In a dugout interview during ESPN’s coverage of Thursday night’s game, Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon sang the praises of former Mississippi Braves star Jason Heyward, calling his first-half performance a key ingredient in the team’s charge into first place. Heyward rose to the occasion with a three-hit, two-RBI game as the Cubs beat St. Louis 9-6 to begin the second half. After a couple of seasons of scuffling in Wrigleyville, Heyward is hitting .290 with six homers and 43 RBIs in 2018. Resurgent seasons by Heyward and Gorkys Hernandez, All-Star campaigns by Freddie Freeman and Ozzie Albies and the unyielding brilliance of Craig Kimbrel give rise to the idea that you could put together a competitive team of former M-Braves now in the big leagues. An infield of Freeman, Albies, Andrelton Simmons and Martin Prado is pretty darn solid. At catcher, there’s the seven-time All-Star Brian McCann, backed by Jesus Sucre. In the outfield, Heyward, Hernandez and either Ronald Acuna or Mallex Smith would be outstanding defensively. Evan Gattis is a scary man at DH. On the bench: Choose from Johan Camargo, Jose Peraza, Dansby Swanson, Tommy La Stella, Jose Martinez. Charlie Morton, also a 2018 All-Star, would head up a rotation that includes Julio Teheran, Alex Wood, Sean Newcomb and Mike Minor. All-Star Kimbrel would be the closer in a bullpen with some combination of Arodys Vizcaino, Jesse Biddle, A.J. Minter, Chasen Shreve, Randall Delgado, Luis Avilan and Cory Gearrin. Such a team could probably win the American League Central this year.
Atlanta has called up pitcher Wes Parsons, who becomes the sixth former Mississippi Braves player to be promoted to the big club this season. The others are Jesse Biddle, Ronald Acuna, Mike Soroka, Dustin Peterson and Evan Phillips (who didn’t get into a game). Parsons was 1-2 with a 1.23 ERA in eight games for the Double-A M-Braves this season before being bumped to Triple-A Gwinnett in late May. He also pitched for the M-Braves last year. Over 130 M-Braves alums have risen to the majors since the team moved from Greenville, S.C., to Pearl in 2005. … Drew Pomeranz was slated to throw a simulated game today at Fenway Park as he tries to work his way back to Boston’s rotation. The lefty out of Ole Miss has missed most of June with arm and neck pain. A 17-game winner for the Red Sox in 2017, he is 1-3 with a 6.81 ERA this season. He’s also a pending free agent, which he says is not something on his mind these days. “I’m focused on just getting my stuff right and just being myself and we’ll see what happens,” he told masslive.com. … Bryce Brown, the former Jackson State star now in the Tampa Bay system, had an interesting box score line on Tuesday: 0-3-0-0. Brown walked three times and stole second base each time, scoring half of Hudson Valley’s runs in a 6-1 victory against Connecticut in the short-season Class A New York-Penn League. Brown is hitting .208 with seven steals in 10 games in his second pro season. … Justin Henry, ex-Ole Miss standout from Vicksburg and a longtime minor league player, is the Southeast area scout for Detroit and spent many hours observing overall No. 1 pick Casey Mize, the right-hander out of Auburn who signed Monday with Detroit for $7.5 million. … D.J. Davis, the Stone County High product and former first-round draft pick (see previous posts), was released earlier this month by Toronto. The 23-year-old outfielder was batting .239 in 36 games at Class A Dunedin. He hit .242 in seven pro seasons, never rising above A-ball. … Pearl River Community College alum Jacob Taylor, a fourth-rounder in 2015, retired in May. Dogged by injuries, the right-hander appeared in only 25 games in four years in Pittsburgh’s system, seven games in A-ball this year. … The Bray brothers from Vancleave also are out of the game. Tyler Bray, a pitcher who reached Triple-A in 2017 with St. Louis, was released in April. Outfielder Colin Bray was in high-A last year with Arizona but missed most of the season with injuries. He retired in March.
Cincinnati is on a tear, and so is Billy Hamilton. The ex-Taylorsville High standout has a seven-game hitting streak that coincides with the seven-game winning streak the Reds take into Atlanta tonight. Hamilton is 11-for-25 over that streak with nine runs, a homer, three RBIs and four steals. Batting .187 overall on June 16, he’s now at .214 (.300 on-base percentage), still not good but, along with the defense he provides in center field, good enough to keep him in the lineup. He has three homers, 17 RBIs, 40 runs and 15 bags on the season. … Mitch Moreland, the Mississippi State product from Amory, also has a seven-game hit streak, which he extended on Sunday with his 11th homer in Boston’s big win against Seattle. Moreland is 12-for-27 during this roll, with a homer, seven RBIs and nine runs. Sunday’s bomb was his first since June 3. He is batting .299 for the year. … And then there are the Mississippi Braves, who set a franchise record with an 11-run inning in a 17-1 victory over Jacksonville on Sunday at Trustmark Park in Pearl. The big fifth frame included a two-run homer by Brandon Downes (his first as an M-Brave), two-run doubles by Travis Demeritte, Alex Jackson and Luis Marte, an RBI double by winning pitcher Touki Toussaint and a run-scoring single by Alay Lago. The Double-A M-Braves produced an eight-run inning in an 11-2 win against Jacksonville on Thursday and are 3-1 in the second half of the Southern League season. They limped in with a 29-41 mark in the first half.
If you’re a fan of pitching – and of strikeouts, in particular – tonight’s the night to make the trek to Trustmark Park. Touki Toussaint is starting for the Mississippi Braves. Toussaint leads the Southern League – and all of Double-A baseball – in punchouts. He’s got 92 in 74 innings. Three times in his 14 starts he has K’d 10 batters, including in his most recent outing against the first-half champion Biloxi Shuckers. But, hey, he’s more than just a hard thrower. MLB Pipeline, which rates Toussaint the No. 11 prospect in Atlanta’s well-stocked minor league system, raves about his “pure stuff.” He has an outstanding curveball and a good changeup. He’s a long and lean 6 feet 3, 185 pounds with a smooth delivery. It’s fun to watch him work. Toussaint – given name Dany Gilbert Kiti – was the 16th overall pick by Arizona out of a Florida high school in 2014. The Braves got him in a 2015 trade – with quickly discarded veteran Bronson Arroyo – for Phil Gosselin. Toussaint, who just turned 22 on Wednesday, made Double-A last year and went 3-4 with a 3.18 ERA. He also pitched well in the Arizona Fall League. He is 3-6, 3.41 for the scuffling M-Braves this season. He goes against Jacksonville tonight (5 p.m.), his second outing against the Jumbo Shrimp. He struck out 10 of them in six innings the first time.
At the outset of the 2018 season, a sports betting agency made Baltimore’s Buck Showalter the odds-on favorite to be the first manager fired. That dubious honor went instead to Cincinnati’s Bryan Price. Showalter, the former Mississippi State star in his 20th year as a big league manager, hangs on despite what has been a truly awful first three months on the heels of a bad 2017. The team Showalter brings to Atlanta for an interleague series starting tonight is 21-52, worst record in MLB. That’s a .288 winning percentage. Showalter’s previous worst finish was a .401 in 1998 with Arizona, which was playing its inaugural season. And these Orioles figure to get worse: Stars Manny Machado, Adam Jones and Zach Britton, pending free agents, are expected to be traded. Showalter, 62, is also in the final year of his contract, as is Dan Duquette, the O’s VP for baseball operations. As bad as things are in Birdland, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of hue and cry about firing Showalter. Perhaps ownership is just going to let him go out with a whimper, a relatively dignified end. The Orioles are the fourth team Showalter has managed, and he was fired from the previous three jobs though he had good years at each one. This is his ninth season with Baltimore, far and away his longest stint. He has won over 1,500 games – 643 with the O’s — and three manager of the year awards. Despite a lack of postseason success, he should get Hall of Fame consideration someday. It would be sad to see his career end with such a dismal season, but it may be headed that way. P.S. At the start of the season, few would have bet Atlanta would be in first place in the National League East in late June. Yet Brian Snitker, the former Mississippi Braves skipper and another of the seven Mississippi-connected managers in MLB, has steered this young club to a 43-30 mark. They’ve shown no signs of slowing down. M-Braves alum Sean Newcomb, an emerging ace, starts tonight. He is 8-2 with a 2.70 ERA; O’s starter Alex Cobb, one of team’s biggest disappointments, is 2-9, 7.14.
The Biloxi Shuckers’ magic number for clinching the division title is 4. They finish the first half of the Southern League season with a five-game, promotion-packed homestand that starts tonight at MGM Park and runs through Father’s Day. Could be very festive. The potential party pooper here, as fate would have it, is their Magnolia State rival, the Mississippi Braves. The M-Braves (27-38) are in last place in the SL South and have been out of the title chase for some time. The All-Star break, which begins Monday, lays ahead. But perhaps the M-Braves will draw some incentive from playing the role of spoiler. The Shuckers (38-27) lead second-place Mobile (35-28) by 2 games; Mobile finishes the first half with a five-game series at Pensacola. The Shuckers are a well-balanced club with power and speed and the top closer in the league, Nate Griep, who has a ridiculous 21 saves. Biloxi had nine players chosen for the All-Star Game. One of them, Thomas Jankins, is on the mound for tonight’s series opener. The M-Braves will throw Kyle Wright, who, despite his mediocre 2018 numbers, is Atlanta’s No. 2 prospect. Mississippi also has highly regarded prospects starting Games 2 and 3: Touki Toussaint – the league strikeout leader – and recent addition Bryse Wilson. So give the M-Braves a puncher’s chance at taking the series and perhaps quelling the Shuckers’ celebration.
Today is one of those days when a Mississippi Braves fan scanning the previous day’s box scores might have to pause and think, Why did Atlanta let him go? Former M-Braves are scattered all over the big leagues now, and quite a few are having impactful seasons in places other than the ATL. The enigmatic Jason Heyward is suddenly crushing it for the Chicago Cubs; he went 3-for-6 with three RBIs in a big win against Milwaukee and is batting .387 with 10 RBIs in his last 15 games. For the year: .281, three homers, 28 RBIs. Jose Martinez, breaking out in St. Louis, went 3-for-4 with his 10th homer in a victory against San Diego. He is batting .327. Gorkys Hernandez, playing regularly in San Francisco, had a 2-for-3 game with two runs in the Giants’ loss to Miami. Hernandez, always a plus defender in center field, is hitting .293 with seven homers. Mallex Smith, another pretty good center fielder, was 2-for-4 with an RBI for Tampa Bay, which beat Toronto. Smith is batting .288 with 12 steals. Luis Avilan has fared well in his middle-relief role for the Chicago White Sox, who have been terrible. He worked a scoreless inning in a loss to Cleveland and trimmed his ERA to 3.26. And Craig Kimbrel just keeps throwing gas for Boston; he struck out the side in the 12th inning against Baltimore to preserve a 2-0 win and notch his 21st save in 23 chances. P.S. Ole Miss alum Drew Pomeranz, who has one win this year for Boston after notching 17 in 2017, remains on the disabled list with no announced timetable for his return. The left-hander last pitched on May 31, when he yielded four runs in five innings and fell to 1-3, 6.81 as Boston lost to Houston 4-2. “I’ll take some positive moving forward and take it into the next one,” he said after that game. He went on the 10-day DL with biceps tendinitis two days later. Pomeranz, who started the season on the DL, has lasted more than five innings in only two of eight starts.