Since the freshly crowned Los Angeles Dodgers’ previous World Series title in 1988, a handful of Mississippians have worn Dodger blue and experienced, to some extent, the franchise’s frustration. Maybe some of them are smiling today in the afterglow of that long-awaited celebration on Tuesday night, when the Dodgers finished off Tampa Bay in a compelling Game 6. Brian Dozier, the ex-Southern Miss star from Fulton, was on the 2018 Dodgers team that lost in the Fall Classic to Boston. Greenwood’s Louis Coleman pitched for the 2016 team that fell in the National League Championship Series to the Chicago Cubs. Louisville native Marcus Thames was on the 2011 team that didn’t make the playoffs, and Hattiesburg’s John Lindsey played briefly for the 2010 club that also fell short of the postseason. Brent Leach, the former Brandon High and Delta State standout, pitched for the 2009 Dodgers, who lost in the NLCS to Philadelphia. Gulfport native and Mississippi State alum Gary Rath pitched for an also-ran L.A. team in 1998. Dave Clark, the ex-Shannon High and Jackson State star, was a pinch hitter for the 1996 Dodgers, who lost in the division series to Atlanta. Biloxi native and DSU product Barry Lyons got into a handful of games with the Dodgers in 1990 and ’91. The lone Mississippi link on this year’s title team is Alex Wood, a former Mississippi Braves star who pitched brilliantly (six up, six down) in Game 6. A little research finds that, oddly enough, there has never been a Mississippi native or college alum on any of the Dodgers’ seven world championship teams. On the short list of those who have played for the franchise in any season, from Brooklyn to L.A., are Cleo James, Tommy Dean, Hal Lee, Jim Roberts and Dolly Stark.
“Baseball’s fun.” Brett Phillips, the former Biloxi Shuckers outfielder and hero of Game 4 of the World Series, threw out that little pearl in his breathless postgame TV interview Saturday night. Baseball can be gut-churning and soul-crushing, too, because one team has to lose. That’s how it works. But at its core, baseball is a kids’ game — and it’s fun. How could Game 4 be described as anything else? Filled with twists and turns, capped by a crazy walk-off play, three images will endure: Tampa Bay’s Randy Arozarena, who scored the winning run, lying in the third-base line, slapping home plate with his hand. Phillips, whose two-out hit set in motion the game-deciding play, imitating an airplane in the outfield as his exhuberant teammates chased after him. Dave Roberts, the Los Angeles Dodgers manager, looking out incredulously at the scene from the dugout railing. Game 4, an 8-7, series-squaring win for the Rays, featured six home runs, including a tape-measure blast by ex-Mississippi State star Hunter Renfroe. There was some clutch pitching, too, as a parade of arms went to the bump. There was some good defense — Renfroe was credited with two outfield assists and Mookie Betts made another athletic snag — and there was the shaky D on the final play, where a bobble, a hesitant relay throw and a whiffed catch allowed the winning run to score. It’s a best-of-3 now. Game 5 is tonight. It’s gonna be fun.
Thirteen years ago, fans of the Mississippi Braves got a glimpse of the pitcher Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash calls a “postseason stud.” They enjoyed a preview performance from the pitcher columnist Mike Lupica recently hailed as Big Game Charlie Morton. Morton is the Rays’ starter for Game 3 of the World Series tonight. Now 36 years old, he has battled through myriad injuries to become a very effective pitcher, with 93 wins and a 4.08 ERA over 13 seasons. In the postseason, he has been even better. He is 7-2 overall and 3-0 this year, including a win in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series against Houston. In 2017, pitching for the Astros, he won Game 7 in the ALCS and won another Game 7 in the World Series, beating the Dodgers with a four-inning relief effort. That’s when he picked up the nickname “Charlie Freakin’ Morton,” which has become a popular t-shirt slogan. Morton credits his postseason success to being “more anxious,” having “a little more energy” or “extra adrenaline.” Whatever it might be, M-Braves fans witnessed it firsthand back in 2007, on Sept. 7 to be precise, in Game 2 of the Southern League South Division playoffs. Morton had very modest numbers that season, his sixth in Atlanta’s system, going 4-6, 4.29 working as both a starter and reliever. With the M-Braves down 1-0 in the best-of-5 series against Montgomery, Morton got the call to start Game 2 at Trustmark Park. It was his first postseason start as a pro. Facing future big leaguer Jake McGee, Morton was brilliant, yielding just three hits and two walks while fanning eight over seven innings. He left with a 3-1 lead, which reliever Sung Ki Jung squandered in the eighth. A five-run response won the game for the M-Braves. Pitching coach Derek Botelho said postgame that Morton might have altered the direction of his career with that big-game effort. He made the big leagues the next year. P.S. Former Mississippi State standout Adam Frazier is a Gold Glove finalist at second base in the National League. Frazier, in his fifth MLB season with Pittsburgh, committed only one error in 41 games and ranked second in the league in fielding percentage (.994), double plays and assists. Other finalists include former M-Braves Max Fried, Dansby Swanson, Ronald Acuna and Jason Heyward and Biloxi Shuckers alum Trent Grisham. … M-Braves product Freddie Freeman was the Players Choice Awards winner for 2020 Player of the Year and NL Outstanding Player.
In addition to Crystal Springs native and Mississippi State alum Hunter Renfroe, Tampa Bay’s right fielder and cleanup batter tonight, there are several other Magnolia State connections on this year’s World Series clubs. Former Mississippi Braves standout Charlie Morton, who pitched for the Southern League playoff team in 2007, is likely to start Game 3 for Tampa Bay. The veteran right-hander has seven career postseason wins and is 3-0 in this year’s playoffs. The Rays’ roster also includes former Biloxi Shuckers outfielder Brett Phillips, a self-anointed player-coach of sorts. “I’m looking around and I’m like, we got the manager and the bench coach, and the analytical guy, but we don’t have the keep-it-simple guy,” Phillips said in a recent Sports Illustrated story. “So I call myself the keep-it-simple guy. I consider myself a player-coach.” Phillips played for the Shuckers in 2015 and 2016, belting 16 homers the latter season. He has been with four organizations in his brief pro career and batted .150 in 20 at-bats for the Rays this season. The Los Angeles Dodgers have a couple of Mississippi ties: left-hander Alex Wood, a onetime M-Braves star, and, behind the scenes, Director of Player Health Ron Porterfield, who was the trainer for the Double-A Generals when the Houston farm team first arrived in Jackson in 1991. Wood pitched at Trustmark Park in 2013, going 4-2 with a 1.26 ERA in 10 starts before earning a promotion to Triple-A. He has an MLB career ERA of 3.45. Porterfield, a widely acclaimed trainer, spent 12 years in the Rays’ organization before joining the Dodgers in 2017.
Just like the last time Tampa Bay was in the World Series, there is a Mississippi native and state college alum on the roster. Current Rays outfielder Hunter Renfroe is hoping for a better result than former Rays pitcher Chad Bradford witnessed in 2008. Bradford, a Hinds Community College and Southern Miss product from Byram, made two scoreless appearances in the ’08 Series, which the Rays lost to Philadelphia in five games. Bradford was a late-season acquisition from Baltimore who posted a 1.42 ERA in 21 games for Tampa Bay down the stretch in 2008, his next-to-last season in The Show. The submarine-style reliever, one of the key figures in “Moneyball,” was money in the postseason over his career, putting up a 0.39 ERA in 24 games spread over seven postseasons. He didn’t have a big impact in the ’08 Series. Renfroe, the ex-Mississippi State star from Crystal Springs, might be in a position to do a bit more in his first postseason. Renfroe belted eight homers for the Rays during the year but has been relatively quiet at the plate in the postseason so far. He has one homer and six RBIs while going 3-for-15 with nine strikeouts. He did not play in Saturday’s Game 7 win. He figures to get some swings against left-handers in the World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers. … The last time Atlanta was in the World Series, there was a third baseman from Mississippi on the roster. Current Braves third sacker Austin Riley will have to wait at least another year to experience the Fall Classic as Howard Battle did in 1999. Ex-DeSoto Central High star Riley went 1-for-4 with an RBI – and a baserunning gaffe – as the Braves fell to the Dodgers on Sunday night in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series. Riley hit a huge home run in Game 1 (see previous post) but ultimately batted just .143 in the NLCS and .178 in the postseason overall, striking out 18 times. Back in ’99, Battle, an Ocean Springs native and Mercy Cross High product, was on a Braves team that made it through a dramatic NLCS but was swept in the World Series by a New York Yankees juggernaut. In his 10th pro season in 1999, Battle was a late addition to the Braves’ roster, going 6-for-17 with a homer in September, and was a surprise addition to their postseason roster. He went 0-for-3 in the first two rounds and made just one “appearance” in the Fall Classic. He was announced as a pinch hitter in Game 1 and then lifted for another. He never appeared in another major league game. Riley, just a second-year big leaguer, will have more opportunities to chase a ring, though, after Sunday’s painful loss, he probably isn’t thinking about that just yet.