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.
Forget WAR, BABIP and FIP for a moment. Baseball is about runs, primarily scoring them. As Ole Miss demonstrated in its weekend sweep of Florida, score a bunch and you’re likely to win a bunch. The Rebels tied a school record with 40 runs in the three-game series against the Gators, who just couldn’t keep pace. The Rebels are averaging 8.4 runs per game and boast a 23-10 record heading into today’s rivalry clash with Southern Miss at Trustmark Park in Pearl. Thomas Dillard, who scored seven runs in the Florida series, and Grae Kessinger, who tallied five times, are the Rebels’ leading scorers with 38 each. Leading scorers in baseball aren’t as celebrated as those in basketball and football. That just ain’t right. USM’s top scorer is Gabe Montenegro, who has 32 runs. The Golden Eagles (20-9) are averaging a healthy 6.6 runs per game and coming off a three-game C-USA sweep of Marshall in which they put up 25 runs. Preventing runs is the other part of the equation, and both Ole Miss and USM have had some issues on the bump. But their scoring punch has generally allayed those problems. The Rebels have outscored their opponents 276-158, the Eagles 192-134. Bottom line: Don’t expect a pitchers’ duel at the TeePee. … For the record, Mississippi State is even more prolific than Ole Miss, averaging 8.9 runs a game in its 27-6 start. Jake Mangum, the Bulldogs newly anointed hit king, leads the way with 38 runs, a figure matched by Jordan Westburg. Jackson State’s leading scorer is Equon Smith, who has 30 runs for the 17-18 Tigers, who are one of the higher scoring teams in the SWAC (231 runs). Mississippi Valley State, on the other hand, has scored just 89 runs (4.0 per game) while yielding 190. Hence, the 6-16 record. Delta State’s leading scorer is Jake Barlow with 28 runs for the 26-10 Statesmen, and Blaine Crim and Dylan Duplechain have crossed the plate 35 times each for Mississippi College (22-12).
Three intra-state clashes on Tuesday produced plenty of crooked numbers but no March Madness-style upsets. In Starkville, Mississippi State, ranked as high as No. 2 in the nation, dispatched Mississippi Valley State 18-5 thanks in part to an eight-run inning. At Braddy Field in Jackson, Jackson State throttled NAIA Tougaloo 13-7, riding an eight-run inning and seven unearned runs. And at Blue Mountain, the NAIA Toppers took two games from fledgling Division III MUW, outscoring the Owls 21-6. As for individual numbers of note: Jordan Westburg went 3-for-5 with four RBIs and three runs for State, now 23-3. For JSU (11-16), Chris Prentiss went 3-for-3 with two RBIs and three runs. BMC (16-17) was led by Trey Hathaway, who drove in six runs in the two games. … Valley (5-9) and Tougaloo (5-18) hook up today in Itta Bena in what could be another wild midweek affair. … Ole Miss (18-8) went up to Memphis on Tuesday and whipped the Tigers 9-6 at AutoZone Park, and Southern Miss (16-6) went down to Metairie, La., and won its eighth straight game, beating Nicholls State by the relatively boring score of 5-0 at Zephyr Field. … Jackson State, which takes a trip to Louisiana-Monroe today, is gearing up for a SWAC series at home this weekend against what the Tigers’ website playfully calls “That School in Lorman.” Alcorn State, which lost a non-league game Tuesday at Grambling 8-7 (giving up seven runs in one inning), is 6-17 and got plastered last weekend by Valley, which outscored the Braves 38-9 in a three-game sweep.
The Magnolia State’s NCAA Division I schools should get some good barometer readings this weekend. Mississippi State, 16-1 and ranked in everybody’s top 10, gets its first true road test of the season when it opens SEC play at nationally ranked Florida (14-5). Nationally ranked Ole Miss (12-5) starts league play with a home series against Alabama, 16-2 but unranked. Southern Miss, wobbling a bit at 8-6, begins defense of its C-USA regular season title at Louisiana Tech (11-5), which features a bunch of Mississippi connections, including coach Lane Burroughs, a former USM assistant. And at Magnolia Field in Itta Bena, Jackson State and Mississippi Valley State, both still feeling their way, will lock up in a big SWAC series. JSU is 5-13 (1-2 SWAC) against a schedule that has included Boston College, Mississippi State, UNO and Miami (Fla.). Weather issues have limited Valley to six games; the Delta Devils are 1-5 (0-1 SWAC), including an 8-1 loss at Memphis on Tuesday, and have not played a home game. Equon Smith leads JSU hitters with a .348 average and has scored 15 runs. Raul Hernandez is at .309 with two homers and 16 RBIs. Wesley Reyes (.208) and Dezmond Chumley (.190), preseason All-SWAC picks, have yet to click. Morgan Lomax is hitting .409 for Valley, and Billy Leflore checks in at .381. Neither club has pitched particularly well, and that’ll probably be the key to the series. JSU has a 5.89 ERA, though Kevin Perez (2-1, 3.38) and Garth Cahill (2.18 in nine appearances) have been solid. Valley is at 9.56, having only once held an opponent to fewer than eight runs. Aaron Barkley has the lone win and a 1.50 ERA in six innings of work.
If he produces a typical season, Brian Dozier will easily top 1,000 career hits in the big leagues in 2019. The Fulton native and former Southern Miss star is the active leader in hits among Mississippi-born players in MLB with 954 through six-plus seasons. Notching a thousand career hits is an impressive feat, requiring a combination of skill, opportunity and longevity. Dozier, 32 in May, will need another six or so productive seasons to reach 2,000 hits, which only four Mississippi-born players have managed to do. Grenada native Dave Parker tops that list with 2,712, followed by Ellisville’s Buddy Myer (2,131), Vicksburg’s Ellis Burks (2,107) and Greenville’s Frank White (2,006). Dozier, who’ll play second base for the Washington Nationals in 2019, could also reach another hits milestone this season. The record for a USM alum is 1,142, by Jim Davenport. Kevin Young is second with 1,007. … Former Mississippi State star Rafael Palmeiro is among the 32 players with 3,000 hits; his 3,020 are by far the most by a Mississippi college alumnus. Ex-Bulldogs great Will Clark had 2,176. The most by an Ole Miss product is 1,991 by Gee Walker, a Gulfport native who played in the 1930s and ’40s. Don Kessinger had 1,931. Dave Clark leads Jackson State alums with 518. … Amory’s Mitch Moreland, another Mississippi State product, is No. 2 on the state’s active hits list with 857. (Jackson’s Seth Smith, presumably retired, is sitting on 934.) Moreland, Boston first baseman, probably won’t get to 1,000 this year – his career-high for a season is 131 – but should make it in 2020. … … Bobby Abreu, who played for the Jackson Generals in the mid-’90s, is the leader, with 2,470 hits, among former Jackson area Double-A players. Hubie Brooks leads former Jackson Mets with 1,608, and Brian McCann, still active, is tops among ex-Mississippi Braves with 1,521.
In recognition of Black History Month, here’s a shout-out to Dave Clark, the ex-Shannon High and Jackson State star who is one of just 16 African-Americans to have managed in the major leagues. (Yes, that’s a shamefully small number.) Clark, about to begin his sixth season as third-base coach for the Detroit Tigers, was the interim manager in Houston for the last 13 games of the 2009 campaign. The team, limping to the end of a 74-88 finish, went 4-9 under Clark. Interestingly enough, he was the third Mississippi native to manage the Houston club; Harry Craft (1962-64) and Harry Walker (1968-72) were the other two. Clark was a first-round draft pick by Cleveland out of JSU in 1983 and played 13 years in the big leagues, batting .264 with 62 homers and earning a rep as a fearsome pinch hitter. Since retiring as a player, he has managed in the minors (two championships) and in winter ball and coached for three different MLB clubs. He has been interviewed and/or considered for several major league managerial jobs since his stint with the Astros. That door might still open for him someday.