12 Apr

the other rivalry

You’ve heard about the rivalry series coming up this weekend. No, not that SEC skirmish in Oxford. The other one. Gulf Coast Athletic Conference rivals Rust and Tougaloo, jockeying for position in the conference tournament later this month, meet in a three-game set (Saturday-Sunday) at the Bulldogs’ Sanders Field (named for coach and ex-Jackson State star Earl Sanders). Rust, led by hot-hitting, base-swiping Malik Berrien, is 7-7 in the GCAC, in fourth place. Tougaloo, led by the sizzling bat of Khilan Magee, is 7-8. Tougaloo has lost 12 straight to Rust, last winning one in 2021. The GCAC now includes eight teams for baseball, with newcomer Southern-New Orleans joining Wiley (Texas), Talladega (Ala.), Dillard (La.), Philander Smith (Ark.) and Oakwood (Ala.) this year. Wiley leads the league with a 13-2 record. More expansion is on the horizon for the NAIA league, which will become the HBCU Athletic Conference in July. The GCAC Tournament starts April 24 at Jackson’s Smith-Wills Stadium.

10 Apr

simply the best

As yet another era of Double-A baseball in the Jackson area enters its final chapter, raise a glass to the seven championship teams produced over the years. The JaxMets won Texas League titles in 1981, ’84 and ’85. The Generals (a Houston affiliate) won TL pennants in 1993 and ’96 at Smith-Wills Stadium. The Pearl-based Mississippi Braves won the Southern League title in 2008 and the Double-A South crown in 2021. The best team among that bunch arguably would be the ’84 JaxMets, who could run out a starting nine made up entirely of future major league players. That club, managed by Sam Perlozzo, featured Lenny Dykstra, Billy Beane, Al Pedrique, Mark Carreon, Greg Olson, Randy Milligan, Calvin Schiraldi, Randy Myers and Floyd Youmans, among others. They went 83-53 overall and won both halves handily in the TL East. Schiraldi was 14-3 with a 2.88 ERA and was the league’s pitcher of the year. Dykstra led the league in runs with 100 and stole 53 bases while batting .275. Beane, in what he called his “junior year” in Jackson, had a breakout season: .281, 20 homers, 72 RBIs, 26 steals. Pedrique led the league’s shortstops with a .961 fielding percentage. Bill Max, who never made the majors, had a TL-best 16 game-winning RBIs plus 11 bombs. All told, 19 players who appeared on the JaxMets’ roster in 1984 made it to The Show. P.S. Jackson teams also won championships in various low-level minor leagues in 1908, 1913, 1925, 1927, 1931, 1940 and 1947 — according to the Minor League Baseball Encyclopedia.

08 Apr

the long goodbye

Trustmark Park in Pearl, which has seen a virtual parade of players roll through en route to the big leagues, formally opened on April 18, 2005, before a crowd announced at 7,062. Anthony Lerew, one of the ’05 Mississippi Braves who would reach The Show, struck out the first Montgomery batter that night. Alas, the Biscuits went on to spoil the home opener, 11-6. Not the start the club wanted, but there have been many, many memorable moments at the ballpark over the years. As the M-Braves’ long goodbye begins Tuesday tonight, here are just a few:
The first M-Braves hit: a Jon Schuerholz single
The Chipper Jones rehab games
Ronald Acuna’s first-pitch home run
The double-steal to win the ’08 pennant
Brian McCann’s no-hitter-breaking, walk-off home run
Drew Lugbauer’s 3-homer game
Jason Heyward-Freddie Freeman July 4 debut
Three no-hitters (won by Tommy Hanson, Julio Teheran and Ian Anderson)
Evan Gattis’ home run in the Atlanta Braves exhibition game
Justin Dean’s ninth-inning catch in the ’21 championship clincher
Jason Perry’s homer over the batter’s eye
Jose Peraza’s triple in his debut
AJ Smith-Shawver’s 7 K’s in 5 innings in his home debut
There will be few more moments in the months to come as the latest crop of Atlanta prospects make their marks. But come September, all we’ll have are memories.

08 Apr

matchups

Teheran v. Morton: Longtime followers of the Mississippi Braves — if there are any — should perk up at the mention of these two names. Julio Teheran (M-Braves, 2010) will make his first start for the New York Mets tonight against Atlanta and Charlie Morton (M-Braves, 2007). Morton has 131 career MLB wins, tops among former M-Braves in The Show. Teheran, who spent the first nine years of his career with Atlanta, has 81 wins, third on that list. Morton was on the ’07 M-Braves team that made the Southern League playoffs for the first time in the club’s third year in Pearl. Teheran threw a combo no-hitter (with Tyrelle Harris) for the M-Braves in 2010.
Waldrep v. Blue Wahoos: Current M-Braves pitcher and ex-Southern Miss star Hurston Waldrep pitched 2 2/3 innings — twice through the order against Pensacola — and got rocked for 11 hits, a walk and seven runs as the M-Braves lost 9-1 Sunday and fell to 0-3 this season. The highly rated Waldrep, who posted a 1.53 ERA over four levels in Atlanta’s system last summer, has a 23.63 after his first appearance of 2024.
Crochet v. Renfroe: Ocean Springs native Garrett Crochet got Crystal Springs native Hunter Renfroe to ground out in their first confrontation on Sunday, but Renfroe tagged Crochet for a two-run homer in the second encounter, breaking up a shutout in the fifth inning and propelling Kansas City to a 5-3 win over the Chicago White Sox. It was the first homer of the season for Renfroe, the veteran slugger in his first year with the Royals. Crochet, making his third career start, got a no-decision; he is 1-1 with a 2.00 ERA for the ChiSox, who have won only the one game.
Foscue v. Hader: Ex-MSU standout Justin Foscue got his first MLB hit on a 3-2 pitch in the ninth inning against fearsome lefty closer Josh Hader, the former Biloxi Shuckers star. Foscue’s single up the middle produced the only run Texas would score in a 3-1 loss at Silver Boot rival Houston on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball.
Dogs on Dogs: The weekend SEC clash between Georgia and Mississippi State at Dudy Noble Field was one to remember. State (21-12, 6-6) took two of three, winning Sunday’s rubber game 9-8 after trailing 5-0 in the third inning and 8-7 in the eighth. Of course, the “highlight” of the series was Saturday’s ejection-filled affair, which Georgia (24-8, 5-7) won 3-2 on a late homer. Emotions ran high all weekend. Wouldn’t it be fun if these two clubs were to meet again in the SEC Tournament?

07 Apr

on the road again

J.T. Ginn’s road to the big leagues has been filled with emergency stops. The former Mississippi State standout from Brandon, who has spent much time parked on the injured list in Oakland’s minor league system, got off to a clean start on Saturday night for Double-A Midland. In his 2024 debut, Ginn allowed one run on four hits and two walks in five innings to register the win for the RockHounds against Corpus Christi. Having made some tweaks in his mechanics, the right-hander, 24, reportedly had a good spring. Though he has dropped off the prospect charts, the A’s brass seems encouraged as Ginn enters his fourth pro season. “It’s just a matter of health and maturity,” Ed Sprague, Oakland’s farm director, told Baseball America in March. Drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the first round out of Brandon High in 2018, two-way star Ginn opted for MSU, where he was the SEC’s freshman of the year as a pitcher in 2019. He suffered an elbow injury and had Tommy John surgery early in 2020, but the New York Mets picked him in the second round that summer as a draft-eligible sophomore. He had a nice debut season in the Mets’ system, then was traded to the A’s in March of 2022 for big leaguer Chris Bassitt. Various ailments limited Ginn to 20 appearances the past two seasons. He was 1-3 with a 7.43 ERA in 2023. P.S. Former Southern Miss star Tanner Hall is slated to make his pro debut today for Minnesota’s Low-A Fort Myers club. A fourth-round pick last year, Hall was a two-time All-America, a two-time conference pitcher of the year and the 2022 Ferriss Trophy winner while at USM. He posted a 22-8 record and 2.92 ERA in three seasons. … MSU alum Tanner Allen, another former Ferriss winner, is 6-for-8 with five RBIs and two runs in two games, both wins, for Double-A Pensacola (Miami system) against the Mississippi Braves. … USM product Nick Sandlin, yet another former Ferriss winner now in MLB, worked a clean inning for Cleveland in a Saturday win over Minnesota and has yet to allow a hit or run in five appearances for the 7-2 Guardians.

06 Apr

trending …

Hot: Delta State has won six straight games, beating Christian Brothers 9-7 at Ferriss Field in Cleveland on Friday. The Statesmen (22-14, 13-6 GSC) rallied from 7-1 down to go ahead on three-run homer in the eighth inning by Dylan Dendy. Noah Magee got the last four outs, all via strikeout. … William Carey University has won five straight and 12 of 13 after whipping Brewton-Parker 11-4 at Wheeler Field in Hattiesburg. Jake Lycette and Bailee Hendon drove in three runs each for the Crusaders (23-10, 13-6 SSAC).
Not: Ole Miss fell to top-ranked Arkansas 8-3 at Fayetteville and has lost six in a row, including five straight in SEC play. The Rebels (18-14, 3-8) have surrendered 59 runs during the losing skid. … Mississippi College lost to Valdosta State 7-5 at Frierson Field in Clinton and has dropped 10 of its last 12. Starter Holland Townes (3-4) yielded seven hits, four walks, two HBPs and five runs in 5 2/3 innings for the Choctaws (14-18, 6-13 GSC), who have a staff ERA of 6.35.
Friday firsts in MLB: Former Mississippi State star Justin Foscue got his first big league at-bat and flied out for Texas in its romp against Houston. … Ex-MSU standout Brent Rooker, now with Oakland, hit his first homer of the season in another loss by the A’s. … Ole Miss alum James McArthur got his first save of 2024 and former MSU star Chris Stratton his first win as Kansas City beat the Chicago White Sox.
P.S. The Legacy League, a wood-bat developmental league, will begin play in June, 2025, at Jackson’s Smith-Wills Stadium, according to a press release from Tim Bennett, who operates the Hank Aaron Sports Academy at Smith-Wills. The Legacy League will have 10 teams, comprised of college players as well as players from other countries, in its inaugural season, per the announcement. The teams will represent local communities and play a 40-game schedule. The league website lists Dusty Baker, Andruw Jones, Brian Jordan, Ralph Garr and Deuce McAllister among its owners/members. There are a large number of college summer leagues around the country, including the Cape Cod League, Texas Collegiate League, Coastal Plain League, Appalachian League, Perfect Game League, Southeast Collegiate League, Valley League and the New Albany-based Cotton States League, which once operated in Jackson.

05 Apr

batter up

The Mississippi Braves’ opening day lineup at Pensacola on Friday featured a blend of old and new and speed and power, with three Top 30 prospects — Nacho Alvarez, Drake Baldwin and Geraldo Quintaro — in the top six in the order.
The M-Braves, beginning their farewell season, faced Blue Wahoos right-hander Evan Fitterer, a Miami Marlins prospect in his fifth pro season.
Ian Mejia, second-year pro out of New Mexico State, got the starting nod from M-Braves manager Angel Flores. He went 4-11 with a 4.69 ERA at High-Class A Rome last year.
Ex-Southern Miss star Hurston Waldrep, Atlanta’s No. 2 prospect (MLB Pipeline), is expected to start Sunday’s series finale.
The leadoff batter Friday was M-Braves returnee Cody Milligan, who was injured for a chunk of time but hit .280 and stole 23 bases in 69 games.
In the 2-hole was Alvarez, the No. 6 prospect, a 20-year-old shortstop whom Baseball America rates as the best overall hitter in the Atlanta system. At Rome last season, he hit .284 with seven homers, 66 RBIs and 16 steals.
Hitting third was Baldwin, rated No. 11 in the system, a power-hitting prospect who mashed 16 homers at three levels in 2023. A lefty-batting catcher, he played 14 games (.321, one homer) for the M-Braves late last season before finishing in Triple-A.
Keshawn Ogans, up from Rome, was in the cleanup spot and playing third base. The Cal-Berkley product, 5 feet 8, 180 pounds, hit .266 with nine homers at Rome and .299 in the Arizona Fall League, where he made the Fall Stars Game.
Hitting fifth was first baseman Bryson Horne, who has 28 homers over his three pro seasons and finished his ’23 campaign with the M-Braves, batting .299 in 23 games.
Quintaro, batting sixth and playing left field, is cut from the Ozzie Albies mold (5 feet 5, 155 pounds). The Braves’ No. 28 prospect, he stole 29 bases while batting .251 for Rome last year and has 96 career steals in three minor league years.
Returnee Tyler Tolve, a catcher, was the DH in the 7-spot. He hit .238 with seven homers for Mississippi in 2023. Rounding out the nine were second baseman Cal Conley (.219, 32 steals for the ’23 M-Braves) and right fielder Justin Dean, who has spent parts of the last three seasons with the M-Braves and has 151 career steals.
P.S. Batting ninth for the Blue Wahoos was former Mississippi State star Tanner Allen, the 2021 Ferriss Trophy winner and SEC player of the year who was drafted by the Marlins in the fourth round that summer. He hit .274 in 17 games for Pensacola, the third level he played at in 2023.

05 Apr

baserunners beware

Big league baserunners, or their coaches, still challenge Hunter Renfroe from time to time. More often than not, it seems, the veteran outfielder makes them regret the decision. The Mississippi State alum from Crystal Springs, now playing right field for Kansas City, threw out a runner at home on Thursday night in the Royals’ 10-1 win over the Chicago White Sox. On Wednesday night, he threw out a Baltimore runner at second base from the right-field corner — “an insane play,” according to a Royals broadcaster. Renfroe, perhaps best known for his power bat, has had his ups and downs as a hitter — he is currently batting .091 without a home run in 22 at-bats — but his right arm has been a consistent weapon since he reached the big leagues in 2016. He has 67 outfield assists all told, 66 since the start of 2017, which is eight more than any other outfielder, according to mlb.com. He has a season-high of 16, with Boston in 2021, and he gunned down 11 two years ago with Milwaukee. Outfield assists records are skewed toward players from the early 1900s, when baserunners were more aggressive, even reckless, and perhaps not as fast as modern-day players. The all-time mark for outfield assists, per baseballreference.com, is a ridiculous 449 (Tris Speaker, 1907-28). The active leader is Starling Marte with 100. Renfroe is seventh on that list and has played far fewer innings than the players ranked above him. The all-time leader among Mississippi natives is Dave Parker, who cut down 143 runners. The Royals are the seventh team Renfroe has played for in the the last six years, and they no doubt signed him for his power (177 career bombs), which hasn’t showed up yet in 2024. His arm might keep him in the lineup until it does.

04 Apr

just stuff

Brock Wilken, Wake Forest’s all-time home run leader and now Milwaukee’s No. 7 prospect, smacked a two-run homer to power the Double-A Biloxi Shuckers to a 7-0 win Wednesday night in an exhibition game against Pearl River Community College at MGM Park. The Shuckers open the Southern League season Friday at home against Montgomery. … Former Shuckers star Jackson Chourio hit his first big league homer for the Brewers in a loss, the team’s first, against Minnesota. The highly touted Chourio is off to a .350 start in his rookie campaign. … The Norfolk Tides, Baltimore’s Triple-A affiliate, banged out 29 hits in a 26-11 win against Charlotte in game highlighted by Heston Kjerstad’s 10-RBI effort and Kyle Stowers’ three homers. Ole Miss alum Errol Robinson, a minor league vet in his first year in the Orioles’ system, contributed a little: one hit and two runs. He is batting .316. … Hunter Renfroe, ex-Mississippi State star, got his first hit of 2024 — he is now 1-for-19 — and picked up an assist on a sensational throw from right field, but his Kansas City club lost to Baltimore. … East Central CC alum Tim Anderson went 0-for-2 and ex-Ole Miss standout Nick Fortes 0-for-3 as Miami fell to 0-7 with a 10-2 loss to the Los Angeles Angels. Anderson, a free agent signee, is batting .231 with one RBI, no homers and no steals. Fortes is batting .083. … MSU product Brent Rooker went 0-for-4 in Oakland’s loss to Baltimore and is at .100 on the season for the 1-6 A’s. … Former State standout Justin Foscue, recalled from the minors on Tuesday by Texas, has yet to make his MLB debut. The Rangers are off today, host Houston this weekend.

03 Apr

last dance

There are some names that pop on the Mississippi Braves’ 2024 roster, the first roster for the last team that will play at Trustmark Park in Pearl.
Start with J.J. Niekro, son of former big leaguer Joe and nephew of Hall of Famer Phil. There’s Hurston Waldrep, the ex-Southern Miss star and Atlanta’s No. 2-rated prospect. And Brandon Parker, the former Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College standout from Saucier.
All told, five of Atlanta’s Top 30 prospects (per MLB Pipeline) will start out with the M-Braves this year, the team’s 20th and last in Pearl before the Double-A franchise moves to Columbus, Ga., in 2025.
“This is a place that has been so good to the organization, we want to make it a special one,” first-year manager Angel Flores said at a Wednesday press conference.
The M-Braves open the Southern League season on Friday at Pensacola. The home opener is next Tuesday (April 9) against Biloxi.
More than 170 players have passed through Pearl en route to the big leagues, and there are some on this year’s club who will also make that climb.
Waldrep figures to be one of those. Drafted in the first round last summer out of Florida — where he finished his college career — he pitched so well in his pro debut that he earned an invitation to Atlanta’s big league spring camp this year and nearly made the 26-man team. The right-hander said he wasn’t disappointed to land in Double-A, that he “wasn’t dead-set on making the (big league) club.”
There is a stockpile of pitching talent in Atlanta’s organization, which can make advancement tough, even for a guy with a 99-mph fastball and a wicked slider.
“As someone who loves a challenge, it’s great to be in an organization where you’re challenged everyday,” said Waldrep, who grew up a Braves fan in Thomasville, Ga.
Atlanta challenged Ignacio “Nacho” Alvarez with a move from third base to shortstop in 2022, his first pro season after being drafted out of a California junior college. Now the organization’s No. 6 prospect, Alvarez, only 20, will start at short for the M-Braves after also making an impressive showing in the big league camp.
“Coming up (in California), I never had a tool that popped out,” he said. “As I grew, I just learned how to play the game.”
Obviously a quick study, he hit .284 with seven homers, 66 RBIs and 16 stolen bases at High-Class A Rome in 2023. At a stocky 6 feet, 200 pounds, he may not look it but he may well be Atlanta’s shortstop of the future.
“I feel comfortable (at shortstop) at the moment,” Alvarez said.
The first thing to know about Niekro is this: He does not throw a knuckleball like his famous uncle and father. “I know how to throw it,” he said. “But it’s a backup plan.”
Signed by the Braves as an undrafted free agent in 2021 out of NCAA Division II Florida Southern, the 26-year-old right-hander has posted a 3.81 ERA in 65 minor league games, working as both a starter and reliever. He is slated to start the home opener.
Niekro’s father died suddenly when he was just 8. Uncle Phil worked with him on his pitching as he grew up, teaching but never pushing him to throw the knuckler.
“He always said just go with your best stuff,” J.J. Niekro said. “My stuff’s gotten me here.”
The main thing his legendary uncle stressed, Niekro said, “was just to be the best person I can be. That’s the legacy I want to live up to.”
For Parker, an outfielder, playing for the last M-Braves team has a special significance. He grew up a Braves fan and often made the trip up from the Coast to Trustmark Park.
“I still have a jersey I bought here way back,” he said. “It’s an honor to play in my home state. It’s a blessing.”
Parker — a national juco player of the year at Gulf Coast — finished his 2023 season with the M-Braves. He hit .239 with five homers and 11 steals across three levels in his fourth pro season.
His goals for 2024? “Winning games,” he said. “And a personal goal is to be as good of a teammate as possible. They watch for that in Atlanta.”
The M-Braves’ initial roster also includes No. 11 prospect Drake Baldwin, a catcher; No. 20 Luis De Avila, a left-hander back from 2023; and No. 28 Geraldo Quintaro, a second baseman.
Flores, still tinkering with the lineup and the starting rotation as of Wednesday, said he likes the mix of speed and power on this club. And the Braves always have pitching.
“It’s a very electric team, a dynamic team,” Flores said.
P.S. Six of Milwaukee’s Top 30 prospects are on Biloxi’s initial roster, announced on Tuesday. Included in that group is right-hander Jacob Misiorowski, rated No. 2 in the Brewers’ system by MLB Pipeline, and catcher/first baseman Wes Clark (No. 25), who hit a Southern League-best 26 home runs in 2023. The Shuckers, heading into their ninth season at MGM Park, open SL play at home Friday against Montgomery.