There are, most baseball aficionados agree, eight different ways to reach first base. In the crazy top of the fifth inning on Thursday night, the Chicago Cubs produced five of them – in a row — and went on to a 9-8 victory over Washington that sent them to the National League Championship Series. With two outs in the fifth, down 4-3, the Cubs did this: three straight hits (infield hit, single, double), intentional walk, dropped third strike (albeit controversial), catcher’s interference and hit batsman. All that was missing in the four-run inning was an error, a fielder’s choice and fielder’s obstruction. For the record, former Mississippi Braves Jason Heyward (the intentional walk) and Tommy LaStella (the catcher’s interference) were involved in the madness. P.S. Austin Riley, the ex-DeSoto Central High star and Atlanta prospect, went 3-for-5 with a home run (off Madison Central alum Spencer Turnbull) and four RBIs to pace Peoria to a 10-6 win against Mesa on Thursday in the Arizona Fall League. Turnbull, a Detroit prospect, worked 2 1/3 innings, yielding eight hits, a walk and seven runs (four earned) to take the loss.
After making a strong finish in his 2017 season, Cody Carroll got off to a similar start in his Arizona Fall League debut on Tuesday. The ex-Southern Miss star worked two scoreless innings to notch the save in Scottsdale’s 7-4 win against Mesa. Drafted in 2015 by the New York Yankees, 6-foot-5 right-hander Carroll reached Double-A this summer and posted a 2.66 ERA with five saves in 39 games at Trenton. Carroll did not allow an earned run over his last eight appearances, registering four saves and a win. He has a 2.73 ERA in 79 career pro games with 205 strikeouts in 184 1/3 innings. … Elsewhere in the AFL, which opened on Tuesday, four 2017 Mississippi Braves pitchers combined for 16 strikeouts in eight innings in Peoria’s 4-3 victory over Glendale. Max Fried, who made it to Atlanta this summer, fanned seven in three innings. Touki Touissant, Josh Graham and Corbin Clouse joined Fried in the punchout parade. Among their victims was former Harrison Central star Bobby Bradley (a Cleveland prospect), who went 0-for-4 with three K’s for Glendale. DeSoto Central product Austin Riley, also a 2017 M-Brave, was 0-for-4 with three strikeouts for Peoria. Picayune native Braxton Lee (Miami), who played at Pearl River Community College and Ole Miss, was 1-for-4 with a run for Salt River, which beat Surprise 4-3.
It’s opening day in the Arizona Fall League, which is sort of a select circuit for minor league prospects. Peoria, which hosts Glendale today, is managed by 2017 Mississippi Braves skipper Luis Salazar and features several M-Braves players from this past season. Most notable among that group are Austin Riley, the former DeSoto Central High standout; Ronald Acuna, Atlanta’s No. 1 prospect; Max Fried, today’s scheduled starter; and Alex Jackson. Ex-Harrison Central star Bobby Bradley (Cleveland) is on the Glendale roster. Southern Miss alum Cody Carroll (New York Yankees) pitches for Scottsdale, which is hosting Mesa. On Mesa’s roster are Madison Central product Spencer Turnbull and ex-Mississippi State standout Zac Houston, both Detroit farmhands. Former Ole Miss star Braxton Lee (Miami) plays for Salt River, which visits Surprise. Delta State product Dalton Moats (Tampa Bay) is on the Saguaros’ pitching staff. The AFL season runs through Nov. 16. P.S. Boston was knocked out of the American League playoffs by Houston on Monday, but ex-State standout Mitch Moreland went down swinging. Moreland, in perhaps his last appearance in a Red Sox uniform, was 5-for-13 (.385) with two doubles in the four games, raising his career postseason average to .236 (26-for-110).
Ronald Acuna didn’t waste much time producing a wow moment for the Mississippi Braves. First at-bat. First pitch. Boom. Home run. Acuna was named Baseball America’s minor league player of the year today, capping a season that saw the 19-year-old Venezuela native dominate at three levels of pro ball. He started at high-A Florida and finished at Triple-A Gwinnett, batting .325 with 21 homers and 82 RBIs combined. In his Double-A debut on May 9, he went 3-for-4 with that jaw-dropping homer and three RBIs. He played only 56 more games for the M-Braves, moving up after batting .326 with nine homers, 30 RBIs and 19 steals. He goes 6 feet, 180 pounds and can play center or right field. Atlanta will have to make room for him in its outfield in 2018. … This is the fourth time a Jackson area Double-A player (JADAP) has earned BA’s minor league POY award. Gregg Jefferies won it twice, in 1986 and ’87, after spending part of both of those seasons with the Jackson Mets. Former M-Braves star Jason Heyward, who blew through Pearl much like Acuna did, took the honor in 2009.
On the last day of their season, the Mississippi Braves did the things a winning club must do. They battled back after falling behind. They scored early and added on. They played flawless defense. They got a quality start. The 8-3 win against Birmingham on Monday at Trustmark Park was an uplifting way to finish a season that was, record-wise, not much to celebrate. The M-Braves’ overall record was 58-80. They were third in their division in the first half, 6 games out, and dead last in the second. But this season will be remembered much more for the talent that came through. In fact, it was a veritable prospect parade. Kolby Allard, Mike Soroka, Max Fried, Luiz Gohara and Touki Touissant are highly touted starting pitchers. Fried already has earned a big league win. Allard made the Southern League postseason All-Star team, and Soroka actually had a better season, leading the club with 11 wins. Touissant was the M-Braves’ winner on Monday, recovering from a shaky first inning to go seven, striking out eight with one walk. The marquee position player to come through, of course, was outfielder Ronald Acuna, who is one of the top prospects in all of baseball. He hit .326 with nine homers in 57 games for the M-Braves and continued to rake in Triple-A. Austin Riley, the former DeSoto Central star, came up from A-ball when Acuna left for Gwinnett and hit .315 with eight homers in 48 games. The 20-year-old third baseman had two hits and three RBIs on Monday and batted .382 over his last 10 games. Catching prospect Alex Jackson came up late in the season and hit .255 with five homers in 30 games. Infielder Travis Demeritte, also on Atlanta’s prospect charts, struggled at times (.231, 134 strikeouts) but finished strong and ended up with 15 homers. Under-the-radar types Jared James (.279, five homers, six triples) and Joey Meneses (.292, nine homers, 45 RBIs) also surged over the last couple weeks. James, an outfielder drafted in 2016 out of Cal Poly Pomona, went 3-for-5 with two runs on Monday. The M-Braves’ 13th season in Pearl may not have produced a pennant, but it did produce a feel-good glimpse of the future for Atlanta Braves fans.
The must-see prospects on the Birmingham Barons’ roster include outfielder Eloy Jimenez, catcher Zack Collins and pitchers Alec Hansen and Spencer Adams. As the Barons visit the Mississippi Braves for a regular season-ending series, a fair number of fans in the seats will have an eye on Birmingham’s No. 20, Mason Robbins, the right fielder. A former Mr. Baseball at George County High and All-C-USA pick at Southern Miss just a few short years ago, Robbins comes to Trustmark Park swinging a hot bat. Though he is not among the Chicago White Sox’s top-rated prospects, Robbins, 24, is a .286 hitter over four pro seasons, including a .314 mark in A-ball in 2016. In his Double-A debut this year, Robbins has been up-and-down, but he is batting .300 over his last 40 at-bats and is currently at .270 with three homers, 36 RBIs and 47 runs in 120 games. The main knock on the 6-foot, 220-pound lefty hitter continues to be his lack of power as a corner outfielder: 18 homers in pro ball. But if keeps making contact (only 46 strikeouts all year), the power may yet come. Not that Robbins seems to be stressing over it. “Any time you get to wake up every morning and play baseball, it’s a fun opportunity,” he recently told Biloxi’s WLOX. P.S. Jacob Lindgren has begun throwing live batting practice, the Biloxi Sun-Herald reports. The Biloxi native and former Mississippi State standout, now in the Atlanta system, had Tommy John surgery last August. Drafted in the second round by the New York Yankees in 2014, lefty Lindgren blew through their system to reach the big leagues in 2015. He missed most of 2016 with the arm injury. The Yankees did not offer him a contract after last season, and he signed with the Braves. He has a career minor league ERA of 1.83 with 85 strikeouts in 54 innings.
OK, so Dansby Swanson is hitting again. The Atlanta shortstop went 2-for-3 on Saturday and, as The Associated Press dutifully reports, is batting .400 over his last 40 at-bats. But is this just an anomaly? Remember, the ex-Mississippi Braves star hit .302 in 129 MLB at-bats at the end of 2016. He was handed the starting shortstop job to start this season and struggled mightily, so much so that he was sent to the minors in late July. He was only recalled because Johan Camargo, who was playing very well, got hurt. For the year, Swanson is batting .227 with six homers and 42 RBIs. We have seen 13 M-Braves shortstops pass through Trustmark Park these last 13 years on their way to the big leagues, from Luis Hernandez (2005) to Ozzie Albies (2016). The best of the bunch, without question, is Andrelton Simmons, who was traded to the Los Angeles Angels in the fall of 2015. Think the Braves’ brass has any seller’s remorse at this point? They should. Simmons is, of course, a Gold Glove-caliber defensive player who has become an offensive force. He blasted a game-winning homer for the Angels on Saturday, his 14th of the year. He is batting .289 (.342 on-base percentage) with 31 doubles, 60 RBIs and 66 runs for a playoff contender. The players Atlanta got from the Angels in the Simmons trade? Erick Aybar, a veteran shortstop, and prospect pitchers Sean Newcomb and Chris Ellis. Swanson hadn’t been acquired from Arizona when the Braves made that deal; Albies, who has since moved to second base, was seen as the shortstop of the future. Aybar was a total flop in his short time in Atlanta, and Ole Miss alum Ellis was shipped out in another trade. Newcomb, the prize of the deal, is 2-7 with a 4.36 ERA for the Braves this season. Swanson, a former No. 1 overall pick, may yet prove to be a solid big league shortstop. But it doesn’t appear that he’ll ever surpass Simmons.