The way Mississippi State is playing, it’s unlikely the Bulldogs are going to be intimidated by anyone. But if any team in the country has a fear factor on its side, it’s Vanderbilt, State’s opponent tonight in the College World Series. Vandy, the SEC regular season and tournament champion, is the No. 2 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, is ranked No. 1 in one national poll, has won 15 of its last 16 games, has set a school record with 55 victories and, most significantly for tonight, is sending to the mound a touted freshman right-hander who appears to be peaking. Kumar Rocker is an imposing 6 feet 4, 255 pounds and can touch 98 mph with his fastball. He has won his last three starts, beating LSU in the SEC Tournament, Indiana State in the Nashville Regional and Duke in a must-win Super Regional game. That was the 19-strikeout no-hitter you might’ve heard about. Rocker, son of former Auburn and NFL star Tracy Rocker, was one of the top recruits – and pro prospects — in the country last year. He was not an immediate success at Vandy. He got shelled in his college debut and lost his first SEC start. He has had other rough spots, as his 10-5 record and 3.50 ERA would suggest. But the Super Regional no-no generated national fame and certainly raised expectations. As Vandy coach Tim Corbin told the Nashville Tennessean: “I know when you pitch like that one time there’s a certain level of anticipation. But he’ll handle it well.” The Bulldogs are one of the best hitting teams in the country, making for a most intriguing matchup. P.S. Here’s an obscure Mississippi connection in Omaha (as noted by Doug Shanks): Michigan coach Erik Bakich played for the Greenville Bluesmen in the old Texas-Louisiana League. A third baseman, Bakich played nine games for the independent club in 2001 during his brief pro career. His Wolverines are 2-0 in the bracket opposite State’s.
The quest for an elusive national championship begins this weekend for Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Southern Miss, with both State and UM hosting NCAA regionals. The Magnolia State claims three national titles in baseball, but none in NCAA Division I. Fifty years ago, William Carey University won the NAIA World Series. Fifteen years ago, Delta State took the NCAA D-II crown. And in 2016, Jones County Junior College came home with the NJCAA D-II title. (Pearl River CC’s run ended on Tuesday.) The D-I schools have come close to winning it all in recent years. MSU lost in the best-of-3 final to UCLA in 2013; that’s the Bulldogs’ best showing in 10 CWS appearances. Ole Miss reached the semifinal round in 2014 in its first CWS trip since 1972. (USM made its first and only CWS appearance 10 years ago but didn’t stick around Omaha long). As a No. 6 national seed, the Bulldogs have the clearest path – if it can ever be called that — to Omaha this year. The Rebels, the No. 12 overall seed, likely would have to go on the road (to Arkansas) for their Super Regional. The Golden Eagles go to Baton Rouge as a regional 3-seed but are riding the wave of another C-USA Tournament championship. Baseball is a major source of pride for the state. It has become commonplace for the Big 3 to show up in preseason national polls, contend for conference titles and even get regional host bids. Just imagine what a national championship would do for the state’s growing reputation as a baseball hotbed.
Gotta love this comment from Mississippi State ace Konnor Pilkington: “We’re just a bunch of rednecks playing ball and having fun.” A season that started out as anything but fun for Mississippi State has become a joyride in the postseason, featuring walk-off dramatics and the now ubiquitous Rally Banana. The Bulldogs are one win away from making the College World Series’ best-of-3 finals. Winning is fun, and State, once saddled with a 19-19 record and dire expectations of an NCAA Tournament bid, has gone 20-8 since mid-April. Scoring begets winning, and State, which once had trouble with the bats, has been piling up runs during its 8-2 postseason run, averaging almost eight per game with five-double digit efforts. A 12-2 win against North Carolina on Tuesday was fueled by the Banana Man himself, Jordan Westbury, who drove in seven runs. But forget banana power for a minute: Perhaps this is just a team living up to its potential. Despite the loss of 2017 star Brent Rooker, the Bulldogs were ranked in some preseason polls. They had seven players drafted by MLB clubs this month, including Pilkington (in the third round) and top hitter Jake Mangum (also drafted in 2017). So the rednecks do have talent; they didn’t just fall off the banana truck, so to speak. Now can they keep up the fun just a little longer? Oregon State, which already has a CWS loss, awaits on Friday. The Beavers may not be fueled by any fruit — and odds are there aren’t many rednecks on their roster — but they can play ball. Collegiate Baseball ranks them No. 1 in the nation. They are 51-11-1, including an 11-6 stunner of a win against North Carolina on Wednesday. And they have infielder Nick Madrigal, the fourth overall pick in the draft. P.S. A little research indicates the rally banana has been used before. Back in May 2015, the Los Angeles Dodgers were in the throes of a scoring slump, without a run in 35 straight innings. Sitting in their dugout, Kike Hernandez picked up a banana and proclaimed it the “rally banana.” The Dodgers promptly scored and won the game. They won again the next day. Alas, the banana power ran out in game three, and the Dodgers were pounded by San Diego, a grim reminder that bananas do have a relatively short shelf life.
Jonathan Holder made the New York Yankees’ staff out of spring training but didn’t figure to hold a prominent role in a deep and talented bullpen. That has changed. The Mississippi State alum from Gulfport is pitching in high-leverage situations now. Case in point: Monday’s second game against Washington. Holder came on in the sixth inning with runners at first and third, no outs and the Yankees gripping a one-run lead. The right-hander got two strikeouts and a pop up to escape the jam, and New York went on to win 4-2. “After he did that you could feel a jolt across the bench,” Yankees starting pitcher Sonny Gray told mlb.com. Holder has gone 22 innings without allowing an earned run. In 23 appearances, he has a 2.19 ERA. Holder, who debuted in the majors in 2016, actually started slowly this season and was sent back to Triple-A. His response? “Go down and work on stuff,” he told nj.com. He reportedly refined his slider a bit and regained some velocity on his fastball. Since his recall on April 21, he has been lights out. For State fans, whose focus has been elsewhere (Tallahassee, Nashville, Omaha) in recent weeks, Holder’s performance should ring familiar. He was the closer on the 2013 Bulldogs team that made it all the way to the College World Series finals. That squad included six players who already have played in the majors and a couple more who might yet get there. Holder, a sophomore in 2013, went 2-0 with 21 saves and a 1.65 ERA for a 51-20 team. The Yankees drafted him in the sixth round in 2014, and he moved swiftly through their system.
It’s a Dog Day in Omaha, where Mississippi State plays Washington in a College World Series opener. Meanwhile, some former Dogs enjoyed a day of their own on Friday in the big leagues. Atlanta Braves TV broadcasters, Jeff Francoeur in particular, were effusively impressed with the arm of Hunter Renfroe, the ex-State star who made a couple of cannon-shot throws from deep right field to third base for San Diego. More impressive was the two-strike, two-out, two-run single Renfroe stroked in the seventh inning, putting the Padres up a run in a game they would go on to win 9-3. Renfroe has been in the throes of a skid and was batting just .229 at the time. He got another hit in the ninth and finished with a .245 average. At Yankee Stadium, Bulldogs alum Jonathan Holder pitched a scoreless sixth inning for his third hold of the year as New York beat Tampa Bay 5-0. Holder trimmed his ERA to 2.28. At Seattle’s Safeco Field, former State standout Mitch Moreland drove in a run and scored in Boston’s six-run third inning against Mariners ace James Paxton, but the Red Sox squandered a lead and lost 7-6. P.S. Southern Miss product Brian Dozier hit his 10th homer — off Cleveland’s Corey Kluber — to help Minnesota beat the Indians 6-3. It was Dozier’s 161st career bomb, moving him into sixth place alone on the all-time list of Mississippi natives. … Ole Miss alum Zack Cozart (shoulder) was placed on the 10-day disabled list by the Los Angeles Angels.
Ole Miss players will be plentiful in the venerable Cape Cod League, which starts its 133rd season today. Greer Holston, Cooper Johnson and Grae Kessinger are on the roster of the Bourne Braves. Thomas Dillard is with Cotuit, Will Ethridge with Falmouth and Jordan Fowler and Houston Roth with Hyannis. Mississippi State’s Jordan Anderson is listed on the Falmouth roster, though Bulldogs players will be a little delayed in reaching their summer assignments. They have more pressing business, of course: the College World Series. … Southern Miss has four players, including outfielder Fred Franklin, with the Acadiana team in the Texas Collegiate League. … Ole Miss’ Parker Caracci and USM’s Matt Wallner are on the roster for Team USA’s college national squad. Caracci, drafted this month as an eligible sophomore by Toronto, had 10 saves and a 2.31 ERA for the Rebels in 2018. Wallner, a rising junior who batted .351 with 16 homers last season, has been projected to go ninth overall in the 2019 draft by an mlb.com writer. … The New Albany-based Cotton States League is up and running in its 10th season. The HillCountry Generals, featuring a bevy of Blue Mountain College players, are off to a 4-1 start. Ty Wooten, an Arkansas-Little Rock player, is hitting .467 for the Generals. In addition to BMC alums, players from Belhaven, Ole Miss, Mississippi Valley State, MUW and several state jucos are in the league. … Hinds Community College coach Sam Temple will be on the staff of the NJCAA National Team in the National Baseball Congress World Series in Wichita in late July. The all-star squad has yet to be announced. … Mississippi Gulf Coast CC’s Brandon Parker and Meridian CC’s Trace Jordan were named to the NJCAA Division II All-America first team and Pearl River’s Simon Landry to the second team. P.S. If anyone is wondering, former State star Rafael Palmeiro is batting .212 in 10 games for Cleburne in the independent American Association. The 53-year-old ex-big leaguer hasn’t homered since his one bomb on May 21 (see previous post).
Though he is not the main attraction on a star-studded LSU team, Kade Scivicque, a two-time All-Stater at Southwest Mississippi Community College, has been much more than an extra on the big stage in Omaha. LSU’s senior catcher, the team’s leading hitter at .352, is 4-for-8 with two RBIs and a couple of runs in the Tigers’ two games in the College World Series. He drove in a run and scored two in Tuesday’s do-or-die, 5-3 win against Cal State Fullerton. LSU faces TCU in another elimination game tonight. Scivicque, who has six homers and 47 RBIs and is also regarded as a strong defensive catcher, was first-team All-SEC this year, along with fellow Tigers Alex Bregman, Conner Hale, Andrew Stevenson and Alex Lange. Scivicque was a second-team All-America choice by Baseball America and was drafted in the fourth round by the Detroit Tigers. He played for Southwest’s Bears in 2012 and ’13, batting over .300 with nine career homers. … Also on the LSU roster is Hunter Devall, a Centreville Academy product who has a 4.20 ERA in 17 appearances. He allowed three runs in 2/3 of an inning in a 10-3 loss to TCU on Sunday. P.S. Former Harrison Central High star Bobby Bradley, the reigning Midwest League player of the week, is batting .264 with 11 home runs and 35 RBIs in just 40 games at Class A Lake County in the Cleveland system. The lefty-hitting first baseman, only 19, is coming off a 9-for-22, four-homer week and is on pace for 30 bombs. … Mississippi State alum Adam Frazier, who, like Bradley, missed some time with an injury, is hitting .352 with 10 RBIs and 17 runs in 28 games at Double-A Altoona in the Pittsburgh organization. Frazier, a lefty-hitting shortstop, has a .412 average over his last 10 games.
A quick check of Atlanta’s top 30 prospects on mlb.com reveals two catchers. Jose Briceno, No. 20, is hitting .156 at Class A Carolina. Tanner Murphy, No. 26, is batting .178 at low Class A Rome. Chris O’Dowd, a fringe prospect acquired in the off-season from Colorado, was hitting .304 for the Double-A Mississippi Braves when he was slapped last week with an 80-game drug suspension. Why is any of this relevant? Well, the Atlanta Braves sent “catcher of the future” Christian Bethancourt down to Triple-A Gwinnett. Relegated to backing up 38-year-old A.J. Pierzynski, Bethancourt, 23, was batting .208 with one home run and had five passed balls and three errors in his 27 games. Bethancourt, who has a rifle arm, seemed to have a breakthrough with the M-Braves in 2013, when he hit .277 with 12 homers and made the Southern League postseason All-Star team. He was a consensus top five prospect in the system after a solid season at Gwinnett in 2014. Atlanta essentially handed him the starting job this spring — and he fumbled it away in short order. Can he ever recover it? Is Atlanta shopping for a catcher? The Braves drafted five last week, two from four-year colleges and a second-rounder from a California high school. Maybe there’s a “catcher of the future” in that bunch. P.S. LSU lost its College World Series opener to TCU 10-3 on Sunday, but former Southwest Mississippi Community College star Kade Scivicque held up his end with a 2-for-4, one-RBI day. Scivicque, the Tigers’ catcher and cleanup batter, is hitting .350 with six homers and 46 RBIs on the season. LSU plays an elimination game on Tuesday. … Arkansas, facing elimination in the CWS tonight against Miami, has two Mississippi juco products on its roster, pitcher Jackson Lowery of Meridian CC and outfielder Krisjon Wilkerson of Pearl River CC. Neither appeared in Saturday’s 5-3 loss to Virginia.
So, Ole Miss has to win three straight games to reach the College World Series championship round. Sounds like a piece of cake. After all, this club has posted eight streaks of three or more wins this season en route to its 47 victories. The Rebels won two straight do-or-die games against Louisiana-Lafayette in their Super Regional to get to the CWS. But the three straight wins the Rebels need now will have to come against TCU and Virginia, who happen to be the only two national seeds who made it to Omaha. UVA already has beaten Ole Miss, holding the Rebels to one hit in a 2-1 game on Sunday. The Rebels didn’t hit much more against Texas Tech in their second game, managing five in the 2-1 win. (One of the runs was unearned.) But they say all it takes is one big hit to get an offense going, and maybe the Rebels got that Tuesday from John Gatlin, who delivered the walk-off pinch single in the bottom of the ninth. Of course, up next, on Thursday, is TCU, which entered the CWS with a 2.19 ERA, best in the nation. Then UM must beat UVA, also rich in pitching, twice. So, sure, three in a row is doable for the Rebels, but it ain’t gonna be easy.
If you believe that starting pitching is the primary key to winning in baseball — and many people do — then you’ve got to feel pretty good about Ole Miss’ chances in the College World Series. The Rebels have two excellent arms at the top of their rotation: Chris Ellis, who starts tonight against Virginia, and Christian Trent. Both were drafted — among the nine Rebels picked by MLB clubs — and their stats give indication as to why. Ellis is 10-2 with a 2.45 ERA, Trent 9-0, 2.21. Both won numerous big games in SEC play and beyond. The Rebels’ No. 3, should they need one in this double-elimination affair, is Sam Smith (5-4, 3.45), who was KO’d early in the Super Regional title game at Louisiana-Lafayette. (The bullpen came to the rescue.) A problem for Ole Miss is that two of the other three teams in its CWS bracket have better starting pitching, at least on paper. UVA, which spent part of the season ranked No. 1 in the nation, will throw All-American Nathan Kirby, a sophomore left-hander, at the Rebels in tonight’s game. He is 9-2 with a 1.73 — including an 18-strikeout no-hitter in April — though he did get roughed up a bit in his Super Regional start against Maryland. He fronts what might be the deepest rotation in Omaha. Then there’s TCU, which leads the country with a 2.19 staff ERA. The Horned Frogs’ top two starters are top-shelf arms: Brandon Finnegan and Preston Morrison. Morrison is slated to start today against Texas Tech, which means Ole Miss would face left-hander Finnegan (9-3, 2.12, 17th overall draft pick) should they meet in Round 2. Texas Tech isn’t known for its pitching, but the Red Raiders did post four shutouts in NCAA play en route to Omaha. They’ll start lefty Chris Sadberry against TCU, with Dylan Dusek, another solid lefty (8-0, 1.94), waiting in the wings.