It’s a Welcome to the Big Time moment for Mississippi State junior left-hander Houston Harding. For sure, Harding pitched in some big games for Itawamba Community College over the previous two years – winning 19 times and setting a record for career strikeouts – but he’s up against a different animal tonight at Biloxi’s MGM Park. Texas Tech is 16-1 and ranked as high as No. 2 in the country. Harding has pitched just once this season for the 10-4 Bulldogs, a four-inning outing vs. Alcorn State on Feb. 26. He allowed three earned runs and punched out seven batters. Tech is hitting .338 as a team. Its most dangerous hitter might be Nate Rombach at .345 with six homers and 27 RBIs. The Red Raiders will start lefty Mason Montgomery (3-0, 1.93 ERA) in Game 1 of the two-game series and right-hander Hunter Dobbins (2-0, 1.29) in Wednesday’s contest. The 10th-ranked Bulldogs, who have struggled to push across runs at times, are batting .255, led by Justin Foscue at .340 with two homers and 15 RBIs. There’s nothing make-or-break about this series, but it should be a good barometer on where State is as a team heading into the SEC opener against Arkansas this weekend.
Things to look for this weekend when – weather permitting! — the NCAA Division I schools launch their season: At Mississippi State, ranked in the top 10 in just about every preseason poll, J.T. Ginn is the acknowledged ace, coming off a season that saw the right-hander claim national freshman of the year honors. But almost every other significant contributor from the 2019 College World Series pitching staff is gone. It’ll be interesting to see how roles start to shake out in the opening series against Wright State at Dudy Noble Field. … At Ole Miss, there is a lot of buzz about top-ranked Louisville coming to Oxford for the opening series, but there might be just as much about Rebels freshmen Jerrion Ealy and John Rhys Plumlee. What will the roles be for the football players doing double duty this spring and how much impact will they have on the diamond? Both were highly touted baseball prospects in high school – some considered Ealy the best prep player in the state – and both play center field. … At Southern Miss, the playing surface at Taylor Park is now artificial (Field Turf), which will play a little differently than grass and dirt. The Golden Eagles will break in the new field against Murray State in a three-game set. Minus Matt Wallner and a couple of other mashers from last year’s C-USA Tournament champs, the lineup will also have a new look. “We’re probably going to be a little bit different team in the fact that we’re going to have to manufacture some runs. On-base percentage is going to be very crucial for us,” coach Scott Berry said at media day last month. P.S. In the SWAC, Jackson State is at home against Southern Illinois, Alcorn State opens with Prairie View in New Orleans in the Andre Dawson Tournament (formerly the Urban Invitational) and Mississippi Valley State travels to McNeese State. … Alcorn’s second game in New Orleans, against Southern University on Saturday, will be televised by MLB Network at 1 p.m. … On the Trustmark Park College Series docket: USM and State play in Pearl on March 4, USM and Ole Miss meet there on March 31 and the Ole Miss-State Governor’s Cup clash is set for April 21. … Mississippi State will play Texas Tech in a two-game series at MGM Park in Biloxi on March 10-11. The matchup features teams that have gone to the College World Series in each of the last two seasons. … The C-USA Tournament is slated for Biloxi’s MGM Park May 20-24 of this year, its fourth year at the Double-A Shuckers’ home. A scheduling glitch was resolved when Overtime Sports, which is currently managing the C-USA tourney, reportedly agreed to pay the Shuckers to move a Southern League game from May 20 to another date (May 17) as part of a doubleheader. There is some question as to whether the C-USA event will continue in Biloxi beyond 2020.
The team he left behind in late June will play for the Southern League championship this week. But rest assured former Biloxi Shuckers standout Trent Grisham is quite happy to be where he is – with Milwaukee in the heat of a playoff race. The 22-year-old outfielder, batting leadoff for the Brewers at Miami, matched a franchise rookie record with five hits on Monday, sparking the club to an 8-3 win that kept it within 2 games of the second wild card in the National League. “It’s a lot of fun,” Grisham told mlb.com. Grisham doubled, tripled, scored twice and drove in two runs in Monday’s victory. Called up on Aug. 1, the lefty hitter is batting .260 with four homers and 13 RBIs in 32 big league games. He batted .254 with 13 homers for the Shuckers this season – his second tour with the Double-A team – and made the SL All-Star Game. He was promoted to Triple-A San Antonio on June 20. A 2015 first-round pick, Grisham is one of several ex-Shuckers having an impact with the Brewers. … The current Biloxi team, in the SL Championship Series for the third time since 2015, hosts Game 1 against the Jackson (Tenn.) Generals tonight at MGM Park.
After winning both halves of their division race, the Biloxi Shuckers will begin pursuit of an elusive pennant tonight when the Southern League South playoffs start at MGM Park. The Shuckers went 82-55 overall in 2019. They play wild card qualifier Pensacola in the best-of-5 division series. Biloxi made the postseason in 2015, its first year on the Coast, and again last year but did not capture the league title. Milwaukee’s Double-A club last won the SL pennant in 2001, when it was in Huntsville. (The Mississippi Braves, who just completed their 15th year in Pearl, have won one SL pennant, that coming in 2008.) Biloxi will be without league pitcher of the year Trey Supak, who was promoted in July, and All-Star first baseman Patrick Leonard, who is injured. All-Star closer Nate Griep (1.98 ERA, 22 saves) is still around, as is the power-hitting foursome of Weston Wilson (19 homers), Cooper Hummel (17), Jake Gatewood (13) and Dillon Thomas (13). C.J. Hinojosa is the leading hitter at .280, and Luis Aviles Jr. stole 27 bags. Alec Bettinger (5-7, 3.44) is slated to start Game 1. Former Mississippi State standout Daniel Brown (3.19) works out of the Biloxi pen, as does Clayton Andrews (2.59), who also plays some outfield (.281). … The M-Braves finished 62-74 overall and, despite a prospect-filled roster, didn’t seriously challenge in either half in the South. The M-Braves also had three players make the All-Star team: pitcher Ian Anderson and outfielders Cristian Pache and Drew Waters, who was the league’s MVP. Waters became the fifth Jackson area Double-A player to win a player of the year honor. Tim Leary, a pitcher for the Jackson Mets, won the Texas League award in 1980, a year when the league did not have a separate award for pitchers. Darryl Strawberry (1982) and Gregg Jefferies (1987) also won the TL award as JaxMets, and Roberto Petagine won it in 1993 with the Jackson Generals. Javy Lopez in 1992 was the last Braves prospect to win the SL MVP; the team was in Greenville, S.C., at that time.
In-state rivalry games do add a certain spice to the college season. Southern Miss and Mississippi State engaged in a compelling three-game series in Starkville last month, and Wednesday at Jackson’s Smith-Wills Stadium, Millsaps College and Belhaven University battled it out in the first game of the Maloney Trophy Series. The Blazers, behind the arm of Kyle Whittington (two hits, 11 strikeouts in five innings) and the bat of Steven Liuzza (4-for-5, four RBIs), won 13-7, weathering a late Majors comeback. Freshmen Chris Hart (from Northwest Rankin High) and Brayden Stensaas (Pearl) drove in three runs each for Millsaps. BU improved to 6-7, while scuffling Millsaps fell to 3-12. Game 2 of the three-game series between the NCAA Division III rivals is March 19 at Millsaps’ Twenty Field. Also this month we get the first round of the SWAC home-and-homes, with Jackson State visiting Mississippi Valley State March 15-17, Alcorn State trekking to Valley March 22-24 and ASU visiting JSU March 29-31. On March 20, at MGM Park in Biloxi, D-II Mississippi College and NAIA William Carey will hook up. And looming in April are the Trustmark Park College Series games in Pearl: Ole Miss-USM on April 9 and the UM-State Governor’s Cup clash April 23. Those are always spicy.
The Mississippi Braves started their 2018 season with a win in April and ended it with a win on Labor Day. But there weren’t enough W’s in between for the Double-A club, in its 14th season in Pearl, to make the Southern League playoffs. A late run in the second half came up short of what would have been a fifth playoff appearance. Managed by Jackson native Chris Maloney, the M-Braves finished 67-71 overall. A bunch of prospects appeared on the roster: 13 of Atlanta’s Top 30 as rated by MLB Pipeline, five of the top seven. Most came and went quickly. Pitching once again was the M-Braves’ calling card. The team finished second in the SL in ERA, allowed the fewest homers and ranked fourth in strikeouts. Touki Toussaint, Bryse Wilson, Kyle Wright and Ian Anderson, among others, took star turns on the bump. But Trustmark Park can be tough on hitters, and they didn’t hit well on the road, either, which is a bad combination. The M-Braves’ .308 on-base percentage ranked 10th — last — in the league, as did their home run total. They were ninth in runs. Luis Valenzuela, at .282, was the only M-Braves batter to rank in the league’s top 20 in batting average. Travis Demeritte had the most interesting numbers: 17 homers, 22 doubles, 63 RBIs with a .222 average and 140 strikeouts. Tyler Marlette, Tyler Neslony and Ray-Patrick Didder had some moments. Cristian Pache, a top 10 prospect added late in the season, showed promise and might be a centerpiece of the 2019 team. … Meanwhile, Biloxi has enjoyed a big year, sweeping both halves in the SL South and claiming the MVP, pitcher and manager of the year awards. The Milwaukee-affiliated Shuckers, managed by Mike Guerrero, are slated to host Pensacola tonight at MGM Park in Game 1 of the South Division Series. Corey Ray, who led the league in homers and steals, was the MVP, and Zack Brown, the ERA champ, was voted top pitcher. If there were a closer of the year award, Nate Griep (34 saves) would’ve won it.
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.
MGM Park in Biloxi would be a nice place to post up today. The home of the Southern League’s Shuckers is hosting a college doubleheader: Mississippi College-William Carey University at 1 p.m., Mississippi State-Southeastern Louisiana at 6:35. The Bulldogs are 10-6, having recovered – apparently – from their 0-3 start at Southern Miss and the dismissal of their head coach for off-field issues. This will be their final tuneup for SEC play, which starts Friday against Vanderbilt in Starkville. Unsung Southeastern Louisiana, which always seems to have a good team, is 11-6. The Lions’ roster includes several Mississippians, notably Trey Shaffer, last year’s state Gatorade Player of the Year at Biloxi High, and ex-Hinds Community College star Kyle Schimpf. No less intriguing is the MC-Carey game, which could evolve into an annual rivalry. Both are nationally ranked, MC (15-3) in NCAA Division II, Carey (18-5) in NAIA. The resurgent Choctaws claimed two walk-off wins last weekend, one on a homer by Blaine Crim. Crim, at .351, is one of six regulars batting .350 or better, topped by Billy Cameron, a former Mendenhall High and East Central CC standout, at .464. He has four homers and 17 RBIs. This will be just the fourth game away from home for Carey, which went to the NAIA World Series in 2017. Christian Smith, from Carriere, has been the Crusaders’ sparkplug, batting .329 with 21 runs and 20 steals, leading a team that has 55 bags. David Pimentel adds pop with three homers and 16 RBIs.
Sports Illustrated’s ranking of the Top 100 players in the big leagues includes Southern Miss alum Brian Dozier (41), who “lacks the exposure he deserves” in Minnesota; ex-Ole Miss star Zack Cozart (87), who left Cincinnati for the Los Angeles Angels; and as-yet-unsigned UM product Lance Lynn (93). Former Mississippi Braves standout Freddie Freeman is No. 22. … Ole Miss product Matt Tracy, whose one MLB appearance came three years ago, reportedly has signed a minor league contract with Toronto. Tracy, 29, was drafted by the New York Yankees in 2011 and made a two-inning appearance for the Yanks on April 11, 2015. The left-hander, who has a 4.03 career ERA in 151 minor league games, pitched in Minnesota’s system last year (7.64 ERA in Triple-A). … MUW notched its first-ever win – and then added another – by sweeping Crowley’s Ridge, 5-4 and 11-1, on Thursday at Columbus. Johndavid Birdsong, who got a walk-off hit in Game 1, is 5-for-10 with three RBIs for the Owls (2-3). … Vicksburg native Dmitri Young and former Jackson State star Marvin Freeman, both ex-big leaguers, are among the dignitaries expected in New Orleans for this weekend’s Andre Dawson Classic, formerly known as the MLB Urban Invitational. Alcorn State is in the field. … MGM Park in Biloxi, home of the Shuckers, has an interesting doubleheader slated for March 14: William Carey vs. Mississippi College followed by Mississippi State vs. Southeastern Louisiana. … Luke Wallner, brother of USM star Matt Wallner, is a freshman pitcher on Meridian Community College’s roster. The 6-foot, 195-pound right-hander pitched at Forest Lake (Minn.) High last year. … Baseball America ranks Gulfport High No. 40 in its Top 50 preseason prep poll. The Admirals were 33-6 in 2017 and finished runner-up (to Tupelo) in the MHSAA Class 6A playoffs. Outfielder Joe Gray of Hattiesburg High made BA’s All-America first team.
There ought to be some energy at Biloxi’s MGM Park the next few days. The Mississippi Braves and Biloxi Shuckers renew their burgeoning rivalry tonight in the opener of a rather meaningful five-game series. The Shuckers, who have won five in a row and 12 of 15, are 19-16 and tied for first in the Southern League South at the halfway point of the first half. The M-Braves are a game back at 18-17, having won the rubber match of their home series with Mobile on Friday night. Ronald Acuna, one of Atlanta’s top prospects, put on a show in that series. The 19-year-old outfielder went 8-for-16 with two homers, five RBIs and six runs in his first four Double-A games. But he is hardly the only hot hitter in the Mississippi lineup. Travis Demeritte, another young prospect, was 9-for-20 in the series with three homers. He is at .274 with four bombs, 17 RBIs and 24 runs for the year. Carlos Franco picked up three RBIs on Friday to run his league-leading total to 31. He has seven homers and a .273 average. And Luis Valenzuela, batting .289, has been a productive leadoff batter. The M-Braves’ rotation, featuring 19-year-olds Kolby Allard (3-1, 1.38 ERA) and Mike Soroka (3-3, 2.84), might be as good as any in the league. The Shuckers, a Milwaukee affiliate, have been sparked by Mauricio Dubon, batting .294 with an SL-best 18 stolen bases. Johnny Davis has 10 bags despite hitting just .189. Biloxi’s main power source is Michael Reed, who has six homers. The team has a weapon in the bullpen in Matt Ramsey, who has 10 saves and a 1.76 ERA. Here’s an oddity: The Shuckers are just 5-10 at home, while the M-Braves are 9-6 on the road. Just makes this series all the more interesting.