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.
Twenty hits, a 10-run inning, a 16-8 victory – eye-popping numbers from Southern Miss against Nicholls State on Tuesday night at MGM Park in Biloxi. “It seemed like everything we hit we squared up,” coach Scott Berry told the Biloxi Sun-Herald. Of course, that’s a familiar refrain for these Golden Eagles, who are 29-19 and ranked in most of the major polls. They’ve scored 13 or more runs in 12 games and are averaging 8.4 runs per game. They have nine players with 20 or more runs. The 10-run inning wasn’t even their best this season; they put up an 11 spot at Taylor Park back in February. The 20 hits was a season-high, but they average 11.2 per game. They’ve got five regulars batting .317 or better. Matt Wallner, the imposing freshman from Minnesota, leads the team in hitting (.346) and homers (11), but Dylan Burdeaux, Mason Irby, Taylor Braley and Hunter Slater are also having big offensive years. This is a team that should be fun to watch during tournament and regional time.
You can imagine the conversation when a father takes his son – or a mother takes her daughter — to Trustmark Park in Pearl for the first time. “This is where Freddie Freeman used to play.” Or, “This is where Craig Kimbrel pitched before he made the major leagues.” Trustmark Park, in 12 seemingly short years, has established a tremendous legacy as the place where well over a hundred future big leaguers once starred in Double-A as Mississippi Braves. MGM Park in Biloxi, which opened in 2015, has only just begun to create a history as the Shuckers funnel players to Milwaukee. It has been 11 years since they played professional baseball at Jackson’s Smith-Wills Stadium, and none who called that park home are still playing in the major leagues. But the stadium still stands proudly out on Lakeland Drive, now used by Belhaven University as its home field. There are plenty of folks around who fondly recall the days of the Jackson Mets and Generals and the future MLB stars who played for them. “This is where Lance Berkman used to play.” But Mississippi’s minor league tradition goes back well beyond the opening of Smith-Wills in 1975. Nineteen different cities in the state have hosted minor league clubs since 1900, which makes you wonder: Whatever happened to the ballparks where those teams played? Jackson’s Legion Field, where a number of future major leaguers toiled, sat on what is now the Fairgrounds; it was destroyed by a tornado in 1953. In Gulfport, they had the Base Ball Grounds, where, according to baseball-reference.com, a team called the Tarpons played from 1926-28. Cleveland had Boyle Field. Meridian had Buckwalter Stadium. There was City Park in Vicksburg, Ginners Park in Clarksdale, Legion Field in Greenwood and Sportsman Park in Greenville. And there were others, in places like Tupelo and Hattiesburg and Brookhaven. Those ballparks certainly weren’t anything like the multi-million dollar stadiums in Pearl and Biloxi, but they were the fields of dreams in their time. Big league players passed through those old ballparks. … Makes you wish you had a time machine. And a scorecard. And some popcorn.
1 – Big league hits for Adam Frazier, the former Mississippi State standout who got his first knock in his first at-bat for Pittsburgh on Friday night.
1 – Professional hits for Walker Robbins, the ex-George County High star who singled in his first game with the Gulf Coast League Cardinals.
4 – Hits in eight at-bats for Joey Meneses in his first two games with the Mississippi Braves. The native of Mexico was hitting .342 at Class A Carolina.
1,000 – Career wins in MLB for Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle, the former Jackson Mets manager who won 73 games with the Double-A club back in 1990.
3,315 – Attendance on Friday at Biloxi’s MGM Park, where former Jackson Mets star Darryl Strawberry threw out the first pitch. He was in town for a speaking engagement.
12 – Combined runs scored by Montgomery and Biloxi in the first inning of the Southern League game, won by the Biscuits 10-9.
13 – Home runs by Corey Dickerson, the Meridian Community College product who went deep for Tampa Bay on Friday. He leads all Mississippians in the majors in homers; Zack Cozart and Mitch Moreland have 11 each.
3 – Home runs allowed in two MLB starts by Cody Reed, the Northwest Mississippi CC alum now with Cincinnati.
15 – Strikeouts by Cody Reed in his 12 innings in the big leagues.
3.56 – ERA of Cleveland’s pitching staff, which leads the American League. Former Ole Miss standout Mickey Callaway is the pitching coach for the Indians, who have won seven straight and lead the AL Central.
Round 2 of Season 2 of Mississippi Braves vs. Biloxi Shuckers starts tonight at MGM Park on the Coast. Alas, the pitching matchup that would have been so cool to see apparently won’t happen in this series. Mississippi State alum Brandon Woodruff is set to make his third Double-A start tonight for the Shuckers. Rated Milwaukee’s No. 30 prospect by mlb.com, he is 0-2, 8.00 ERA. Ole Miss product Chris Ellis, Atlanta’s No. 13 prospect, is slated to go Wednesday for the M-Braves. Ellis, after two straight uneven starts, is 6-2, 3.00. Former Southern Miss star Bradley Roney, who has pitched well out of the M-Braves’ pen (2 saves, 2.95 ERA), surely will make an appearance or two during the five games. The Shuckers took three of five from the M-Braves in Pearl in April and lead the series 15-13. Biloxi is 29-21, second to Pensacola in the Southern League South by a game; the M-Braves are 22-28 and fourth, 8 games back of first. Perhaps Biloxi will see an attendance spike for this series. The club is averaging an announced 2,596 fans per game, which ranks eighth in the 10-team loop. The M-Braves are seventh at 3,097 per game at Trustmark Park.