The breakthrough performance in 2021 was so good, the encore for Austin Riley this season was certain to be a challenge. The former DeSoto Central High star, not even assured of a starting job entering last season, became an All-MLB performer at third base for Atlanta, batting .303 with 33 home runs and 107 RBIs while helping the Braves win the World Series. Riley’s 2022 season has been a bit clunky. He’s got 12 homers, ranking among the National League leaders. But he’s hitting only .250, and it has taken a hot streak (.357 in his last seven games) to reach that mark. With 24 RBIs, he is not on a 100-RBI pace. He is striking out in 31 percent of his at-bats, up from 2021 (28 percent). Riley’s season is a microcosm of the Braves’. The defending champs are floundering under .500 (23-26), far off the New York Mets’ pace in the NL East. The Braves lead MLB in strikeouts with 479; that’s more than nine per game. They are fifth in homers but just 17th in runs. There are other issues — defense has been spotty and the pitchers walk too many batters — but the inconsistency with the bats is most telling. In a 6-2 loss Monday at Arizona — in a hitter’s venue — the Braves struck out eight times and left eight runners on base, going 0-for-10 with runners in scoring position. In a nutshell, strikeouts are killing them. Four regulars, Riley among them, rank in the top 10 in the NL in punchouts. The good news is, there is plenty of time left in the season. A late run, a la 2021, is possible. But something in the Braves’ approach needs to change. P.S. No. 1 Pearl River Community College is 2-0 in the NJCAA Division II World Series, having outscored its opponents in Enid, Okla., by a 27-10 count.
Yes, Michael Harris II is gone to the big leagues, but the Mississippi Braves’ cupboard is hardly bare. There are prospect pitchers aplenty on this suddenly surging club, which plays a Memorial Day special tonight (6:05) at Trustmark Park in Pearl, and there are more than a few hitters of note. Riley Delgado is batting .327, and Hendrik Clementina is at .301. Drew Lugbauer (“Slug-bauer”) has 11 home runs, and C.J. Alexander has seven, all this month. Luke Waddell, Atlanta’s No. 26 prospect, is batting .268 with 27 RBIs. Five of Atlanta’s top 21 prospects populate the pitching staff, including tonight’s starter, Freddy Tarnok (No. 8). The M-Braves come in hot, having won five of six at Pensacola to climb to 23-22 on the season. The defending Double-A South champs now play old rival Montgomery in a six-game homestand with an off day Tuesday. P.S. Kudos to: Southern Miss, which earned a regional host role and will welcome Army, Kennesaw (Ga.) State and LSU to Hattiesburg this week. … Ole Miss, which, somewhat surprisingly, earned an NCAA Tournament bid and will head to the Coral Gables Regional. … Madison Central High product Braden Montgomery, who hit a monstrous homer in Stanford’s Pac-12 Tournament title game victory on Sunday. The Cardinal is also hosting a regional this week. … Pearl River Community College, top seed in the NJCAA Division II World Series, which won its opener in Enid, Okla., 10-2 over Florida State College-Jacksonville and plays Lansing CC tonight. … Northwest Rankin High, which beat DeSoto Central in a decisive Game 3 in the MHSAA Class 6A championship series on Sunday and joined East Central, Sumrall, Amory, East Union and Resurrection Catholic as state champs.
Ethan Small will be checking the wind direction at Chicago’s Wrigley Field today, hoping it’s not blowing out. The former Mississippi State star is slated to make his big league debut for Milwaukee against the Cubs in Game 1 of a twinbill. Small, a left-hander, has been atop the Brewers’ prospect charts ever since he was drafted 28th overall out of State in 2019. He blew through Double-A Biloxi last summer and was off to a tremendous start at Triple-A Nashville this season. Featuring primarily a fastball and changeup, Small went 3-1 with a 1.88 ERA and 49 strikeouts in 38 1/3 innings for the Sounds. … Ole Miss product Nick Fortes made his 2022 debut for Miami on Sunday, going 2-for-2 against Atlanta. Fortes, a catcher, hit .290 with four homers in 14 games last September for the Marlins but didn’t make the club out of spring training. He was batting .257 with three homers and 13 RBIs at Triple-A Jacksonville when he was recalled on Friday. … Tim Anderson, the ex-East Central Community College standout, is headed to the injured list with a reported groin injury. Anderson is batting .356 (third in the American League) with five homers, 19 RBIs and eight steals as the Chicago White Sox leadoff batter.
Michael Harris II is making the jump from Double-A to the big leagues, having been called up from Mississippi to Atlanta this morning. Look for the Braves’ top prospect to start in center field today (3:15 p.m.) when the Braves play Miami at Truist Park. Harris, 21, out of Stockbridge, Ga., is batting .305 with five homers, 33 RBIs and 11 steals in 43 games for the M-Braves. He is a .292 hitter over 197 minor league games since 2019. This debut could be something special. Since 2005, several M-Braves alums have had memorable debuts: Brian McCann (2-for-3 with an RBI on June 10, 2005); Jeff Francoeur (1-for-4 with a homer in 2005); Jordan Schafer (2-for-3 with a homer in his first at-bat in 2009); Jason Heyward (2-for-5 with a homer in his first AB in 2010); Evan Gattis (1-for-4 with a homer in 2013); Dansby Swanson (2-for-4 in 2016); Ronald Acuna (1-for-5 in 2018); Austin Riley (1-for-3 with a homer in 2019); and Cristian Pache (1-for-4 in 2020).
Scouts really like Bradley Loftin, the DeSoto Central High ace who is ranked as the No. 73 MLB draft prospect in the latest mlb.com list. Northwest Rankin’s potent pack of hitters was not particularly impressed. The Cougars lit Loftin up for five runs on five hits and three walks (plus two errors) in the first inning en route to a 9-4 win Friday night in the MHSAA Class 6A opener at Trustmark Park. Left-hander Loftin, a Mississippi State commit, pitched just the one inning, throwing 49 pitches (per SBLive). NWR’s Nick Monistere, a Southern Miss signee, outpitched Loftin, yielding four runs over six innings. … Also in the Top 200 of mlb.com’s draft chart are Mississippi State catcher Logan Tanner (No. 29) and pitcher Landon Sims (41), Northeast Mississippi Community College right-hander Colby Holcombe (132), Ole Miss catcher Hayden Dunhurst (152), MSU outfielder Brad Cumbest (172) and Jackson Academy outfielder Dakota Jordan (176). … Jackson State’s season ended with a second straight loss in the SWAC Tournament in Birmingham. The Tigers entered the tourney on quite a roll, having scored 76 runs — yes, 76 — in their last four regular season games. But they were stymied in the tourney by Southern University and Prairie View A&M. … USM faces elimination today against Texas-San Antonio in the C-USA Tournament in Hattiesburg. The top-seeded Golden Eagles will need to beat the Roadrunners twice to reach Sunday’s title game. … Out in Arizona, former Madison Central star Braden Montgomery is 4-for-10 with three runs in Stanford’s 2-0 start in the Pac-12 Tournament. Montgomery, the league’s freshman of the year, is hitting .302 with 15 homers and has two saves in 14 pitching appearances for the top 10 Cardinal. … Pearl River Community College, top seed in the NJCAA Division II World Series, will learn today who its opening opponent will be on Sunday in the Enid, Okla., tournament. … The Double-A Mississippi Braves matched their club scoring record in a 19-6 win at Pensacola on Friday. The M-Braves mashed six homers, two each by Drew Lugbauer and C.J. Alexander. The M-Braves, 21-22 with two games left on this trip, return home Monday for a Memorial Day special. … The Dakota Hudson-Brandon Woodruff showdown in St. Louis (see previous post) sorta fizzled. Hudson didn’t allow a run but took 97 pitches to get 14 outs and wound up with a no-decision in a game the Cardinals won 4-2. His former MSU teammate Woodruff, Milwaukee’s starter, allowed two runs in four innings, left with an ankle injury and took the loss to fall to 5-3. If Woodruff goes on the injured list, will the Brewers call up ex-Bulldogs ace Ethan Small (3-1, 1.88 ERA in Triple-A)?
There will be a Dog-fight, of sorts, in St. Louis tonight when the Cardinals send Dakota Hudson to the bump to face Milwaukee and Brandon Woodruff. The big right-handers were teammates at Mississippi State in 2014. Neither had much of an impact on that Bulldogs club — combining for two wins — but are now key pieces of the rotation for their respective MLB teams, keen rivals in the National League Central. Woodruff, from Wheeler, is 5-2 with a 4.76 ERA for the Brewers, who lead the division at 29-16. He is coming off his best start of 2022. Hudson is 3-2, 3.60 for the Cardinals, second at 24-20, and is coming off a shaky start. Woodruff was an 11th-round pick out of Starkville in 2014 and has blossomed in pro ball, making two All-Star teams and putting up a 33-23 overall record in Milwaukee. Hudson went 34th overall in 2016 and rose quickly, making his MLB debut in 2018. He missed most of last season after Tommy John surgery and is 27-12 overall. P.S. Konnor Pilkington, another former MSU star, went 3 1/3 innings on Thursday in his second big league start for Cleveland. The rookie lefty gave up three runs in a game the Guardians eventually won 4-3. … George County High product Justin Steele was charged with seven of the 20 runs Cincinnati scored against the Chicago Cubs in a 20-5 win and fell to 1-5, 5.40. … Ex-Ole Miss standout Mike Mayers, who has a 5.40 ERA as a middle reliever, has been designated for assignment by the Los Angeles Angels. He was an effective pitcher for the club in 2020 and ’21.
Promoted to Triple-A on Tuesday, Jake Mangum got a hit — and a stolen base — in his first game at the new level and is 4-for-7 in two games for Syracuse in the New York Mets’ system. The former Jackson Prep and Mississippi State star hit .283 this season at Double-A Binghamton before earning the promotion. Rated the No. 22 prospect in the Mets’ organization, Mangum, 26, is a .277 career hitter with 10 homers and 39 steals in 646 at-bats over three seasons in the minors. He left State as the all-time hits leader in the SEC. “I’m a gap-to-gap hitter that still plays the game hard and plays the game fast,” he told milb.com in a story currently featured on its website. The switch-hitting center fielder said his plan for the rest of 2022 is “play every game like it’s my last.” P.S. MSU product Konnor Pilkington has been recalled by Cleveland and will start today’s game against Detroit. The left-hander has a 2.08 ERA in four big league games this season. … Former Petal High standout Anthony Alford reportedly has signed with the KT Wiz of the Korean Baseball Organization. The onetime big leaguer, cut loose by Pittsburgh earlier this season, had been playing in Triple-A in the Cleveland chain.
The mlb.com list of the Top 100 minor league prospects has been refreshed, and Michael Harris II of the Mississippi Braves checks in at No. 59. 59? Really? It is hard to imagine there are 58 better “prospects” in the minors. Sure, Harris is only 21 and only in his third season of pro ball. But he is flourishing in Double-A, the make-or-break level. He has a sweet combination of power and speed. At 6 feet, 195 pounds, the left-handed hitting Harris resembles a slightly larger version of Ralph Garr, the Atlanta star of the early 1970s. Harris currently is batting .296 with five homers, 27 RBIs and 10 steals in 40 games with the M-Braves. He has a .356 on-base percentage and a .506 slug. And he’s been making great catches on a nightly basis in center field. … The only Mississippi product on the new 100 is Mississippi State alumnus Justin Foscue, who is at Double-A Frisco in the Texas system. The 2020 first-round pick, a second baseman, is hitting .303 with two homers and 17 RBIs. He has struck out just 18 times and walked 18 times.
Former Petal High star Demarcus Evans has made his 2022 debut, putting in two appearances this week in Triple-A for Texas. Evans was optioned out by the Rangers in spring training and had been inactive on the Round Rock Development List until Saturday. The 6-foot-5, 265-pound right-hander was once considered a hot prospect in the Rangers’ system, but his star has faded a bit. He has a 4.75 ERA in 29 MLB games over 2020-21, posting a 5.13 in 25 games last season. He is 1-1 with a 3.38 in 2 2/3 innings for Round Rock. Evans, 25, defied some odds making it to the majors as a 25th-round pick (in 2015), and he may yet get another crack. … Evans is one of the 31 Mississippi high school or college alums who played in the big leagues in 2021; only 12 of those are currently active in MLB. Hunter Renfroe, the former Copiah Academy and Mississippi State star, went on the injured list on Tuesday. The Milwaukee slugger, batting .266 with nine homers, joins pitchers Lance Lynn, Drew Pomeranz, Garrett Crochet, Chris Ellis and Spencer Turnbull on the IL. Crochet, Ellis and Turnbull are out for the season. Mitch Moreland and Jarrod Dyson are unsigned free agents. The others are back in the minors, some having been bumped from 40-man rosters. … Also back in the minors are the two Mississippians who debuted this season, Pascagoula’s Konnor Pilkington and Hattiesburg’s Kirk McCarty. It was expected that former Ole Miss star Ryan Rolison would debut this season, but Colorado’s No. 5 prospect remains on the IL with a shoulder strain suffered in spring training. The left-hander is on the Rockies’ 40-man roster but will surely need some minor league work whenever he is healthy.
Twenty years ago today, with former Delta State star Jeremy McClain on the mound and Meridian High product Gerard McCall behind the plate, the Jackson Senators played their first home game, drawing a crowd announced at 3,475 to Smith-Wills Stadium. They lost 7-6, but no matter. The game marked the return of pro ball to Jackson after a year without a team, and there was genuine excitement in the old yard. The Texas League franchise (Mets/Generals) left after a 25-year run in 1999, and the independent DiamondKats — a bad team that drew poorly — lasted just one season. The Senators, also an independent playing in the newly reorganized Central Baseball League, lasted four years, winning a league championship in 2003. The arrival of the Double-A Mississippi Braves in Pearl in 2005 ultimately led to the Sens’ demise. The first Senators club, managed by Dan Shwam, was a good one. The roster included Meridian native Tommy Bost — who hit the first homer in that home opener — Southern Miss product Brandon Parker, former big leaguer Jeff Ware, Kyle Hawthorne, Garret Osilka, Juan Moreno, Peanut Williams, Russ Herbert and Yuji Nerei, to name a few. They won the first-half title in the CBL East and made it to the league finals in the postseason, losing the decisive fifth game.