30 Apr

the beat goes on

This time a year ago, Chris Stratton was a junior at Mississippi State, dominating hitters in the Southeastern Conference en route to earning the league’s pitcher of the year honor and the state’s Ferriss Trophy award. Much has changed. Well, maybe not that much. A first-round MLB draft pick (read: healthy bank account) last June, Stratton is now in the Class A South Atlantic League, pitching for the Augusta GreenJackets, a San Francisco Giants affiliate. He’s still dominating hitters. Through four starts, Stratton is 2-1 with a 2.38 ERA. He has 28 strikeouts and just eight walks in 22 2/3 innings. The strapping right-hander, the 20th pick overall, put up a 2.76 ERA in a rookie season that was curtailed in mid-August when he was conked in the head by a batted ball. No worries. He was fine, and he entered this season already rated the No. 3 prospect in the Giants system by Baseball America. He hasn’t disappointed. It may seem like a long way from low-A ball to The Show, but for Stratton, it’s probably not.

29 Apr

state of the state

It’s time for eyes to focus on prizes in college baseball. Delta State and Jackson State clinched titles over the weekend, and Millsaps College stayed in the hunt for another one. The junior college playoff matchups are set. Postseason play is about to flow over us. … DSU, which won the Gulf South Conference regular season title with a 19-4-1 record, will play 8-seed Christian Brothers in a league tournament opener on Thursday in Chattanooga, Tenn. … JSU swept three games from rival Alcorn State to wrap up the SWAC Eastern Division title. The conference tournament is still a couple of weeks away, set for May 15-19 in Fort Worth. With games still left on the slate, Alcorn is third in the East at 11-10 and Mississippi Valley is fifth (last) at 1-16. … Millsaps, which had fallen into the losers bracket of its league mini-tournament, beat Hendrix twice at Twenty Field on Sunday to survive and advance to the Southern Athletic Association championship series. The regular-season champion Majors (32-11) will host Birmingham-Southern in a best-of-3 on May 7-8. … Belhaven, which lost two of three to William Carey over the weekend, heads to the Southern States Athletic Conference Tournament as the 4-seed. The Blazers play Southern Poly on Tuesday at Columbus, Ga. Carey, seeded third, meets Mobile on Wednesday. … In the MACJC, ninth-ranked Pearl River Community College (36-10) won the South Division and will host Itawamba in a best-of-3 on Friday and Saturday. North champ Northeast hosts Gulf Coast. South No. 2 East Central will be at home to play Mississippi Delta and North No. 2 Northwest gets a visit from Jones County. … Blue Mountain will play top-seeded Bethel on Tuesday in the first round of the NAIA TranSouth/Gulf Coast Unaffiliated Group Championships. … Southern Miss tightened its grip on first place in Conference USA with a sweep of UAB at Taylor Park in Hattiesburg. The Golden Eagles are 13-5 in the league with two series to play. … With three SEC series remaining, Ole Miss (11-10) is fourth in the West and Mississippi State (10-11) is fifth. The Rebels lost two of three to Kentucky over the weekend, while State was getting swept by Vanderbilt.

28 Apr

crunch time

Mitch Moreland has been given a fair chance as the regular first baseman in Texas – and he is finally starting to heat up. The former Mississippi State star from Amory entered Sunday’s play with 10 hits over his last seven games. His average has risen from .157 to .225. Moreland, a left-handed hitter, has been a consistent power source since he crashed the big leagues in 2010. He belted 15 home runs last year and has 43 all told in roughly a thousand at-bats. Of course, his well-documented problem has been hitting lefties. And that problem hasn’t gone away. Through Saturday, Moreland was 6-for-34 (.176) vs. lefties this season, and that was after getting two hits off former Mississippi Braves portsider Scott Diamond on Friday. There was a lot of talk heading into spring training about Texas possibly moving Ian Kinsler to first base to open up a spot at second for rising prospect Jurickson Profar. The Rangers also had a talented first base prospect, right-handed hitting Mike Olt, in camp. Switch-hitting Lance Berkman even played some first base in the Cactus League. But Moreland held onto his job with a strong spring, and Rangers manager Ron Washington made a comment at the start of the regular season about giving players 100 at-bats or so to find a groove. Moreland’s at 80 ABs. He might have found his groove just in the nick of time. P.S. Ex-Ole Miss standout Cody Satterwhite, a former second-round draft pick whose career was derailed by injuries, has signed with the independent Sioux City Explorers.

26 Apr

ding, ding

William Carey University landed the first punch. The scrap between Carey and Belhaven University resumes today with a doubleheader starting at 4 p.m. at Smith-Wills Stadium. There’s not a title on the line, but this matchup is always compelling just the same. The schools are old rivals with proud programs and outstanding coaches in Bobby Halford and Hill Denson. The teams entered Thursday’s game tied for third place in Southern States Athletic Conference at 17-10. Belhaven (35-18) is ranked No. 21 in the latest NAIA poll. Carey (32-19) has been ranked much of the season. SSAC Tournament seeding hangs in the balance today. The host Blazers need to KO the Crusaders with a sweep to claim the 3-seed (behind national powers Faulkner and Lee). Carey’s Jake Fabre shut down BU 6-0 on Friday, allowing just four hits and fanning nine. The Blazers still have ace Chris Good (12-3, 2.37 ERA) to throw today. Still in the Crusaders’ stable are Vito Perna (6-3, 3.42) and J.D. Little (6-1, 2.89). Both clubs have hitters, too. Scott Fabre leads Carey with a .397 average and seven homers. Perna is a .360 hitter. BU is led by Jason Hicks (.359, six homers), Bud Britt (.301, eight homers) and Dominic Francia and Reagan Rutledge (41 stolen bases apiece). This ought to be good.

25 Apr

down to the wire

In juco land, the spotlight is on Pearl River Community College and Northeast Mississippi CC. Pearl River can clinch first place in the MACJC South Division with one win in Saturday’s doubleheader against Southwest in Poplarville. The Wildcats, ranked ninth in NJCAA, are 17-5 in the division after an impressive sweep of Jones County (15-9) on Tuesday. Ryan Deemes and Christian Talley, both 7-game winners, threw shutouts for PRCC. Second-place East Central (15-7) has a shot but needs to sweep Hinds (8-14) and hope PRCC gets swept. Gulf Coast is currently fourth in the South at 10-12. … Meanwhile, Northeast, which is 16-6 in the North, can win the division crown with one win against Mississippi Delta in Booneville on Friday. If Delta (14-8) sweeps, Northwest (17-7) will win the division. Northwest scored walk-off wins in both games of a doubleheader against East Mississippi on Tuesday. Jay King’s homer won Game 1, and Kramer Hollenbach’s RBI double ended Game 2. Itawamba is 11-11 in the North and needs to win one of two against Holmes in Fulton on Friday to claim fourth place and a 14th straight postseason berth. … The top four teams in each division make the playoffs, with the best-of-3 opening-round series starting next week.

24 Apr

something completely different

Millsaps College won the Southern Athletic Association regular season title to earn the right to host a four-team tournament this weekend at Twenty Field in Jackson. The Majors (28-10) are 16-4 at home this year and 9-0 overall against the other three teams in their pod. (No. 2 seed Birmingham-Southern is also hosting a four-team tournament.) The Majors, led by Wes Perkins (.420) and Keith Shumaker (.392), can flat-out hit (.346 team average), and they’ve got a pair of stalwart starting pitchers (Shumaker and Will Edwards). They should be feeling pretty good about their chances to win this tournament and advance to the SAA’s best-of-3 championship series. But that’s the thing about postseason baseball. It’s different. It feels different. The end of someone’s season is always lurking. Every pitch, every at-bat, every play in the field can be a season-changer. We’ll see how the Majors handle it. They open with 8-seed Sewanee at 6 p.m. on Friday. With a win, they’d play at noon on Saturday against the Hendrix-Oglethorpe winner from Friday. The championship round is Sunday.

22 Apr

the bottom line

“Finding a way to win” is a somewhat hackneyed explanation for a team’s success. But how else to describe what the Mississippi Braves have been doing of late. The M-Braves won their sixth straight Sunday, beating Mobile 3-1 on the road, and climbed over .500 at 9-8. J.R. Graham, the highly touted right-hander, went seven innings for the W — the first win for an M-Braves starter this season. Even with early season pitch counts, that’s crazy. Overall, the pitching has been good but not great. The staff ERA of 3.60 ranks in the lower half of the Southern League, though that has kept them in most games while the bats have sputtered. The .231 average is near the league bottom and the team is last in home runs (with four). But they’ve shown a remarkable knack for late-inning magic. The only .300 hitter at the moment is Christian Bethancourt, the prized catching prospect who is batting .341. Minor league vets Jose Martinez (.296) and Kyle Russell (.292, a homer, seven RBIs) have been solid. Third base prospect Edward Salcedo (.255, one homer) hasn’t really gotten it going, nor have several others. Still, the M-Braves have found a way to put together this six-game winning streak, the team’s longest since July 2010. Perhaps they can ride that wave a little longer over the rest of the 10-game road trip. The next game at Trustmark Park is May 1. P.S. Add Brett Oberholtzer to the list of M-Braves who’ve risen to the big leagues. The left-hander, a 9-game winner for M-Braves in 2011, made his first appearance for Houston on Sunday. He joins Evan Gattis and Paul Clemens as ex-M-Braves to make MLB debuts this season.

21 Apr

best in show

The anticipated duel between Mississippi-connected pitchers Cliff Lee and Lance Lynn didn’t materialize on Saturday. Oh, former Ole Miss star Lynn was outstanding for St. Louis. But Lee, the veteran lefty from Meridian Community College, was out of sorts in Philadelphia’s 5-0 loss at Citizens Bank Park. Lee, who had allowed just one walk in his first three starts, walked three in the third inning alone, and the Cardinals capitalized for four runs, all they would need. Lee lasted five innings and was charged with all five runs. He is 2-1 with a 2.83 ERA. Meanwhile, Lynn blew through Philly’s lineup for seven innings, yielding just one hit and striking out eight to improve to 3-0, 3.68. Another Mississippian who started on Saturday, Paul Maholm, also had a disappointing result. The former Mississippi State standout, who had not allowed a run for Atlanta in 20 1/3 innings this season, saw that streak end in the sixth inning at Pittsburgh. The Pirates, Maholm’s original club, put up three runs and went on to a 3-1 victory. Maholm, now 3-1, 1.03, went six innings and yielded four hits and three walks with five K’s. P.S. UM alum Drew Pomeranz, sent to the minors this spring by Colorado, is 2-0, 3.31 in three starts for Triple-A Colorado Springs. … Also there is Meridian CC product Corey Dickerson, who is batting .389 with two homers and six RBIs. Dickerson impressed the Rockies in spring training and is now banging on the door for a call-up. … Former Taylorsville High star Billy Hamilton is scuffling a bit at Triple-A Louisville in the Cincinnati system. He is hitting just .224 in 15 games, though he does have 11 steals in 12 attempts. … Today mark’s the 40th anniversary of Mississippi native Dave Parker’s big league debut. Parker, who broke in with Pittsburgh, played until 1991 and posted numbers worthy of Hall of Fame attention: .290 average, 2,712 hits, 339 homers, 1,493 RBIs. He won an MVP award (1978) and finished in the top three in the voting three other times. He also had off-field issues (drugs mainly) that tainted his career. It seems unlikely he’ll ever get to Cooperstown.

19 Apr

weekend watch

Jackson State is second in the Southwestern Athletic Conference in hitting, slugging, runs and stolen bases. Who’s first in all those categories? Alabama State, which comes to Braddy Field this weekend for an Eastern Division showdown. JSU is 21-16, 15-3. The Hornets, who also lead the SWAC in ERA, are 24-17, 13-5. Of note: Tigers two-way star Desmond Russell is out with a leg injury. … Mississippi State (30-9, 8-7 SEC), trying to sustain its climb in the West, is hosting Auburn this weekend. (Thursday night’s game was suspended by weather and will be resumed today.) Keep a watch on Bulldogs slugger Hunter Renfroe, who leads the SEC in hitting (.429) and slugging (.865) and is tied for the lead in homers (13). … Ole Miss (26-12, 7-8), also on the rise, throws ace Bobby Wahl at Tennessee tonight. Wahl is 7-0 with a 1.40 ERA. … Southern Miss (19-17, 8-4 C-USA) puts its eight-game win streak on the line tonight at old rival Memphis. … Delta State, leading the Gulf South Conference with a 15-2-1 mark, welcomes West Georgia to Ferriss Field in Cleveland this weekend. The highly ranked Statesmen (32-5-1) lead the league in ERA (2.89), and top starters Josh Branstetter and Michael Manley are a combined 12-1. … Mississippi College, eliminated from American Southwest Conference postseason contention last weekend, ends its conference season against Ozarks at Frierson Field in Clinton. The Choctaws (15-20, 5-10) will recognize 11 departing seniors, including top hitter Josh Perez, before Saturday’s twinbill. … Millsaps (25-9, 15-3), in the driver’s seat in the Southern Athletic Association race, takes on old rival Rhodes in Memphis. … Belhaven is 32-16 and 15-9 in the Southern States Athletic Conference heading into a series at Emmanuel in Georgia. The Blazers get mash from Bud Britt (eight homers) and dash from Reagan Rutledge (41 steals in 42 attempts). … William Carey, ranked No. 17 in NAIA, is 31-16, 17-7 SSAC with Mobile coming to Hattiesburg. The Crusaders’ Vito Perna ranks among the conference’s top hitters (.378) and pitchers (3.12).

18 Apr

purple and gold

It has been a heckuva week for Millsaps College. And, of course, week ain’t over yet. On Sunday, the Majors completed a three-game sweep of nationally ranked Birmingham-Southern to take first place in the Southern Athletic Association standings at 15-3. Then, the Majors swept the league’s pitcher and player of the week honors: Will Edwards, who beat BSC with a two-hit, 12-strikeout shutout last Friday, and Wes Perkins, who had a 7-for-12, seven-RBI week, were the honorees. Edwards, a senior from Kosciusko, is 6-1 with a 2.65 ERA and 63 strikeouts. Perkins leads the SAA in hitting at .434 and is second in homers (4) and RBIs (43). The celebrating continued when the Majors cracked the Top 25 in the NCAA Division III poll for the first time this year. At 25-9 (following an inconsequential loss to NAIA Belhaven on Tuesday), the Majors are ranked 23rd. Millsaps will take a Rhodes trip (to Memphis) this weekend with a chance to win the league’s regular season championship or at least nail down one of the top two seeds for the SAA postseason. Each of the top two will host a four-team tournament, with the winners then meeting in a best-of-3 for the inaugural SAA Tournament title. … Flash back: Roughly a month ago, Southern Miss was in a major tailspin. Flash forward: The 2-1 victory over Ole Miss in Pearl on Tuesday was the Golden Eagles’ eighth straight and boosted their overall record to 19-17. Pitching has keyed this turnaround. USM’s staff ERA is down to 3.47 from 4.58 in mid-March. Andrew Pierce (7-1, 1.83) has been consistently fantastic, and Conor Fisk (3-1, 2.38) and Jake Drehoff (1-4, 3.57) have stabilized the rotation. Jay Myrick is 3-0, 2.23 working out of the pen. USM, 8-4 in Conference USA, is on the road against league rival Memphis this weekend.