30 Oct

the envelope please …

Evan Longoria is Tampa Bay’s star position player. Ben Zobrist does a lot of things well for the Rays, and Yunel Escobar — the former Mississippi Braves shortstop — James Loney and rookie Wil Myers had solid 2013 seasons, as well. But let’s give Desmond Jennings his due. The former Itawamba Community College standout took on B.J. Upton’s role — center fielder and sometime leadoff batter — in just his second full MLB season and wore it well. Jennings, in 139 games, batted .252 with 14 home runs, 54 RBIs, 82 runs, 31 doubles, six triples and 20 stolen bases. Over the last half of September, while battling a hamstring problem, Jennings hit .393 in his last 10 games with seven RBIs, four runs and five walks. The Rays were feverishly pursuing a playoff berth at the time, and they grabbed it, beating Texas in a one-game showdown for the second American League wild card (Jennings was 1-for-3) and then winning the Wild Card Game against Cleveland. For his efforts, Jennings, who turned 27 today, is the winner of the 2013 Cool Papa Bell Award, given here for the top performance by a Mississippian (native or college alum) in the majors. Consideration was also given to Meridian CC product Cliff Lee (14-8, 2.87 ERA), Ole Miss alum Lance Lynn (15-10, 3.97) and ex-Mississippi State star Mitch Moreland (23 homers, 60 RBIs). P.S. Congratulations go out to M-Braves product Andrelton Simmons on receiving a Gold Glove after his first full year in Atlanta. Simmons had an Ultimate Zone Rating (a defensive metric of some sort) that was reportedly nearly triple his nearest competitor at shortstop. (And he hit a little bit, too, which never hurts in the Gold Glove voting.)

29 Oct

april forecast

Thinking about April 3, 2014. Thinking about who might take the field for the Mississippi Braves when they open next season at Trustmark Park against Mobile. There could be a few holdovers from the 2013 club that made the Southern League playoffs (third time in team history) as a wild card, but there should also be a strong wave of new players rolling in from Class A Lynchburg. Names of note include: third baseman Kyle Kubitza, who batted .260 with 12 home runs, 28 doubles and 57 RBIs for the Hillcats and is playing in the Arizona Fall League; shortstop Elmer Reyes, who went to big league camp last spring and hit .250 with 30 doubles and 60 RBIs at Lynchburg; outfielder David Rohm, a .302 hitter with 33 doubles and 53 RBIs; and outfielder Matt Lipka, a supplemental first-round pick in 2010 who batted .251 with 29 doubles, 40 RBIs and 37 stolen bases. Another Double-A candidate is catcher-turned-outfielder Josh Elander, a 2012 draftee who reached high-A last summer and was named Atlanta’s minor league player of the year. He hit .262 with four home runs and 32 RBIs in 61 games at Lynchburg after batting .318 with 11 homers and 61 RBIs at low-A Rome. Elander “does everything you look for when you evaluate a hitter,” Braves farm director Ronnie Richardson told milb.com. Elander might get more time at Lynchburg to start 2014, but he’ll be in Pearl soon enough. Also on the Lynchburg roster last season was Mississippi native William Beckwith, a big first baseman who slugged nine homers in 53 games but batted just .229. Outfielder Robby Hefflinger, who tore it up at Lynchburg (.286, 21 homers, 52 RBIs) before a midseason promotion, scuffled with the M-Braves (.173, six homers) and is likely to return. It wouldn’t be a shock to see third baseman Edward Salcedo back, along with second baseman Phil Gosselin and outfielder Mycal Jones. Pitching is always much harder to forecast. Aaron Northcraft, Gus Schlosser and Cody Martin — mainstays of the M-Braves’ 2013 rotation — may well go to Triple-A Gwinnett, as could closer Ryne Harper. The top starters at Lynchburg were Jarett Miller (9-8, 3.73 ERA), Greg Ross (9-6, 3.27), Ryan Weber (6-5, 3.84) and Ryan Hinson (4-4, 2.48). Nate Hyatt had 12 saves, John Cornely 11. We can speculate — hope? — that J.R. Graham, the highly rated right-hander who missed most of 2013 with a shoulder injury, will be back in Mississippi next season. He was 1-3, 4.04 in eight starts last year. Heck, he could be on the hill on April 3, 2014. Sure, opening day is five months away, but it’s not too soon to start thinking about it. P.S. Tommy La Stella, the M-Braves’ standout second baseman in 2013, is batting .351 through 11 games in the Arizona Fall League. … Former M-Braves manager Brian Snitker, Atlanta’s third base coach the last couple years, will manage Triple-A Gwinnett in 2014.

27 Oct

weight for it

A year before the St. Louis Cardinals’ draft bonanza of 2009 (see Sports Illustrated, Oct. 28 issue), the team picked a stout right-hander from Ole Miss with the 39th overall selection. Lance Lynn, the career strikeout leader for the Rebels, reached the majors rather quickly, by 2011, and pitched effectively out of the bullpen for St. Louis as it won the world championship. Lynn works in a more prominent role now: He’ll start Game 4 of the World Series tonight at Busch Stadium with St. Louis holding a 2-1 edge. Lynn won 18 games for the Cardinals in 2012 but decided after a tough postseason loss to San Francisco that he needed to be stronger for longer. In the off-season, a revamped diet helped him drop some 40 pounds from his 2012 weight. Lynn reportedly weighed 239 when he checked in for spring training. He got off to a great start for the Cards, slumped after the All-Star break but bounced back to post a 2.12 ERA in September. He finished 15-10 with a 3.97 ERA and reached his goal of 200 innings (201 1/3). “I’m more flexible and I don’t have the aches and pains I’ve had in the past,” Lynn told mlb.com about the benefits of carrying less weight. Lynn, 2-1 with a 5.40 ERA this postseason, will face an aggravated Boston club tonight. Cardinals fans are hoping he is up — or should that be down? — to the task.

23 Oct

the fall guys

A fall intrasquad scrimmage may sound like a lackluster affair, and many tend to be just that. However, this was not the case at Dudy Noble Field on Tuesday. Redshirt freshman Cody Brown robbed Wes Rea of a walk-off home run with a leaping catch at the left-field wall, preserving a wild and wooly 9-8 win for the Gray over the Black. Mississippi State’s fall scrimmages continue with a Thursday afternoon game. The Bulldogs are coming off a 51-20 season that ended in the College World Series finals. … Southern Miss, coming off a 30-27 season that ended in the Conference USA title game, starts its Fall World Series on Thursday at Taylor Park. The pitching matchup is a dandy: Jay Myrick (4-0, 2.79 as a reliever in 2013) vs. Conor Fisk (4-3, 3.23 in 12 starts). … Scrimmages are ongoing at Ole Miss, with the Rebels’ Fall World Series set to begin Oct. 30 at Oxford-University Stadium. UM has 22 players back from a team that won 38 games and earned an NCAA regional bid plus a recruiting class ranked as high as No. 8 in the country.

21 Oct

looking ahead — and back

If you are a baseball fan, you’ve got to like a World Series that features the Boston Red Sox and St. Louis Cardinals, two of the game’s truly storied franchises. (And the best teams, by record, in their respective leagues this season.) This will be the fourth time the Red Sox and Cardinals have met in the Fall Classic, and two of the previous three were indeed classics in which Mississippians played significant roles. In 1967, the year of The Impossible Dream in Boston, the Cardinals took down the Red Sox in seven games behind the brilliant pitching of Bob Gibson, who won three times. McComb native Dalton Jones, an infielder for the BoSox, went 7-for-18 in that series, and the late, great George Scott was 6-for-26 with a double and a triple (but no taters or even RBIs). Scott managed one of the three hits Gibson allowed in Game 7, a 7-2 Redbirds win at Fenway Park. Back in 1946, the Cardinals and Red Sox also played a seven-game grinder, with St. Louis winning the finale, 4-3 at Sportsman’s Park, thanks to one of baseball’s historic moments. Enos Slaughter scored the game-winning run in the eighth inning, racing around from first base on a hit by Harry “The Hat” Walker, a native of Pascagoula. Walker had a great series, going 7-for-17 with three runs and six RBIs. Dave “Boo” Ferriss, the Shaw native and legendary Delta State coach, made two starts for Boston, including Game 7. He was 1-0 with a 2.03 ERA in 13 1/3 innings. He left Game 7 after 4 1/3, trailing 3-1. Boston tied the score in the top of the eighth, but Slaughter’s famous mad dash put the Cards back on top. In 2004, when Boston finally ended its 86-year curse with a World Series sweep of St. Louis, there were no Mississippians on the roster of either club. Vicksburg’s Ellis Burks, the slugging outfielder, did start that season with the BoSox, and Meridian native Jamie Brown also made a handful of pitching appearances that year. P.S. On the subject of championships, former Nettleton High star Bill Hall earned a ring with the Long Island Ducks, who won the independent Atlantic League championship. The veteran Hall, who played briefly in the Los Angeles Angels’ system this year, hit .239 with 16 homers for the Ducks.

17 Oct

october memories

Kirk Gibson’s dramatic home run in the 1988 World Series has been garnering much attention of late. The 25th anniversary of that moment, and of the Los Angeles Dodgers’ last world championship, fall in this month. Gibson’s homer came in Game 1 of the Series, which underdog LA won in a rather anticlimactic five games against Oakland. Much more compelling that October was the ’88 National League Championship Series, which fans of the New York Mets — and the Jackson Mets — remember but not fondly. The Mets, two years removed from their last world title, won 100 games in 1988 and were arguably the best team in the NL. There were 12 former Jackson Mets on the NLCS roster, and former JaxMets skipper Davey Johnson was the manager. Darryl Strawberry hit .300 in that series with a homer and six RBIs. Lenny Dykstra batted .400 (with six runs), Gregg Jefferies .333 and Wally Backman .273. Randy Myers picked up two wins working out of the bullpen, and Rick Aguilera posted a 1.29 ERA. But the Mets lost the series, which may have turned at Shea Stadium in Game 4, in which they blew a 4-2 lead in the ninth inning and lost in 12 (on a Gibson homer off Roger McDowell). That squared the series. New York won Game 6 to stay alive. But in Game 7, the Mets committed two costly errors, watched Ron Darling get KO’d in the second inning and managed just five hits off Orel Hershisher in a 6-0 defeat. That was really the last hurrah for that core group of Mets, so many of whom had passed through Smith-Wills Stadium. The team fell to 87 wins and missed the postseason in 1989, and Johnson was fired early on in 1990. Coincidentally, that was the last year of the Jackson Mets. The honeymoon that began in 1975 was over. The Smith-Wills to Shea pipeline closed. P.S. Willis Steenhuis, a fixture in Jackson-area baseball for many years, will be formally inducted into the Hinds Community College Hall of Fame today. Steenhuis was a standout pitcher for the Eagles in the late 1950s and went on to play at Mississippi College and in pro ball in the Baltimore Orioles system. He became a very successful high school coach, winning a state title at Wingfield, and remains involved in the state semi-pro organization.

16 Oct

tough is enough

Lance Lynn might not have been strong on Tuesday night, but he was tough. The former Ole Miss standout worked 5 1/3 innings for St. Louis and left with a lead that the Cardinals’ lights-out bullpen protected for a 4-2 win over Los Angeles in Game 4 of the National League Championship Series. The Cards now lead 3-1, and Lynn owns two of the wins, having picked up the first in relief in Game 1. He wasn’t dominant on Tuesday, didn’t appear to have his best stuff. He allowed six hits, three walks and two runs. (He also buzzed Yasiel Puig, which everyone said was unintentional.) Lynn was in trouble in the second inning and again in the fourth. But he “wasn’t afraid to make tough pitches in tough situations,” St. Louis manager Mike Matheny told mlb.com. He got out of the second-inning jam — two on, one out, then bases loaded with two down — by getting a pop up and strikeout. In the fourth, three LA hits produced two runs and cut into a 3-0 deficit, but Lynn, a sinkerballer, induced a double-play grounder to escape the inning. He left with the tying run on in the sixth, but it was a job well done. And it’s now the Dodgers who are in a very tough spot.

14 Oct

essence of fisk

When you can evoke the memory of Carlton Fisk in Boston, you’ve done something kinda special. Jarrod Saltalamacchia, the onetime Mississippi Braves catcher, did so by getting the game-winning hit for the Red Sox on Sunday in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series. His opposite-field RBI single in the bottom of the ninth capped a huge rally and kept Boston from falling behind 2-0 in the series against Detroit. It was a big hit, and history served to amplify the moment. The last time a Red Sox catcher got a walk-off postseason hit was in 1975 — when Fisk famously homered down the left-field line to beat Cincinnati in Game 6 of the World Series. Saltalamacchia arrived in Mississippi in 2006 as Atlanta’s No. 1 prospect. He scuffled that first year with the Double-A M-Braves but hit .309 with six homers in 22 games in 2007 before getting the big league call. Essentially blocked in Atlanta by the presence of Brian McCann, then in just his third season, Salty was traded to Texas in the summer of ’07 as part of the Mark Teixeira deal. The switch-hitting Saltalamacchia, with the longest surname in MLB history at 14 letters, has never really become the star he was once projected to be. His career average is .246 and he has 78 homers over seven seasons. But 2013 was his best all-around year: .273, 14 homers, 65 RBIs, 40 doubles, 68 runs in 121 games. And now he has made a postseason memory, earning mention in the same sentence with the great Carlton Fisk. Of course, if the Sox don’t win the ALCS, Salty’s big hit, unlike Fisk’s, likely won’t stand the test of time.

12 Oct

seizing the moment

After getting knocked around by Pittsburgh in Game 2 of the National League Division Series, Lance Lynn had to be wondering when his next postseason chance might come for St. Louis. He was passed over for the Game 1 start in the NLCS against Los Angeles on Friday, but his chance did come later. The former Ole Miss star certainly seized the moment. Lynn threw two scoreless innings (one hit, one walk) and got the victory as the Cardinals beat the Dodgers 3-2 in 13 innings. Lynn threw 29 pitches in the 12th and 13th frames and reportedly remains a candidate to start Game 4 in Los Angeles next week. The win was the fourth in postseason play for Lynn. He went 2-0 with a 3.27 ERA in 10 relief appearances as a rookie for the Cardinals during the 2011 World Series run. Last year, after winning 18 games in the regular season, he was less effective in October, going 1-2 with a 5.73 in six games (two starts). St. Louis fell to San Francisco in the NLCS. Lynn won 15 games for the Cards this year but scuffled at times in the second half. In his NLDS loss vs. the Pirates, he allowed seven hits, three walks and five runs in 4 1/3 innings. Friday’s outing, under all that pressure, had to be a confidence booster. P.S. Wonder what Oakland fans will recall more vividly: that UM product Seth Smith went 5-for-16 overall with a home run or that he made the last out, with runners on base, in Games 4 and 5 of the A’s American League Division Series loss to Detroit?