Several Mississippians, all pitchers, have found success in the Korean Baseball Organization, which is getting a lot of attention these days (thanks to ESPN) as the only professional league going. Gary Rath, the Gulfport native and ex-Mississippi State All-American, won 43 games over parts of four years in the KBO between 2001 and ’08, including a 17-8, 2.60 ERA season with Doosan in 2004. Ole Miss product Mickey Callaway, now the Los Angeles Angels pitching coach, went 32-22 in three seasons in the KBO, including a 16-win campaign in 2005. Rath and Callaway, both of whom had some big league time, went to Korea at the end of their careers. Former Southern Miss standout Scott Copeland used a recent stint in the KBO as a route back to the big leagues. After making the majors with Toronto in 2015 (his sixth pro season), Copeland was released early in 2016 and went to Korea, where he made 13 starts for the LG Twins and then re-signed with the Blue Jays later that summer. He ultimately returned to the big leagues with the New York Mets – for one game — in 2018. Copeland spent last season in Washington’s system and is currently a minor league free agent. Meridian native Jamie Brown (2006-08), Jackson State alum Mike Farmer (2000-01), Columbus’ Luther Hackman (2005), UM alum Phil Irwin (2015) and ex-Purvis High star Kenny Rayborn (2007-08) also pitched in the KBO. Brown, Farmer, Hackman and Irwin had MLB appearances on their resumes.
Today marks the 10th anniversary of what some might consider a lost classic among the bundle of college games played at Pearl’s Trustmark Park over the years. At least it was classic from Jackson State’s perspective. Playing a rare home game at the TeePee, JSU beat Mississippi State 3-1, ending a 23-game losing streak in their series. The pitcher the Tigers beat that night was a true freshman who is now a major league veteran, Kendall Graveman. While SWAC schools rarely beat SEC schools, this one might not have been an upset. JSU was 28-14 going in and on its way to a 36-win season and a league championship. The Bulldogs were 20-23 at the time, en route to a 23-33 finish under second-year coach John Cohen. On this particular night, JSU’s pitching was impressive: Cortney Nelson and Quintavious Drains combined to hold the Bulldogs to three hits. Connor Powers’ sixth-inning home run accounted for State’s scoring. The Tigers, who had scratched out a run in the third inning on Chad Hall’s infield hit, reclaimed the lead in the bottom of the sixth on a squeeze bunt by Braneric Holmes and a Graveman wild pitch that plated Cortez Cole. Drains allowed just one hit over the final three frames to save it for Nelson. JSU hasn’t beaten State since that night and trails in the series 52-8. But on May 4, 2010, the Tigers roared.
Sometime in distant future — maybe in a galaxy far, far away — fans will look back at the 2020 college season and wonder what the heck happened here. It might be tagged with an asterisk, as in *season cancelled. It was all so sudden. Promising starts were stopped in their tracks. Dreams were dashed. The COVID-19 crisis did what only one opposing team had done to the Ole Miss Rebels in 2020. It beat them. UM was 16-1 when the season was halted. Tyler Keenan looked like an SEC Triple Crown threat, batting .403 with seven homers and 33 RBIs. Gunnar Hoglund was an emerging ace at 3-0, 1.16 ERA. Mississippi State, with a couple of potential first-round draft picks (Justin Foscue, Jordan Westburg) in the lineup, was 12-4. As with Ole Miss, we’re left to wonder how the Bulldogs’ season would have played out. A rebuilding Southern Miss club, with new stars stepping up, was also 12-4. Jackson State was 9-7, featured three .400 hitters, including Jaylyn Williams at .434, and was sure to be a force in the SWAC. Mississippi Valley State was 0-14 – and will have to live with that indignity for all time. Chad Ragland was crushing it for Delta State, batting .449 for a team that was off to a 13-10 start under new coach Rodney Batts. Chauncey Callier was having a huge season for 11-9 Mississippi College, hitting .357 with six homers. Justin Milam had swatted five homers with 19 RBIs for Belhaven, 8-8 in Kyle Palmer’s first year as coach. Fritz Walker III had four homers and 18 RBIs for 7-11 Millsaps. Five Mississippi jucos were ranked in the top 15 of the NJCAA Division II poll on the eve of conference play. Things were just heating up when the plug was pulled. Done in mid-March. Seems so unfair. All we are left with are some numbers and woulda, coulda debates.
Trent Giambrone: The ex-Delta State star, now in the Chicago Cubs’ system, had a hit and an RBI in Cactus League play on Sunday and is now 8-for-14 this spring. Over the last three springs, he is batting .352 with four homers, 18 RBIs and 11 runs in 32 games. He is in camp as a non-roster invitee.
Wesley Reyes: The Jackson State senior went 2-for-3 with a key home run and four RBIs as the Tigers beat Alcorn State 10-6 on Sunday to complete a SWAC sweep. Reyes is batting .394.
Tyler Keenan: The Ole Miss preseason All-America pick banged out four hits and drove in two runs as the Rebels beat Indiana to complete a 3-0 run through a tournament in Greenville, N.C. Keenan went 7-for-13 with two homers and four RBIs for the weekend.
Matt Guidry: The Southern Miss senior went 3-for-4 with two homers, four RBIs and four runs in a 13-1 win against Valparaiso in a tourney game in Lake Charles, La., on Saturday. The Oak Grove High product is batting .359 with two homers and 11 RBIs on the season.
Tanner Allen: The Mississippi State junior had a double and triple, three RBIs and two runs on Saturday in the only game the Bulldogs won in their trip to Long Beach State.
Sloan Dieter: The William Carey two-way standout threw six shutout innings with 10 strikeouts and drove in three runs in the Crusaders’ 10-0 win over NAIA No. 6 Faulkner on Friday. The senior is 3-1 with a 1.26 ERA and is hitting .250 with two homers and 14 RBIs.
Ken Scott: The Mississippi College junior, from Meridian via East Central Community College, hit two home runs and drove in four as the Choctaws won the rubber game Sunday of a Gulf South series vs. Union.
Hunter White: The Belhaven senior, from Mantachie by way of Northwest Mississippi CC, went 2-for-3 with three RBIs to pace the Blazers to 15-5 win Saturday and a sweep of an American Southwest Conference series at Mary Hardin-Baylor. He is batting .433.
Jimmy Johnstone: The Millsaps senior was 3-for-3 with an RBI and three runs as the Majors beat Southwestern University 17-3 on Sunday. He is hitting .357.
Will Garriga: The Blue Mountain senior from Hurley belted a walk-off double in the 12th inning as the Toppers took down Martin Methodist in the first game of a Saturday twinbill.
Rivalries in baseball may not boil the blood as they do in football and basketball, but they still have a special feel. Red Sox-Yankees. Dodgers-Giants. Mississippi State-Ole Miss. Similarly, Jackson State-Alcorn State isn’t just another conference series. The longtime rivals meet this weekend to open SWAC play. Today’s Game 1 and Sunday’s series finale will be played at JSU’s Braddy Field, with the middle game on Saturday moving to Smith-Wills Stadium. Fans of the two schools don’t need to be reminded that Alcorn State won the 2019 football game – in convincing fashion – and Jackson State swept the two men’s basketball games this season. There’s a measure of pride at stake this weekend. The Tigers lead the all-time series 158-101-1, according to an Alcorn press release. JSU is 3-4, led by a dynamic offense that features C.J. Newsome (.500, eight runs, three steals) and Jaylyn Williams (.500, six RBIs). Steven Davila has been JSU’s steadiest pitcher, with a 1.23 ERA over three appearances. Alcorn’s staff ERA is 7.16, though Joe Smith, a product of Jackson’s Jim Hill High, has pitched well (3.60 in two outings). Travaris Cole paces the 2-3 Braves’ attack at .391 with three homers and 11 RBIs. Tristan Garcia (.438) had a four-hit game at Ole Miss last week. P.S. It was announced Thursday that the SWAC Tournament will be played at Smith-Wills for the next three years. The 2020 dates for the eight-team, double-elimination tournament are May 13-17. This isn’t the first time the event will be played at the old ballpark on Cool Papa Bell Drive. The 2000 and 2007 tourneys were played there. The 2006 event was held at Trustmark Park in Pearl. From 1988-95, the SWAC played its championship in Natchez.
Now that Taylorsville’s Billy Hamilton is officially in the books as an Atlanta Brave – he went 0-for-2 after entering Tuesday’s game vs. Miami in a double-switch – it seems like a good time to ponder the question, How many Mississippians have played for the Braves during their 54 seasons in the ATL? Some intrepid research (old media guide and internet) turns up 11 names, including Hamilton and DeSoto Central High product Austin Riley, who also debuted this year. Hattiesburg native Bob Didier was the first, playing four seasons as a catcher starting in 1969, the year of the team’s first National League West title. Laurel’s Rod Gilbreath had the longest tenure, the second baseman spending parts of seven seasons (1972-78) in an Atlanta uniform. Currently working as a Braves scout, he occasionally turns up at Trustmark Park in Pearl. Jackson State alumnus Marvin Freeman put in four years and was a pitcher on the World Series clubs of 1991 and ’92. Others on the list are Ocean Springs’ Howard Battle (1999), Mississippi State alum and Greenwood native Paul Maholm (2012-13), Laurel native Jack Pierce (1973-74), ex-State star and Meridian native Jay Powell (2005), Vicksburg native John Thomson (2004-06) and Jackson’s Donnie Veal (2015).
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.
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.
Jackson State will enter the SWAC Tournament next week as a 2-seed but sporting the credentials of a tourney favorite. The Tigers, who finished second to Alabama State in the Eastern Division, have won 17 of their last 20 games (two of those losses were to the Hornets). JSU also leads the league in hitting and ERA and is tied for second in fielding percentage. Clearly, it’s a well-rounded club, one capable of winning a third tournament title under coach Omar Johnson, who has never had a losing season in 13 years at the helm. The Tigers (29-21) play at Kansas on Tuesday and Wednesday in their final tuneups for the SWAC event, which starts May 15 in New Orleans. JSU opens with West 3-seed Texas Southern. Alcorn State, the No. 3 team in the East, plays Grambling in its opener. Mississippi Valley State, which finished last in the East, is ineligible for the postseason. The Tigers’ array of hitting heroes includes Jaylyn Williams (.411, 51 RBIs), Equon Smith (.374, 39 steals, 54 runs), Raul Hernandez (.363, eight homers, 51 RBIs) and Chris Prentiss (.372, 10 triples). Nikelle Galatas tops the pitching staff at 7-3, 4.30. Garth Cahill and Kevin Perez have five wins apiece. The wide net Johnson casts in recruiting is reflected in that group. Williams (Greenville) and Prentiss (Vicksburg) are Mississippi natives, Smith and Perez are from Florida, Galatas from California, Hernandez from Puerto Rico and Cahill from South Africa. The roster also lists players from Canada, the Virgin Islands, Nevada, Michigan and New York.
Jackson State will look to the past on Saturday when it hosts a homecoming celebration of Bob Braddy’s 1977 and 1978 SWAC championship teams. The Tigers are having a pretty good present, too, which may portend a bright future. The resurgent Tigers take a 10-game winning streak into the weekend series against Mississippi Valley State at Braddy Field. Led by a trio of hot hitters, JSU has climbed to 22-18 overall and 9-6 in the league. Valley (6-18, 5-9) limps in on a nine-game losing skid. Jaylon Williams, Equon Smith and Raul Hernandez are all hitting .367 or higher for the Tigers, Williams and Hernandez supplying power with four homers each and Smith lending speed with 32 steals. Kevin Perez has been the most consistent pitcher for JSU coach Omar Johnson with a 4-2 record and 2.64 ERA. The Delta Devils are led by Fredrick Spencer, a .321 hitter who pitched a shutout against Tougaloo on March 27 for the team’s last victory. … Also on the weekend docket: Blue Mountain College hosts William Carey in a compelling matchup of Southern States Athletic Conference rivals. BMC is 24-20-1 and third in the league at 13-8. Carey has battled to reach 17-23, 11-10 (sixth). Player to watch: BMC’s Hayden Tapper, from Nesbit, is the reigning SSAC player of the week after hitting .455 with two home runs and six RBIs, including a walk-off vs. Brewton-Parker. And two more: BMC’s Jose Torres tops the SSAC in steals with 24, while Carey’s Jonathan Turner is batting .351. … Mississippi College rode a nine-game winning spree into the NCBWA Division II Top 25 this week, checking in at No. 17. Alas, the Choctaws lost at Southern Arkansas (in 13 innings) on Tuesday. They’ll take a 25-13 overall record and 17-5 Gulf South Conference mark (tied for first place) into a series at West Alabama this weekend. After a three-hit game on Tuesday, Blaine Crim is raking at .355 with nine homers and 45 RBIs. Looming on the MC schedule: nationally ranked Delta State, next weekend at Frierson Field in Clinton. … Fueled by a five-hit, six-RBI game from Justin Milam, Belhaven whipped Millsaps 12-6 on Wednesday to complete a sweep of the three-game Maloney Trophy Series. Belhaven (10-27) will end its season and bid farewell to retiring coach Hill Denson this weekend in a three-game series (today-Friday) vs. McMurry at Smith-Wills Stadium. Millsaps, in the throes of an 8-29 campaign, finishes its regular season this weekend at Twenty Field in Jackson against Oglethorpe. The Majors will be the 8-seed in the Southern Athletic Association Tournament next week.