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.
Cool idea by the Mississippi Braves to give a nod to the old Jackson Generals as part of the M-Braves’ celebration of the franchise’s 15th year in Pearl. The M-Braves will wear some throwback apparel when the Jackson (Tenn.) Generals (no relation to the other one) visit Trustmark Park from June 25-29. On June 28, the first 1,000 fans will receive a replica Jackson (Miss.) Generals jersey. As a refresher, the Generals were the Double-A Texas League affiliate of the Houston Astros and played at Smith-Wills Stadium from 1991-1999. That club produced a bevy of big league stars, including Billy Wagner, Lance Berkman, Bobby Abreu, Carlos Guillen, Freddy Garcia, Richard Hidalgo, Todd Jones, Julio Lugo, Daryle Ward, Melvin Mora, Brian Hunter and Scott Elarton, to name, well, more than a few. The Generals won two Texas League pennants (1993 and ’96). Of course, Jackson’s pro baseball legacy extends well beyond the Generals. The Mets – New York’s Double-A club – occupied Smith-Wills from 1975-1990, turned out an array of stars, as well (see Darryl Strawberry, Jeff Reardon, Mookie Wilson, Kevin Mitchell, et al.), and won three TL titles. And before the Mets there were a number of minor league teams that played in a long-gone ballpark at the Fairgrounds for many years up until the early ’50s. Included in that group was a Boston Braves farm team. And let’s not forget that after the Generals departed for Round Rock, Texas, two independent pro teams played at Smith-Wills: the DiamondKats (2000) and the Senators (2002-05). The Senators also won a championship. Bottom line: When it comes to pro baseball in central Mississippi, there’s a whole lot to celebrate.
The Southern Miss-Mississippi State series in Starkville, which ended with a walk-off win for the Bulldogs in Sunday’s rubber game, deserved the lion’s share of attention this weekend. Ethan Small and J.T. Ginn appear to be a dynamic 1-2 punch at the top of State’s rotation. USM didn’t hit (.158 in the series) and was hurt also by seven errors. But there was a whole lot else goin’ on over the weekend that is also worth noting. To wit: Ole Miss’ red-hot Thomas Dillard (a .522 hitter) had a two-homer, eight-RBI game at Tulane – and a three-homer, 13-RBI week – in a contest the Rebels lost, 13-12, when All-America closer Parker Caracci yielded a walk-off homer. Former Jackson Prep star Caracci gave up just one homer in 48 innings in 2018. … Delta State’s Jake Barlow, a 5-foot-8, 165-pound redshirt freshman from Louisiana, hit for the cycle in a Sunday win against Gulf South foe Union, the first cycle for a Statesman in eight years (Kellen Bozeman). Hunter Riggins threw eight shutout innings in that game to move to 4-0 for 10-0 DSU. … Mississippi College (9-3, 2-0 GSC) swept a twinbill from West Georgia on Sunday at Smith-Wills Stadium as starters Chris Crosby and Ryan Lane and closer Tommy Taborda combined to allow one run over 16 innings. Crosby fanned 13 in 8 2/3, Lane eight in seven. … Belhaven’s Justin Milam, a junior from Madison by way of Northwest Mississippi Community College, went 4-for-8 with a homer and four RBIs and threw two scoreless innings as the Blazers won two of three games at Smith-Wills. Milam is batting .382 and has a 0.00 ERA in four appearances for 4-5 BU. … Millsaps went 1-2 in its three games at busy Smith-Wills, including a 21-6 win vs. Wisconsin-Platteville that featured Mason Little’s 3-for-5, five-RBI performance. … And in big league spring training on Sunday: Former USM star Chuckie Robinson belted a three-run homer for Houston against the New York Mets, and ex-State standout Hunter Renfroe went 2-for-2 with a walk and a homer for San Diego vs. the Chicago White Sox.
Busy schedule at Jackson’s Smith-Wills Stadium (with its artificial surface) this weekend: Millsaps College will play Wisconsin-Platteville on Friday at 2, followed by a Belhaven University-UWP game. On Saturday at 10, Millsaps and UWP will meet again, followed by a doubleheader between Belhaven and Centenary. Millsaps and Centenary will hook up on Sunday at 11, followed by a doubleheader (at 2) between Mississippi College and Gulf South rival West Georgia. That series will conclude on Monday with a noon start. … Unbeaten Delta State bolted to No. 7 – up eight spots – in the new NCBWA Division II poll. The Statesmen are 9-0 heading into a three-game series vs. Union University this weekend at Cleveland’s Ferriss Field. Mississippi College (7-3), ranked as high as No. 7 in one preseason poll, is 18th in the writers poll. … MUW opened its second season with a doubleheader sweep, 10-2 and 12-6, of Lane College on Monday at Columbus High’s field. Owls leadoff batter Heath Ford went 3-for-8 with three RBIs in the two games, and Leon Petite had two hits, three runs and three RBIs. … Tougaloo College and Rust College faced off in a Gulf Coast Athletic Conference series over the weekend, with the host Bulldogs winning both games to improve to 2-5. Rust is a new member of the GCAC this season. … Pearl River Community College’s Shemar Page and Jones County JC’s O’Neil Burgos were named the MACJC pitcher and hitter of the week. Page, a sophomore right-hander from Raleigh, threw five hitless innings with 10 strikeouts in a win last weekend against St. Louis CC. Burgos, freshman out of Brookhaven Academy, went 7-for-13 with a homer and four RBIs in the Bobcats’ 4-0 week. … Meridian CC, ranked No. 4 in preseason by Collegiate Baseball, is off to a 2-2 start with a doubleheader slated for Sunday against Copiah-Lincoln CC at Hartfield Academy in Flowood, just down the highway from Smith-Wills.
“Play ball” time arrives for NCAA Division III schools Belhaven University and Millsaps College this weekend, with the Blazers set to open on Friday at Smith-Wills Stadium and the Majors on Saturday at Twenty Field as part of a round-robin tournament. Belhaven coach Hill Denson has announced that this will be the final season of his long and heralded career. The swan song begins against LeTourneau, a D-III school from Texas. The Blazers, 12-27 in 2018, a rare losing season for Denson, were pegged to finish 11th in the 12-team American Southwest Conference. The team had two players get recognition on the league’s preseason Watch List: second baseman Evan Moore, who hit .297 with 23 runs and 14 steals as a freshman, and right-hander David Hall, who posted a 3-6 record and 4.71 ERA last year. Pitching was a 2018 sore spot for BU, which put up a 6.53 staff ERA. Millsaps will play LeTourneau on Saturday, launching coach Jim Page’s 31st year with the purple and white. He topped 750 career wins in 2018 as the Majors went 25-19. The team returns outfielder Jimmy Johnstone, a .361 hitter and second-team All-Southern Athletic Association pick in 2018; outfielder Brennan Ducote, who batted .374 with four homers and 33 RBIs; and right-hander Conner Haynes, 4-1, 3.22 ERA. … Belhaven and Millsaps will play the first of three Maloney Trophy Series games on March 6 at Smith-Wills.
Opening day is always a special occasion. Belhaven University’s 2019 opener on Feb. 8 at Smith-Wills Stadium has taken on added significance. It’ll be the first game of the last season of Hill Denson’s illustrious coaching career. Denson announced via the school website that he has decided to retire after more than 50 years of coaching at the prep and college level. He has won more than 1,200 games all told, collected a bundle of trophies and awards and been elected to numerous Halls of Fame, including the American Baseball Coaches Association just last year. A former Southern Miss player, he helped lay the foundation for what that program has become during his 14 seasons as the coach there; the field at Taylor Park is named in his honor. He also took Belhaven baseball to new heights, including a trip to the NAIA World Series, over his 19-year tenure. During one memorable year (2005), he coached the Blazers and managed Jackson’s independent pro team, the Jackson Senators. Denson is a down-home, good guy who has had a wide-ranging impact on baseball in this state. This final season is one to celebrate all that, yes, but it’ll be tinged with sadness. Games at Smith-Wills won’t be the same without him.
Just 62 days to get through until the first pitch is thrown in the 2019 college season. William Carey University, an NAIA member, will get it started on Jan. 31 with a home game against Missouri Baptist at Wheeler Field in Hattiesburg. Delta State lifts the lid on its season on Feb. 1 at home against East Central University, and fellow NCAA Division II member Mississippi College starts on Feb. 2 at Harding in Arkansas. Division III Belhaven University opens Feb. 8 at Smith-Wills Stadium in Jackson against LeTourneau, and D-III Millsaps welcomes LeTourneau to nearby Twenty Field on Feb. 9. The D-I start date is Feb. 15: Mississippi State launches the Chris Lemonis era at renovated Dudy Noble Field against Youngstown State, Ole Miss hosts Wright State and Southern Miss opens at home with Purdue. SWAC school schedules have not been posted.
The familiar “plink” of ball meeting bat is back on college campuses around the state. Fall ball begins Friday at Southern Miss, which returns 19 lettermen from a C-USA championship squad. In addition to intrasquad games, the Golden Eagles will play two scrimmages against outside competition, which is now permitted by the NCAA. USM hosts Nicholls State in Hattiesburg on Oct. 28 and visits Tulane on Nov. 4 to wind up the fall schedule. … Ole Miss also has announced its slate of scrimmages, the first of which is an intrasquad on Friday. The Rebels also will play two other teams this fall, Delta State on Oct. 13 and Arkansas-Little Rock on Oct. 27, both in Oxford. The Pizza Bowl, the intrasquad finale, is set for Nov. 2. The Rebels are coming off an SEC championship season and return All-America closer Parker Caracci. … Mississippi State, under new coach Chris Lemonis, started fall scrimmages last week. The Bulldogs are coming off a College World Series appearance – the 10th in program history – and welcomed the nation’s No. 12 recruiting class (by Baseball America) to Starkville. The freshman crop includes J.T. Ginn, the Brandon High product who was drafted in the first round by the Los Angeles Dodgers in June. … Fall ball is also under way at Delta State, where much is new. Only one regular position player – catcher Josh Russell – returns from last year’s NCAA Division II regional participant. Two new full-time assistants are now on Mike Kinnison’s staff: Blake Mathews and Slater Lott, a former Meridian Community College assistant. The Green-White Fall Series, which concludes the season, is set for Oct. 18-21. … Itawamba, Mississippi Delta and Pearl River Community Colleges will play a tripleheader of scrimmages on Oct. 5 at Smith-Wills Stadium in Jackson.
The career path that took Chipper Jones to the Hall of Fame veered through Mississippi in 2006. Anyone who was there for those two days in August surely has not forgotten. Jones’ visit to Trustmark Park in Pearl on a rehab assignment created a hoopla that hasn’t been matched by any other Mississippi Braves games played there in the 14 years of the stadium’s existence. The announced crowds on Aug. 11 and 12, 2006, were 7,577 and 7,652 — and those are legit figures. To his everlasting credit, Jones signed autographs for fans and did pre- and postgame media sessions. He was engaging. He seemed to thoroughly enjoy reminiscing about his previous Double-A days in 1992, when he crushed it in Greenville. They played his signature walk-up song, “Crazy Train,” on the P.A. when he batted, and the crowd went nuts when he got his one hit in the six at-bats he took. Fellow Hall of Famers John Smoltz and Tom Glavine also made rehab appearances with the M-Braves — Smoltz threw one inning in a road game — and HOFer Jeff Bagwell did a rehab stint with the Jackson Generals at Smith-Wills Stadium. But they didn’t generate the excitement that Jones did. Fernando Valenzuela’s visit to Smith-Wills in 1991 drew a standing-room only throng, but he came in with the visiting team, the Midland Angels. There was a very different vibe for Jones, a former No. 1 overall pick by Atlanta whose ascendance had been tracked for years by the many Atlanta Braves fans in the area. P.S. Former Mississippi State star Dakota Hudson worked a 1-2-3 inning in his MLB debut for St. Louis on Saturday, striking out the Chicago Cubs’ Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ. … Richton High alum JaCoby Jones, batting .122 over a 15-game stretch, needed a highlight moment and produced one on Saturday, belting a two-run homer in Detroit’s 2-1 win against Cleveland. Jones is hitting .208 with eight homers and 24 RBIs in 95 games for the Tigers. He left Saturday’s game with an apparent injury that he later deemed “nothing serious.” … Former State star Mitch Moreland returned to Boston’s lineup after missing two games with a minor ailment; he contributed a hit and an RBI in the Red Sox’s 10-4 victory over Minnesota. … Corey Dickerson, the Meridian Community College product from McComb, went on the 10-day disabled list for Pittsburgh with a hamstring injury. Dickerson is hitting .318 with 11 bombs and 44 RBIs. … Former M-Braves Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuna grace the cover of the latest issue (Aug. 3-24) of Baseball America, which has a feature piece on the “Baby Braves” behind Atlanta’s resurgent season.
Nostalgia is thick in the air at Trustmark Park when the Pensacola Blue Wahoos come to call. The field staff for the Cincinnati Reds’ Double-A club, which began a five-game series with the Mississippi Braves on Thursday, is replete with big league stars of another era. Fans of a certain age know the names well. Hitting coach Mike Devereaux, who won a ring with the 1995 Atlanta Braves, and bench coach Lenny Harris debuted in the majors in the late 1980s, and pitching coach James Baldwin broke in in 1995. And then there’s Blue Wahoos manager Jody Davis. Not only is he a former big leaguer, he is also a former Jackson Met. Davis made his MLB debut in 1981. Surely there are a few fans around who recall that two years before that, Davis had a breakout season for the Double-A JaxMets, who made their home at Smith-Wills Stadium. Davis batted .296 with 21 home runs and 91 RBIs in 1979, playing on a team that included Hubie Brooks and Wally Backman. Davis also refined his catching skills that year and was named a Texas League All-Star. He was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals (for big leaguer Ray Searage) following that season, then taken in the Rule 5 draft by the Chicago Cubs in December 1980. The next April he launched a 10-year MLB career during which he made two All-Star teams. Davis coached and managed in the Cubs’ system for several years and took the reins in Pensacola this season.