They have a pulse. Given up for dead two weeks ago when their record fell to 4-15, the Mississippi Braves have come alive on the current homestand. The 11-19 record still looks bad, and they’re in last place, but they’re just 3.5 games back of first-place Jacksonville in the Southern League South. After starting the second half 0-10 at Trustmark Park, the M-Braves have won five of six on this homestand, three by walk-off, including the victory against Jacksonville on Tuesday night. Those kind of wins can energize a team. They’ve got the starting pitching — always the key ingredient — to make a run at the division title. Mike Soroka – a true ace at 10-5, 2.32 ERA – Kolby Allard and Luiz Gohara rank in the top 10 in Baseball America’s recently updated Atlanta prospect chart. Max Fried is a prospect, too, his 2-11, 6.44 ledger notwithstanding. The bullpen has been a bit of a revolving door, with 11 different pitchers recording at least one save, but there are good arms out there. The lineup, on paper, doesn’t scare anybody. The averages, 1 through 8, from Tuesday: .220, .187, .244, .263, .273, .215, .269, .202. Mega-prospect Ronald Acuna is gone to Triple-A. Recent arrivals Austin Riley and Tyler Neslony, the Nos. 3 and 4 hitters, would certainly help the cause if they can muster big finishes. Riley, the highly regarded former DeSoto Central High star, has power. Neslony, a 2016 draftee out of Texas Tech, hit .309 at Class A Florida before his promotion. Joey Meneses (.273), Jared James (.272) and Southwest Mississippi CC alum Kade Scivicque (.269) have been solid all season. Travis Demeritte and Connor Lien have struggled but do provide pop with 13 and nine homers, respectively. There are 40 games left in the half. The M-Braves have time. And, as they’ve shown these last few days, they have a pulse.
New level, no problem for Atlanta prospects Austin Riley and Ronald Acuna. Former DeSoto Central High star Riley went 2-for-4 in his Double-A debut with the Mississippi Braves on Thursday night, while Acuna, promoted from the M-Braves to Triple-A Gwinnett, homered and added two more hits for the G-Braves. Riley, a first-round supplemental pick in 2015, is rated the No. 11 prospect in Atlanta’s system by Baseball America and No. 12 by MLB Pipeline. The 20-year-old played third base and batted third for the M-Braves in a 2-0 win at Pensacola. He was batting .252 with 12 homers at high Class A Florida after belting 20 bombs at low-A Rome in 2016. Travis Demeritte, also regarded as a prospect, moved back to second base from third in Thursday’s game for the M-Braves; Demeritte has 11 homers but is hitting just .211. (The M-Braves’ next home game is July 19.) In Charlotte, N.C., on Thursday, the 19-year-old Acuna, BA’s No. 10 overall prospect, played right field and batted leadoff in the G-Braves’ 13-4 victory. After fanning in his first at-bat, he went yard in his second. He scored three times and drove in two runs. Acuna, who began this season with the high-A Florida club, hit .326 with nine homers – including a shot over the Trustmark Park batter’s eye on Tuesday – 30 RBIs and 19 steals in 57 games for the M-Braves. He played in the All-Star Futures Game on Sunday. The Braves may be considering adding Acuna to the big league roster if they are still in the playoff hunt in the season’s final weeks. He could be a difference-maker.
Quite a few must-see players have passed through Trustmark Park over the 13 seasons the Mississippi Braves have called it home. Francoeur, McCann, Saltalamacchia, Schafer, Heyward, Freeman, Simmons, Gattis, Peraza, Swanson — to name a few of the position players who’ve come along on their way to the big leagues. Ronald Acuna belongs on the must-see list. The 19-year-old Venezuelan-born outfielder, promoted from A-ball on May 9, homered in his first at-bat – first pitch, actually – for the M-Braves and has been wearing it out ever since. He is batting .389 with four homers, 18 RBIs and 12 steals through 24 Double-A games. He is already a two-time Southern League player of the week selection and was named Atlanta’s Double-A player of the month for May. The M-Braves are back home today for the start of a five-game homestand against the Biloxi Shuckers, second in the SL South with a 30-25 record. The M-Braves (27-28) are 4 games back in third with 15 left in the first half. P.S. While eyeing Acuna, don’t overlook Joey Meneses, a 25-year-old outfielder/first baseman from Mexico who is batting .349 with six homers and 23 RBIs. He isn’t on the Braves’ prospect charts, but perhaps he should be. … Erstwhile big leaguer Kris Medlen is slated to start tonight for the M-Braves as he attempts to work his way back to Atlanta. Medlen, a member of the 2008 M-Braves title team, allowed one run in 4 1/3 innings in his first appearance with the current team. He is 41-25, 3.25 ERA in his big league career. … Props to former M-Braves star Alex Wood, now with the Los Angeles Dodgers, who was named the National League pitcher of the month for May. He went 5-0, 1.27 ERA and has a streak of 23 1/3 scoreless innings he’ll take into his next start, which is expected to be next weekend. The left-hander with the funky delivery is currently on the disabled list with a minor injury.
Time for a new challenge — already — for Ronald Acuna, one of the top prospects in Atlanta’s loaded minor league system. The 19-year-old Venezuelan is expected to debut for the Double-A Mississippi Braves tonight at Trustmark Park. A 6-foot, 180-pound center fielder, Acuna was batting .287 with three homers, 19 RBIs, five triples and 14 steals through 28 games at high Class A Florida. He played at low A Rome in 2016, batting .311 with four homers and 14 steals in 40 games. He is a consensus top 10 prospect in Atlanta’s system and is rated No. 92 overall by MLB Pipeline. Acuna’s “ceiling is as high as anyone’s in the (Braves) system,” MLB Pipeline writes.
Some power hitters — former Mississippi Braves stars Ernesto Mejia, Evan Gattis and Matt Esquivel come to mind — have fared just fine at Trustmark Park. Many more have not. (See Josh Burrus, Cody Johnson, Eric Campbell … .) The spacious TeePee gives up bombs very grudgingly. That in mind, it’ll be interesting to see how Travis Demeritte and Adam Brett Walker, sluggers of some renown, handle it over the course of this season. Walker, 25, recently sent down from Triple-A Gwinnett, has played five games for the M-Braves and hit two homers, both at Montgomery. The M-Braves start a five-game homestand tonight against Tennessee. Walker, 6 feet 5, 225 pounds, entered this season with 124 homers in five pro years, including 31 for Chattanooga in the Southern League in 2015. Atlanta acquired Walker, originally a Minnesota draftee, on a waiver claim from Baltimore in January. Demeritte, only 22, is a top 10 prospect making his Double-A debut this season. Listed at 6 feet, 180, Demeritte’s got impressive thump. Acquired from Texas in a trade last summer, he belted a total of 28 home runs, along with 29 doubles and nine triples, in A-ball in 2016. He had a 25-homer campaign in 2014. Demeritte has hit only one home run through 18 games for the M-Braves, though he did get that one at the TeePee, back on April 10. At the moment, the long ball isn’t the biggest concern for Demeritte or Walker. Both are just looking for hits of any kind. Demeritte is batting .212. Walker’s only two hits in his 20 at-bats are the two bombs; he was batting .128 at Gwinnett. P.S. Former Southern Miss star Bradley Roney is back with the M-Braves, moving up from a brief assignment at Class A Florida. Roney began 2016 in Pearl, posting a 2.82 ERA and two saves in 17 games before earning a promotion to Gwinnett. He was on the disabled list there to start 2017.
Power is the tool that will carry Bobby Bradley upward, and the ex-Harrison Central High star has tapped into it again at Double-A Akron with home runs in his last two games. One of Cleveland’s highest rated prospects, the 20-year-old Bradley now has three homers and 11 RBIs, five of those collected on Wednesday. The lefty-hitting first baseman is batting just .184 with 16 strikeouts in 38 at-bats – but he has walked 11 times and has a .360 on-base percentage. … Austin Riley, the former DeSoto Central standout and a top Atlanta prospect, had a four-hit game on Wednesday, perhaps a sign that he is finding a rhythm. Riley, playing third base at high Class A Florida, is hitting .250 with two home runs and 11 RBIs in 14 games. … Petal High product Anthony Alford, one of Toronto’s top prospects, is rocking along at .475 with nine hits in his last five games for Double-A New Hampshire. … Mississippi State product Brandon Woodruff, Milwaukee’s minor league pitcher of the year in 2016, is 3-0 with a 2.20 ERA in three starts at Triple-A Colorado Springs. … Jacob Robson isn’t highly rated on Detroit’s prospect charts – yet – but the former State standout is surely getting some attention with his hot start at low-A West Michigan. The lefty-hitting outfielder, drafted last June, went 3-for-4 Wednesday to boost his average to .348. … Dakota Hudson, the first Mississippian picked in the ’16 draft (34th overall out of MSU by St. Louis), is 1-0, 2.31 at Double-A Springfield. He has 11 strikeouts and five walks in 11 2/3 innings. He worked only 13 1/3 innings in the minors last summer. … Ex-Ole Miss star J.B. Woodman, the second Mississippian drafted last summer (second round, Toronto), is off to a .267 start at low-A Lansing. … Angel Rosa and Wade Wass are familiar names on the roster of the Mobile BayBears, the Los Angeles Angels affiliate currently appearing at Trustmark Park in Pearl. Rosa, an infielder, is an Alcorn State alum, Wass, a catcher, a Meridian Community College product. Both played in Wednesday’s matinee, a 5-1 loss to the Mississippi Braves.
Ten games in, the Mississippi Braves’ young rotation looks like a team strength. And that’s a good strength to have. Each of the five starters has an ERA of 3.52 or better – four are under 2.50 – for a team that is off to a 6-4 start. The M-Braves begin a five-game homestand against Mobile tonight at Trustmark Park. Mike Soroka, 19 years old and Atlanta’s No. 4 prospect (by MLB Pipeline), is 2-0 with an 0.77 in his Double-A debut. Kolby Allard, also 19 and the No. 3 prospect, has a 1.80 in two starts. No. 15 prospect Patrick Weigel, 22 and the only starter with any Double-A experience before this year, has a 2.00; No. 8 prospect Max Fried is at 3.52; and Matt Withrow, 23 and in his first full pro season, has a 2.45. Weigel is slated to start tonight, followed by Allard, Withrow, Fried and Soroka. Akeel Morris, a grizzled vet at 24, has been perfect as a closer: no runs allowed, three saves in three appearances. The bullpen has let a couple of games get away – including blowing a 7-0, ninth-inning lead last Thursday at Tennessee – but the staff ERA of 3.07 is still pretty darn good. Kade Scivicque, Joey Meneses, Luis Valenzuela and Carlos Franco are batting .300-plus, and the team is second in the Southern League in runs (44) and homers (eight). Ten games in, it looks like a competitive club. … Biloxi, meanwhile, is 4-6 after a 1-4 homestand at MGM Park, hampered by an anemic offense that is last in the league in batting (.191) and ninth in runs (28). A 2.40 staff ERA has kept the Shuckers afloat.