21 Oct

on the brink

The frustration the Boston Red Sox experienced on Wednesday night can be captured in one at-bat in the bottom of the fifth inning. Former Mississippi State star Hunter Renfroe was up with the Red Sox down 1-0, two runners on, no outs. The Crystal Springs native, who had 31 homers and 96 RBIs this season, got ahead in the count 2-0. Was it his time? No. Houston starter Framber Valdez threw his signature sinker, and Renfroe rolled into a 6-4-3 double play. The next batter, Alex Verdugo, also bounced out. Boston got nothing, and the Astros then blew up for five runs in the sixth en route to a 9-1 victory that puts them ahead 3-2 in the American League Championship Series that heads back to Houston. Valdez was brilliant over eight innings, limiting the Red Sox to three hits. The Sox had just five hits in a 9-2 loss in Game 4 on Tuesday. Several of Boston’s big bats have gone cold. Kyle Schwarber is batting .143 in the series, Xander Bogaerts .227, Verdugo .235. Renfroe’s slump has been particularly pronounced. He is 1-for-14 (.071) with one RBI, that coming in Game 1. He was 0-for-3 with a strikeout and two GIDPs in Game 5. Surely, he is frustrated, as are his teammates, but he is not down, said DH J.D. Martinez. “I think Hunter’s been even-keeled all year,” he said in a nesn.com story. “I don’t see him down at all. You know, he is still going up there. He puts up tough at-bats.” Backs to the wall, the Red Sox need some of those tough at-bats to produce hits and runs. P.S. Unsung hero in Atlanta’s crucial Game 4 win in the National League Championship Series: A.J. Minter. The former Mississippi Braves left-hander (2016-17) pitched two near-perfect innings in middle relief in the Braves’ 9-2 win against Los Angeles. Minter pitched the sixth and seventh innings when the lead was a precarious 5-2 and threw 16 of 22 pitches for strikes. He yielded just one hit. With ace Max Fried, another ex-M-Braves standout, starting tonight in Game 5, the Braves, up 3-1, have to feel they’re in pretty good shape.

20 Oct

role player

Game 4 may have been a pivotal one in the American League Championship Series, and Mississippi State product Kendall Graveman played a pivotal role. Graveman threw two scoreless innings — the seventh and eighth — and got the win as Houston rallied past Boston 9-2 Tuesday night at Fenway Park to square the series at 2-2. Graveman was one of five Astros relievers who worked 7 2/3 shutout innings after starter Zack Greinke was pulled in the second inning. The two-inning stint was the longest for Graveman since he joined the Astros in a late July trade with Seattle. “I was mentally preparing myself to go three, honestly,” he told mlb.com. The Astros went to closer Ryan Pressly in the ninth after scoring seven runs in the top of the inning. Appearing in the postseason for the first time in his seven years in MLB, Graveman has been good: three scoreless innings in the ALCS and a 1.50 ERA in five appearances overall. The right-hander was a closer with Seattle (0.82 ERA, 4-0, 10 saves) but saw his role change to set-up man in Houston. He scuffled at times, posting a 3.13 ERA with three blown saves and seven holds in 23 games. He looked to be in top form on Tuesday. Strangely enough, the only batter to reach against Graveman was Hunter Renfroe, his former teammate at MSU, who drew a two-out walk in the eighth. It was just the second time they had faced each other in the big leagues; Graveman struck out Renfroe in that previous encounter. Renfroe, who had a monster season for the Red Sox, has had a quiet series (1-for-11 with four walks).

19 Oct

razing arizona

The challenge of the Arizona Fall League appears to have brought out the best in Matt Wallner. The former Southern Miss standout, the school’s career home run leader, is off to a scorching start in the desert with six hits in his first 16 at-bats. The lefty-hitting outfielder, a top prospect in Minnesota’s system, went 3-for-5 Monday with his second home run in Scottsdale’s 7-6 loss to Salt River. Wallner batted .265 with 15 homers and 47 RBIs in High-A ball this season, his second as a pro. He spent a chunk of time on the injured list. MLB Pipeline projects the Twins’ No. 14 prospect could make the big leagues next season, which he’ll likely start in Double-A. … Salt River’s leadoff batter in Monday’s game was Joe Gray, Jr., the ex-Hattiesburg High star and a Milwaukee prospect. He is off to a sluggish start in the prospect-filled AFL, batting .071 after an 0-for-5. … Mississippi State product Justin Foscue, a Texas farmhand, hit his first homer of the fall in Surprise’s 5-3 victory against Peoria. Foscue is batting .364 on the heels of a big first pro summer that saw him reach Double-A. … Peoria’s starting pitcher was Ole Miss alum James McArthur, who worked four innings and yielded one run (not Foscue’s homer) with six strikeouts. McArthur is in his fourth year in Philadelphia’s chain.

17 Oct

a lot to like

There are a lot of reasons to like Austin Riley, the hero of Atlanta’s 3-2 win against Los Angeles in the National League Championship Series opener on Saturday night. The 24-year-old third baseman out of DeSoto Central High had to prove himself worthy of a starting job in spring training. A slow start to the season brought out the doubters again. Manager Brian Snitker stuck with him, and Riley responded by putting up MVP-type numbers while also playing Gold Glove-quality defense as the Braves charged to a division title. He was the definition of clutch on Saturday: a game-tying home run with two outs in the fourth inning and a game-winning hit in the ninth, his first walk-off knock as a pro. “He’s been our rock in the middle of the order,” Braves pitcher Max Fried said in a postgame interview. Ozzie Albies, who scored the winning run, called Riley “the big boss.” But Riley doesn’t act like a boss. For all his physical talents, his most admirable quality might be his comportment. After his home run Saturday — a laser into the left-field seats — he didn’t flip his bat, pound his chest or point to his wrist. He celebrated with a swarm of teammates after the ninth-inning hit, but in the televised postgame interview, he was composed and humble, as he always is. As over-the-top, look-at-me celebration begins to creep into baseball, it’s refreshing to see Riley handle his success with such grace. Want another reason to like him? In a recent interview with Mark Bowman of mlb.com, Riley said his favorite baseball movie, one he watched hundreds of times as a kid, is “The Sandlot.” Sounds about right.

15 Oct

just stuff

As we await Game 1 of the American League Championship Series, let’s take a moment to give a shout-out to the 2013 Mississippi State Bulldogs, an outstanding team that produced two players in this series plus five others who have played in the big leagues. Hunter Renfroe, the pride of Crystal Springs, plays right field for Boston and Kendall Graveman pitches out of the Houston bullpen. They were key members of the 2013 Bulldogs, who, under John Cohen, won 51 games before losing in the College World Series final to UCLA. Also on that club were 2021 MLB All-Stars Brandon Woodruff and Adam Frazier, as well as Jonathan Holder, Jacob Lindgren and Jacob Robson along with several others who played pro ball but never reached the majors. That team was loaded. The sting of coming within two wins of a national title might have been assuaged a bit by the Bulldogs’ run to the championship this year. Maybe. A bit. … That familiar face coaching first base for San Francisco — the face that was covered by both hands after the check-swing call that ended Thursday’s game — belongs to Antoan Richardson, the former Mississippi Braves outfielder. The Giants’ expansive list of coaches got a lot of credit for the team’s surprising success this season. Former M-Braves Tommy LaStella and Alex Wood were part of the team that saw their 109-win season end in the National League Division Series loss to Los Angeles. … Louisville native and ex-East Central Community College star Marcus Thames is looking for another job — and likely will find one — after being fired as hitting coach of the New York Yankees. The Yankees made the postseason in each of Thames’ four years on the job, but they had some well-chronicled offensive struggles this season. “At the end of the day, when you sign up to be a coach, sometimes this is what happens,” Thames said in a radio interview. “It’s just another chapter in my book … .” … Former MSU star Buck Showalter has been mentioned as a candidate for the New York Mets and San Diego Padres managerial jobs. Showalter has had success (1,551-1,517-1 career record) with several different MLB clubs. … Ole Miss product Grae Kessinger, an Astros minor leaguer, went 3-for-5 with a home run Thursday for Glendale in the Arizona Fall League. He played at the Double-A level this season. … Robert Carson, the former Hattiesburg High standout and onetime major leaguer, is with the Lexington Legends, who are playing for the Atlantic League championship. Carson has been in the independent league since 2015; the 32-year-old lefty had an 8.00 ERA in 39 games this season but worked two scoreless innings in the Legends’ division series win. The Legends now play Long Island, managed by former Jackson Mets star Wally Backman. The Ducks eliminated Southern Maryland, managed by Jackson’s Stan Cliburn. East Mississippi CC product LeDarious Clark hit .286 with a homer for Cliburn’s Blue Crabs in the division series loss.

14 Oct

coming attractions

Minor league numbers don’t always translate to major league success, but there is certainly great promise in what the crop of Mississippi products displayed this season. Consider a 2021 All-Star team of state-connected players in the minors:
The pitching staff would feature Ethan Small (Mississippi State), who went 4-2 with a 1.98 ERA over three levels and earned Milwaukee’s organizational pitcher of the year honors; Konnor Pilkington (MSU), 7-6, 3.04 in Double-A for the Chicago White Sox and Cleveland; J.T. Ginn (MSU), 5-5, 3.03 in A-ball for the New York Mets; Kirk McCarty (Southern Miss), 9-6, 5.01 in Triple-A for Cleveland; Parker Caracci (Ole Miss), 2.29, 12 saves at two levels for Toronto; Colby White (MSU), 1.44, 11 saves over four levels for Tampa Bay.
Catcher: Thomas Dillard (Ole Miss), .247, 18 homers, 75 RBIs at High-A and Double-A for the Brewers, or Nick Fortes (Ole Miss), .245, 7, 44 in Double-A and Triple-A before hitting .290 with four bombs in the majors with Miami.
First base: Blaine Crim (Mississippi College), .296, 29, 80 at High-A and Double-A for Texas.
Second base: Justin Foscue (MSU), .275, 17, 51 at High-A and Double-A for the Rangers.
Shortstop: Jordan Westburg (MSU), .285, 14, 70 plus 13 steals at three levels for Baltimore.
Third base: Blaze Jordan (DeSoto Central), .324, 6, 25 in rookie and Low-A ball for Boston.
Outfield: Jacob Robson (MSU), .295, 7, 38 and 19 bags at the Double-A and Triple-A levels, with a brief trip to the majors, for Detroit; Jake Mangum (MSU), .285, 9, 47 and 14 steals in High-A and Double-A for the Mets; Joe Gray, Jr. (Hattiesburg High), .252, 20, 90 and 23 bags in A-ball for Milwaukee.
DH: Tyreque Reed (Itawamba CC), .271, 17, 71 in High-A and Double-A for the Red Sox, or Matt Wallner (USM), .265, 15, 47 in High-A ball for Minnesota.
Utility: Sam McWilliams (Meridian CC), .298, 14, 70 and 13 steals in A-ball for the Los Angeles Dodgers; Hunter Stovall (MSU), .316, 6, 46, 25 steals in High-A for Colorado; Ti’Quan Forbes (Columbia High), .267, 6, 28, 6 steals in Double-A and Triple-A for the White Sox; Colt Keith (Biloxi High), .286, 2, 32 in A-ball for the Tigers; Grae Kessinger (Ole Miss), .209, 9, 26, 12 bags in Double-A for Houston.
Six Mississippi products made MLB debuts in 2021, with Fortes, Justin Steele (George County) and Nick Sandlin (USM) getting extended looks. There is a rising tide of prospects behind that group hoping to make a splash in the big leagues in the near future.

13 Oct

moving day

Before former Mississippi Braves star Freddie Freeman took ex-Biloxi Shuckers ace Josh Hader deep for the series-clinching home run, there was a cool all-Mississippi faceoff in Tuesday’s National League Division Series game at Truist Park. Sixth inning. Score tied. Runners first and third. Two outs. Milwaukee summoned Wheeler’s Brandon Woodruff, ordinarily a starter, from the bullpen to face DeSoto Central High product Austin Riley, Atlanta’s cleanup batter. Riley had blasted a 428-foot homer off Woodruff in the Braves’ Game 2 victory, adding to the anticipation of this clash. Woodruff won Tuesday’s battle; on the first pitch, a 97-mph fastball, Riley grounded out to the third baseman. But Riley and the Braves won the war, 5-4 on Freeman’s majestic eighth-inning bomb, and advanced to the NLCS for the second straight year. Woodruff and the Brewers have been in the playoffs four straight years but only once reached the NLCS. Riley went 5-for-15 in the NLDS with a walk, an RBI and three runs and now gets to play some more. … The Chicago White Sox, who had four Mississippi products on their roster, saw their season come to a disappointing end, getting crushed by Houston 10-1 in the decisive Game 4 of their American League Division Series. Tim Anderson, the East Central Community College alum, went 7-for-19 in the series but was 0-for-4 Tuesday. Former Ole Miss standout Lance Lynn got KO’d in his Game 2 start, yielding five runs in 3 2/3 innings. Ocean Springs High product Garrett Crochet did not allow an earned run in three relief appearances but did allow four of four inherited runners to score, including two in the fourth inning of Tuesday’s game that put the Astros up 5-1. Taylorsville’s Billy Hamilton never got off the bench in what likely was his last time in a White Sox uniform. … For Houston, ex-Mississippi State star Kendall Graveman threw a scoreless eighth inning but did manage to add to the bad blood between the teams when he plunked Jose Abreu with a pitch. It looked intentional. ChiSox manager Tony LaRussa said it clearly was. Astros manager Dusty Baker said it wasn’t. The matter will be revisited next season, count on that. Meanwhile, Graveman gets to see former MSU teammate Hunter Renfroe in the ALCS, where the Astros will play Boston.

11 Oct

only in baseball

Thanks to Rule 5.05(a)(8), Hunter Renfroe’s place in postseason history is secure. The Crystal Springs native and ex-Mississippi State standout will forever be linked to the quirky rule that had a major impact in Sunday’s American League Division Series game at Boston. In the 13th inning, with the go-ahead run at first base and two outs, a batted ball hit the short right-field wall at Fenway Park, caromed off the hip of Renfroe, the right fielder who was giving pursuit, and then went over the wall. For a few moments, confusion reigned. Apparently, no one involved had ever seen this happen before. Fenway is one of the few ballparks where something like that is even possible. Had the ball remained in play, the runner would have scored easily and the batter, Tampa Bay’s Kevin Kiermaier, likely would have made third. But the umpires got together and correctly applied Rule 5.05(a)(8), which states that a bounding fair ball unintentionally deflected out of play by a fielder is a ground-rule double. That put the runners at second and third. The score remained tied. Fair or not, the rule is the rule. Nick Pivetta then struck out the next batter, concluding his four shutout innings. In the bottom of the 13th, after Renfroe drew a one-out walk, Christian Vazquez gave Boston a 6-4 win and a 2-1 series lead with a homer over the Green Monster. … Meanwhile, in Chicago, in the other ALDS Game 3, things got a little wacky, as well, as the White Sox rallied from 5-1 down in the third inning to beat Houston 12-6 and stay alive in the best-of-5. The White Sox’s decisive three-run fourth was ignited by — who else? — Tim Anderson. The East Central Community College star led off with an infield single and eventually scored the go-ahead run. (And, yes, there was a quirky deflected-ball play later in that inning.) For his part, Anderson went 3-for-6 with two runs and an RBI Sunday and is now batting .467 in the series. … There are four games on tap today. Something crazy, something you’ve never seen before, is almost guaranteed to happen. That’s baseball.

10 Oct

special delivery

If you were waiting for a highlight moment from a Mississippian in the 2021 postseason, the wait is over. Austin Riley delivered Saturday night with a 428-foot home run at the expense of another state high school product, Brandon Woodruff. Riley, the pride of DeSoto Central, gave Atlanta a 3-0 lead with his sixth-inning solo bomb at Milwaukee’s American Family Field as the Braves evened the National League Division Series at a game apiece. Riley, playing third base, also started the game-ending double play that came with the tying run at the plate. Former Mississippi Braves left-hander Max Fried, as good as any pitcher in MLB down the stretch, outpitched Woodruff, the Wheeler High and Mississippi State alum who also ranked among the NL ERA leaders. Woodruff wasn’t bad on Saturday. Two of Atlanta’s biggest hits — an Ozzie Albies RBI double and Riley’s homer — actually came on good pitches. But Woodruff can be home run-prone — 18 in 30 games this season — and the country-strong Riley barreled an 0-1 changeup down and away deep over the right-center field fence in Woodruff’s last inning of work. Riley, the Braves’ cleanup batter the last half of the season, ranked in the top 10 in the NL in batting average, hits, home runs, RBIs, slugging percentage and total bases. That’s MVP-type stuff. Seems only fitting that he would deliver a postseason highlight. And it won’t be a surprise if he delivers more.

09 Oct

back in ’62

Dodgers-Giants is one of the game’s best rivalries with a rich history spanning many decades. They met Friday night for the first time in a postseason series — San Francisco won 4-0 behind the brilliant Logan Webb — but this isn’t the first time the two have clashed in a win-or-go home October series. They’ve squared off twice in a playoff for the National League pennant, most famously in 1951, when Bobby Thomson hit the legendary walk-off homer in Game 3, but also in 1962, when a third baseman out of Southern Miss played a big role for the victorious Giants. Jim Davenport, who played 13 years for San Francisco, had one of his best seasons in 1962, batting .297 with 14 homers and 58 RBIs on a team that also included Willie Mays, Willie McCovey and Felipe Alou. Davenport was an All-Star and a Gold Glove winner that year. He continued to sizzle in the best-of-3 series vs. the Dodgers that broke a tie atop the NL standings. In a Game 1 win, he went 2-for-3 with a homer off Sandy Koufax. The Giants dropped Game 2, but Davenport went 2-for-6 with an RBI and a run. In the deciding game, he had a hit in four trips, but his biggest contribution was drawing a bases-loaded walk that forced in the go-ahead run in the Giants’ four-run ninth that led to a 6-4 win. Davenport, called Peanut or Peanuts by teammates, didn’t fare as well in the World Series, which the Giants lost to the New York Yankees in seven games. He went 3-for-22 in his only Fall Classic appearance.