The Houston Astros have the best record (29-12) in baseball, and many experts say they are the best team in the game right now. Several key pieces of this club have Mississippi connections, including reliever Tony Sipp, a Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College alum, and four former Mississippi Braves standouts. (An aside: Atlanta, five games under .500, has only five ex-M-Braves on its current roster.) Sipp, after a rocky start, has trimmed his ERA to 3.38 over 12 appearances. In a win against Miami on Tuesday, the left-hander threw 2 2/3 shutout innings to finish the game. Former M-Braves closer James Hoyt also works out of the Astros’ pen and has posted a 1.13 ERA in six games with 18 strikeouts in eight innings. (As M-Braves fans may recall, Hoyt throws serious gas.) Charlie Morton, whose star turn with the M-Braves came 10 years ago, is 5-2 with a 3.97 ERA as a Houston starter. That brings us to the catchers, the bearded boys Brian McCann and Evan Gattis. McCann, in the home stretch of a brilliant career, is still productive at 33: .276, six homers and 25 RBIs. Gattis is also batting .276 with three bombs and 18 RBIs. (Many Atlanta fans are wondering why the Braves ever parted with the brawny slugger.) And though it has been 18 years since the Astros’ Double-A club played in Jackson, there is a Generals connection in Houston. Dave Hudgens, in his third year as the club’s hitting coach, was the Gens’ hitting coach in 1993, when the team won a Texas League championship.
From early indications, Belhaven University is going to bounce back from what Hill Denson called his program’s “worst season.” The Blazers, who slumped to 20-18 in 2016, are 7-3 heading into a three-game weekend series at Texas-Tyler, which is ranked in the latest d3baseball.com poll. The Blazers, not yet eligible for the postseason in NCAA Division III, are ranked No. 8 in the National Christian College Athletic Association poll. Making the NCCAA’s postseason tournament is a reasonable goal for BU, which appears to have a good balance of power and speed plus depth in its pitching staff. Terrell Hodges, in his second season in the green and gold, is batting .412 with two homers, 11 RBIs and 11 runs. Fellow veterans Daniel Ammirati and J.G. Miley are at .375 and .342, respectively, and Miley has five steals. Stephen Sexton, a Pontotoc native who transferred in from Arkansas-Monticello, has stood out among the newcomers with a .353 average, three homers, 11 RBIs and 11 runs. Tyler Wolfe, a juco transfer, and Tanner Cable, injured much of 2016, have been the pitching stalwarts. Wolfe is 3-0 with a 1.53 ERA and two complete games, while Cable is 1-0, 2.18. P.S. There are no parades scheduled in Hattiesburg or Perkinston, but both William Carey and Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College are celebrating homecomings. Carey, forced from its campus by the Jan. 21 tornado, will play at Wheeler Field for the first time, hosting Loyola-New Orleans for a three-game Southern States Athletic Conference set that begins today. WCU is 12-4 with eight straight wins. In Perkinston, Gulf Coast will play Illinois Central in a Saturday twinbill in its first games at renovated Farris Field since April 2015. The Bulldogs are off to a 9-1 start. Meanwhile, in Cleveland, Delta State, which has played only one of its 13 games at home, will host Union in a three-game Gulf South Conference series this weekend at Ferriss Field. DSU is 10-3, 4-2 GSC.
There likely will be a lot of eyes on Tony Sipp as he goes to work in West Palm Beach, Fla., over the next few weeks. The Pascagoula native and former Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College standout is coming off a rough year and is the only seasoned left-hander in Houston’s bullpen. Sipp’s ERA jumped to 4.95 over 60 appearances in 2016. He had a 1.99 in 2015, and his career ERA over eight MLB seasons is 3.65. Batters hit .297 against Sipp in 2016, and he yielded 12 homers in 43 2/3 innings. The beefed-up Astros, picked by some as the favorite in the American League West, surely want a reliable lefty in their pen. If Sipp, 33, doesn’t look sharp, they may have to go shopping. Astros pitchers and catchers formally reported to camp today and will work out at their new spring facility on Wednesday. P.S. Joey Butler, another Pascagoula native and MGCCC alumnus, signed a minor league contract last week with Washington. Butler, a right-handed hitting outfielder, spent all of 2016 in the minors with Cleveland’s Triple-A Columbus club. He batted .276 with eight homers in 88 games for Tampa Bay in 2015 and is a career .282 hitter with 104 homers over nine pro seasons, including a stint in Japan. … Ole Miss product Aaron Barrett may be close to re-signing with Washington as a minor league free agent. He missed the 2016 season recovering from Tommy John surgery. While rehabbing last season, Barrett suffered a fractured right elbow and had another surgery. He ultimately was waived by the Nationals and elected free agency in the off-season. As a rookie in 2014, Barrett had a 2.66 ERA in 50 games for the Nats. In 2015, his ERA jumped to 4.60 in 40 games before he was injured late in the season.
JaCoby Jones is off to a good start – again – in the Arizona Fall League. The former Mr. Baseball from Richton High is 4-for-10 with a home run, five RBIs and three runs through five games for Salt River. Jones, a highly rated Detroit prospect, played in the high caliber AFL last year, too, and was doing quite well before being slapped with a drug suspension that lasted into his 2016 minor league season. Having spent some time in the majors this year, Jones is back for more seasoning in the AFL, older and presumably a bit wiser. “I think the biggest thing I learned in the big leagues was how to prepare myself before games,” Jones, 24, told mlb.com. A third-round pick (by Pittsburgh) out of LSU in 2013, Jones batted .257 with seven homers in Double-A and Triple-A in 2016 and got an August call-up from the Tigers. He hit .214 in 28 at-bats. Jones, 6 feet 2, 205 pounds, is a career .269 hitter in the minors with 47 homers and 58 steals and can play virtually anywhere in the field. P.S. Ex-Mississippi State standout Tyler Moore, Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College alum Joey Butler, Ole Miss product Alex Presley and Starkville native Julio Borbon have become minor league free agents. Moore spent all of this past season at Triple-A Gwinnett in Atlanta’s system but played in only 25 games (.229, three homers) because of injuries. Butler also spent all of the season in Triple-A for Cleveland, while Presley (Detroit) and Borbon (Baltimore) did see some big league duty. … Hawtin Buchanan, the 6-8 former Ole Miss pitcher from Biloxi, has signed a minor league deal with Cincinnati. He pitched in the independent United Shore League this year after being released in spring training by Seattle.
The game to watch tonight is Seattle-Houston, which could feature a matchup of Mississippians Seth Smith and Tony Sipp in the late innings at Minute Maid Park. The Mariners are 83-73, tied with Detroit and 2 games behind Baltimore, which holds the second American League wild card spot. The Astros are 82-75 after losing Game 1 of the three-game series (4-3 in 11 innings) on Monday night. Jackson native and ex-Ole Miss standout Smith has had a productive year for the M’s, batting .255 with 16 homers and 60 RBIs. The lefty-hitting outfielder is 1-for-5 against Houston starter Mike Fiers and is hitting only .212 against the Astros this year. But Smith, who typically struggles against left-handers, is 2-for-3 with two RBIs against Sipp, the lefty reliever from Pascagoula and Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College. Sipp has had a bad year: 5.36 ERA and 12 homers allowed in 40 1/3 innings. But Houston manager A.J. Hinch may be compelled to go to the veteran. Worth noting: Former Mississippi Braves catcher Jesus Sucre is 11-for-22 with a homer and five RBIs since Seattle called him up when rosters expanded.
At the moment, Mitch Moreland is probably the only Mississippian who knows he’ll be playing in the MLB postseason. The Mississippi State product from Amory, who has 22 home runs, has helped Texas take a commanding lead in the American League West. Ex-Ole Miss star Chris Coghlan and Greenwood native Louis Coleman are also on first-place clubs with secure leads, but neither can be certain he’ll be on the postseason roster. Coghlan is a versatile reserve for the Chicago Cubs, Coleman a middle reliever for the Los Angeles Dodgers. In the three battles still being furiously waged – AL East, AL wild card and NL wild card – there are a bunch of Magnolia State products clinging to hope. The hottest team in the big leagues is Seattle, which has won seven straight to stay in the AL wild card hunt. Former Ole Miss standout Seth Smith is swinging it well – a .381 average with three homers, including a grand slam on Tuesday, over his last seven games. Boston currently leads, by a slim margin, the AL East, and UM alum Drew Pomeranz has been a good addition to the Red Sox’s rotation even though his numbers (2-5, 4.60 ERA) aren’t great. MSU product Jonathan Holder is now in the bullpen of the resurgent New York Yankees – the Baby Bombers – who are very much alive in the AL East and wild card races. Jarrod Dyson, the ex-Southwest Mississippi Community College standout, has helped keep Kansas City in the playoff chase, batting .290 with 12 runs, nine steals and solid defense in the outfield in his last 15 games. Rookie JaCoby Jones, the former Richton High star, doesn’t play a lot for Detroit – he is 4-for-18 – but has value as a late-inning sub at several positions. Houston, also still lurking in AL playoff race, would love to see Mississippi Gulf Coast CC alum Tony Sipp (5.45 ERA) regain his career form (3.68) down the stretch. In the National League, former State standout Adam Frazier has been a bright spot (.333, two homers, nine RBIs, 14 runs in 99 at-bats) on a Pittsburgh team that seems to be fading away. UM alum Mike Mayers is on St. Louis’ expanded roster but, having allowed 15 runs in three appearances, doesn’t figure to get a lot of significant work. P.S. Mississippi is well-represented on Baseball America’s Classification All-Star teams. Hunter Renfroe (Mississippi State) made the Triple-A team, Bobby Bradley (Harrison Central High) the high Class A team and Austin Riley (DeSoto Central) the low-A team. Ozzie Albies of the Mississippi Braves is on the Double-A team. … Ex-MSU star Dakota Hudson, the first Mississippian chosen in this year’s draft (in the first round by St. Louis), only pitched 14 2/3 innings as a pro but fared rather well. The right-hander allowed only one earned run and struck out 19 over three different levels. He started with four games in the rookie Gulf Coast League, moved to Palm Beach in the Class A Florida State League (0.96 ERA in eight games) and finished with two scoreless appearances and a save for Springfield in the Texas League playoffs.
Even on an 0-for-3 night, Billy Hamilton hijacked the highlight show in the big leagues Tuesday with a catch that must be seen. The Taylorsville Tornado covered 123 feet and reached 22 mph, according to Statcast figures, and laid out to snag a ball in left-center field during Cincinnati’s 3-0 win against Texas. He leads National League center fielders in Defensive Runs Saved with 12. The best part of the whole thing might have been Hamilton’s post-catch reaction: a wide smile and a shrug. … Southern Miss alum Brian Dozier set a career-high with his 29th homer for Minnesota in a loss to Detroit. He has 75 RBIs, two shy of his career-best set in 2015, and is hitting .268, which would also be a career-best. … Tim Anderson, the Chicago White Sox rookie out of East Central Community College, went 2-for-4 with two RBIs in a win over Philadelphia. He is at .280 with 20 RBIs. … Mississippi Gulf Coast CC product Tony Sipp allowed another home run – that’s 11 in 34 2/3 innings – in Houston’s loss to Pittsburgh. Sipp’s ERA swelled to 5.45. … Ole Miss alum Zack Cozart, out since Aug. 17 with knee and heel soreness, isn’t expected to play again for Cincinnati until Friday. Coming back from 2015 knee surgery, Cozart is batting .263 with 15 homers. … When San Francisco put former Mississippi Braves center fielder Gregor Blanco on the disabled list, it opened the door for another ex-M-Braves center fielder, Gorkys Hernandez, to return to The Show. … Orlando Arcia, the former Biloxi Shuckers star and top Milwaukee prospect, is batting .155 in 20 games since his call-up. … Down on the farm, ex-Harrison Central High star Bobby Bradley blasted two homers for Class A Lynchburg (Cleveland) and now has 29 bombs and 100 RBIs for the season. … Former UM standout Lance Lynn, on the mend from Tommy John surgery, is slated to make a rehab start tonight for St. Louis’ Class AA Springfield club. He has made two starts in A-ball. … The run-starved M-Braves, who’ve lost five of six as they battle for a Southern League South title, face Biloxi ace and former Mississippi State star Brandon Woodruff tonight at MGM Park. Woodruff, despite back-to-back rough outings, is 7-8 with a 3.63 ERA.