The Houston Astros have the best record (29-12) in baseball, and many experts say they are the best team in the game right now. Several key pieces of this club have Mississippi connections, including reliever Tony Sipp, a Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College alum, and four former Mississippi Braves standouts. (An aside: Atlanta, five games under .500, has only five ex-M-Braves on its current roster.) Sipp, after a rocky start, has trimmed his ERA to 3.38 over 12 appearances. In a win against Miami on Tuesday, the left-hander threw 2 2/3 shutout innings to finish the game. Former M-Braves closer James Hoyt also works out of the Astros’ pen and has posted a 1.13 ERA in six games with 18 strikeouts in eight innings. (As M-Braves fans may recall, Hoyt throws serious gas.) Charlie Morton, whose star turn with the M-Braves came 10 years ago, is 5-2 with a 3.97 ERA as a Houston starter. That brings us to the catchers, the bearded boys Brian McCann and Evan Gattis. McCann, in the home stretch of a brilliant career, is still productive at 33: .276, six homers and 25 RBIs. Gattis is also batting .276 with three bombs and 18 RBIs. (Many Atlanta fans are wondering why the Braves ever parted with the brawny slugger.) And though it has been 18 years since the Astros’ Double-A club played in Jackson, there is a Generals connection in Houston. Dave Hudgens, in his third year as the club’s hitting coach, was the Gens’ hitting coach in 1993, when the team won a Texas League championship.
Watching the Urban Invitational on MLB Network and there in the batter’s box for Alcorn State is A.J. Makarewicz. Yes, indeed, the son of Scott Makarewicz, a catcher on the original Jackson Generals team in 1991. Where does the time go? A.J., batting leadoff and playing shortstop for the Braves in their opener, is a junior transfer from Seminole State College, a Florida juco. Scott played parts of four seasons for the Generals over the course of his minor league career, most of which was spent in the Houston organization.
Trivia question: How many former Jackson Mets and/or Generals are in the National Baseball Hall of Fame? Answer: None. Still. Jeff Bagwell, elected to the Hall on Wednesday, wore a Generals uniform for four games in 1995. But he was on a major league rehab assignment from the parent Houston Astros, so it would be a stretch to call him a “former Jackson General.” He was originally drafted by Boston and didn’t come up through the Astros’ system. There were three true former Generals on the 2017 ballot: Billy Wagner, Carlos Guillen and Melvin Mora. Wagner, a seven-time All-Star who had 422 career saves, was named on 45 ballots (10.2 percent), down one vote from last year, his first on the ballot. There’s a lot of debate among writers about Wagner’s worthiness; he may yet get in. Guillen and Mora didn’t get a vote in their first year of eligibility and now fall off the ballot. Both were fine players but obviously not Hall material. It’s worth noting that Lee Smith, who got 151 votes this year, pitched in two games for the Generals in 1998, at age 40, as part of an ill-fated comeback attempt. He wasn’t on a rehab assignment, but it would still be a stretch to call him a former General. Incidentally, he falls off the ballot, too, now after 15 years on it. … Interesting to see Rafael Palmeiro’s comments about the Hall in a column by USA Today’s Bob Nightengale. “It bothers me to say that I’m not in the Hall of Fame,” the ex-Mississippi State star said. “Obviously, it would be so cool.” Palmeiro, who has 3,000 hits and 500 homers, infamously wagged his finger at members of Congress during a 2005 hearing on drugs in baseball and then months later failed a drug test, which he calls “a careless mistake.” He fell off the Hall ballot in 2014. He might get in some day, too, as the perspective on PED use continues to shift. “That’s my dream,” Palmeiro told Nightengale. … Trivia question: How many Mississippi-born major leaguers are in the Hall of Fame? Answer: None. The two Mississippi natives in the Hall are former Negro Leagues stars: Cool Papa Bell, from Starkville, and William Foster, the one-time Alcorn State dean and coach who is listed in Hall publications as being born in Rodney. Dizzy Dean, an adopted Mississippian who is buried here, was born in Arkansas. Columbus native Red Barber is in the broadcasters wing of the Hall. Several Magnolia State natives who played in the majors have generated Hall consideration – Buddy Myer, Dave Parker, Frank White among them – but we’re still waiting on that breakthrough player.
The numbers are in. MLB’s Statcast numbers, that is, on Hunter Renfroe’s ginormous home run, the one that went where no ball has gone before – the roof of the Western Metal Supply Co. building beyond the left-field wall at San Diego’s Petco Park. Statcast put the distance of Wednesday night’s blast at 434 feet and the exit velocity of the ball off the bat at 109 mph. “I think we all know he’s got a ton of raw power. I wasn’t expecting that,” Padres manager Andy Green told mlb.com. Former Mississippi State star Renfroe, 6 feet 1, 220 pounds, now has four homers in 21 MLB at-bats, with 12 RBIs and six runs. No doubt there are some old Copiah Academy fans who are saying today, “Oh yeah, we saw this coming.” Renfroe hit a Mississippi private school-record 20 bombs for Copiah as a senior just six short years ago. He hit 15 homers his junior year at the Gallman school. He started slowly at State but flexed his muscles as a junior in 2013, belting 16 homers (while batting .345) and earning All-America honors. He also won the Ferriss Trophy that year and was drafted in the first round by the Padres. He hit 77 minor league homers before crashing The Show on Sept. 21. Elsewhere in MLB: Ole Miss product Seth Smith drove in two runs to help Seattle crush Houston 12-4 and hang 2 games out of an American League wild card berth. … Jarrod Dyson, the former Southwest Mississippi Community College star, got two hits, two runs and his 29th steal of the year as Kansas City beat Minnesota 5-2. But Ned Yost’s Royals were eliminated from AL wild card contention just the same. … The fingerprints of former Mississippi Braves were all over Atlanta’s 12-2 win against Philadelphia. The incredible Freddie Freeman extended his hit streak to 30 games; rookie Dansby Swanson – who can play a little, too – went 2-for-3 with two RBIs and three runs; Daniel Castro had three hits and three RBIs; Mallex Smith scored a run; John Gant threw a scoreless inning; and Rio Ruiz got his first big league knock, a triple. … And a blast from another past: John Jaso’s cycle was the first by a Pittsburgh player since former Jackson Generals star Daryle Ward turned the trick in 2004. Ward had five career triples.
Jackson’s Texas League franchise won five pennants during its 25-year tenure at Smith-Wills Stadium, but none of the five championship runs had more compelling storylines than the last one. It was 20 years ago this month that the Generals, managed by Dave Engle, plowed through Tulsa and Wichita, going 7-1 overall, to win that title. There was something rare, something controversial and something very heartwarming over those 10 days in September. With future big leaguers Richard Hidalgo and Melvin Mora out with injuries, other stars stepped up and unexpected heroes emerged. All in all, it was a wild ride that started at Smith-Wills and ended in Wichita’s Lawrence-Dumont Stadium. In the opener of the best-of-5 TL East Division series, the Gens got a four-hitter from future big leaguer John Halama and won the game 2-1 on the weirdest of walk-offs. With the bases loaded and one out in the ninth, Tulsa’s left fielder, Mike Murphy, inexplicably caught a deep fly ball, clearly in foul territory, off the bat of Nate Peterson, enabling Russ Johnson to tag and jog home with the winning run. In Game 2, Jackson got a leadoff home run from Buck McNabb – his first bomb in three years – and another homer from another unlikely source, former Ole Miss star Kary Bridges, to take a 6-1 win. (Footnote: Bridges had returned to Jackson from Triple-A just before the playoffs started as a roster replacement for Mora.) Edgar Ramos, who threw a no-hitter during the season, got the victory in Game 2. The series shifted to Tulsa, where the Generals lost Game 3 and also lost closer Manuel Barrios for one postseason game (plus two games in 1997) for intentionally hitting a batter. At least they thought it was a one-game postseason suspension. The Gens took the series with a 7-2 victory in Game 4 as Scott Elarton, Houston’s first-round pick from 1994 making his first Double-A appearance, shut down the Drillers. Then came the controversy. The team learned before the opener of the best-of-7 TLCS at Smith-Wills that Barrios would be suspended for the first two games against Wichita, contrary to league president Tom Kayser’s original ruling. (Footnote: The Gens were miffed, to say the least, that Kayser had arbitrarily changed his mind, issued a release on his new ruling and never called Generals officials with an explanation.) Behind the pitching of Halama and Tim Kester and a couple of key hits by Bridges, the Generals beat the Wranglers 4-1 to open the series. In Game 2, it was Ramos again with a sterling start, backed by the hitting of Peterson, who homered and drove in three runs. (Footnote: Peterson also was hit in the helmet by a pitch with Kayser in attendance; there was no ejection or suspension.) Game 3 took a weird turn, as a rusty Barrios blew a 3-0 lead in the ninth after Jamie Walker had worked a brilliant first eight. Donovan Mitchell, playing center field in the playoffs for the first time in his career, threw out a runner at the plate to preserve the tie. (Footnote: Mitchell had flown home to New York after Game 2 to see his newborn son, Donovan, Jr., then flew back in time for Game 3.) The resilient Gens won another walk-off on ninth-inning hits by McNabb, Bridges and Tim Forkner. The clincher came in Wichita, where Elarton, shaking off three unearned runs in the first inning, kept the Wranglers in check and the Gens scored five in the fourth inning en route to a 7-3 win. Al Probst homered, and Forkner, Peterson and Mitch Meluskey had RBI hits. While the team scored 26 runs in the finals, it was pitching that really stole the show. The Gens put up an 0.50 ERA in the series. (Footnote: The pitching coach in 1996 was Jim Hickey, who has held the same job with the Tampa Bay Rays for several years now.) The title was Jackson’s second in four years, but the club would not make the TL postseason again, coming up short in the last game of their last season (1999) at Smith-Wills.
Joe Gray, the highly touted junior at Hattiesburg High, is featured in a story currently posted on Baseball America’s website. Gray is playing on an elite travel team, the EvoShield Canes, with a group of seniors. Gray, a 6-foot-2, 194-pound outfielder, hit .474 with seven homers, 45 RBIs, 11 steals and 12 assists as a sophomore last year for Hattiesburg, helping the Tigers reach the Class 5A finals. He hit .380 as a freshman. Gray, who has not committed to a college, figures to be a high MLB draft pick in 2018. … Fall ball is in the air in Oxford, where the Rebels scrimmaged last Friday. Ole Miss, 43-19 and an NCAA Regional participant in 2016, returns infielders Tate Blackman, Colby Bortles and Will Golsan and reliever Will Stokes. Among the newcomers are freshmen Grae Kessinger, Jason Barber, Thomas Dillard and Houston Roth from powerhouse Oxford High. … Wyatt Short and Trent Giambrone – 2016 draftees out of Mississippi colleges by the Chicago Cubs – helped short-season Class A Eugene win the Northwest League pennant. Left-hander Short, a 13th-round pick from Ole Miss, where he was a standout closer, had a 0.00 ERA and seven saves in 15 games; he got the save in the final game of the title series. Second baseman Giambrone, a 25th-rounder out of Delta State, batted .292 with four homers and 22 RBIs for the Emeralds. … Blake Anderson, a supplemental first-round pick in 2014 out of West Lauderdale High, is on Miami’s Instructional League roster as a rehabbing player. The catcher played only one game this season, going on the disabled list with a shoulder injury on July 7. He has played only 58 games over three seasons. … Bryant Nelson, at age 42, is having a nice season in the independent Atlantic League. The switch-hitting second baseman/outfielder is batting .279 with 49 RBIs and 13 stolen bases for the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs. For fans of the old Jackson Generals — the ones who played at Smith-Wills Stadium from 1991-99 — the name might ring a bell. Nelson is the last link to a bygone era — the only former General still playing. (Freddy Garcia pitched briefly for Monterrey in the Mexican League this season but is not currently on the roster.) Nelson’s pro baseball odyssey began when Houston drafted him in the 44th round in 1993. He made the Generals’ roster in the 1996 postseason as an injury replacement and helped the Gens win the Texas League championship. Nelson has played in 2,463 pro games, according to baseball-reference.com, and gotten 2,632 hits. He has played in Mexico, Japan and Italy and even made it to the big leagues for 25 games with Boston in 2002.
As the Mississippi Braves and Jackson (Tenn.) Generals square off in the 2016 Southern League Championship Series, here’s a Mississippi minor league postseason primer:
1 – Number of Southern League pennants won by the Mississippi Braves, who arrived in Pearl in 2005 and won the title three years later at Trustmark Park.
1 – Number of SL pennants won by the Jackson Generals, the Tennessee version, who took the title 16 years ago when they were known, regrettably, as the West Tenn Diamond Jaxx.
2 – Number of Texas League pennants won by the Jackson Generals, the Mississippi version, who claimed those crowns in 1993 and 1996.
1 – Number of pennants won by the Jackson Senators, who captured the independent Central League title at Smith-Wills Stadium in 2003.
3 – Number of pennants won by the Jackson Mets, who took Texas League championships in 1981, 1984 and 1985.
8 – Streak of Texas League playoff appearances reeled off by the Jackson Mets from 1980-87.
4 – Southern League postseason appearances by the M-Braves.
3 – Number of Southern League awards won by the 2016 Jackson Generals: Tyler O’Neill was MVP, Ryan Yarbrough was pitcher of the year and Daren Brown was manager of the year.
1 – Number of M-Braves who made the SL postseason All-Star team: outfielder Dustin Peterson.
9 – Wins, in 15 games, by the M-Braves against the Generals this season.
5 – Number of Southern League starts in 2016 by M-Braves lefty Michael Mader (0-3, 2.40 ERA), slated to go in Game 1 of the SL Championship Series tonight at Jackson, Tenn.
9 – Number of wins, in 12 decisions, this season by Andrew Moore, the Generals’ scheduled starter in Game 1. He has a 3.16 ERA over 19 starts.
6 – RBIs by Carlos Franco, on 7-for-15 hitting, in the M-Braves’ South Division series win against Pensacola.
7 – Hits, in two postseason games, by M-Braves newcomer Kade Scivicque, the former Southwest Mississippi Community College (and LSU) star.
152 – Strikeouts this season, most in Double-A, by M-Braves lefty Sean Newcomb (8-7, 3.86 ERA), who is slated to start Game 2 against Jackson.
8 – Number of players from the 2016 M-Braves’ original 25-man roster who are still on the club.
1 – Number of former M-Braves on the Generals’ current roster: pitcher Ryne Harper.
Photo: Carlos Franco of the M-Braves heads for home. Joe Culpepper/Shuttergig.com