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.
Well, that could’ve gone better. Cody Reed, the former Horn Lake High and Northwest Mississippi Community College star, gave up 10 hits, four walks, an HBP and 10 runs in 3 2/3 innings for Cincinnati vs. San Francisco on Monday. The left-hander is vying for a spot in the Reds’ rotation and had pitched fairly well before Monday’s outing, which jacked his Cactus League ERA to 7.08. Reed had a tough rookie season with the Reds in 2016, going 0-7, 7.36 in 10 starts, but is considered one of the club’s better pitching prospects. He had strong minor league numbers (3.66 ERA) coming up first in the Kansas City system and then with the Reds after a 2015 trade. Reed was a second-round draft pick by the Royals in 2013 out of NWCC. … Ole Miss alum Stuart Turner homered for the Reds in Monday’s loss; he is hoping to make the roster as a backup catcher (see previous posts). Itawamba CC product Desmond Jennings, a non-roster invitee, went 0-for-2 to drop his spring average to .195. P.S. Ex-Gulf Coast CC star Tony Sipp, who has been bothered by a stiff back, threw 28 pitches to three batters for Houston on Monday, yielding a hit and a walk with one strikeout. The only lefty expected to make the Astros’ bullpen, Sipp has a 5.06 ERA this spring and is coming off a down year. Still, he told mlb.com, “I feel like I’m ready for the season.” … St. Louis optioned ex-UM standout Mike Mayers to Triple-A. The lefty, who got knocked around a bit in his MLB debut last season, posted a 1.64 ERA over 11 innings in the Grapefruit League. He’ll be back.
There likely will be a lot of eyes on Tony Sipp as he goes to work in West Palm Beach, Fla., over the next few weeks. The Pascagoula native and former Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College standout is coming off a rough year and is the only seasoned left-hander in Houston’s bullpen. Sipp’s ERA jumped to 4.95 over 60 appearances in 2016. He had a 1.99 in 2015, and his career ERA over eight MLB seasons is 3.65. Batters hit .297 against Sipp in 2016, and he yielded 12 homers in 43 2/3 innings. The beefed-up Astros, picked by some as the favorite in the American League West, surely want a reliable lefty in their pen. If Sipp, 33, doesn’t look sharp, they may have to go shopping. Astros pitchers and catchers formally reported to camp today and will work out at their new spring facility on Wednesday. P.S. Joey Butler, another Pascagoula native and MGCCC alumnus, signed a minor league contract last week with Washington. Butler, a right-handed hitting outfielder, spent all of 2016 in the minors with Cleveland’s Triple-A Columbus club. He batted .276 with eight homers in 88 games for Tampa Bay in 2015 and is a career .282 hitter with 104 homers over nine pro seasons, including a stint in Japan. … Ole Miss product Aaron Barrett may be close to re-signing with Washington as a minor league free agent. He missed the 2016 season recovering from Tommy John surgery. While rehabbing last season, Barrett suffered a fractured right elbow and had another surgery. He ultimately was waived by the Nationals and elected free agency in the off-season. As a rookie in 2014, Barrett had a 2.66 ERA in 50 games for the Nats. In 2015, his ERA jumped to 4.60 in 40 games before he was injured late in the season.
Anything that happens in the MLB playoffs that rekindles memories of the 1986 postseason has got to be pretty special. And it happened on Tuesday night. The Chicago Cubs’ comeback victory at San Francisco was the biggest in postseason-series clinching history, according to mlb.com. Down 5-2 in the ninth, the Cubs scored four times against the Giants’ tattered bullpen, surpassing what the New York Mets – a team loaded with former Jackson Mets – accomplished against Houston in the National League Championship Series 30 years ago. Davey Johnson’s Mets scored three runs in the top of the ninth to tie the Astros, then won the game and the series 7-6 in 16 innings. Ten former JaxMets played in that epic Game 6. Lenny Dykstra ignited the ninth inning rally with a leadoff triple, and Mookie Wilson knocked him in and later scored himself. Rick Aguilera and Roger McDowell combined for eight innings of scoreless relief, and Jesse Orosco, despite blowing a save in the 14th and yielding two runs in the 16th, nailed down the win by fanning Kevin Bass with two runners on. Ole Miss alum Jeff Calhoun came on in relief for the Astros in the 16th and yielded a hit, a walk and a run and threw two wild pitches during the three-run inning. That NLCS was a thrill ride from start to finish, and the World Series that followed was pretty interesting, too. P.S. Spotted in the Giants’ dugout on Tuesday: former Delta State standout Eli Whiteside, now a bullpen catcher for the club. Whiteside played for the Giants during their 2010 and 2012 championship runs and last played in the majors with the Cubs in 2014.
The game to watch tonight is Seattle-Houston, which could feature a matchup of Mississippians Seth Smith and Tony Sipp in the late innings at Minute Maid Park. The Mariners are 83-73, tied with Detroit and 2 games behind Baltimore, which holds the second American League wild card spot. The Astros are 82-75 after losing Game 1 of the three-game series (4-3 in 11 innings) on Monday night. Jackson native and ex-Ole Miss standout Smith has had a productive year for the M’s, batting .255 with 16 homers and 60 RBIs. The lefty-hitting outfielder is 1-for-5 against Houston starter Mike Fiers and is hitting only .212 against the Astros this year. But Smith, who typically struggles against left-handers, is 2-for-3 with two RBIs against Sipp, the lefty reliever from Pascagoula and Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College. Sipp has had a bad year: 5.36 ERA and 12 homers allowed in 40 1/3 innings. But Houston manager A.J. Hinch may be compelled to go to the veteran. Worth noting: Former Mississippi Braves catcher Jesus Sucre is 11-for-22 with a homer and five RBIs since Seattle called him up when rosters expanded.
Jackson’s Texas League franchise won five pennants during its 25-year tenure at Smith-Wills Stadium, but none of the five championship runs had more compelling storylines than the last one. It was 20 years ago this month that the Generals, managed by Dave Engle, plowed through Tulsa and Wichita, going 7-1 overall, to win that title. There was something rare, something controversial and something very heartwarming over those 10 days in September. With future big leaguers Richard Hidalgo and Melvin Mora out with injuries, other stars stepped up and unexpected heroes emerged. All in all, it was a wild ride that started at Smith-Wills and ended in Wichita’s Lawrence-Dumont Stadium. In the opener of the best-of-5 TL East Division series, the Gens got a four-hitter from future big leaguer John Halama and won the game 2-1 on the weirdest of walk-offs. With the bases loaded and one out in the ninth, Tulsa’s left fielder, Mike Murphy, inexplicably caught a deep fly ball, clearly in foul territory, off the bat of Nate Peterson, enabling Russ Johnson to tag and jog home with the winning run. In Game 2, Jackson got a leadoff home run from Buck McNabb – his first bomb in three years – and another homer from another unlikely source, former Ole Miss star Kary Bridges, to take a 6-1 win. (Footnote: Bridges had returned to Jackson from Triple-A just before the playoffs started as a roster replacement for Mora.) Edgar Ramos, who threw a no-hitter during the season, got the victory in Game 2. The series shifted to Tulsa, where the Generals lost Game 3 and also lost closer Manuel Barrios for one postseason game (plus two games in 1997) for intentionally hitting a batter. At least they thought it was a one-game postseason suspension. The Gens took the series with a 7-2 victory in Game 4 as Scott Elarton, Houston’s first-round pick from 1994 making his first Double-A appearance, shut down the Drillers. Then came the controversy. The team learned before the opener of the best-of-7 TLCS at Smith-Wills that Barrios would be suspended for the first two games against Wichita, contrary to league president Tom Kayser’s original ruling. (Footnote: The Gens were miffed, to say the least, that Kayser had arbitrarily changed his mind, issued a release on his new ruling and never called Generals officials with an explanation.) Behind the pitching of Halama and Tim Kester and a couple of key hits by Bridges, the Generals beat the Wranglers 4-1 to open the series. In Game 2, it was Ramos again with a sterling start, backed by the hitting of Peterson, who homered and drove in three runs. (Footnote: Peterson also was hit in the helmet by a pitch with Kayser in attendance; there was no ejection or suspension.) Game 3 took a weird turn, as a rusty Barrios blew a 3-0 lead in the ninth after Jamie Walker had worked a brilliant first eight. Donovan Mitchell, playing center field in the playoffs for the first time in his career, threw out a runner at the plate to preserve the tie. (Footnote: Mitchell had flown home to New York after Game 2 to see his newborn son, Donovan, Jr., then flew back in time for Game 3.) The resilient Gens won another walk-off on ninth-inning hits by McNabb, Bridges and Tim Forkner. The clincher came in Wichita, where Elarton, shaking off three unearned runs in the first inning, kept the Wranglers in check and the Gens scored five in the fourth inning en route to a 7-3 win. Al Probst homered, and Forkner, Peterson and Mitch Meluskey had RBI hits. While the team scored 26 runs in the finals, it was pitching that really stole the show. The Gens put up an 0.50 ERA in the series. (Footnote: The pitching coach in 1996 was Jim Hickey, who has held the same job with the Tampa Bay Rays for several years now.) The title was Jackson’s second in four years, but the club would not make the TL postseason again, coming up short in the last game of their last season (1999) at Smith-Wills.
You might not have known Andres Reiner, but if you watched the Jackson Generals back in the ’90s, you know his work. Reiner was a Houston Astros scout in Venezuela in those days and signed most of the Venezuelan players who starred for the Double-A Gens – and there were a bunch of them. Sadly, Reiner died on Wednesday at the age of 81. Baseball America has an obit (that includes a 2001 feature story) on its web site. Reiner was a native of Hungary who grew up in Venezuela and started funneling players to the Astros in 1989 after opening a baseball academy. Among the Generals stars he signed were Bobby Abreu, Richard Hidalgo, Freddy Garcia, Melvin Mora, Roberto Petagine and Raul Chavez, all future big leaguers. Reiner occasionally visited Smith-Wills Stadium during the Generals era, which ran from 1991-99 and included two Texas League pennants.