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.
While Braves Nation stews and awaits more news on Ronald Acuna’s injured arm, here’s something to cheer them up: Cristian Pache. Acuna – recklessly drilled by Miami’s Jose Urena on Wednesday night – is the current big thing in Atlanta; Pache, now playing center field and leading off for the Mississippi Braves, might be the Next Big Thing. The 19-year-old Pache, rated the Braves’ No. 5 prospect by MLB Pipeline, is batting .327 in 12 games for the Double-A M-Braves. He drew a bases-loaded walk in the 10th inning on Wednesday to give the team a 3-2 win over Chattanooga at Trustmark Park. He has yet to homer or steal a base but those will come. Pache is 6 feet 2, 185 pounds with plus speed (32 stolen bases in A-ball in 2017) and developing power (eight homers in A-ball this season). Some consider the Dominican Republic native the best defensive center fielder in the minors. The Braves’ prospect chart is dominated by an armada of arms that seems to get most of the hype, but there are some position players of note. In addition to Pache, there’s former DeSoto Central High star Austin Riley at Triple-A Gwinnett and outfielder Drew Waters and catcher William Contreras at Class A Florida. All in all, it’s a good time to be a Braves fan.
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.
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.
Baseball is hard. Even for those among us who are very good at it, the game can be humbling. On a recent steamy night at Trustmark Park in Pearl, Brett Cumberland stepped to the plate for his first at-bat with the Mississippi Braves, his first at-bat in Double-A. Keep in mind that just getting to this level of the game is an accomplishment; many a good player never gets to play pro ball, and many a pro player never gets out of A-ball. Cumberland cleared that hurdle. As the 23-year-old switch-hitter dug in on the left side for that first AB, there was no special announcement on the P.A. system. Just “Brett Cumberland.” The great majority of the fans in attendance had no idea who he is. There was no noticeable reaction when he was introduced and none when that first AB ended in a strikeout. Cumberland went 0-for-3 in that debut game and is 0-for-8 in two games since. Baseball is hard, but Cumberland is very good at it. Two years ago, unbeknownst to much of the TeePee crowd, Cumberland, a catcher, was the Pac-12 player of the year. He hit .344 with 16 home runs and 51 RBIs for Cal-Berkley. He was a Golden Spikes Award semifinalist. The Atlanta Braves, looking for catching help in their system, drafted him in the supplemental phase of the second round in 2016, 76th overall. He immediately became one of Atlanta’s rated prospects. But his pro debut didn’t go so well. He hit .216 in rookie ball that summer. The Braves sent him to low-A Rome to start 2017, and he hit .263 with 10 homers in a half-season there before moving up to high-A Florida. He batted .269 at the new level but managed just one homer. Overall last year, he showed enough promise, including a .400 on-base percentage, that he was rated the No. 22 prospect in the Braves’ system entering 2018. Back in Florida to start the year, he put up decent numbers — .236 (.367 OBP), 11 homers, 39 RBIs — before his promotion to the M-Braves, who desperately need catching help. Still, Cumberland dropped out of MLB Pipeline’s recently updated ratings of the Braves’ Top 30 prospects. Baseball can be humbling. But here Cumberland is, in Double-A, the make-or-break level, with a chance most never get. Baseball is hard, but talent will out.