Jarrod Dyson, Kendall Graveman and Billy Hamilton became free agents on Wednesday, the first day MLB players could declare. Mississippi State alum Graveman promptly re-signed today with his 2020 team, Seattle. The Mariners declined an option to bring right-hander Graveman back, then re-signed him for less money ($1.25 million). Dyson, the former Southwest Mississippi Community College star, finished 2020 with the Chicago White Sox. At 36, the outfielder may be near the end. Taylorsville High product Hamilton finished 2020 with the Chicago Cubs; he played sparingly for the Cubs and the New York Mets, hitting .125 in 32 at-bats. … Former MSU standout Mitch Moreland, who had a good 2020, has a team option for one year at $3 million in his contract with San Diego. Uncertainty over whether the NL will have the DH in 2021 could affect the Padres’ decision. … Detroit has interviewed East Central CC alum Marcus Thames, the New York Yankees hitting coach, for its vacant managerial position. … Devin Williams, a Biloxi Shuckers alumnus, won the National League’s Trevor Hoffman Award as the reliever of the year after a jaw-dropping season for Milwaukee. He struck out 53 while walking only nine in 27 innings and yielded just one earned run. … Former Jackson Generals pitching coach Jim Hickey recently was named the Washington Nationals’ new pitching coach. He was a longtime coach in Tampa Bay (2006-17). … The Dominican Winter League reportedly will start its season on Nov. 15. Whether any MLB players will participate is unclear. … In Mississippi State’s Fall World Series finale on Tuesday, Team Queso finished off Team Goat with a 3-2 victory. Josh Hatcher hit a three-run home run for Team Queso, and Kamren James belted a two-run shot for Team Goat. Spencer Price got a dramatic save. Fall ball is ongoing at Ole Miss and Southern Miss. … From the Great Idea Dept.: Sports Force Park in Vicksburg hosted the first annual “JUCO Games on the River” in early October, with 11 of the state’s 15 MACCC schools participating in a four-day, round-robin event.
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.
On this date in 1986, the New York Mets – led by a host of former Jackson Mets – won Game 7 of the World Series, claiming the franchise’s second and last championship to date. The Mets, who had stayed alive with their unforgettable comeback in Game 6, won the clincher over Boston 8-5 at Shea Stadium. The New York roster was replete with former JaxMets: Darryl Strawberry, Lenny Dykstra, Mookie Wilson, Jesse Orosco, Kevin Mitchell, Roger McDowell, Lee Mazzilli, Wally Backman and more. Davey Johnson, the manager, managed the JaxMets to a Texas League crown in 1981, and coach Greg Pavlick played for the OJMs in the first game at Smith-Wills Stadium in 1975. The big Mets came to Smith-Wills for an exhibition against their Double-A club prior to the ’86 season. In Game 7 of the Series, the Mets fell behind 3-0 early but roared back to break the Red Sox’s hearts again. McDowell got the win, Orosco the final out and Strawberry hit a monstrous eighth-inning home run that made it a 7-5 game.
“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.
World Series anniversaries of note: Ten years ago, Eli Whiteside, the Delta State product from New Albany, won a ring with the San Francisco Giants without playing in any of the five games. Whiteside was the backup catcher for the great Buster Posey, who started every game against Texas. Whiteside hit .238 in 56 games during the season. On the losing side that year were ex-Mississippi State star Mitch Moreland and Meridian Community College alum Cliff Lee. Moreland, a rookie, went 6-for-13 with a homer, while lefty Lee was 0-2 with a 6.94 ERA in two starts. … Forty years ago, former MSU star Del Unser sparked Philadelphia past Kansas City in the pivotal fifth game of the Fall Classic. Unser, a 13-year vet at the time, delivered a game-tying pinch double off Dan Quisenberry in the ninth inning and then scored the go-ahead run in the 4-3 victory. The Phillies took the series in six. Unser went 3-for-6 with two RBIs and two runs overall. On the losing side in 1980, Greenville native Frank White, who had been the American League Championship Series MVP, had a World Series to forget: 2-for-25 with three errors at second base. … Sixty years ago, Magnolia State natives Joe Gibbon and Wilmer “Vinegar Bend” Mizell won rings with Pittsburgh thanks to Bill Mazeroski’s legendary walk-off homer in Game 7 vs. the New York Yankees. Gibbon, from Hickory and Ole Miss, yielded three runs in two appearances, and Leakesville’s Mizell took the loss as the starter in Game 3 and had a 15.43 ERA over two games.
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.
Cristian Pache gave Atlanta fans something to feel good about on Wednesday night, hitting his first career big league home run in an otherwise desultory Game 3 of the National League Championship Series. The former Mississippi Braves standout may also have sent fans of the old Jackson Generals on a trip down memory lane. Pache, who had four at-bats in the regular season, became just the seventh player to hit his first career homer in the postseason and the first position player to do so since Melvin Mora in 1999. Mora, who came through Houston’s Venezuelan pipeline in the early ’90s, spent parts of two seasons with the Double-A Generals, batting .298 for the ’95 team and .286 for the ’96 club that won a Texas League title. A versatile infielder, Mora left Houston as a minor league free agent and signed with the New York Mets in 1998. He debuted in the majors in ’99 and shined in the NLCS against the Braves. In addition to hitting his first homer – off Kevin Millwood in a Game 2 loss – Mora had five other hits, drove in two runs, scored three and stole two bases as New York fell in six games. The Mets ultimately dealt Mora to Baltimore, where he blossomed into a two-time All-Star. He batted .277 with 171 homers over 13 seasons, playing until he was 39. The 21-year-old Pache, a Dominican Republic native, can only hope for a career that good, though there is much promise. He is the Braves’ top prospect, having drawn comps to Andruw Jones, and likely will be their center fielder next season. He spent parts of the ’18 and ’19 seasons with the M-Braves, hitting .274 with 12 homers in 133 games. M-Braves faithful might remember Pache’s performance from June 15, 2019, the night of Dallas Keuchel’s tuneup appearance. Pache hit a game-tying homer in the seventh inning – the final scheduled inning – and threw out a runner at the plate in the eighth. The M-Braves went on to win.
In the midst of a humble postseason, his first in the majors, Hunter Renfroe took a star turn on Tuesday night and is now on the brink of a World Series trip. The former Mississippi State star from Crystal Springs hit a two-run double and made two sparkling catches in right field to help Tampa Bay beat Houston 5-2 and go up 3-0 in the American League Championship Series. Renfroe was 1-for-10 in the 2020 postseason when he stepped in as a pinch hitter in the sixth inning at San Diego. He hit an opposite-field flare that dropped into right field and plated two runs, capping the Rays’ game-turning five-run inning. Renfroe stayed in the game as the right fielder and made lunging, run-saving catches in the seventh and eighth innings. He came up with the Padres and played many innings in right at Petco Park, though he was known more for his arm than his glove. “I feel really comfortable here, as far as playing the outfield,” Renfroe said in an mlb.com piece. “I knew, right away, what these balls were going to do.” Renfroe’s only other postseason hit was a grand slam against Toronto in the wild card round. He batted just .156 in the regular season but had a knack for productive swings. Of his 19 hits, 13 were for extra bases, and he drove in 22 runs in 42 games. P.S. So, how productive has Atlanta’s farm system been in recent years? Consider this evidence: In Game 3 of the National League Championship Series today, the Braves’ nine-man lineup included seven players who suited up for the Double-A Mississippi Braves. And the starting pitcher, Kyle Wright, also did time at Trustmark Park, as did the starters in Games 1 and 2. More than 150 players have advanced to the big leagues through Pearl since 2005. The Los Angeles Dodgers started four players who came up through their system, plus the starting pitcher, in today’s game.