After two years as a closer extraordinaire for Southern Miss, Nick Sandlin moved to the rotation in 2018 to fill a team need. Shifted back to the bullpen in pro ball, he is showing that he hasn’t forgotten how to do the closer thing. The right-hander with the unconventional form registered his third save in his last three appearances on Thursday for Cleveland’s high Class A Lynchburg club. In six games all told in the Carolina League, Sandlin has a 1.69 ERA with eight strikeouts, two walks and two hits allowed in 5 1/3 innings. Picked in the second round – higher than most projections – by the Indians in June, Sandlin started his summer in rookie ball, moved quickly to the low-A level and then to Lynchburg on Aug. 1. He has a 1.45 ERA, 27 K’s and two walks overall in 18 2/3 innings. He is ranked 18th on Cleveland’s prospect chart by MLB Pipeline. Sandlin threw 102 innings for the Golden Eagles this season – going 10-0, 1.06 and winning a slew of awards, including the Ferriss Trophy – so it’s understandable why the Indians want to limit his innings. But they have to be thrilled with what they’ve seen.
Time to box up the 2018 college season. Put away the bats and balls for a few weeks and make a few acknowledgements:
If there were an award for Team of the Year, it would have to go to Mississippi State, which didn’t win as many games as Ole Miss or Southern Miss (or Delta State, for that matter) but made a captivating postseason run for the ages that ended one win short of the College World Series finals. The banana-powered Bulldogs finished 39-29 and should be nationally ranked across the board when the final polls come out. Gary Henderson did a great job as an interim coach, taking over in an adverse situation, and not retaining him seems a curious and possibly regrettable move in Starkville.
There are many other kudos to hand out. Ole Miss went 48-17, won the SEC Tournament and hosted an NCAA regional. USM (44-18) swept both C-USA titles and also went to a regional. Jackson State finished 34-18. Delta State went 42-11 and made an NCAA Division II regional, as did Mississippi College, which ended the year 36-17, one of its best seasons ever. William Carey went 36-25 and hosted an NAIA regional. Blue Mountain finished 29-23, Division III Millsaps went 25-19 and MUW, in its inaugural season, came home at 21-15 after participating in the USCAA Small College World Series. Alcorn State (13-39), Mississippi Valley State (11-35), Belhaven (12-27) and Tougaloo (19-23) were the only four-year schools to post losing records.
Among the jucos, MACJC champion Pearl River (No. 4), Meridian (14), Jones County (15) and Mississippi Gulf Coast (18) were ranked in the final NJCAA Division II poll.
Game of the year? If you limited it to games between state schools, it’d be hard to top the State-UM game at Pearl’s Trustmark Park on April 24, which the Bulldogs won on Luke Alexander’s two-run double in the bottom of the ninth before a crowd of 8,500-plus. Runner-up: MC beating Delta State 7-4 in an elimination game in the D-II South Regional at Lakeland, Fla. The Choctaws’ Billy Cameron drove in the go-ahead run with a two-run single in the seventh. Worth mentioning: Jackson State-Alcorn in Lorman on March 25. The Tigers rallied from 8-4 down in the sixth inning to win 13-8 and ended the game with a triple play.
No position player in the state had a better year than DSU’s Zack Shannon. He hit .406 with a record 31 homers and 93 RBIs and has picked up all kinds of national honors. USM’s Nick Sandlin, who also garnered national awards and beat out Shannon (and others) for the state’s Ferriss Trophy, was certainly the state’s pitcher of the year, going 10-0, 1.06 ERA in 15 starts. Gulf Coast CC’s Brandon Parker won a juco national player of the year award and both Shannon and Sandlin were semifinalists for the biggest of individual prizes, the Golden Spikes Award, a testament to the quality of ball played in the Magnolia State.
Three state schools (DSU, Carey and Hinds CC) made it to the World Series level in 2017. Only one did so this season, but it was hardly a down year.
You kinda figured it was just a matter of time, and the time has come. Brent Rooker, the former Mississippi State standout now in his first season in Double-A, is hitting. A ton. Rooker went 4-for-5 for Chattanooga on Thursday night and is 14-for-29 since the calendar flipped to June. The right-handed hitting first baseman has raised his average 31 points to .271 since the end of May. “That adjustment period might have been a little longer than I liked, ideally,” he told milb.com. “But I knew it was going to happen if I trusted myself, and the results would show up.” The SEC Triple Crown (and Ferriss Trophy) winner last year has eight homers and 36 RBIs in 56 games and is slugging .475 for the Lookouts. He was picked in the competitive balance segment of the first round – 35th overall – by Minnesota last June and batted .281 with 18 homers at two levels in his debut campaign. MLB Pipeline rates Rooker eighth among Twins prospects. … The Lookouts played a Southern League series in Biloxi in mid-May but won’t be in Pearl to face the Mississippi Braves until mid-August. Rooker could be gone by then.
He left the campus of Mississippi State last spring as the SEC Triple Crown winner, hit .282 with seven homers in a brief fling in rookie ball, then advanced to the high Class A level and cruised with a .280 average and 11 homers in 40 games there. Not surprisingly, the sledding has gotten a little tougher for Brent Rooker in his second pro season. The 23-year-old first baseman/left fielder, a supplemental first-round pick by Minnesota last June, is batting .235 at Double-A Chattanooga. He has three homers, 18 RBIs, 41 strikeouts and six walks in 136 at-bats. Baseball America ranked Rooker as the Twins’ No. 7 prospect entering this season, and MLB Pipeline has him at No. 8. He’s projected to make the majors in 2020. The Double-A level has humbled many hitters, even some as skilled as Rooker. In time, he’ll adjust. He went 3-for-4 with four RBIs in a Southern League game against Tennessee on Tuesday, extending his hitting streak to seven games. … Rooker, the 2017 Ferriss Trophy winner, is one of five former honorees currently playing pro ball. The others are Drew Pomeranz, Chris Stratton, Hunter Renfroe and Auston Bousfield. The 2018 winner will be announced on Monday.
The 2018 Ferriss Trophy winner will be announced a week from today at the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum in Jackson. Boy, this is going to be interesting. Bill Blackwell, the executive director of the Hall of Fame, says it might be “the toughest choice in the history of the event,” which dates to 2004. The five finalists for best college player in the state are Jake Mangum, Ryan Olenek, Luke Reynolds, Nick Sandlin and Zack Shannon. Consider for a moment some of the players who didn’t make the final five. Ole Miss closer Parker Caracci (1.95 ERA, nine saves for a top 10 team). Mississippi College’s Blaine Crim (.405, 12 homers, 63 RBIs, GSC Tournament MVP). Jackson State’s Raul Hernandez (.384, SWAC Newcomer of the Year). William Carey’s Christian Smith (.330, 52 stolen bases, All-SSAC first team and Gold Glove). Then there’s the finalists. Shannon, of GSC regular season champ Delta State, has had a monstrous season: .425, a nation-leading 29 homers, 86 RBIs. Southern Miss ace Sandlin has been amazing: 7-0, 1.15 ERA, 12.7 strikeouts per nine innings for the likely C-USA champion. His Golden Eagles teammate Luke Reynolds leads the league in hitting at .384 and has 13 homers. Olenek of Ole Miss leads the star-studded SEC in batting at .396. Mississippi State’s Mangum is batting .342; he won the award in 2016 and certainly has not regressed. Plus, he’s considered a solid pro prospect, and scouts do the voting (with minimal fan input). So, Mississippi baseball aficionados, who ya got?
Once Brent Rooker formally signs with the Minnesota Twins and joins a team in their system, he’ll become the fifth Ferriss Trophy winner active in pro ball. Three are in or have been in the big leagues. Drew Pomeranz (Boston), the 2010 winner, and 2013 winner Hunter Renfroe (San Diego) are currently in The Show, and 2012 winner Chris Stratton (San Francisco) has been up but is back in Triple-A. Ed Easley (2007), now retired, is the only other winner to make the big leagues. The award has been given out each year since 2004. Auston Bousfield, the 2014 winner following a brilliant junior season at Ole Miss, has reached Triple-A but currently finds himself at Double-A San Antonio in the Padres’ organization. Bousfield’s team, managed by former Mississippi Braves manager Phillip Wellman, won a first-half title in the Texas League on Thursday, but Bousfield hasn’t had a lot to celebrate personally this year. He is batting .217 and has spent a chunk of time on the disabled list. The 5-foot-11, 185-pound outfielder batted .170 in 71 games for the Missions in 2016 and .204 in 38 games at Triple-A El Paso. Bousfield was drafted by the Padres in fifth round in 2014 and enjoyed an excellent first pro summer, batting .301 with three homers and 13 RBIs in the Northwest League. He was named a short-season All-Star by Baseball America. He is now trying to recapture that form.
Mississippi is having a heck of a year on the college diamonds, and it ain’t over yet. Southern Miss’ Dylan Burdeaux won Conference USA player of the year honors today, giving the state four such honorees. Burdeaux joins Mississippi State’s Brent Rooker (SEC), Delta State’s Zack Shannon (Gulf South) and William Carey’s James Land (SSAC) as top dogs in their league. (Rooker beat out Burdeaux and Shannon for the Ferriss Trophy that goes to the state’s best player.) For what it’s worth, Jackson State’s Bryce Brown had a pretty good case for SWAC POY, and Itawamba Community College’s Tyreque Reed (a State commit) led NJCAA Division II in hitting with an amazing .504 average. DSU, Carey and Hinds CC are all bound for the World Series at their respective levels. The NCAA Division I schools are only just beginning their quest for Omaha, with USM looking like it might have a realistic shot.
Brent Rooker will probably take home the Ferriss Trophy on Monday. He has received national attention while putting up monster numbers for a nationally ranked Mississippi State team that has battled through its share of adversity. Delta State’s Zack Shannon has big numbers, too, for a conference champion – and he would be the first Statesman to win the award named for former DSU coach Boo Ferriss. All three of the Southern Miss finalists have been outstanding for a nationally ranked conference title team: Taylor Braley, Dylan Burdeaux and freshman sensation Matt Wallner. There really isn’t a wrong choice here, but in some ways, there is more to like about Braley than any of the other finalists. The junior is the only true two-way player. A third baseman/DH, he is batting .330 with a .478 on-base percentage, 12 home runs and 50 RBIs. As a pitcher, he is 5-2 with a 3.48 ERA and 64 strikeouts over 11 starts. And the Oak Grove High alum is the only Mississippi native among the finalists. That ought to count for something.
Only one small college player has won the Ferriss Trophy over its 13 years: Belhaven University’s Craig Westcott in 2009. The 2017 coronation is a long ways off, but there are a couple of NAIA players whose hitting exploits this season bear notice. James Land, a senior first baseman at William Carey, belted three home runs at Mississippi College on Tuesday, running his season total to 11. He leads the Southern States Athletic Conference in slugging at .807 and ranks near the top in homers, batting average (.404) and RBIs (38). Land, a former Harrison Central and Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College star, was named the SSAC’s player of the week last week (after batting .591 with 11 RBIs in five games). The reigning SSAC player of the week is Caleb Leach of Blue Mountain. A junior infielder/outfielder from Florida, Leach batted .600 with a pair of homers, five RBIs and eight runs last week and is at .397, five homers and 27 RBIs for the year. He leads the Toppers in slugging (.612) and runs (33). It should help the cases for Land and Leach that both Carey and BMC are having strong years. The nationally ranked Crusaders are 23-9, 9-3 SSAC, and the Toppers are 23-15, 6-6, easily the best start in their short history.
With college classes having begun, it’s time for those “what I did on my summer vacation” stories. Mississippi State’s Konnor Pilkington and Jake Mangum showed out in the Cape Cod League, earning recognition from Baseball America as top 30 prospects from the prestigious summer circuit. Pilkington, a left-hander from Hurley and East Central High, was 2-1 with a 1.37 ERA in seven games for Brewster. He also made the All-CCBL team, as chosen by the league. At State this past season, he was 3-1, 2.08 in 14 appearances. Mangum, a Jackson Prep product, hit .300 with nine RBIs and 11 steals in 35 games for Bourne. The Ferriss Trophy winner batted .408 for the Bulldogs as a freshman last spring. … Of the Ole Miss players who took part in summer league ball, none has more to boast about than Parker Ciracci, another Jackson Prep product who redshirted at UM last spring. Right-hander Ciracci posted an 0.78 ERA, five wins and seven saves in 21 games in the Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League. Fellow Rebel D.J. Miller had a fun time, too, batting .286 with 32 runs and 10 steals in the Cal Ripken League. UM’s Kyle Watson, a DeSoto Central alum, swiped 21 bags in the Alaska League. … Southern Miss’ Mason Irby, a transfer from juco national champ Jones County Junior College, played on the NJCAA National Team that went 3-1 in the National Baseball Congress World Series in Wichita, Kan. Golden Eagles J.C. Keys and Matthew Guidry were Texas Collegiate League All-Star Game picks. Guidry finished at .331 with 14 RBIs and 24 runs in 40 games for Acadiana, and Keys put up a 4.13 ERA in 13 games for the same club. … Mississippi College’s Hunter Lacefield, a lefty transfer from Northwest CC, went 4-1 with a 0.76 ERA for the North Delta Dealers, the best team in the New Albany-based Cotton States League this summer. … Alcorn State has a new pitching coach, David Duncan, a former Florida A&M pitcher who has some pro experience. The Braves had a staff ERA of 8.03 in 2016, so Duncan has some work to do. … New head coaches are settling in at jucos Pearl River and Mississippi Delta. Michael Avalon left Delta to replace Josh Hoffpauir at PRCC, and longtime Hinds assistant Dan Rives filled the vacancy at Delta, where he played.