Five Mississippians made their big league debut in 2019: Chris Ellis, Nate Lowe, Austin Riley, Jacob Waguespack and Bobby Bradley. Who’ll be next to break through? Smart money would be on Demarcus Evans, the former Petal High standout who recently was added to Texas’ 40-man roster. A right-handed reliever – and strikeout machine — he hasn’t pitched above Double-A but will go to spring training with a chance to make the opening day roster. Minnesota has an opening at first base after non-tendering C.J. Cron, and ex-Mississippi State star Brent Rooker could well be among the candidates vying for the job come spring. Rooker has All-World credentials, having earned that designation with his performance in the World Baseball Softball Confederation Premier 12 tournament, during which he hit three homers in 20 at-bats, including a big game-winner (see previous post). The three-year pro batted .281 with 14 homers in 65 games in Triple-A in 2019. He isn’t currently on the Twins’ 40-man and didn’t play any first base last year but does have experience there. George County High product Justin Steele is still on the Chicago Cubs’ 40-man roster and is rated their No. 11 prospect (MLB Pipeline). But the left-hander is coming off an injury-dampened season that saw him go 0-6 with a 5.59 ERA in Double-A. About to enter his seventh pro campaign, he needs to break through soon. Delta State alum Trent Giambrone is not on the Cubs’ 40-man but had a solid Triple-A season (.241, 23 homers, 17 steals) and could be in the mix for a role as a utility player in 2020. He is No. 28 on the Cubs’ prospect chart. Former MSU star Jacob Robson, a lefty-hitting outfielder, batted .267 with nine homers and 25 steals in Triple-A for Detroit and figures to get a long look in the spring, as does Ole Miss product David Parkinson, a lefty starter who was 10-9, 4.08 for Philadelphia’s Double-A club. Robson is the Tigers’ No. 27 prospect, Parkinson the Phillies’ No. 18. Neither is on the major league roster. … Another debut to watch for is that of Ke’Bryan Hayes, son of Hattiesburg native and ex-Forrest County AHS and MLB star Charlie. The younger Hayes, who was born in Texas, is Pittsburgh’s No. 2 prospect and recently was added to the 40-man roster. A plus-defender at third base, Hayes batted .265 with 10 homers at Triple-A in 2019. He’ll probably be in the opening day lineup.
Looking to the 2020 season, there are big holes to fill at each of the state’s Big 3 Division I schools. All lost significant players (see Ethan Small, Matt Wallner, Grae Kessinger … to name a few) to the MLB draft from their NCAA Tournament teams of 2019. Fall ball, the first phase of the rebuild, is under way. The first fall ball exhibition game involving the Big 3 is slated for Saturday when Louisiana-Lafayette visits Mississippi State at Dudy Noble Field. The Bulldogs, who brought in the nation’s No. 7 recruiting class (per Perfect Game), started a slate of 12 intrasquad games on Sept. 13. The three-game Fall World Series is scheduled for Oct. 10-12. State will travel to UAB on Oct. 20 to conclude its fall season. … Ole Miss, with a recruiting class ranked No. 2 in the country, opens fall ball today. The Rebels’ first exhibition game is against Arkansas State on Oct. 12 and the second is vs. Memphis on Oct. 25. Both games are in Oxford. The annual Pizza Bowl that ends the fall session is on Nov. 15. … Southern Miss, which opened fall practice on Sept. 14, plays crosstown rival William Carey at Taylor Park on Oct. 13 and travels to Alabama on Oct. 27. … Division II Delta State, under new coach Rodney Batts, opened practice on Sept. 9; the three-game Green-White Series starts on Oct. 19.
Wyatt Short, the former Ole Miss standout from Southaven, has been promoted to Triple-A Iowa in the Chicago Cubs’ system and pitched 1 2/3 scoreless innings in his debut on Sunday. Short, a 5-foot-8 left-hander, posted a 1.63 ERA and nine saves at Double-A Tennessee, where he was a Southern League All-Star this summer. He has a career 2.37 ERA with 16 wins and 38 saves in 136 relief appearances. Short was a 13th-round pick by the Cubs in 2016 and is one of six Mississippi products now in that organization. Ex-Mississippi State star and veteran big league pitcher Kendall Graveman signed as a free agent in the off-season but is on the injured list recovering from Tommy John surgery in July 2018. George County High alum Justin Steele is also on the Cubs’ 40-man roster, but the injury-hampered top 20 prospect, a 2014 draft pick, is on the IL at Double-A Tennessee. With Short at Iowa is Delta State product Trent Giambrone, the Cubs’ No. 28 prospect (per MLB Pipeline); the versatile Giambrone, a 2016 draftee, is batting .242 with 23 home runs. Playing the infield at Class A Myrtle Beach are former Southern Miss star Luke Reynolds and Itawamba Community College product Delvin Zinn. Zinn, a 2016 draftee, is hitting .233 with 12 RBIs and eight steals in 35 games since he moved up from low-A ball in early July. Reynolds, C-USA player of the year in 2018 and a 10th-round pick that year, was demoted from Myrtle Beach to low-A South Bend when Zinn moved up. He returned to the Carolina League on Aug. 2 and is 10-for-33 with a homer and five RBIs since.
Home runs just flew off Zack Shannon’s bat during his time at Delta State. He hit 50 in 110 games over two seasons at the NCAA Division II school. He blasted an all-division state record 31 homers in 2018, when he batted .406 and won D-II player of the year honors. A 15th-round pick by Arizona last summer, Shannon readily took off in pro ball, belting 14 homers while batting .354 in 54 games at the rookie level. The 6-foot-3, 230-pound slugger began the 2019 season in the Class A Midwest League and promptly hit some turbulence. He is batting .238 with 10 homers in 69 games for Kane County, and it’s been a struggle even to reach those modest numbers. “It’s all a roller coaster, and it’s just a matter of learning how to ride it the right way,” Shannon recently told the Aurora (Ill.) Beacon-News. He got a late start this season because of a hamstring injury in spring training and hit .162 with one homer in 10 April games. He was hurt again in May and finished that month at .190 with three homers. As recently as July 8, he was batting .193. But consider: Shannon has two three-hit games among his last seven, and he hit his 10th homer on Monday. Maybe he’s finally settled in for the rest of this ride.
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.