Once upon a time, there was a Double-A team at Smith-Wills Stadium in Jackson. Twenty years ago, the Jackson Generals, a Houston Astros affiliate in the Texas League, played their ninth and final season before bolting for Round Rock, Texas. Twenty years is a long time. No former Generals are still playing in the big leagues. There isn’t – or wasn’t — much left to remember them by here in central Mississippi. Until now. The Mississippi Braves will rekindle good memories for some old Smith-Wills fans on Friday night when they don throwback apparel and give away Generals replica jerseys at Trustmark Park in Pearl. Former Generals have been invited to attend. Con Maloney, former owner of the Texas League franchise, will throw out the first pitch. (Yes, the M-Braves are playing a team called the Jackson Generals, a Southern League club from Tennessee. Don’t let that confuse you.) The Mississippi-based Generals, who followed the Mets at Smith-Wills in 1991, won two league titles during their time at the ballpark on Lakeland Drive. Future big league stars such as Bobby Abreu, Lance Berkman, Billy Wagner, Freddy Garcia and Richard Hidalgo played there. (There’s a long list.) Former big leaguers Rick Sweet, Gary Allenson and Sal Butera managed there. Hall of Famer Jeff Bagwell rehabbed there for the Astros. If all goes well, maybe a Jackson Mets throwback game will be next — though the idea of putting Braves prospects in Mets unies seems a little weird.
The talent cultivated at Pearl’s Trustmark Park over the years has blossomed into something special in Atlanta. The surging Braves are 13-3 in June and 43-30 for the season, threatening to break away in the National League East. Former Mississippi Braves have led the way in this remarkable month, during which the big club has averaged 7.8 runs per game. Ronald Acuna, Ozzie Albies, Freddie Freeman, Dansby Swanson, Austin Riley – all have had productive months. “We’re so talented from top to bottom and we show up every night,” veteran catcher Brian McCann told mlb.com after Monday’s 12-3 blowout of the New York Mets. “This is a special team.” McCann, the first M-Braves alum to reach the big leagues back in 2005, has provided a boost on and off the field in his return to the ATL after several years away. He is batting .375 with four homers in 10 games this month. Acuna, moved back to the leadoff spot in mid-May, is hitting .378 with six homers and 18 RBIs in June. Albies is at .367 with four homers and 15 RBIs. Freeman: .333, six homers, 20 RBIs. Swanson: .279, three homers, 18 runs. Riley, the former DeSoto Central High star called up in May: four homers, 12 RBIs, 16 runs in June alone. Overshadowed has been the pitching of former M-Braves Julio Teheran (2-0, 0.53 ERA this month), Mike Soroka (3-0, 4.21), Sean Newcomb (0.93) and Jacob Webb (3.38). It’s been a fun time for old Braves fans, who can only hope the bloom holds into October.
And the National League leader in wins is – drumroll, please — former Wheeler High and Mississippi State star Brandon Woodruff, who notched his sixth on Tuesday. Not what anyone would have predicted for mid-May. The big right-hander threw six innings of one-hit ball as Milwaukee beat Philadelphia 6-1 in a matchup of two of the NL’s best clubs. Woodruff walked five but fanned five in winning his fourth straight start. “The fastball is really overpowering at times, it feels like,” Craig Counsell told mlb.com. “He’s using it well, he’s throwing his off-speed for strikes; it’s a good recipe for success.” Woodruff is 6-1 with a 3.72 ERA in nine starts this season, his third in the big leagues. He also got a hit in three at-bats Tuesday and is at .350 for the year. … Though he doesn’t have the win total to show for it, ex-Madison Central star Spencer Turnbull actually has pitched better than Woodruff to date. The Detroit Tigers rookie right-hander is 2-2 with a 2.42 ERA, fourth-best in the American League, in eight outings. Over his last five starts, Turnbull is 2-0 with a 1.21. He last pitched on Sunday vs. Minnesota, allowing two runs in 5 2/3 innings and departing with a lead. He got a no-decision after the sub-.500 Tigers’ bullpen blew the save. P.S. Miguel Sano, who was at Trustmark Park in Pearl last week on a rehab assignment with Double-A Pensacola, has been activated by the Twins. Accompanying Sano on the rehab assignment was Sam Perlozzo, a Twins senior advisor who managed the Jackson Mets to back-to-back Texas League championships in 1984-85.
DeSoto Central High, the only Mississippi school appearing in the Collegiate Baseball and MaxPreps national rankings, starts its postseason journey against visiting Warren Central on Thursday in the second round of the MHSAA Class 6A North playoffs. The Jaguars are 26-2, ranked No. 2 by Collegiate Baseball and 11th by MaxPreps. Sophomore third baseman Blaze Jordan leads the Jags’ attack with a .448 average, eight homers and 38 RBIs. The Mississippi State commit was the MaxPreps national player of the week for April 8-14, when he went 8-for-9 with three homers and nine RBIs (eight in one game). Junior outfielder Kyle Booker is batting .417 with 34 runs, and senior Colby Crocker (6-1, 1.09 ERA) leads a strong pitching staff. Warren Central, which beat Tupelo in the first round, is 20-9-1. … DeSoto Central may be on a collision course for the state championship with Biloxi (25-3), which is actually rated above the Jaguars in MaxPreps’ computer poll. Biloxi starts 6A South postseason play at home against Petal on Thursday. Senior catcher Nick Skaggs leads the Indians, batting .374 with four homers and 37 RBIs. … The 6A championship series is slated to start May 15 at Pearl’s Trustmark Park.
Two of the best leadoff hitters in the SEC will be at Trustmark Park in Pearl for tonight’s Governor’s Cup. Unfortunately, fans may see only one of them in the game, the 40th renewal of this classic clash that began as the Mayor’s Trophy at Smith-Wills Stadium in 1980. Mississippi State’s Jake Mangum, the school’s all-time hits leader, is expected to be atop the Bulldogs’ lineup, as usual, but Ole Miss’ Ryan Olenek sat out the Rebels’ weekend series at Auburn because of a lingering hip injury. Perhaps he’ll be back in the 1-hole for tonight’s game, which doesn’t count in the SEC standings but means an awful lot to everyone involved. Both Mangum and Olenek were first-team All-SEC picks and Ferriss Trophy finalists in 2018. Both were drafted last June – Mangum for the second time — but opted to return for their senior season. And both have been catalysts for outstanding clubs in 2019. Mangum is batting .383 with 47 runs, 32 RBIs and 19 steals in 41 games for the 32-9 Bulldogs. Olenek is batting .370 with 32 runs, 26 RBIs and six bags in 36 games for the 27-14 Rebels. He emerged as a potent leadoff man in the high-scoring sweep of Florida on April 5-6, going 7-for-11 in the three games. The Mangum-Olenek matchup would be a compelling sidebar, though this game seldom lacks for storylines. MSU leads the Trophy/Cup series 21-18, having won three straight before standing-room-only crowds at the TeePee.
The Mississippi Braves will trot out a highly rated prospect to start their home opener tonight at Trustmark Park in Pearl. Tucker Davidson, whose scheduled Double-A debut was washed out on Monday, is Atlanta’s No. 22 prospect (per MLB Pipeline), a hard-throwing left-hander coming off a solid season in A-ball (7-10, 4.18 ERA). But here’s the thing: This M-Braves staff has three other starters rated more highly than Davidson, yet another example of just how rich Atlanta’s system is in quality arms. Opening day starter Ian Anderson, the Braves’ No. 3 prospect and the third overall pick in the 2016 draft, is slated to start Thursday’s game. The right-hander worked four innings at Tennessee last week, allowing three hits and a run with seven strikeouts. Drawing the opening day start for the M-Braves has been a harbinger of big things. The rather impressive list from the previous 14 seasons includes Anthony Lerew, Sean White, Matt Harrison, Jonny Venters, Mike Minor, Randall Delgado, Luis Avilan, Jason Hursh, Lucas Sims, Max Fried and Kyle Wright, all of whom made the big leagues. P.S. Joey Wentz (No. 12 prospect) and Kyle Muller (No. 13) also pitched well in limited innings on the 1-3 road trip, but the bullpen was a little leaky. … Jonathan Morales hit .364 and drove in five runs, and No. 8 prospect Drew Waters batted .316. Veteran minor leaguer Andy Wilkins hit the team’s lone homer. … Tonight’s game against Mobile starts at 6:35, the new weekday starting time for 2019.
Forget WAR, BABIP and FIP for a moment. Baseball is about runs, primarily scoring them. As Ole Miss demonstrated in its weekend sweep of Florida, score a bunch and you’re likely to win a bunch. The Rebels tied a school record with 40 runs in the three-game series against the Gators, who just couldn’t keep pace. The Rebels are averaging 8.4 runs per game and boast a 23-10 record heading into today’s rivalry clash with Southern Miss at Trustmark Park in Pearl. Thomas Dillard, who scored seven runs in the Florida series, and Grae Kessinger, who tallied five times, are the Rebels’ leading scorers with 38 each. Leading scorers in baseball aren’t as celebrated as those in basketball and football. That just ain’t right. USM’s top scorer is Gabe Montenegro, who has 32 runs. The Golden Eagles (20-9) are averaging a healthy 6.6 runs per game and coming off a three-game C-USA sweep of Marshall in which they put up 25 runs. Preventing runs is the other part of the equation, and both Ole Miss and USM have had some issues on the bump. But their scoring punch has generally allayed those problems. The Rebels have outscored their opponents 276-158, the Eagles 192-134. Bottom line: Don’t expect a pitchers’ duel at the TeePee. … For the record, Mississippi State is even more prolific than Ole Miss, averaging 8.9 runs a game in its 27-6 start. Jake Mangum, the Bulldogs newly anointed hit king, leads the way with 38 runs, a figure matched by Jordan Westburg. Jackson State’s leading scorer is Equon Smith, who has 30 runs for the 17-18 Tigers, who are one of the higher scoring teams in the SWAC (231 runs). Mississippi Valley State, on the other hand, has scored just 89 runs (4.0 per game) while yielding 190. Hence, the 6-16 record. Delta State’s leading scorer is Jake Barlow with 28 runs for the 26-10 Statesmen, and Blaine Crim and Dylan Duplechain have crossed the plate 35 times each for Mississippi College (22-12).
The full breadth of 15 years of Mississippi Braves baseball was on display at SunTrust Park on Monday night when Atlanta played its home opener. There was Brian McCann, the first M-Braves player to get the big league call back in 2005, starting at catcher and delivering a big hit in his much-anticipated return to Atlanta. There was Freddie Freeman, M-Braves Class of 2009, manning first base as he has pretty much every day since he arrived in the ATL in 2010. (And over in the other dugout was Freeman’s M-Braves cohort Jason Heyward, now a Chicago Cubs outfielder but once a Braves star himself.) And also making their presence felt in the lineup was the Braves’ array of new stars: Ronald Acuna, Ozzie Albies and Dansby Swanson, all M-Braves of more recent vintage. Each of them drove in a run in the 8-0 victory, Acuna, the reigning National League rookie of the year, with his first homer of 2019. And the five pitchers who combined to shut out the Cubs are all M-Braves alums, from recent big league arrivals Sean Newcomb, Wes Parsons, Jesse Biddle and Chad Sobotka to the relatively old hand, Arodys Vizcaino. The Double-A M-Braves, who have sent more than 140 players to The Show, begin their 15th season on Thursday at Tennessee. The home opener is April 10 at Trustmark Park in Pearl. There will be more highly rated prospects on the roster, prepping for the big leagues, waiting their turn. The beat will go on.
Cristian Pache arrived in Mississippi with modest fanfare last summer. If he starts 2019 with the Mississippi Braves, as he is expected to do, there will be much more hubbub. Pache, only 20, has been starring in Atlanta’s big league camp, batting .455 (10-for-22) with two homers and eight RBIs. He hit the bombs on Friday and Saturday in Grapefruit League action. And keep in mind that it’s his defense in center field that is considered to be his best skill. “This kid just keeps doing it,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said in an mlb.com story. “He just keeps improving. It’s been a good camp for him.” The Dominican Republic native is rated Atlanta’s No. 4 prospect and No. 37 overall by MLB Pipeline. He was named to the Arizona Fall League’s All-Prospect team last fall and is a two-time organization All-Star for the Braves. He lists at 6 feet 2, 185 pounds and reportedly has added some weight. In 29 games for the Double-A M-Braves last year, Pache hit .260 with one homer, cooling off after a hot start. He figures to be the centerpiece of the 2019 club, which begins play April 4 on the road with the home opener slated April 10 at Trustmark Park. Pache might not be in Pearl very long. As Snitker said, “If you’re at Double-A, you’re in play.” P.S. Former DeSoto Central (and M-Braves) star Austin Riley played some first base in Atlanta’s game on Sunday. Riley, the team’s No. 5 prospect as a third baseman, also has been rumored to possibly see some outfield duty at Triple-A Gwinnett this season.
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.