Challenged by the Milwaukee Brewers to compete in the Midwest League as a first-year pro, ex-Ole Miss star Thomas Dillard appears to have figured something out. Batting .125 with no home runs through 13 games with Class A Wisconsin, the fifth-round pick has now homered in three straight games and is 7-for-15 in his last four. The switch-hitting Dillard, 21, hit .278 in four games at the rookie level before the Brewers promoted him to the low-A club. Listed as a catcher, which he played at Oxford High and for a handful of games at Ole Miss, Dillard has played only first base, left field and DH for the Timber Rattlers. Known for his power, Dillard hit 31 homers in his three years with the Rebels, including 14 this past season. He was a highly recruited player out of Oxford High, earning All-America recognition after blasting a nation-leading 16 homers for the state champion Chargers in 2016. P.S. Former Mississippi State ace Ethan Small, Milwaukee’s first-round pick in June, has made two appearances in the rookie Arizona League and retired all nine batters he’s faced, five via strikeout.
Oxford High, the defending Class 5A champion off to a 5-0 start in 2017, is the only Mississippi school in Baseball America’s latest national prep poll. The Chargers, preseason No. 22, moved up to No. 17 in the first in-season poll. Houston was ranked No. 41 in the preseason Top 50; the Hilltoppers (3-4) didn’t make the new Top 25. Oxford is rated No. 15 in MaxPreps’ Xcellent 25, and Oak Grove (6-0) is 24th in that poll. Oxford lost several key players from the 2016 team – many of whom are now at Ole Miss – but still runs out a lot of talent. C.J. Terrell is raking at .667, Preston Perkins at .467 and Drew Bianco, son of UM coach Mike, at .429. Carson and Parker Stinnett are a combined 4-0 on the mound. Houston’s slow start can’t be pinned on Colton Peel. The junior is hitting .429 with two homers and has a 1.40 ERA.
With so many talented young arms now at work in the Atlanta system, it’s not easy to stand out. Chris Ellis has found a way. The Ole Miss alum goes to the mound tonight for the Mississippi Braves at Mobile with a 6-0 record and a 2.06 ERA. The 6-foot-5 right-hander, who throws three quality pitches, has 36 strikeouts and 19 walks in 48 innings. He leads the Southern League in wins, ranks eighth in ERA, ninth in WHIP and fifth in innings (an underrated stat). He is even swinging the bat: 5-for-13. Ellis, a third-round draft selection by the Los Angeles Angels in 2014, made it to Double-A last summer and went 7-4, 3.92. The Braves acquired him in the Andrelton Simmons trade, and he is rated their No. 14 prospect by mlb.com. Nine other pitchers, scattered throughout the system, are ranked above Ellis, but none is having more success this year. P.S. M-Braves catcher Willians Astudillo recently was highlighted in Baseball America for his uncanny ability to make contact. Astudillo has struck out just two times this season in 114 at-bats. (He has only walked twice while batting .272.) A minor league free agent signee by Atlanta this off-season, Astudillo has fanned just 53 times in 1,651 at-bats, with a .314 career average. … The M-Braves have hit seven home runs as a team in 20 games at spacious Trustmark Park this season, four of those by Dustin Peterson. Oxford High’s Thomas Dillard hit two bombs at the TeePee on Thursday in the Chargers’ MHSAA Class 5A championship clincher against Hattiesburg. Dillard finished the year with 16 homers.
Oxford High, generally considered the best prep team in Mississippi, has crashed out of the new MaxPreps Xcellent 25 national poll. The Chargers, preseason No. 1 and seventh in last week’s poll, ran out of juice in the Perfect Game Showcase in Cartersville, Ga., losing twice to move their record to 8-3. Oxford went 35-1 in 2015 en route to a Class 5A championship. Next up for Oxford, which hasn’t lost to a Magnolia State school, is South Panola on Wednesday. Jason Barber, the state’s Gatorade player of the year in 2015, is off to another fine start, batting .429 with two homers, though he has lost a game on the mound. He was unbeaten with a 0.00 ERA in 2015. Grae Kessinger, like Barber an Ole Miss signee, is hitting .412, and Drew Bianco, son of UM coach Mike Bianco, has three home runs. Rest assured, the Chargers will power up again and contend for another MHSAA crown.
Former Petal High star Anthony Alford leads a group of five Mississippi-connected players appearing in MLBPipeline’s Top 100 minor league prospects list for 2016. Alford, an outfielder in the Toronto system who gave up football at Ole Miss last year to focus on pro baseball, is ranked No. 42. East Central Community College product Tim Anderson (shortstop, Chicago White Sox) is No. 47; Horn Lake High and Northwest Mississippi CC alum Cody Reed (left-hander, Cincinnati) is No. 66; former Copiah Academy and Mississippi State standout Hunter Renfroe (outfielder, San Diego) is No. 92; and Harrison Central High product Bobby Bradley (first baseman, Cleveland) is No. 93. Renfroe is the only one among the five that has reached the Triple-A level. The full Top 100 list is on mlb.com. … Ex-Pillow Academy star Louis Coleman has been taken off of Kansas City’s 40-man roster and designated for assignment. … Ole Miss is ranked 16th in the Sporting News preseason poll that appears in the magazine’s 2016 Baseball Yearbook. The Rebels are the only state school appearing in that poll. … Defending MHSAA Class 5A champion Oxford High (35-1 in 2015) is ranked No. 3 in the Perfect Game preseason prep poll that appears in the Sporting News yearbook. Senior Jason Barber, the state’s 2015 Gatorade player of the year and a MaxPreps preseason All-America pick, is the star on a loaded club that also includes Grae Kessinger (grandson of ex-big leaguer Donnie) and Ben Bianco (son of Ole Miss coach Mike). Oxford plays Amory and Center Hill on Feb. 20 in a home jamboree. … Walker Robbins of George County is a third-team All-America pick by Perfect Game.
Marcus Thames, the slugger from Louisville, is on a list that is both short and long at the same time. In its current issue (May 18), Sports Illustrated highlights the players who homered on the first pitch they saw in the big leagues. Minnesota’s Eddie Rosario became the 29th to achieve that feat on May 6. Just the 29th. And yet, it seems crazy that it has happened 29 times! First pitch. Home run. Thames did it on June 10, 2002. The former East Central Community College star, debuting for the New York Yankees, took Randy Johnson deep at Yankee Stadium. Thames, now a coach in the Yankees’ minor league system, is one of the few players on the list the casual fan might actually have heard of. There’s Bert Campaneris, Junior Felix, Adam Wainwright (yes, the pitcher), Starling Marte, Daniel Nava and Jay Bell. Bell went on to hit 194 more homers and has the most of any player on the first-pitch-homer list. Thames is second with 115. He hit just .246 over his career, but he did have some thump, averaging a home run every 15.4 at-bats, a remarkable ratio. P.S. Kudos to Oxford High’s Jason Barber, who is featured in Sports Illustrated’s Faces in the Crowd, which makes note of his 0.00 ERA and two no-hitters this season. … Kudos also to former Mississippi Braves star Todd Cunningham, who went 3-for-4 with an RBI and two runs in his first big league start, sparking Atlanta’s 5-3 win at Miami on Friday night. … Former Ole Miss star Zack Cozart and Taylorsville High product Billy Hamilton homered for Cincinnati, the only runs yielded by Madison Bumgarner in San Francisco’s 10-2 rout of the Reds. Southern Miss alum Brian Dozier went yard (on his 28th birthday) for Minnesota, and ex-UM standout Seth Smith homered for Seattle. Cozart leads all Mississippians in the majors with six homers.
0.84 — ERA (to go with six saves) for Ryan Kelly, the Mississippi Braves closer who was named the team’s pitcher of the month for April.
1 – Hit (in 1 at-bat) by Adam Frazier, the Mississippi State alumnus just back from a spring training injury and playing for Altoona (Pittsburgh) in the Eastern League.
1.08 – ERA (through three starts) for Matt Maloney, the ex-Ole Miss star now with Sugarland in the independent Atlantic League.
3 – Triples by D.J. Davis, the Stone County High alum now playing for Lansing (Toronto) in the Midwest League.
3 – Home runs by Brandon Jones, the former Mississippi Braves standout now with York in the Atlantic League.
6 – Ranking for unbeaten Oxford High in Baseball America’s latest prep Top 25. (Northwest Rankin is 13th.)
7 – Stolen bases by Auston Bousfield, the Ole Miss product now with Lake Elsinore (San Diego) in the California League.
9 – Hits (all singles, in 41 at-bats) for Fred Lewis, the Mississippi Gulf Coast CC alum playing for Southern Maryland in the Atlantic League.
11 – Stolen bases by Corey Wimberly, the ex-Alcorn State star now playing for Yucatan in the Mexican League.
11 – Saves by Roy Corcoran, the former Gulf Coast CC standout with Aguascalientes in the Mexican League.
16 – Strikeouts (in 12 1/3 innings) by Jacob Lindgren, the ex-State standout now pitching for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre (New York Yankees) in the International League.
18 – RBIs for JaCoby Jones, the Richton High product now with Bradenton (Pittsburgh) in the Florida State League.
7,920 – Average announced attendance (second in the nation) this year at Oxford-University Stadium, where Ole Miss hosts Mississippi State in a three-game SEC series that starts tonight.
Oxford High is three games away from an undefeated regular season. That’s not easy to do in any sport but particularly in baseball. Size and speed, so critical in other games, can be neutralized in baseball. A hot pitcher, a funny hop or a bad call can take you down on any given day. The Class 5A Chargers (24-0), the highest ranked Mississippi school (at No. 31) in the MaxPreps national poll, play Saltillo on Friday, Water Valley on Monday and West Point on Tuesday. Chris Baughman’s team has dominated most of its competition, outscoring opponents 207-37. Junior Jason Barber has been a two-way star, batting .339 with five homers and 29 RBIs and posting a 7-0, 0.00 pitching ledger. Ben Bianco, a sophomore, is batting .394, and junior Grae Kessinger, son of former Ole Miss star Kevin and grandson of UM and MLB great Donnie, is hitting .380. Don’t bet against the Chargers running the table. But don’t forget that baseball can be a strange game.