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.
If you’re a fan of pitching – and of strikeouts, in particular – tonight’s the night to make the trek to Trustmark Park. Touki Toussaint is starting for the Mississippi Braves. Toussaint leads the Southern League – and all of Double-A baseball – in punchouts. He’s got 92 in 74 innings. Three times in his 14 starts he has K’d 10 batters, including in his most recent outing against the first-half champion Biloxi Shuckers. But, hey, he’s more than just a hard thrower. MLB Pipeline, which rates Toussaint the No. 11 prospect in Atlanta’s well-stocked minor league system, raves about his “pure stuff.” He has an outstanding curveball and a good changeup. He’s a long and lean 6 feet 3, 185 pounds with a smooth delivery. It’s fun to watch him work. Toussaint – given name Dany Gilbert Kiti – was the 16th overall pick by Arizona out of a Florida high school in 2014. The Braves got him in a 2015 trade – with quickly discarded veteran Bronson Arroyo – for Phil Gosselin. Toussaint, who just turned 22 on Wednesday, made Double-A last year and went 3-4 with a 3.18 ERA. He also pitched well in the Arizona Fall League. He is 3-6, 3.41 for the scuffling M-Braves this season. He goes against Jacksonville tonight (5 p.m.), his second outing against the Jumbo Shrimp. He struck out 10 of them in six innings the first time.
One of the great mysteries of this season at Trustmark Park is the abrupt decline of Alex Jackson. The 22-year-old catcher, rated Atlanta’s No. 14 prospect entering the year, is batting .182 with one home run and eight RBIs in 32 games for the Mississippi Braves. He started off well enough, with eight hits in his first seven games in his second Double-A stint, but has since fallen into an abyss with no signs of climbing out. He’s batting .132 over his last 10 games, including an 0-for-4 with two strikeouts in Thursday’s first game against Jacksonville at the TeePee. Jackson was the sixth overall pick by Seattle in the 2014 draft, but he struggled to adjust to pro ball. Prior to last season, the Braves acquired him in a trade, moved him back to catcher – his high school position – and watched him take off. He hit .272 with 14 homers at Class A Florida before getting bumped to Mississippi. In 30 games in the Southern League, he batted .255 with five homers and 20 RBIs. He went to the Arizona Fall League and made the Top Prospects Team, sort of an All-AFL list. He was named an Atlanta organization All-Star by milb.com and invited to big league camp. MLB Pipeline projected him as a “Javy Lopez type of regular big league backstop when it’s all said and done.” That was before this season began. With three months left, Jackson has time to get back on that track. Some mysteries do have happy endings. P.S. Laurel’s Wooten Legion Field is the site for tonight’s National Urban Professional Baseball League (see previous posts) inaugural game, with the Josh Gibson All-Stars hosting the Vickie Pasley All-Stars in the opener of a four-game series. The four-team NUPBL was founded in response to declining numbers of African-American players in the game but is open to players of all races.
At Trustmark Park, the prized arms just keep coming. Of Atlanta’s top 15 prospects (as ranked on mlb.com), 11 are pitchers. Seven of those 11 have climbed the bump at the TeePee in the past couple of years, and that number doesn’t include 2016 Mississippi Braves star Sean Newcomb, who has moved off the prospect chart and into Atlanta’s rotation. The marquee pitchers in 2017 were Kolby Allard, Mike Soroka, Max Fried and Luiz Gohara; Fried and Gohara already have made The Show. The centerpiece of the 2018 M-Braves staff is Kyle Wright, Atlanta’s No. 2 prospect and the scheduled starter tonight in Pearl in the opener of a series against the Jackson (Tenn.) Generals. (Jon Duplantier, Arizona’s top prospect, is slated to start for Jackson.) Ex-Vanderbilt ace Wright was drafted fifth overall — $7M bonus – last June and worked only 17 innings in the low minors last summer. A 6-foot-4, 200-pound right-hander, he got his first Double-A win in his last outing, going six innings at Mobile. He is 1-2 with a 2.45 ERA in 14 2/3 innings. Wright throws the requisite upper-90s fastball and two good breaking pitches, according to the MLB Pipeline scouting report. He is forecast to make the big leagues next year, as is Touki Toussaint, another top 15 prospect on the current M-Braves staff. And remember the names Ian Anderson, Joey Wentz, Kyle Muller and Bryse Wilson. All are top 15 prospects pitching in A-ball who’ll be in Pearl soon. This wealth of pitching should pay dividends in Atlanta for years to come. P.S. Kudos to Jonny Venters, who toiled for the M-Braves in 2008-09, for making it back to the majors after a six-year absence. Venters, a star in Atlanta from 2010-12, has endured multiple arm surgeries and setbacks. He retired the only batter he faced for Tampa Bay on Wednesday.
Dominant may not be a strong enough word to describe Will Freeman’s performance on Tuesday in Ellisville. The Jones County Junior College sophomore struck out 18 batters in a seven-inning, 2-0 win over Pearl River Community College. The Alabama signee is 6-1 with a 3.32 ERA and 74 strikeouts in 57 innings. In the day’s second game, Jones’ Tyler Spring and Bryce Fagan combined on a three-hitter in a 4-1 win. This twinbill was a showdown for first place in the MACJC standings, which third-ranked Jones, 33-7 and winner of 14 straight, now leads at 18-4. Fourth-ranked PRCC is 17-5, 32-8. … It’s a midweek, neutral-site game that doesn’t count in the SEC standings, but you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone among the 8,500-plus in Pearl on Tuesday night who would dismiss the Governor’s Cup as just another game. Mississippi State’s dramatic walk-off win against Ole Miss was the Bulldogs’ third straight victory in the Cup series and eighth in the last nine games overall vs. the Rebels. Worth noting: Jake Mangum, the Jackson Prep product who had a two-run double for the Bulldogs and scored the game-winning run, is 22-for-51 (.431) against UM in his career. … Delta State, ranked as high as No. 3 in NCAA Division II, put up 20 runs in a win against Ouachita Baptist on Tuesday in Cleveland and is averaging 10 runs a game. How does DSU, 36-7, ever lose? … A hitter making his big league debut couldn’t pick a much better venue than Cincinnati’s Great American Ball Park, a masher’s paradise. Ronald Acuna, the former Mississippi Braves star and Atlanta’s top prospect, is expected to be in the Braves’ lineup tonight at what some jokingly call “the Great American Small Park.” Acuna passed through Trustmark Park in Pearl last season en route to being named Baseball America’s minor league player of the year. The Reds’ scheduled starter is left-hander Brandon Finnegan. … Southern Miss alum Brian Dozier saw his 17-game hitting streak end as Minnesota suffered its fifth straight loss, 8-3, on Tuesday night against the New York Yankees. “Couldn’t care less about the streak,” Dozier told mlb.com. “The beautiful thing about it is, we play tomorrow.” Ole Miss alum Lance Lynn, seeking his first win as a Twin, will get the start today at Yankee Stadium. … They’ve set a date in Laurel. Opening day for the city’s National Urban Professional Baseball League team is May 25. Tickets are on sale. The team will be called the Josh Gibson All-Stars in honor of the Hall of Famer from the Negro Leagues and will play at Wooten Legion Field. Tryouts are ongoing. (Visit nupbl.com for more information.) A number of Mississippians are expected to be on the Laurel team roster.
Tuesday was a test of resilience for three college programs that endured serious disappointment over the weekend. Ole Miss, William Carey and Millsaps all showed a little something. The No. 4-ranked Rebels, coming off an SEC series loss to scuffling Mississippi State, bounced back with an 11-3 win against No. 12 Southern Miss before a crowd of 5,772 at Trustmark Park in Pearl. Chase Cockrell and Thomas Dillard drove in three runs each and Houston Roth improved to 5-0 for the Rebels (28-6), who’ll take a 7-5 conference record to Vanderbilt this weekend. Carey, ranked 11th in the latest NAIA poll, was swept at home by top-ranked Faulkner in a big Southern States Athletic Conference series last weekend. The Crusaders rebounded Tuesday with a 7-1 win in the opener of a doubleheader at LSU-Alexandria behind the bat of Marcus Buckley and the arm of Lake Robertson. WCU lost Game 2 7-4. The Crusaders (26-14, 10-5 SSAC) travel to Loyola (La.) for their next league series this weekend. Millsaps, hoping to make a late push in the Southern Athletic Association standings, was swept at home by Sewanee over the weekend, falling to 8-10 in the conference. Fueled by the hitting of Christian Cooper and six innings of stellar relief from Chris Guerin, the Majors responded Tuesday with a 6-4 victory at East Texas Baptist. NCAA Division III Millsaps (20-16) finishes SAA play at Centre this weekend. P.S. On the day he was named to the Golden Spikes Award Watch List, Delta State’s Zack Shannon smacked his nation-leading 23rd home run in an 8-3 win vs. Harding. Shannon is batting .445 with 70 RBIs for DSU, 29-6 and ranked as high as fifth in Division II.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Jackson Mets’ first playoff team. The ’78 JaxMets beat Arkansas in the Texas League East playoffs and then fell to El Paso in the title series. Mookie Wilson was the hub of the offense, batting .292 with seven homers, 15 triples and 72 RBIs. Kelvin Chapman, another future big leaguer, hit .266 and led the club with 84 runs. Juan Monasterio batted .289, and Bobby Bryant belted eight homers. Jeff Reardon was the ace, going 17-4 with a 2.54 ERA. Neil Allen led the league in ERA. Scott Holman won 11 games and Kim Seaman 10. The ’78 season was the fourth year the Mets’ Double-A club operated at Smith-Wills Stadium, an affiliation that lasted 16 years. The OJMs missed the playoffs in 1979 but then went on a rip where they made it eight straight years and won three league titles. The ’78 JaxMets were managed by Bob Wellman, no relation to Phillip Wellman, who, 30 years later, managed the Mississippi Braves to the Southern League pennant. That remains the only title claimed by the M-Braves, now entering their 14th year at Trustmark Park in Pearl. The ’08 M-Braves featured a great young pitching staff: Tommy Hanson, Kris Medlen, Todd Redmond, James Parr, et al. Kala Ka’aihue led the team in homers (14) and RBIs (61) and swung a big bat in the postseason. But the club was defined more by the scrappiness of Matt Young and J.C. Holt, who combined for 52 steals. Wellman loved to get aggressive on the bases, and the M-Braves scored the pennant-winning run against Carolina on a walk-off double steal. … This season also marks the 25th anniversary of the first Jackson Generals team to win a Texas League title. The 1993 season was the third at Smith-Wills Stadium for the Houston Astros affiliate. Stars of that club, managed by Sal Butera, included Brian Hunter, Roberto Petagine, Jim Dougherty, Tom Nevers and Jackson native Fletcher Thompson.