beat Fort Wayne 12-2 on Saturday to claim the Class A league’s pennant. “Talk about your storybook ending,” Quad Cities manager Russ Steinhorn told the Quad-City Times. Robinson, a second-year pro, was the only player from the River Bandits’ opening day roster still with the team for the playoffs. Robinson, named the series MVP, also homered in Game 1 of the best-of-5, which the River Bandits swept. “Since the playoffs started, all season really, we’ve shown a resilience. We never quit,’’ Robinson told the QCT. Robinson, a catcher, batted .274 with 15 homers and 77 RBIs during the season. He earned MWL midseason and postseason All-Star honors. And he’ll probably get an invite to the Astros’ big league camp next spring.
When thinking back about a minor league team from a particular season, there is usually one player who jumps to the forefront in the memory bank. The Jackson Generals of 1997? Oh yeah, that was the Daryle Ward year. There were other players of note on the club – Carlos Guillen, Scott Elarton, Mitch Meluskey, Donovan Mitchell – but Ward was the man. He is famously remembered by old Smith-Wills Stadium cranks for hitting a foul ball through the wooden fence down the right-field line. Of course, he did a lot of damage with fair balls, as well, batting .329 with 19 homers, 25 doubles and 90 RBIs for Houston’s Double-A club. He also got a lot of attention for a bomb he launched in an exhibition game against the Astros. Listed at 6 feet 2, 240 pounds, the lefty-hitting outfielder/first baseman was all about power. Ward, son of a former big leaguer, made the majors with Houston in 1998 and mashed 90 homers over 11 MLB seasons, 20 with the Astros in 2000. Now a coach in the Cincinnati organization, he was still playing in independent ball as recently as 2015. All told, he hit 290 homers in pro ball. Twenty years after his star turn with the Generals, Daryle Ward is not forgotten.
The Houston Astros have the best record (29-12) in baseball, and many experts say they are the best team in the game right now. Several key pieces of this club have Mississippi connections, including reliever Tony Sipp, a Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College alum, and four former Mississippi Braves standouts. (An aside: Atlanta, five games under .500, has only five ex-M-Braves on its current roster.) Sipp, after a rocky start, has trimmed his ERA to 3.38 over 12 appearances. In a win against Miami on Tuesday, the left-hander threw 2 2/3 shutout innings to finish the game. Former M-Braves closer James Hoyt also works out of the Astros’ pen and has posted a 1.13 ERA in six games with 18 strikeouts in eight innings. (As M-Braves fans may recall, Hoyt throws serious gas.) Charlie Morton, whose star turn with the M-Braves came 10 years ago, is 5-2 with a 3.97 ERA as a Houston starter. That brings us to the catchers, the bearded boys Brian McCann and Evan Gattis. McCann, in the home stretch of a brilliant career, is still productive at 33: .276, six homers and 25 RBIs. Gattis is also batting .276 with three bombs and 18 RBIs. (Many Atlanta fans are wondering why the Braves ever parted with the brawny slugger.) And though it has been 18 years since the Astros’ Double-A club played in Jackson, there is a Generals connection in Houston. Dave Hudgens, in his third year as the club’s hitting coach, was the Gens’ hitting coach in 1993, when the team won a Texas League championship.