At an emotional press conference in Cleveland on Monday, new Delta State coach Rodney Batts made a resounding statement about his plans for the team: “It’s gonna be no different. I am a product of this program.” Batts played at DSU for Bill Marchant, who played for Boo Ferriss, the patriarch of the proud program. Batts coached at DSU under Mike Kinnison, who played for Ferriss. Batts is just the fourth coach at DSU in the last 57 years. “That kind of stability has really benefitted our program,” Kinnison said while introducing Batts, who spent the previous five years as head coach at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College. Kinnison, now the DSU athletic director, said he wanted if at all possible to stay within the DSU coaching tree in hiring his replacement. He said Batts is “the right choice at the right time” as he symbolically turned over the keys to program. “I’m here because of you,” Batts said with a nod to Kinnison. Batts spent 19 years at DSU as a player, grad assistant, volunteer assistant and full-time assistant. He said through tears Monday that the DSU campus was home, and he knew he had made the right decision to come back when scores of former Statesmen players began texting him after the news broke last week. DSU, one of the strongest NCAA Division II programs in the country, owns a national championship – Batts was an assistant under Kinnison during that 2004 season – and expects to contend for another every year. Said Batts: “I understand the challenge. I understand what it takes.”
The college season in Mississippi ended with such cruel irony. Mississippi State, which won so many big games in comeback fashion, was eliminated from the College World Series by a bottom-of-the-ninth rally by Louisville. Having allowed time for the hangover to pass, we can now look back on the 2019 season as one with more than its share of thrills. State, under first-year coach Chris Lemonis, won 52 games, went 37-5 at the “New Dude” (renovated Dudy Noble Field), made its 38th NCAA Tournament appearance, hosted a regional and a Super Regional and made its 11th CWS trip. The Bulldogs earn top-of-the-class honors in the state, but quite a few others belong on the honor roll. Ole Miss made its 23rd NCAA appearance and fell one win shy of the CWS, losing at Arkansas in the Super Regional to end the year at 41-27. Southern Miss went on a late-season roll, winning the Conference USA Tournament and earning its 16th NCAA bid. The Golden Eagles fell in the Baton Rouge Regional to LSU and finished 40-21. Jackson State went 31-24, notching a 13th straight winning season under Omar Johnson. Delta State won another Gulf South Conference title and reached the Super Regional round of the Division II Tournament, falling out at Tampa. The Statesmen went 42-14 in what turned out to be the legendary Mike Kinnison’s last year as coach. Mississippi College also put up a second straight winning season (28-17) under fourth-year coach Jeremy Haworth and just missed a second straight D-II regional invite. Blue Mountain went 26-25-1 in the NAIA ranks, and Mississippi University for Women went 18-13 as a non-scholarship independent and made the USCAA postseason tournament. That’s eight four-year schools with winning seasons. William Carey (24-26), Millsaps (10-33) and Belhaven (11-29) endured rare down years, while Alcorn State (14-31), Mississippi Valley State (8-27) and Tougaloo (5-29) continue to seek the right formula for their programs. Fall ball will be here in a blink.
Trent Giambrone has put on a nice little show of power at Triple-A Iowa, homering for the third straight game on Sunday and for the fourth time in his last seven contests with the Chicago Cubs affiliate. More impressive, however, than what the Delta State product has done is what ex-Harrison Central High star Bobby Bradley has managed. He went deep twice for Triple-A Columbus on Sunday after also homering twice on Friday. The highly rated Cleveland prospect leads the International League with 22 home runs. Bradley, a first baseman who is on the Indians’ 40-man roster, is batting .310 over his last 10 games and .287 with 52 RBIs for the year as he awaits his first big league call-up, which reportedly might happen in July. He has 136 homers in his six minor league campaigns. Giambrone, a fourth-year pro who is not on the Cubs’ 40-man, is batting .375 in his last seven games and .220 with 13 homers on the season. He has played seven different positions for the I-Cubs. He opened some eyes in the Cubs’ system when he batted .324 in major league camp this spring. Of course, no discussion of power hitting can be complete without mention of Hunter Renfroe, the Mississippi State alum who hit two homers for San Diego on Sunday after belting three – 1,316 feet worth — on Friday. He has nine in his last 15 games and 23 for the season, tied for second in the majors. P.S. Former Ole Miss and Pearl River Community College standout Braxton Lee leads the Eastern League with a .304 average in 51 games for Double-A Binghamton in the New York Mets’ chain. The onetime big leaguer is batting .346 over his last 10 games. … Drew Waters of the Mississippi Braves is batting an absurd .463 in his last 10 games and leads the Southern League in hitting at .338 heading into the SL All-Star break. He has a 25-game on-base streak. He also leads the loop in triples, doubles and OPS.
Awards season has begun for the colleges. To recap what’s happened so far: Mississippi State’s Ethan Small has been named the College Baseball Foundation’s national pitcher of the year. J.T. Ginn, the State star from Brandon, was named Perfect Game’s freshman of the year and a Collegiate Baseball Freshman All-American. Ole Miss’ Grae Kessinger was named the nation’s top shortstop, winning the Mizuno-sponsored Brooks Wallace Award. Southern Miss’ Matt Wallner and State’s Small were tabbed first-team All-Americans by Baseball America, which also honored Bulldogs Jake Mangum and Justin Foscue as second- and third-teamers, respectively. That MSU trio made Collegiate Baseball’s All-America list, as well. Delta State’s Jake Barlow and Hunter Riggins have earned NCAA D-II All-America honors, and Mississippi College’s Blaine Crim, the Gulf South Conference player of the year, was named a D-II Academic All-American. Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College’s Brandon Parker was an NJCAA Division II first-team All-America, Northwest CC’s Ben Van Cleve made the second team and Itawamba’s Houston Harding and Pearl River’s Wiley Cleland were on the third team. … Former Mississippi Braves are getting a lot of respect from voters in the early returns from the MLB All-Star Game ballots. Ozzie Albies led National League second basemen and Tommy La Stella, now with the Los Angeles Angels, led the AL at the same position. Brian McCann was second among NL catchers and Dansby Swanson second on the shortstop list. Freddie Freeman (first base) and Ronald Acuna (outfield) came in third at their respective positions. (Unfortunately, Austin Riley is not on the ballot.) East Central Community College product Tim Anderson, who has been at or near the top of the AL batting race all season, was fourth in the shortstop voting. … Former Mississippi State standouts Brandon Woodruff and Dakota Hudson likely will get consideration for the NL pitching staff, while Madison Central product Spencer Turnbull and Ole Miss alum Lance Lynn could be candidates in the AL. Pitchers are chosen by a vote of fellow players. … The current Mississippi Braves are slated to send seven players – five pitchers plus outfielders Drew Waters and Cristian Pache — to next week’s Southern League All-Star Game at MGM Park in Biloxi. Nine Shuckers – yes, nine — are on the South roster.
Let this flow over you: In 23 years as the Delta State head coach, Mike Kinnison won an NCAA Division II national championship, six regional titles, eight Gulf South Conference championships (including 2019), nine GSC coach of the year awards and 981 games with a .756 career winning percentage. A no-nonsense kind of guy with a keen eye for finding players who fit at DSU, Kinnison coached dozens of All-Americans and three national players of the year. The Benton native played for Boo Ferriss and coached under Bill Marchant, two other Statesmen coaching legends, and was elected to the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame in 2010. Kinnison announced today that he is relinquishing his coaching duties to focus full-time on the athletic director role he assumed earlier this year. The search is on for the next coach. How would you like to follow that act? First Hill Denson retires at Belhaven, now Kinnison steps aside at DSU. The college baseball scene in Mississippi will look very different in 2020.
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.
There is something sort of Yankees-esque about baseball at the University of Tampa, which hosts Delta State this weekend in the NCAA Division II South Super Regional. Two of Tampa’s most famous alumni, Lou Piniella and Tino Martinez, played for the New York Yankees, as did another Spartans alum of note, Sam Militello, now a UT coach. Coincidentally, the UT baseball field sits not far from George M. Steinbrenner Field, where the Yankees hold spring training and field a Class A club. And then there is the championship pedigree. The Yankees – the team of mystique and aura — own 27 World Series titles. The Spartans claim seven NCAA D-II titles, second-most all-time, including the 2015 and ’13 crowns. They should consider wearing pinstripes. The current Tampa team is 39-14, ranked third in the nation and has designs on another championship. Delta State, 42-12 and ranked fifth, has a case full of trophies back in Cleveland but owns only one national championship, from 2004. DSU has a trio of starters – Hunter Riggins, Seth Hougesen and Dalton Minton – that gives it a good shot at winning any best-of-3 series. The key hitter for Tampa might be Yorvis Torrealba – son of the ex-big leaguer Yorvit – who is batting .420 with 11 homers, mainly from the leadoff spot. Stevie Mangum is a .345 hitter and has eight homers. DSU’s offensive leader much of the season has been Jake Barlow (.327, 11 homers, 53 RBIs). The schools have played 10 times over the years, with the Statesmen winning six, mystique and aura be damned.
Things went a little nuts Thursday in Starkville, where the runaway train that is Mississippi State scored 24 runs, its most in an SEC game in 22 years, to blow away South Carolina. The Bulldogs (44-10, 19-9 SEC and 31-4 at Dudy Noble Field) had a seven-run inning and two five-run innings. Twelve different players scored, with Jake Mangum and Tanner Allen crossing the plate four times each. Eleven different players got a hit, with Allen going 5-for-5. Four Dogs homered. Oh, and Ethan Small breezed through five innings to improve to 8-1.
Delta State, behind the pitching – again — of Hunter Riggins, beat Embry-Riddle 5-1 in an NCAA Division II South Sub-Regional game at Ferriss Field in Cleveland. Riggins, who somehow did not make the final five in the Ferriss Trophy voting, threw a seven-hitter with six strikeouts to move to 11-3 and trim his ERA to 2.03. DSU is now 40-12, winning 40 for the 15th time under coach Mike Kinnison. The Statesmen get Valdosta State in a winner’s bracket game today.
In the big juco showdown at Cresap Field in Fulton, No. 2-ranked Itawamba Community College took down No. 1 LSU-Eunice 5-2 in the winner’s bracket of the NJCAA Division II Region 23 Tournament. LaBryant Siddell drove in two runs and scored two for ICC (41-6-1). Justin Medlin (7-1) went 6 1/3 innings for the win, striking out 11, and Kyle Crigger worked the final 2 2/3 for the save. ICC next plays Pearl River, which beat Gulf Coast 12-11 in 11 innings as Shemar Page homered twice.
At Trustmark Park in Pearl, West Jones (Class 5A) and North Pontotoc (3A) claimed MHSAA state championships, New Hope rallied late to win its 4A opener and emergent draft prospect Jared Johnson pitched Smithville to a 4-2 win over Stringer in 1A. Johnson, a sturdy 6-foot-3, 200-pound right-hander, wasn’t particularly sharp but yielded just two cheap singles over seven innings, notching eight strikeouts and five walks. He hit 94 mph on the stadium gun and was consistently around 92. The MSU (and former ICC) commit is 9-0 with an 0.68 ERA.
The stakes are higher now for Delta State and many others in the state. Fresh off another Gulf South Conference Tournament championship, DSU will host an NCAA Division II South Sub-Regional starting Thursday at Ferriss Field in Cleveland. The Statesmen (39-12), who won the GSC title for the 15th time last week, will play Embry-Riddle in their opener. Eckerd and Valdosta State meet in the other game. Tampa is hosting the other sub-regional with West Florida, Nova Southeastern and Spring Hill also in the field. Mississippi College, which went 2-and-out in the GSC tourney, did not get a regional bid. MC’s season ends at 28-17, and GSC player of the year Blaine Crim’s career ends, as well. He hit .379 with 11 homers in 2019. … Jackson State, 30-22 and a 2-seed in the SWAC Tournament, plays Texas Southern on Wednesday at New Orleans, while Alcorn State (14-29 and a 3-seed) meets Grambling. The tourney winner gets an NCAA bid, likely the only one the SWAC will receive. … The NJCAA Division II Region 23 Tournament begins Wednesday at Fulton, with host and MACJC champ Itawamba Community College playing Mississippi Gulf Coast, Jones meeting Pearl River and Northwest drawing No. 1-ranked LSU-Eunice. The region winner goes to the Juco World Series. Gulf Coast, powered by Brandon Parker and Cullan O’Shea, swept Meridian in their best-of-3 playoff, but the other three series went three games. Northwest beat Northeast, Jones topped Hinds (behind Coleton Ausburn’s Game 3 shutout) and Pearl River whipped East Central (thanks in part to another big homer by Dexter Jordan in the rubber game). … MUW, 16-11 in its second year of competition, opens play today in the non-scholarship USCAA Small College World Series at DuBois, Penn. … The MHSAA Tournament finals begin Wednesday at Trustmark Park in Pearl. DeSoto Central hosts Northwest Rankin today for a berth in the Class 6A finals against St. Martin, which is coached by former Ole Miss and Jackson Generals star Kary Bridges.
Delta State’s history book is filled with tales of great individual performances, and the Statesmen will make room for another after capturing the Gulf South Conference Tournament championship on Tuesday. Hunter Riggins, a sophomore from Hernando, threw a two-hit shutout against third-ranked West Florida and retired the last 17 batters in a 6-0 win that gave the Statesmen their 15th GSC title. Riggins, named the tourney’s Most Outstanding Player, tossed seven shutout innings against Valdosta State in the tournament opener at Oxford, Ala. Riggins is 10-3 with a 2.13 ERA in 14 starts. Used out of the bullpen as a freshman, Riggins posted a 3.09 ERA and six saves, then quickly emerged as a staff ace this season, winning his first six starts. David Herrington and Darek Sargent, who combined for 23 hits and 10 RBIs in the six tourney games, also made the all-tournament team. C.J. Estave, who drove in eight runs, certainly rated consideration. The Statesmen, 39-12 under Mike Kinnison, now move on to NCAA Division II regional play and begin the chase for a second national championship.