26 Oct

on this date

In one of the greatest accomplishments in a long and laudable career, former Jackson Generals star Freddy Garcia pitched Chicago to a victory over Houston on Oct. 26, 2005, clinching the White Sox’s first championship in 88 years and becoming the first Venezuela native to win a World Series game. Garcia pitched in pro ball from 1995 to 2019, appearing in 565 games in five different countries and posting a 224-158 record with a 3.92 ERA, per baseballreference.com. Originally signed by the Astros, he pitched for the Generals, Houston’s Double-A team, in 1998 before being traded to Seattle in the famous Randy Johnson deal. Garcia won 156 games over 15 big league seasons, made two All-Star teams and won an ERA title. Only Felix Hernandez has more wins among Venezuelan-born pitchers. Garcia was 6-3, 3.26, in 11 postseason games and beat Boston, the Los Angeles Angels and the Astros in the White Sox’s 2005 title run. He threw seven shutout innings against Houston in a 1-0 victory that completed a series sweep. His last MLB season was with Atlanta in 2013, when he started Game 4 of the National League Division Series against the Dodgers. He stood to get the win before the Braves’ bullpen blew the save and lost the series. Garcia was on the Hall of Fame ballot in 2019 but didn’t get enough votes to stay on. He’s deserving of further consideration by one of the Hall’s special committees.

24 Oct

and so they meet again

Philadelphia and Houston, headed for a World Series showdown, have met once before in the postseason — in the wild and wooly 1980 National League Championship Series. It was a best-of-5 that went the distance and then some, featuring four extra-inning games, ultimately won by the Phillies in the 10th inning of Game 5 at the Astrodome. One of the heroes of that dramatic 8-7 win was former Mississippi State star Del Unser, who entered the game as a pinch hitter in the eighth inning and produced two clutch hits, a big RBI and two huge runs. Unser, a Mississippi Sports Hall of Famer, was an All-SEC and All-America outfielder at State, playing on two SEC title teams in the mid-1960s. He began a 15-year big league career with the Washington Senators in 1968. By 1980, he was 35 years old and a bench player — a pinch hitter extraordinaire — on a Phillies club that included Mike Schmidt, Greg Luzinski, Larry Bowa and Pete Rose. The lefty-hitting Unser batted .264 in 123 at-bats that season. In the NLCS, he was 0-for-3 before entering Game 5 with two outs and two on and the Phillies down 5-4. He singled off Ken Forsch to tie the score, then scored on a Manny Trillo triple that put the Phils up 7-5. Houston tied it in the bottom of the eighth. Unser came up again in the 10th with one out. He doubled off Frank LaCorte and scored what proved to be the game-winner on a double by Garry Maddox. The Phillies went on to win the World Series over the Kansas City Royals; Unser was 3-for-6 with two RBIs and two runs in that series. He retired after the 1982 season with a .258 career average, 481 RBIs and 617 runs. The 1980 postseason was the only one he ever played in. He certainly made the most of it.

21 Oct

a dose of history

The Houston Astros, who are celebrating their 60th anniversary this season, gave a nod to their first World Series team by having a star pitcher from that club, Mississippi native Roy Oswalt, throw out the ceremonial first pitch before Thursday’s Game 2 of the American League Championship Series. Oswalt, the ex-Holmes Community College standout from Weir, was a 20-game winner for the 2005 Astros, who won the National League pennant — Oswalt won the clincher vs. St. Louis — before falling to the Chicago White Sox in the World Series. That it took 43 years for Houston to make that first Fall Classic seems hard to fathom now. Up 2-0 on the New York Yankees in the current ALCS, the Astros are on the cusp of a fourth World Series appearance since 2017, when they won their first and only championship (under controversial circumstances). They’ve been in the ALCS six straight years. Yet this franchise had an inglorious start. Houston’s first team, the expansion Colt .45s, were managed by Ellisville native and former big leaguer Harry Craft. They went 64-96 in ’62. Craft was dismissed late in the 1964 season with a 191-280 record. The team became the Astros in 1965, moving into the Astrodome, and finally posted a winning season in 1972. Pascagoula native Harry Walker was the manager of that team — until he was fired in August despite having a winning record. In 1980, the Astros finally made the playoffs for the first time. Houston’s Double-A team, the Jackson Generals, took up residence at Smith-Wills Stadium in 1991 and helped fuel the Astros teams that won four NL Central titles in a five-year stretch (1997-2001) before finally reaching the World Series in 2005. They didn’t make the postseason again for 10 years, going through a rough rebuilding process that is now bearing fruit year after year. P.S. On this date in 1986, former Jackson Mets star Lenny Dykstra led off Game 3 of the World Series at Fenway Park with a home run off Meridian native Oil Can Boyd. The New York Mets, down 0-2 in the Series, won the game 7-1 over Boston and ultimately won the title in seven games. Boyd allowed six runs in seven innings in his only Series appearance.

19 Oct

called to hall

A crafty left-hander who was the eighth overall pick in the major league draft and a college slugger who has topped 800 wins as the coach at his alma mater are among the eight new selections to the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. Paul Maholm and Jim Page are joined in the 2023 class by former NFL stars Lewis Tillman, Patrick Surtain, John Mangum and Jeff Herrod, former basketball player and coach Carol Ross and Olympic skeet shooter Tony Rosetti. They were introduced at a press conference Wednesday at the Hall of Fame and Museum in Jackson. The formal induction ceremony will be held next summer. Maholm, who grew up in Holly Springs, was an All-American at Mississippi State who won 27 games over his three seasons and was drafted No. 8 by Pittsburgh in 2003. He spent 10 years in the big leagues, winning 77 games, twice posting 10-win seasons. Page batted a school-record .487 as a senior at Millsaps College in 1985 and went on to become the Majors’ coach, a job he still holds. He is 815-554-3 all-time and has won eight coach of the year awards at the NCAA Division III school. P.S. Mangum, from Magee, is the father of Jake Mangum, the ex-MSU outfielder and two-time Ferriss Trophy winner who is an up-and-coming player in the New York Mets’ minor league system.

18 Oct

taking stock

The 2021 champions of the Double-A South, the Mississippi Braves didn’t produce another trophy in 2022, finishing well off the pace in both halves of the Southern League season. What the M-Braves did produce were two players who made significant contributions in Atlanta’s playoff charge: likely National League rookie of the year Michael Harris II, who made the jump in May, and Vaughn Grissom, who followed in August. And that’s what the minor leagues are really all about. All told, nine M-Braves alums debuted in the big leagues in 2022 (not all with Atlanta): Harris, Grissom, Drew Waters, Shea Langeliers, Freddy Tarnok, Joey Meneses, William Woods, Bryce Elder and Joey Wentz. A 10th, Alan Rangel, was recalled in late September but did not appear in a game. In total, more than 160 have made their MLB debuts since the M-Braves arrived in Pearl in 2005. While the team limped in with a 62-74 overall record under first-year manager Bruce Crabbe, six 2022 M-Braves made Atlanta’s organizational All-Star team as selected by milb.com. First baseman Drew Lugbauer, a fringy prospect, opened eyes with his 28 home runs and 82 RBIs. However, he batted just .213 and struck out 212 times. Cody Milligan was the pick at second base, Justyn-Henry Malloy at third (though he played mostly left field in Mississippi), Andrew Moritz in the outfield and Jared Shuster and Justin Yeager as pitchers. The top hitter, statistically, on the ’22 club was shortstop Cade Bunnell, who seemingly came from out of nowhere to bat .301 with eight homers. Shuster, a highly rated prospect who finished the season in Triple-A, posted a 2.73 ERA, best among the M-Braves’ starters. Tanner Gordon led in wins with nine and Justin Maese in saves with 11. Looking to next year, shortstop Cal Conley, currently playing in the Arizona Fall League, is a name to know. The Texas Tech product hit .251 with 16 homers, 65 RBIs and 36 steals at High-Class A Rome. Another key player in 2023 figures to be outfielder Jesse Franklin, who began the year with the M-Braves but missed virtually all of the season with an injury. The M-Braves open the ’23 season on April 7 against Biloxi at Trustmark Park. P.S. The last time Philadelphia was in the National League Championship Series, back in 2010, former Weir High and Holmes Community College star Roy Oswalt was one of the three (four?) aces on the Phillies’ pitching staff. Acquired in a midseason trade from Houston, Oswalt went 7-1 with a 1.74 ERA down the stretch for the National League East champs. The staff also featured Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Kyle Kendrick, but the Phils were knocked out by San Francisco. … Mississippi State product Adam Frazier, who helped Seattle end its 21-year playoff drought, will be a free agent after the World Series. A 2021 All-Star in Pittsburgh, the lefty-hitting second baseman had a down year in 2022, batting .238. … Former Jackson Mets standout Dave Magadan is out as hitting coach in Colorado, which has had four straight losing seasons. Magadan was the third baseman on the JaxMets’ 1985 Texas League championship club.

15 Oct

now or never

When the Atlanta Braves turned their season around in early June, winning 14 straight games, Austin Riley was a major contributor. The former DeSoto Central High standout batted .271 (16-for-59) with six home runs, 14 RBIs and 13 runs. When the Braves essentially clinched the National League East by sweeping the New York Mets Sept. 30-Oct. 2, Riley chipped in with big hits, going 4-for-11 with a homer and three runs, one in each game. If the Braves are to rally past Philadelphia and win their National League Division Series, they need some Riley. It’s not all on his shoulders, of course, but the big third baseman has been the aircraft carrier most of this season, blasting 38 homers and driving in 93 runs. In the three games against the Phillies, Riley is 1-for-12 with four strikeouts. His lone hit and RBI came in the Game 2 win. He has stranded nine baserunners in this series. Yes, the Braves need a great outing from Charlie Morton today and more offense from Dansby Swanson and Michael Harris II, but Riley looms as the key to their fortunes. It’s now or never for the defending champs in 2022. They need some Riley. As he told mlb.com after the crushing Game 3 loss on Friday, “(we’ll) see what we’re made of.”

14 Oct

meanwhile, in arizona ….

A long layoff this year has done nothing to chill Colt Keith’s bat. The former Biloxi High star is hitting .353 with two doubles and three RBIs in six games for Salt River in the Arizona Fall League. Third baseman Keith, Detroit’s No. 6-rated prospect, was shut down in June because of a shoulder injury; he was batting .301 with nine homers and 31 RBIs at the time for High-Class A West Michigan in his second pro season. He reported to the AFL after many weeks of rehab and hasn’t missed a beat. “Strength staff and medical staff took really good care of me and I’m better than ever right now,” the 21-year-old Keith said in a story on the AFL website. The 6-foot-3 left-handed hitter has also bulked up quite a bit from his listed 211 pounds and has developed more power as a result. Also in the AFL: Ex-Southern Miss standout Hunter Stanley, a 2021 draftee by Cleveland, has a 1.35 ERA over 6 2/3 innings for Peoria; the right-hander tossed 3 2/3 shutout innings in a Thursday game. Stanley went 2-1, 1.84, at the High-A level this season in his pro debut. … Reed Trimble, another USM product and ’21 draftee by Baltimore, is batting .250 with four walks and three runs for Scottsdale. Trimble, coming back from shoulder surgery last fall, played 31 games in A-ball this season, batting .291. … Former Mississippi State star Will Bednar, a San Francisco prospect pitching for Scottsdale, allowed two runs in two innings Thursday and saw his ERA jump to 16.20 in two AFL outings. He also missed a chunk of time with injuries this season. … Ex-Bulldogs ace J.T. Ginn, now in Oakland’s system, has thrown two scoreless innings for Mesa. … Justyn-Henry Malloy, who made a big splash for the Double-A Mississippi Braves in 2022, is raking at a .370 clip for Scottsdale with four doubles and three RBIs in 29 at-bats. Malloy played at three levels in Atlanta’s system this past season. P.S. Fun facts: Dylan Moore, who had a big hit for Seattle in a losing cause vs. Houston on Thursday, is one of 12 former M-Braves shortstops to reach the majors. Dansby Swanson is the most notable of that group, Vaughn Grissom the most recent. … Houston infielder/outfielder Mauricio Dubon, who played for the Biloxi Shuckers in 2017 on his path to the big leagues, is the only native of Honduras to play in MLB.

13 Oct

a few observations

Takeaways from Wednesday night’s National League Division Series:
1) Kyle Wright, the former Mississippi Braves right-hander, is pretty good. Yes, Atlanta scored a lot of runs when he pitched this season and racked up 21 wins. But the game against Philadelphia and ace Zack Wheeler was a grinder, and Wright was up to the task, shutting out the red-hot Phillies for six innings, yielding but two hits and a walk. He’s no fluke.
2) Former M-Braves third baseman Austin Riley and shortstop Dansby Swanson deserve recognition among the best defensive players at their positions. Both made highlight reel catches for Atlanta that will be marveled at for weeks (years?) to come, especially if the Braves make another October run.
3) If Josh Hader has indeed recovered his old form, San Diego could be a beast in these playoffs. The former Biloxi Shuckers star, who had some well-chronicled struggles this season, was throwing nasty gas for San Diego, getting the last four outs in the Padres’ 5-3 win over Los Angeles. “He looked like he wanted it when he came in,” Padres catcher Austin Nola told mlb.com. The wiry left-hander wasn’t perfect. Only 16 of Hader’s 25 pitches were strikes, but he cut down the vaunted top of the Dodgers’ lineup in the ninth, allowing only a hit to Freddie Freeman. Traded from Milwaukee to San Diego at the deadline, Hader had a 7.31 ERA in 19 games for the Padres. But over his last seven appearances, he did not allow a run, struck out eight, walked one and registered four saves. Fans of the Shuckers and M-Braves might recall Hader’s 2016 stint in Biloxi, when he posted a 0.95 ERA with 73 strikeouts in 57 innings over 11 starts. He was scary good, and he might be again.

12 Oct

range of emotions

The New York Yankees — and their fans — may be laughing about it now, having won Game 1 of the American League Division Series against Cleveland. But what happened in the bottom of the fifth inning Tuesday night with the score tied was cringe-worthy. First base coaches generally work in anonymity, but Travis Chapman, the ex-Mississippi State standout who handles that job for the Yankees, became a co-star in a moment that could have ranked as an all-time gaffe. Josh Donaldson thought he hit a home run and broke into a trot out of the box. Chapman also thought the ball was gone into the right-field bleachers at Yankee Stadium. He slapped hands with Donaldson as he approached the bag. But the ball hit the top of the wall and bounced back into play. Donaldson was cut down diving back into first. He saved face only because the Yankees won the game 4-1. … There had to be some disappointment for Southern Miss product Kirk McCarty, who was on the Guardians’ active roster for the Wild Card Series but was taken off before Tuesday’s game, joining the injured Nick Sandlin, another former Golden Eagles pitcher, on the sidelines. … There were a lot of frowns in Atlanta after the Braves’ 7-6 loss to Philadelphia, most notably on the faces of former Mississippi Braves Austin Riley (0-for-4, three strikeouts), Max Fried (six runs and a costly error in 3 1/3 innings), Dansby Swanson (1-for-5, four K’s) and Michael Harris II (0-for-4). Game 2 of the National League Division Series is today, with M-Braves alum and 21-game winner Kyle Wright starting for the Braves. … Ecstatic might best describe how former M-Braves pitcher Evan Phillips felt after escaping a two-on, no-out jam in the sixth inning, preserving Los Angeles’ two-run lead vs. San Diego. Phillips, an extremely effective reliever (7-2, 1.14 ERA, two saves) for the Dodgers this season, got a punchout and a double-play ball to register the hold. The Dodgers held on to win 5-3. … Crushed might best describe how ex-State star Adam Frazier felt in the ninth inning as he watched Yordan Alvarez’s three-run moon shot sail into the right-field seats at Minute Maid Park, delivering Houston an 8-7 win against Seattle. Frazier, the Mariners second baseman, went 1-for-4 with a run as his club built a 7-3 lead through seven innings. P.S. Mississippi native Lance Barksdale is part of the umpiring crew for the Dodgers-Padres series. He was in left field Tuesday.

11 Oct

honor roll

Matt Wallner arrived this season, maybe a little ahead of schedule. An injury opened up a spot in the Minnesota outfield in mid-September and the ex-Southern Miss slugger got the call. He responded by hitting a home run in his first big league game and finished with two homers, a .228 average and 10 RBIs in 18 games. Staying in the big leagues can be tougher than getting there, but that’s Wallner’s mission for next season. For 2022, he certainly rates a spot as an outfielder on the Mississippi minor league All-Star squad. Wallner, a left-handed hitter, batted .277 with 27 homers and 95 RBIs at the Double-A and Triple-A levels. MLB Pipeline named him the Twins’ hitting prospect of the year. The picks for the other outfield spots are Mississippi State alum Jake Mangum and Meridian Community College product Davis Bradshaw. Mangum, a Jackson Prep grad, hit .306 with four homers, 35 RBIs, 43 runs and 14 steals in 72 games, finishing the year in Triple-A for the New York Mets. He missed a chunk of time with a back injury. McLaurin native Bradshaw, in the Miami system, batted .304 with 31 RBIs, 39 runs and 13 steals in 97 games between High-Class A and Double-A. At catcher, there’s Chuckie Robinson, a former USM star who also reached the big leagues this year with Cincinnati. A strong defensive backstop, Robinson batted .266 with five homers and 25 RBIs at the Double-A and Triple-A levels before finishing the season with the Reds. First base belongs to ex-Mississippi College standout Blaine Crim, who batted .293 with 24 homers and 96 RBIs, finishing the year in Triple-A for Texas. Another Rangers prospect, former State star Justin Foscue, is the second baseman of choice. He batted .288 with 15 homers and 81 RBIs in Double-A. At shortstop, there’s Jordan Westburg, who was named by Baltimore as its minor league player of the year, quite an honor considering the load of talent in that system. Westburg hit .265 with 27 homers, 106 RBIs and 12 bags between Double-A and Triple-A. Blaze Jordan, the young masher out of DeSoto Central, is the pick at third base after batting .289 with 12 homers and 68 RBIs at two levels of A-ball. Jordan, a 2020 draftee by Boston, is still only 19. At DH, there’s Brent Rooker, the former State star who has a fair amount of big league time on his resume. He hasn’t hit in The Show, but in Triple-A this year he blasted 28 homers and hit .289 with 87 RBIs. Traded twice last season, he is now in the Kansas City system. The best starting pitcher among Mississippians in the minors was Will Warren, a Jackson Prep product in the New York Yankees’ organization. Warren went 9-9 with a 3.91 ERA, finishing the year in Double-A and rising to No. 8 on their prospect chart. The top reliever was Tyler Samaniego, a Northeast Mississippi CC product. The lefty was 4-4 with a 2.45 ERA and 14 saves for Pittsburgh, finishing in Double-A. USM alum Walker Powell, a swingman in the Chicago Cubs’ system, posted an 11-2 record and 2.76 ERA over three levels. Former Ole Miss standout Wyatt Short, who also pitched in dual roles for the Cubs, went 7-2, 3.33, spending most of the season in Triple-A. Ex-Delta State star Dalton Moats put up a 3.60 ERA in 51 games as a middle reliever at Triple-A in the Tampa Bay chain. Also rating a mention is MSU product J.P. France, who went 3-4, 3.90, with four saves while climbing to Triple-A with Houston. … Five Mississippians made their MLB debut in 2022: Wallner, Robinson, USM alum Kirk McCarty (who is on Cleveland’s postseason roster), State product Konnor Pilkington and ex-Bulldogs ace Ethan Small.