So many proverbial big games to track this weekend. The regular season rolls toward a climax for the NCAA Division I programs. Mississippi State is at South Carolina and Ole Miss at Texas A&M in the SEC, Southern Miss hosts Middle Tennessee State in C-USA and Jackson State (shooting for an unbeaten SWAC season) hosts Mississippi Valley State (shooting for its first win). (Note: Valley, 0-17, hasn’t played since April 18, when the Delta Devils blew a three-run lead in the bottom of the ninth and lost 8-7 to Alabama A&M.) The small colleges are in postseason play. Today, in the NAIA SSAC Tournament at Mobile, Ala., fifth-seeded William Carey (30-10) plays 4-seed Mobile and 7-seed Blue Mountain (14-18) gets 2-seed Faulkner in the first round. In NCAA Division III, Belhaven (20-16) meets East Texas Baptist today in the first round of the ASC Tournament at Marshall, Texas. Division II Delta State (24-15) opens play Friday in the GSC Tournament in Oxford, Ala. The fifth-seeded Statesmen, who have won 15 GSC tourney titles, meet 4-seed Valdosta State in the opening round. And the state junior college playoffs begin Friday with the best-of-3 series that will send four teams to the NJCAA Region 23 Tournament next week. Third-ranked Pearl River Community College has clinched its regional berth and will host the tourney. The high school playoffs are under way, with the series opener of several MHSAA Class 6A heavyweight bouts set for tonight: MaxPreps No. 2-ranked Madison Central is at South Panola; No. 9 Tupelo hosts No. 12 Oxford; No. 4 Germantown visits No. 14 DeSoto Central; and No. 7 Lewisburg visits Starkville. In MAIS 5A, MaxPreps No. 1 Jackson Prep, up 1-0 in the series, plays Jackson Academy on Friday.
The key for Matt Wallner, as it is for many power-hitting prospects, is making enough contact for the power to play. The former Southern Miss standout made contact in three of his four at-bats on Wednesday night for High-A Cedar Rapids – and the results were very good. Wallner, Minnesota’s No. 13-ranked prospect by MLB Pipeline, went 3-for-4 with two home runs and a career-best six RBIs. He has 10 homers – and 82 strikeouts — over his 67-game pro career. The 6-foot-5, left-handed-hitting outfielder tied the USM single-season record for homers in 2019 with 23 and finished his three years in Hattiesburg with a school-record 58. … It was a big night for big flies among Mississippians in the minors. Mississippi State alum Brent Rooker, back in Triple-A for Minnesota, hit one out for St. Paul. The Twins’ No. 12 prospect is 3-for-29 with one homer in eight big league games this season. Ex-Ole Miss star Grae Kessinger homered for Double-A Corpus Christi in Houston’s system. Columbia High product Ti’Quan Forbes went deep for Birmingham (Chicago White Sox) in its season-opening win over Biloxi in the Double-A South. He also stole a base and committed an error at third base. And at the White Sox’s Low-A Kannapolis club, former Loyd Star standout James Beard, known more for his speed than his power, hit a grand slam. … Also of note: Ole Miss alum Nick Fortes, in his Double-A debut, had two hits for Pensacola (Miami Marlins) in its 2-1 win against Mississippi in the M-Braves’ home opener. Former Ole Miss standout Anthony Servideo and ex-State star Jordan Westburg made their pro debuts for Low-A Delmarva (Baltimore Orioles) in a doubleheader against Salem. Servideo was 1-for-5 with four walks, Westburg 2-for-8 with an RBI.
Though the Mississippi Braves’ season opener was postponed by rain on Tuesday night, there was a boatload of other games on opening day for minor league baseball and several Mississippians made a splash. Kirk McCarty, the ex-Southern Miss standout, went five innings (two earned runs) to get the win for Triple-A Columbus in the Cleveland system. The left-hander is in his fourth pro season, first in Class AAA. Ole Miss alum Ryan Rolison, a 2018 first-rounder and a top prospect in Colorado’s chain, went five innings (one run) for a win in his Double-A debut with Hartford. Jacob Robson, a fifth-year pro out of State, went 2-for-4 with a home run for Double-A Erie in Detroit’s system. The lefty-hitting outfielder has a .290 career average. Former Pascagoula High star Willie Joe Garry, Jr., homered for Fort Myers, Minnesota’s Low-A club. This is the third pro season for the former ninth-round pick. Ex-State star Justin Foscue and Ole Miss product Tyler Keenan, both 2020 draftees, made their official pro debuts in High-A ball. Both went hitless, Foscue for Hickory in the Texas system, Keenan for Everett in Seattle’s organization. P.S. Jared Johnson, the former Smithville High standout with the big arm, has popped in on Atlanta’s MLB Pipeline prospect list at No. 30. The 6-foot-2, 225-pound right-hander, a 14th-round pick in 2019, reportedly threw 97 mph in Instructional League last fall. He pitched in the rookie Gulf Coast League in 2019 and put up a 3.52 ERA with 12 strikeouts in 15 1/3 innings. He was almost unhittable at Smithville. Only 20, he is probably a couple of years away from appearing in Mississippi with the Double-A club but is worth keeping an eye on.
The 100th home run of Hunter Renfroe’s big league career sailed into the seats above the Green Monster on Tuesday night. It was his first homer at Fenway Park as a member of the Boston Red Sox, who signed the former Mississippi State star primarily to add some power to their lineup. After a sluggish start, Renfroe may be beginning to produce the desired thunder. He has homered twice in his last three games and, after a 3-for-4 effort in Tuesday’s win against Detroit, is batting .333 over his last seven games. “Just changing a little timing, making sure it’s a little better, that’s really what I’ve been working on in the cage a little bit and just staying with my approach,” the Crystal Springs native said in an mlb.com story. He is at .222 for the year with three bombs and 13 RBIs. … Ex-Bulldogs standout Mitch Moreland hit a two-run homer for Oakland in a win over Toronto on Tuesday, giving him 601 RBIs for his 12-year career. It was his 180th career homer. Moreland, who left Boston as a free agent and signed with the A’s in the off-season, is hitting .225 with four homers and 13 RBIs. … George County High product Justin Steele, a rookie with the Chicago Cubs, notched his first career MLB win Tuesday after pitching a scoreless ninth inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Cubs won Game 2 of the twinbill on David Bote’s walk-off hit. Steele, who won 16 games as an oft-injured starter in the minors going back to 2014, has posted a 3.68 ERA in six appearances this season with 12 strikeouts in 7 1/3 innings. P.S. Ole Miss alum Mike Mayers has been put on the 10-day injured list (undisclosed) by the Los Angeles Angels. The reliever has a 2.51 ERA in 14 games.
There will be nights, Mississippi Braves manager Wyatt Toregas says, when his team will look like a major league club. They’ve got those skills. There will also be nights, he cautions, when their youth and inexperience will show. It is Double-A, after all.
Above and beyond any of that, however, is the simple fact that there will be pro baseball at Trustmark Park again. Real games. For the first time in more than 600 days.
The M-Braves open the much-anticipated 2021 season – the club’s 16th in Pearl — tonight against Pensacola, the first game of a six-game Double-A South series that runs through Sunday.
There are a lot of new off-field rules and regulations in place due to COVID-19 protocols, but the game on the field hasn’t changed. “The guys are excited to get the season started,” said Toregas, new to the Atlanta organization this season. “It’s time to play ball again.”
The roster features several of Atlanta’s top-rated prospects, including catcher Shea Langeliers (No. 3 by MLB Pipeline) and shortstop Braden Shewmake (No. 4). Both are 2019 first-round picks out of major college programs who appear to be on a fast track to the big leagues.
The team also includes outfielder Trey Harris (No. 14), pitcher Victor Vodnik (No. 15), first baseman/outfielder Greyson Jenista (No. 19), third baseman C.J. Alexander (No. 20) and outfielder Justin Dean (No. 26). Shewmake, Harris, Alexander and Jenista all spent time with the M-Braves in 2019, when minor league teams last played.
“We’re strong in a lot of different areas,” Toregas said.
Despite the compressed spring training for minor leaguers, Toregas, a former major league catcher who managed in the Pittsburgh system for five years, said he felt quickly accepted into the Braves fold by the players, whom he called “a lively group.” He said he also had enough time with the players to get to know them and get a feel for their skills. “They’re very coachable,” he said. “As skilled as these guys are, they’re very open to advice.”
The centerpiece of the team is Langeliers. The former Baylor star, the ninth overall pick two years ago, played in A-ball in 2019 (.255 with two homers and 34 RBIs in 54 games), went to Atlanta’s alternate camp last summer and was a non-roster invitee to big league camp this spring. He is said to have the best throwing arm in the Braves’ system.
“Man, he’s got some skills,” Toregas said. “It’s an honor for me … I’m looking forward to working with him. He’s got a chance to be really good for a really long time. … He can really throw. He’s got some pop in his bat, and he’s a leader. The guys gravitate to him.”
Langeliers said his main goals this season include gaining experience with the one knee-down catching style as well as learning more about calling a game. “I have some high expectations,” he said. “I expect myself to be successful. But it’s a long season, and it can be a grind. In pro ball, it’s a big difference playing every night.”
The 6-foot-4, 190-pound Shewmake, a former Texas A&M standout drafted 21st overall in 2019, hit .300 with three homers, 40 RBIs and 13 steals at two levels in 2019, finishing that season in Pearl.
“You can definitely tell why they took him so high in the draft,” Toregas said. “He’s got speed, the ability to hit. He’s a lefty bat in the infield. Plays solid defense, and he’s a bright kid. His skills can take him a long way.”
Harris is another player to watch. A former 32nd-round pick from Missouri, he is a .317 career hitter in the minors and was the Atlanta organization’s minor league player of the year in 2019, when he moved through three levels.
Left-hander Hayden Deal is the scheduled starter tonight, getting the nod over the more highly touted Vodnik and Nolan Kingham, an M-Brave in 2019. Deal was 5-10 with a 3.24 ERA at Class A Florida in 2019 and is 17-13, 2.87 for his minor league career. The Braves signed him as a free agent out of Presbyterian College in North Carolina in 2017.
“I wasn’t expecting to start opening day,” he said, “but it’s a huge honor. I’m super excited about that. I’m ready to see what this year holds.”
“I think everybody’s ready to get out there and compete again,” Toregas said. “I’m looking forward to that. … I’m looking forward to one-run games in the ninth inning, when everybody gets nervous and every play means a little more. It’s the best feeling in the world, and it’s time to get back to it.”
Pensacola is a Miami Marlins affiliate. The Blue Wahoos’ roster includes former Ole Miss catcher Nick Fortes as well as right-hander Max Meyer, the third overall selection in the 2020 draft. He enters the season as the No 3 prospect in the Marlins’ system and No. 28 overall, per MLB Pipeline.
In the new-look minors, the Double-A South includes eight teams. Mississippi is in the South Division with Pensacola, the Biloxi Shuckers (Brewers) and Montgomery Biscuits (Rays). The North Division includes the Birmingham Barons (White Sox), Chattanooga Lookouts (Reds), Rocket City Trash Pandas (Angels) and Tennessee Smokies (Cubs).
Former Mississippi State star Ethan Small, the Brewers’ first-round pick in 2019, is on the Biloxi roster. Lefty Small is rated the No. 4 prospect in the Milwaukee system by both MLB Pipeline and Baseball America.
Among the catchers who have passed through Mississippi on their way to the big leagues are Brian McCann, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Evan Gattis, Willians Astudillo, Alex Jackson and William Contreras. Shea Langeliers is almost certain to join that list in the near future. The Atlanta Braves’ No. 3-rated prospect (by MLB Pipeline) is one of the many noteworthy names on the Double-A Mississippi Braves’ roster, which was announced today. The M-Braves open the 2021 season on Tuesday night at Trustmark Park in Pearl. Other Top 30 prospects on the roster are shortstop Braden Shewmake (No. 4), outfielder Trey Harris (No. 14), pitcher Victor Vodnik (No. 15), first baseman/outfielder Greyson Jenista (No. 19), third baseman C.J. Alexander (No. 20) and outfielder Justin Dean (No. 26). Shewmake, Harris, Alexander and Jenista all spent time with the M-Braves in 2019, when minor league teams last played. Langeliers was a first-round pick out of Baylor in 2019. His arm is said to be his best tool; he hit .255 with two homers and 34 RBIs in 54 games in A-ball in 2019. He was a non-roster invitee to Atlanta’s big league camp this spring, as were Shewmake, Harris and Alexander. P.S. Former Mississippi State star Ethan Small, the Milwaukee Brewers’ first-round pick in 2019, is on the Biloxi roster. Lefty Small is rated the No. 4 prospect in the Milwaukee system by both MLB Pipeline and Baseball America.
540 – Strikeouts by Mississippi State’s pitching staff this season, most in the nation. The Bulldogs (32-10) punched out 37 in their three-game sweep of Texas A&M over the weekend.
31 – Wins by Ole Miss this season, marking the 23rd straight year (excluding the shortened 2020 season) that the Rebels have posted at least 30 wins. They swept South Carolina over the weekend.
30 – Runs scored by Southern Miss in taking the last three games of a four-game set at Rice. The Golden Eagles improved to 29-14 and 16-7 in C-USA, second in the West.
21 – Wins, against no defeats, for Jackson State in SWAC play this season. The Tigers have one series left, at home against winless Mississippi Valley State next weekend.
20 – Wins, against 16 losses, this season for Belhaven heading into this week’s ASC Tournament in Marshall, Texas. Ace Brett Sanchez has nine of those wins and just one loss.
20 – Wins, against eight losses, for MUW, which is ranked No. 2 in the USCAA poll and awaiting word of an invite to the postseason.
9 – Current losing streak for Alcorn State, which finished the regular season at 6-18, 6-16 SWAC.
9 – Straight wins for William Carey, which will take a 30-10 record into the SSAC Tournament in Mobile, Ala., this week. The Crusaders are the fifth seed and play 4-seed Mobile on Wednesday.
7 – Blue Mountain’s seed in the SSAC Tournament; the Toppers (14-18) get 2-seed Faulkner in the first round on Wednesday.
5 – Delta State’s seed in this week’s GSC Tournament in Oxford, Ala. The Statesmen (24-15) took two of three from Mississippi College over the weekend. MC didn’t make the tourney field.
On this date in 2007, former Mississippi Braves catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, on his 22nd birthday, makes his major league debut for Atlanta and sets an offbeat record. Longest last name. His 14-letter surname supplants a bunch of other major leaguers who had 13 letters. “Salty,” a big switch-hitter who was the 36th overall pick by Atlanta in the 2003 draft, passed through Pearl as a highly rated prospect in 2006 and ’07. He played in the big leagues from 2007-18, won a ring with the 2013 Boston Red Sox and hit .232 with 110 homers overall. On August 22, 2007, a few weeks after being traded from the Braves to Texas, Saltalamacchia had two home runs and seven RBIs in the Rangers’ historic 30–3 rout of Baltimore.
Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. Oh, and sometimes you get a no-decision. That tells the tale of the three Mississippi products who started major league games on Saturday. Ole Miss alum Lance Lynn got the W, ex-Madison Central star Spencer Turnbull took the L and former Mississippi State standout Brandon Woodruff didn’t factor in the decision of a game his team ultimately won. Turnbull was first up in a game featured on MLB Network. Facing the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium, he gave up four runs in five innings as Detroit fell 6-4. The lanky right-hander is 1-2 with a 4.50 ERA in three starts for a struggling Tigers team. Lynn returned from the injured list to work five innings, allowing three runs, for the Chicago White Sox in a 7-3 win against visiting Cleveland in FS1’s national game. Buoyed by East Central Community College alum Tim Anderson’s grand slam, Lynn improved to 2-1 with a 1.82 ERA. Woodruff took on the Los Angeles Dodgers in an MLB Network showcase game and allowed two runs — including Mookie Betts’ first-pitch leadoff homer — in six innings. It was 2-2 when Woodruff departed, and Milwaukee won the game 6-5 in 11 innings. He stands at 2-0 with a 1.80 ERA. He has allowed more than two runs just once in his six starts. P.S. There has been a flurry of movement recently involving Mississippians in MLB. In addition to Lynn leaving the IL, Nick Sandlin was called up by Cleveland (see previous post); Cody Reed came off the IL for Tampa Bay; Justin Steele was recalled by the Cubs; Brent Rooker was sent out by Minnesota; Garrett Crochet went on the IL for the White Sox; and Anthony Alford was assigned to the minors by Pittsburgh.
Former Southern Miss star Nick Sandlin worked a 1-2-3 inning, capped by a strikeout, in his major league debut today for Cleveland. The sidearming right-hander, who had former big league catcher A.J. Pierzynski raving about his stuff on the FS1 broadcast, retired the Chicago White Sox’s Leury Garcia on a fly ball, Tim Anderson on a bouncer to third base and Adam Eaton via punchout in the sixth inning at Guaranteed Rate Field in Chicago. Sandlin was a second-round pick by the Indians out of USM in 2018 and posted a 2.68 ERA over 49 minor league games. He was a true ace at USM, going 13-5 with 20 saves as the closer in 2016-17 and 10-0 with a 1.06 ERA as a starter in 2018. He was the Ferriss Trophy winner that final season.