Mississippi State’s Bulldogs are in Nashville this weekend, and the burning question is: How did this Bulldogs team get here? Not here, as in Nashville, but here, as in this Super Regional, as the last Mississippi team still playing in 2018? You look at their numbers, they aren’t too good. Middle of the pack in the SEC in batting average and runs, dead last in on-base percentage. Tied for 12th in homers and tied for 13th in steals. Only two SEC clubs made more errors. Bulldogs pitchers had just the 11th-best ERA in the league; they were third in strikeouts but also third in walks allowed. Yet here they are, playing league rival Vanderbilt in a best-of-3 for a berth in the College World Series. It was a long strange trip. They started 0-3 and saw their coach fired. They also started 0-3 in the SEC – swept by Vandy – and were 10-10 overall on March 18. They were 19-19, 5-10 SEC on April 20 when they pulled off a three-game sweep of No. 3 Arkansas. Where’d that come from? Alas, after losing two of three to Kentucky in mid-May, the record was 27-24 and 11-15 and an NCAA bid looked doubtful. Then, out of nowhere, the Dogs swept No. 1 Florida. And yet, even that momentum was quelled when they lost their SEC Tournament opener to LSU. Then they were routed by Oklahoma by a football score in the Tallahassee Regional. That’s gotta be it, right? Well, no. Out of the loser’s bracket, seemingly against all odds, they won four straight to take the region title. And now the NCAA has sent the Dogs to Nashville, a somewhat controversial decision, to play a Vandy team that has also had a tumultuous year. Can this long strange trip possibly reach Omaha? For State, it’s like the Grateful Dead once sang, “Together, more or less in line, just keep truckin’ on.”
All the news wasn’t great for Mississippi State on Monday. The Tallahassee Regional champs saw two of their top recruits for 2019 picked in the first round of the MLB draft, which likely means they’ll never wear the maroon and white. Brandon High’s J.T. Ginn, the state Gatorade player of the year, went to the Los Angeles Dodgers with the 30th pick and Carter Stewart, a highly touted pitcher from Florida, was taken eighth overall by Atlanta. Three other players from Mississippi schools were chosen among the 78 players drafted on Monday: Ole Miss’ Ryan Rolison 22nd by Colorado, Hattiesburg High’s Joe Gray 60th by Milwaukee and Southern Miss’ Nick Sandlin 67th by Cleveland. … We could be seeing Gray – an Ole Miss commit who, per Baseball America, “has plus raw power, plus speed and a plus throwing arm” — in a Biloxi Shuckers uniform in a few short years. Atlanta’s second-round pick on Monday – 49th overall — was Wichita State first baseman/outfielder Greyson Jenista, a 6-foot-4, 220-pound left-handed hitter with power who was the Cape Cod League MVP last summer. It wouldn’t be a total surprise to see him move quickly and arrive in Mississippi by 2019. … Day 2 of the draft includes Rounds 3-10. State’s Konnor Pilkington, expected to go on Day 1, and Jake Mangum and Ole Miss’ Ryan Olenek and Nick Fortes are among the names to watch for. P.S. Keep in mind that you don’t even have to be drafted to make the major leagues. Greenville native Frank White wasn’t. As the story goes, White was playing at a junior college in Missouri when he was recruited by the Kansas City Royals to attend their newly created baseball academy in 1970. Three years later, he made The Show and went on to enjoy an All-Star career that lasted 18 years. Former Ole Miss star Bobby Kielty, who played seven years in MLB, was signed as an undrafted free agent by Minnesota in 1999 after leading the Cape Cod League in hitting in the summer of ’98. He debuted with the Twins in 2001.
When a scout told Sports Illustrated before the season that Hunter Renfroe reminded him of Jethro Bodine, he meant it as a compliment. The 6-foot-1, 220-pound Renfroe, a country boy from Crystal Springs, has Jethro-type strength, and it was on full display Sunday in San Diego. The ex-Mississippi State star smashed a pinch-hit grand slam for the Padres, his first homer since he returned May 28 from a lengthy stay on the disabled list. The slam, which propelled the Padres to a 6-3 win against Cincinnati, hit high up on the Western Metal Supply Co. Building down the left-field line at Petco Park. Renfroe pointed down the line with his bat as the ball flew out and then made an impressive bat flip when it hit the wall. “I’m swinging the bat well now, just got to keep it going,” he told mlb.com. Renfroe was a regular much of last season, when he hit 26 bombs, but his strikeout numbers (140) raised questions and he entered 2018 battling for a job. Hitting just .200 with two homers when he went down with an elbow problem in mid-April, Renfroe is 7-for-14 since he came back from Triple-A El Paso. The Padres reportedly are encouraged. “Anybody that’s ever doubted him has probably learned not to doubt him,” Padres manager Andy Green said in an mlb.com article. P.S. Renfroe, who debuted in 2016, now has three career grand slams and 33 career homers. He has a ways to go to catch fellow Mississippians Brian Dozier and Mitch Moreland, who also went deep on Sunday in big games. Fulton’s Dozier, who hit his ninth of the year as Minnesota beat Cleveland, has 160 career, joining Bill Melton and Frank White in a tie for sixth on the all-time list of Mississippi natives. Amory’s Moreland hit his 10th in Boston’s win at Houston and now has 142 career, two shy of ninth-place Charlie Hayes.
Baseball America found room for 16 Mississippi college and high school players in its recently released Top 500 MLB draft prospects list. No. 500, the last one in, is Simon Landry, a right-handed hitting first baseman from Pearl River Community College who has some intriguing power. The 6-foot-4, 230-pound Landry, a Louisiana native and University of Houston signee, belted 35 homers for the Wildcats the last two seasons, 19 for the MACJC champions in 2018. He also batted .392 this year. His name won’t be called in the early rounds, but it’s one to watch for on the last day of the three-day draft. The highest-rated Mississippi product on the BA list is Ole Miss left-hander Ryan Rolison at No. 21; mlb.com has him at No. 17. He likely will be chosen in Round 1 on Monday — but you never know. Some team might also take a first-round flier on Brandon High’s J.T. Ginn (BA No. 39), Hattiesburg’s Joe Gray (No. 52) or Mississippi State’s Konnor Pilkington (No. 60). State’s Jake Mangum, Southern Miss’ Nick Sandlin and UM teammates Ryan Olenek and Nick Fortes also made the top 200. In addition to Ginn and Gray, three other state prep players made BA’s Top 500: Hattiesburg’s Dexter Jordan, Oxford’s Drew Bianco and Madison Central’s Regi Grace. The top-ranked juco player — and the only other one in the Top 500 — is Will Freeman, a big right-hander at Jones County JC, at No. 489. Freeman was a strikeout machine for the Bobcats. Meridian CC’s Davis Bradshaw is another juco player with a specific tool — speed, in this case — that might interest a big league club. Delta State’s record-setting slugger Zack Shannon didn’t make the Top 500 and is ranked the No. 22 prospect in the state by BA. Seems a little low. … For the record, the highest any Mississippi college product has been picked is second overall (State’s Will Clark in 1985). The highest a prep player has gone is third overall (Laurel Oak Park’s Ted Nicholson in 1969).
Collectively, the nine of them banged out 13 hits and even went for the cycle. They drove in six runs and scored 10. And the one who started on the bump threw six shutout innings. Yes, it was good to be a Mississippian in the majors on Friday. Among the position players who started, former Richton High star JaCoby Jones enjoyed arguably the best day, going 2-for-4 with a triple, two RBIs and a run in Detroit’s 5-2 win over Toronto. The red-hot Tim Anderson, ex-East Central Community College standout, had just one hit, but it was a tie-breaking two-run triple — he also scored on a subsequent hit — in the Chicago White Sox’s 8-3 win against Milwaukee. Meridian CC product Corey Dickerson and Mississippi State alum Adam Frazier had two hits each and accounted for four runs all told as Pittsburgh took a 4-0 victory against St. Louis in a National League Central battle. Ex-State star Mitch Moreland hit the lone home run, his ninth of the year, in Boston’s 7-3 loss to Houston. Southern Miss product Brian Dozier had two hits, including a double, and scored a run for Minnesota in a 7-4 win over Cleveland. Former Bulldogs standout Hunter Renfroe went 2-for-4 for San Diego in a 7-2 loss against Cincinnati, which got a walk and a run from Taylorsville’s Billy Hamilton. McComb’s Jarrod Dyson had a hit, a walk and a run as Arizona beat Miami 9-1. Not to be overlooked among all this offensive production is Chris Stratton, the ex-State star from Tupelo who notched his fourth straight win for San Francisco, which beat Philadelphia 4-0. Stratton, now 7-3 with a 4.50 ERA, allowed just four hits and one walk with seven punchouts. For the record, he also put down two sacrifice bunts. P.S. It wasn’t a great day for Ole Miss alum Zack Cozart, the Los Angeles Angels infielder who sat for the third straight game with what reportedly is a minor arm injury. And ex-USM star Scott Copeland, who threw 1 1/3 scoreless innings Thursday in his first MLB appearance in three years (see previous post), was designated for assignment Friday by the New York Mets. It’s likely he’ll return to their minor league system.
These aren’t household names – ballpark names? – that are coming to Oxford for the regional. Tennessee Tech, Missouri State, St. Louis. But they are hardly chumps. Tech has 48 wins and is ranked 25th by Baseball America. Missouri State is No. 23 and won the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament. St. Louis won the regular season and tourney titles in the Atlantic 10. Fourth-ranked (and national 4-seed) Ole Miss isn’t likely to coast through to the Super Regional round. The Rebels likely will face a stern test in Friday’s opener against St. Louis’ Miller Hogan, the A-10 pitcher of the year and a 10-game winner with strikeout stuff. Tech, a heavy-hitting club, brings the OVC player of the year: Kevin Strohschein (.406, 18 homers, 65 RBIs). Missouri State shortstop Jeremy Eierman is a highly regarded draft prospect. The SEC champion Rebels, 46-15 and a top 10 team most of the season, roll out an impressive crop of stars: Ryan Rolison, Ryan Olenek, Nick Fortes, Parker Caracci and those other guys in the bullpen. Yet the deciding factor for the Rebels might just be the crowds at Oxford-University Stadium/Swayze Field. “It’s going to be a rowdy, rowdy, rowdy group,” SLU coach Darin Hendrickson, who has been to Oxford before, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. P.S. Southern Miss, nationally ranked and a double champion in C-USA, got kind of a tough draw from the NCAA, being sent to the Fayetteville Regional at Baum Stadium, where the national 5-seed Arkansas Razorbacks are 30-3. The Hogs are 9-15 elsewhere. Baum Stadium is a homer-friendly park, and USM can play that game. Led by Matt Wallner, the Golden Eagles rank 15th nationally in homers. Of course, first-round foe Dallas Baptist ranks ninth and Arkansas third. Watch for bombs at the Baum. … There is an interesting subplot to watch in Mississippi State’s regional opener in Tallahassee, Fla.: Bulldogs ace Konnor Pilkington and Oklahoma’s Jake Irvin, the likely starters, were roomies last summer when they played for Team USA. “That’ll be a fun matchup for sure,” Irvin told newsok.com. OU outfielder Steele Walker, a top pro prospect, was also on that squad. Florida State, the host and the national 7-seed, will be a tough out at Howser Stadium. But MSU, the 2-seed in the regional, has played well the role of giant killer this season, going 9-1 against top 5 seeds Florida, Arkansas and Ole Miss.
As they blow by the Memorial Day checkpoint, Brian Snitker holds the lead, with Clint Hurdle running second and Mickey Callaway third. Buck Showalter and Ned Yost appear to have fallen off the lead lap. Of the seven Mississippi-connected managers at the wheel of a big league club, only Atlanta’s Snitker, Pittsburgh’s Hurdle and the New York Mets’ Callaway reached Memorial Day with a winning record. Showalter’s Baltimore team, after losing on Monday, is 20 games under .500. Yost’s Kansas City team is 18 under. Toronto, under John Gibbons, is hanging tough at 25-29, and Ron Gardenhire has steered Detroit to a 24-29 mark, exceeding expectations in his first year there. To be fair, expectations weren’t high for any of these seven clubs. The first-place Braves, under former Mississippi Braves skipper Snitker, are a relatively young bunch running ahead of schedule. It’s a solid team – currently ranked No. 5 in mlb.com’s latest power poll — but they’ll be challenged in the National League East to hold off Washington, Philadelphia and perhaps even the Mets, who are in the charge of ex-Ole Miss star Callaway, brand new to the job. Despite a spate of adversity (check their disabled list), the Mets are 26-25 and just 4 games back of Atlanta. Former Jackson Mets manager Hurdle has done a fine job with the Pirates, who are contending in the NL Central even after trading away stars Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole. Meridian Community College product Corey Dickerson, acquired in a preseason trade, has been one of the Bucs’ best hitters. Gardenhire, a former Jackson Mets shortstop and veteran MLB manager, has the outmanned Tigers just 3½ games off the pace in the American League Central. Former JaxMets catcher Gibbons’ Blue Jays, while just 4 games under .500, are 12 games back of Boston in the AL East. It’s already been a long season for Mississippi State product Showalter and JaxMets alum Yost, both of whom could use an extended pit stop to make repairs. P.S. Ex-MSU star Hunter Renfroe, out over a month with an elbow issue, returned to San Diego’s lineup on Monday and went 1-for-4 with an RBI.