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.
Just as he was getting hot, the curtain fell on Braxton Lee’s season. The Picayune native, who has endured a rollercoaster campaign, hit .324 over his final 10 games at Triple-A New Orleans and had a four-hit game in Monday’s season finale. Though he is on Miami’s 40-man roster – and on the club’s Top 30 prospect chart – Lee didn’t get a September call-up, at least he hasn’t yet. He batted .235 in 47 games at New Orleans. Lee’s career took off last year, when he won the Southern League batting title and made the All-Prospect team in the Arizona Fall League. He made the Marlins’ roster for opening day and debuted on March 30, the first Mississippian to break in in 2018. He played in only eight big league games. He was sent down, struggled, got hurt, rehabbed in A-ball, spent time in Double-A – it was just that kind of season. For the year, he batted .233 over three minor league levels. The 5-foot-10, 185-pound outfielder has always been a grinder, relying on speed and defense to succeed, from Picayune High to Pearl River Community College to Ole Miss and into pro ball. He was drafted by Tampa Bay in 2014 and traded to Miami last summer. “I’ve never thought, “What if it didn’t work?’” Lee told the Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) Sun-Sentinel back in the spring. “I’m going to make it work regardless of what happens.” You have to admire that mindset. This season might be over, but Lee will fight again another day.
Thanks to a run of brilliant pitching, the Mississippi Braves are enjoying a new view today. They’re on top of the Southern League South with a division title perhaps coming into focus. M-Braves pitchers have yielded exactly one run while powering a sweep of the first three games of their showdown series with Biloxi at Trustmark Park. Dominant starts from Michael Mader on Friday, Kyle Muller on Saturday and Ian Anderson on Sunday – plus quality relief work across the board – have carried the M-Braves (34-26) to a half-game lead on the Shuckers, with third-place Pensacola a game behind. Anderson, Atlanta’s No. 3 prospect (per MLB Pipeline), got his first win in three Double-A starts, going 6 2/3 innings and fanning nine in a 2-0 victory. Jason Hursh pitched the ninth for his seventh save. The Shuckers, the first-half champs in the division, are in town for two more games. Lefty Ricardo Sanchez (2-4, 4.44 ERA), who won his last start with a strong outing at Mobile, gets the ball tonight for the M-Braves. They finish with a six-game series at last-place Jacksonville. The club is chasing its fifth postseason appearance in its 14th year in Pearl. This year marks the 10th anniversary of its lone SL pennant.
From a promotional standpoint, they couldn’t ask for much better than this: The Mississippi Braves, making a postseason push, play their final homestand of the season against one of the teams in front of them in the standings, that team down south, the Biloxi Shuckers. The five-game Southern League series opens tonight at Trustmark Park in Pearl. The M-Braves are 31-26, in third place in the SL South, 2.5 games behind first-place Biloxi, which won the first-half title. In the overall standings, which come into play if the Shuckers also win the second half, the M-Braves are 60-67, trailing Mobile by 3.5 games and Pensacola by 3. The M-Braves aren’t exactly surging but have won seven of their last 10. They’ve been led at the plate by Luis Valenzuela, 7-for-13 in four games at Mobile and a .287 hitter on the year, and Travis Demeritte, .323 over his last 10 games and the club leader in homers (16) and RBIs (58). Cristian Pache, the 19-year-old prospect added earlier this month, is at .311 with five extra-base hits, six RBIs and eight runs in 19 games. The brilliance of the starting rotation has been well-documented, but don’t overlook the contributions of closer Jason Hursh, who has saves in each of his last four appearances and a 2.13 ERA in 10 games. Biloxi features two of Milwaukee’s top hitting prospects, former first-round draftees Corey Ray (.242, 27 homers, 72 RBIs, 33 steals) and Keston Hiura (.278), and league ERA leader Zack Brown (2.33 with a 9-0 record). P.S. The M-Braves are averaging just over 2,200 a game (announced attendance). … The M-Braves have reached the postseason four times since the franchise relocated to Pearl in 2005, most recently in 2016. The club won its only SL pennant in 2008.
For any fan of the game, this is a pretty cool confluence of events: Former Mississippi State star Brent Rooker comes to Trustmark Park in Pearl, where, assuming he is in tonight’s lineup for Chattanooga, he’ll likely face Ian Anderson, the No. 3 prospect in Atlanta’s system who is expected to make his Double-A debut for the Mississippi Braves. Rooker, in his second pro season after a decorated career at State, is batting .271 with 21 home runs and 71 RBIs. He is rated the No. 7 prospect in Minnesota’s system, primarily based on his power potential. He hit 18 homers at two levels in the lower minors in 2017. Anderson, 20, a slender right-hander, was the third overall pick in the 2016 draft out of a New York high school. He was 2-6 with a 2.52 ERA at Class A Florida with 118 strikeouts in 100 innings and a .198 batting average against. In his last six games, he posted a 0.77 ERA. Hence, the promotion. Rooker is hitting just .200 with one homer over his last 10 games. He went 4-for-17 with five strikeouts in a series against the M-Braves in Chattanooga Aug. 2-6. The M-Braves’ rotation has been a revolving door much of the season, caused mainly by top prospects moving up. (See: Touki Toussaint, Bryse Wilson, Kyle Wright.) And yet the current group can be quite formidable. Left-hander Ricardo Sanchez, Wednesday’s probable starter, has been on the prospect radar for several years and is currently the Braves’ No. 27. Enderson Franco (5-7, 3.89), slated for Thursday, was the Southern League pitcher of the week for July 30-Aug. 5. And recent addition Kyle Muller, expected to start Friday, is the Braves’ No. 11 prospect. He has won both of his Double-A starts. P.S. Toussaint, who got the win for Atlanta in his MLB debut on Monday, is the 12th M-Braves alum to make the big leagues this year. The others: Jesse Biddle, Ronald Acuna, Mike Soroka, Dustin Peterson, Evan Phillips (now with Baltimore), Wes Parsons, Willians Astudillo (Minnesota), Michael Reed (previously up with Milwaukee), Kolby Allard, Adam McCreery and Chad Sobotka.
Last week was a good week in Brent Rooker’s world. The ex-Mississippi State standout, now playing at Double-A Chattanooga, went 13-for-26 with seven walks, three home runs and seven RBIs. Today, he was named Southern League Player of the Week and made MLB Pipeline’s minor league Team of the Week at first base. Rated the No. 7 prospect in Minnesota’s system – up from 8th – by MLB Pipeline last week, the second-year pro is batting .277 with 20 homers, an SL-best 67 RBIs and 56 runs in 100 games. Though he has fanned 121 times, he is slugging .522. MSU fans might want to circle the date Aug. 14 – and keep their fingers crossed. That’s when Chattanooga arrives at Trustmark Park to play the Mississippi Braves in a five-game series.
Travis Demeritte is one of the most intriguing players on the Mississippi Braves’ roster. He is a former first-round draft pick. He has played in an All-Star Futures Game and two minor league all-star games. He has hit as many as 28 homers in a season and swiped as many as 17 bases in a season. He stands 6 feet, weighs 180 pounds and can play second base, third and left field. MLB Pipeline rates him the 19th-best prospect in a strong Atlanta system. Yet many M-Braves fans must be wondering, When is Demeritte going to break out? With roughly a month and a half left in his second Double-A campaign, Demeritte is hitting .221 with 11 homers and four bags. He has struck out an even 100 times in 308 at-bats. If the M-Braves, currently 15-14 and 6 games out of first, are going to make any kind of run at a playoff spot in the Southern League South, more production from the 23-year-old Demeritte would be a big help. When the Braves acquired him from Texas (for two pitching prospects) in the summer of 2016, the trade generated some buzz. Demeritte was batting .272 with 25 homers and 13 steals in 88 games in the Class A California League. He added three homers and four steals in 35 games for the Braves’ high-A club. But he did punch out a bunch, and that trend continued in his Double-A debut last year. He hit 15 homers in 124 games – and made the SL All-Star Game – but all in all, it was a disappointing year. There hasn’t been much to shout about in 2018, either, but there is still time – for him and his club. The M-Braves begin a stretch of 10 straight home games tonight, facing Mobile at Trustmark Park. P.S. One of Mobile’s hottest hitters is Jack Kruger, the ex-Mississippi State star drafted by the Los Angeles Angels in 2016. Kruger, a catcher, has hit .333 his last 10 games and is at .308 with four homers and 15 RBIs in 25 games. He was promoted to Double-A Mobile on June 21, when Meridian Community College alum Wade Wass, also a catcher, retired and opened a roster spot.