You never know what postseason moments will stick with you as the years roll along. For fans of the Atlanta Braves and devoted followers of Mississippi baseball, there’s a strong chance this one will: Former DeSoto Central High standout Austin Riley’s tie-breaking home run in the ninth inning of Monday night’s National League Championship Series opener. The 448-foot blast, on a 1-2 pitch, with actual fans in the stands, propelled the Braves to a 5-1 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers. Riley can rake: He hit 18 homers as a rookie in 2019, including one in his first game, and added eight more this season. He has had some well-documented struggles, including in this postseason and even in Monday’s game, but Atlanta manager Brian Snitker has stuck with him as the regular third baseman. Riley’s bomb, which sent the Braves’ dugout into a frenzy, had to evoke a feeling of tremendous gratification for all involved. As teammate Freddie Freeman told mlb.com: “For him to have that moment, the biggest home run of his life, I’m just so happy for him.” … BTW: Former Mississippi Braves star Max Fried and the Dodgers’ Walker Buehler put on a good show as the opposing starters in Game 1 at Arlington, Texas, but tonight’s matchup might be even better: M-Braves alum Ian Anderson against Clayton Kershaw. … A trivia question: Who is the all-time leader in MLB wins by a former M-Braves pitcher? Answer: Charlie Morton, with 93. Morton, who pitched for the M-Braves in 2007, also has six postseason wins, including Monday’s Game 2 of the American League Championship Series for Tampa Bay against Houston. The 36-year-old right-hander won a ring with Houston in 2017, earning the victory in Game 7 of the World Series. (The all-time wins leader among ex-Jackson Mets is Mike Scott with 124 and among ex-Jackson Generals is Freddy Garcia with 156.) … Hunter Renfroe, who was mic’d up for the TBS broadcast of ALCS Game 1, might not be tempted to do it again. The Mississippi State product wore the dreaded golden sombrero after striking out four times and leaving four runners on base in the Rays’ 2-1 win. He was not in the lineup for Game 2 against a right-handed starter. … On this date in 1974, in Game 2 of the World Series, Belzoni native Herb Washington, representing the tying run for Oakland in the top of the ninth, got picked off first base by Mike Marshall of the Los Angeles Dodgers. The A’s lose the game but win the series in five. “Designated runner” Washington, a world-class sprinter who never batted in 105 big league games, made two other appearances in the ’74 Series but did not attempt a steal. He stole 29 bases in the 1974 season but just two more in ’75 before he was released.
Good story now posted on milb.com about former Ole Miss star Grae Kessinger, now in the Houston Astros’ system, and the legacy he carries. Kessinger, a second-round pick by the Astros in 2019, is the grandson of ex-MLB All-Star Don, nephew of former big leaguer Keith and son of ex-minor leaguer Kevin. Grae leans on that family history. “It’s something that I think motivates me,” he said in the milb.com piece. “I think it motivates me that I know these people in my family, they gave it all they got every single day. They tell me about it and that makes me want to do it even more.” A .283 career hitter in Oxford, he played at two pro levels last summer, batting .224 with two homers and 17 RBIs in 50 games at low Class A Quad Cities. He played mostly shortstop — his UM position — but the 6-foot-2 Oxford native also got work at second and third base last season. He went 0-for-9 with a walk in big league spring action before the shutdown. P.S. Jordan Fowler, a former Ole Miss pitcher who played at Central Missouri this season, signed with Philadelphia for the $20,000 bonus available this year to eligible players not picked in the five-round draft. … The Tupelo Thunder sits atop the Cotton States League standings with a 5-0-1 record, led by Itawamba Community College alum Riley Davis (.538, four RBIs) and Blue Mountain College’s Easton Williams (2-0, 1.12 ERA).
To make a list that includes Christy Mathewson, Bob Feller, Bob Gibson, Nolan Ryan, Greg Maddux and Pedro Martinez is rather impressive. Roy Oswalt, the former Holmes Community College standout from Weir, has done just that, having been chosen by mlb.com as the best right-handed starting pitcher in Houston Astros history. His inclusion in this 30-man club is backed by strong credentials: 143 wins (second-most among Astros pitchers to Joe Niekro), three All-Star Game appearances, an NLCS MVP honor and an ERA title. Oswalt was drafted by the Astros in the 23rd round in 1996 and spent his first 10 big league campaigns in Houston. Overall, he went 163-102 with a 3.36 ERA in 13 seasons; his win total is second all-time to Guy “Mississippi Mudcat” Bush (176) among Magnolia State natives. P.S. Oswalt got the nod over Ryan, who spent nine of his 27 seasons with the Astros (106 wins, two All-Star Games) and was named the top righty starter for both the Angels and Rangers.
The real Lance Berkman, the former Jackson Generals star, batted .296 with 366 homers over a sweet 15-year MLB career that rated more Hall of Fame consideration than it got. The virtual Lance Berkman, now “playing” for the all-time Astros team in the computer-generated MLB Dream Bracket tournament, has been pretty darn good, too. The “Big Puma” is batting .447 with three homers and 12 RBIs through 10 games over two series (see mlb.com for all the box scores). The Astros have reached the quarterfinals with wins against the Orioles and Tigers. Roy Oswalt, the Weir High and Holmes Community College alum, is 3-0 with a 3.05 ERA in three starts for the Astros’ dream team. Oswalt spent 10 years with Houston and was arguably as good in that stretch (143-82, 3.24 ERA) than any pitcher the Astros ever trotted out. That includes Nolan Ryan, J.R. Richard and Mike Scott, the other members of the Dream Bracket rotation. Billy Wagner, another ex-Generals standout with Hall of Fame cred, has three saves for the all-time Astros, who’ll meet the Yankees in the next round.
This year will mark the 20th anniversary of the so-called “Miracle on Grass,” the U.S. Olympic Team’s unexpected gold medal performance in the Sydney Olympics. The team USA Baseball sent to the 2000 Games was a collection of minor leaguers and MLB journeymen that lacked any real star power. Hence, the “miracle.” Writers for mlb.com have put together a compelling oral history of the event, and among those frequently quoted in the story is Roy Oswalt, the Weir native and ex-Holmes Community College star who had a big hand in two of Team USA’s victories in the tournament. At the time, Oswalt was a 23-year-old Houston Astros prospect, a 23rd-round draft pick who hadn’t pitched above Class AA in his four pro seasons. He had gone 11-4 with a 1.94 ERA at Double-A Round Rock during the 2000 season, flashing the stuff that would carry him to 163 wins in the majors. But at the time, he wasn’t widely known, nor were many – if any – of his teammates. “On the way over there, we were getting bashed and hammered by the media saying we had no chance against Cuba,” he told mlb.com. “No one knew who these [U.S. players] were, who they’re sending over here.” Oswalt, on a staff that included Ben Sheets and Jon Rauch, pitched seven shutout innings against South Korea in pool play and came back with six strong against the Koreans in the semifinals. Behind Sheets’ pitching and a big homer by Mike Neill, the Americans stunned heavy favorite Cuba in the gold medal game. “Tommy (Lasorda, the team manager) told everyone that he had won World Series and all kinds of stuff in Major League Baseball,” Oswalt told mlb.com, “but nothing he had done in his life amounted to what had just happened.”
Buck Showalter has 1,551 managerial wins — 24th all-time in MLB — and claims three manager of the year awards. What the former Mississippi State star doesn’t have is a World Series ring. He might get a chance – a good chance, actually — to pick one up in 2020. Showalter has interviewed for the Houston Astros job and would appear to be one of the top candidates to replace A.J. Hinch, fired this week in the wake of the sign-stealing scandal. The Astros, 2017 world champs and 2019 American League champs, still have a loaded lineup and rate as one of the early favorites to win the 2020 Series. Showalter, 63, has managed four different teams and had success at each stop. He took three of the four to the postseason, making five trips all told in 20 years. His 2014 Baltimore club reached the AL Championship Series, falling to Kansas City. Showalter is the second-winningest manager in Orioles history – behind only Earl Weaver – but his nine-year tenure in Baltimore ended with a crash in 2018; he was fired after a gutted club finished 47-115. … John Gibbons, the former Jackson Mets catcher and ex-Toronto Blue Jays manager, is also a candidate for the Astros job. He has a 793-789 career record over 11 seasons, the last in 2018.
Though he has yet to pitch in a World Series game, Mississippi native Tony Sipp, a free agent since August, figures to collect a second World Series ring in the last three years as a result of the Washington Nationals’ stunning takedown of the Houston Astros. Sipp, a veteran left-handed reliever, was a member of the Astros — but not on their postseason roster — when they won the 2017 title. He appeared in 36 games for the Nationals this season but was released in August when they restocked their bullpen at the trade deadline. The former Moss Point High and Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College star had an uneven season, posting a 4.71 ERA. He had signed with Washington as a free agent coming off a resurgent 2018 season with the Astros, for whom he pitched in the playoffs. In 2017, Sipp endured the worst of his 11 big league campaigns (5.79 in 46 games) and was left off Houston’s postseason roster. Still, he got a ring – his first – after the Astros defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers in the Series. At age 36, Sipp’s playing days may be behind him.
There are always many storylines that develop in any World Series game, and umpires do not want to be one of them. In Game 5 on Sunday night, there was a missing ace, an ace on a mission, three big home runs and a clutch double play. There were also issues with balls and strikes. Brookhaven native Lance Barksdale was behind the plate at Nationals Park in Washington, where Houston completed a three-game sweep with a 7-1 victory that takes the Astros back home with a 3-2 series lead. The two most contentious ball-strike calls came in the bottom of the seventh inning. It was 4-1 with two outs, and Astros starter Gerrit Cole, very sharp on this particular night, went to a full count on Ryan Zimmerman. The 3-2 pitch was high and away but appeared, on replay, to be a strike. Cole and catcher Martin Maldonado certainly thought so. Barksdale called it a ball. Cole again went full to Victor Robles. The 3-2 pitch again was high and away — but this time, on replay, was clearly a ball. Barksdale emphatically called it a strike, ending the inning. Robles couldn’t believe it and jumped in the air. The Nationals bench went nuts. If it had been a regular season game, people likely would have been ejected. It was Cole’s final pitch — and his ninth punchout — and the Nationals never seriously threatened the rest of the way. The Astros put the game away with a run in the eighth and two more in the ninth. No one blamed Barksdale for Washington’s loss. You give up three two-run bombs, you’re going to lose most of the time. But there has been lots of buzz about the ball-strike calls and how much they can impact the game. Pedro Martinez made some excellent points on the issue on MLB Network’s postgame show. Some are saying it’s time to institute an electronic system for calling balls and strikes, which would be a fundamental change in the grand old game. Will we look back someday on Game 5 of the ’19 Series — the Barksdale game — as the tipping point in that debate?
Atlanta hosts St. Louis in Game 5 of the National League Division Series today, 14 years to the day after one of the most painful losses in Braves history. Atlanta lost 7-6 at Houston in an NLDS game that lasted 18 innings – at the time the longest in postseason history – and eliminated the Braves. The Oct. 9, 2005, game also featured the first postseason intersection of players from two different eras of Jackson-area Double-A baseball. Atlanta’s lineup included Brian McCann and Jeff Francoeur, both of whom started that season with the Mississippi Braves in Pearl. Lance Berkman, who played for the Jackson Generals in 1998, started for Houston, and Raul Chavez, another ex-Gen, also played that day. McCann hit a home run as the Braves built a 6-1 lead. But Berkman belted a grand slam in the eighth and Brad Ausmus hit a solo homer in the ninth – both shots coming off Kyle Farnsworth — to tie it. Among the parade of pitchers in the extra frames was Vicksburg native John Thomson, who worked two scoreless innings for Atlanta. Weir’s Roy Oswalt was on the Houston roster but didn’t pitch; he had started and won Game 3 the day before. Roger Clemens pitched the last three innings for the Astros and got the win when Chris Burke took M-Braves alum Joey Devine deep for the walk-off winner 5 hours, 50 minutes after first pitch. Rest assured, no Braves fan has forgotten that game.
Ran across a good story on milb.com about former Jackson Generals manager Rick Sweet, who notched his 2,000th career minor league managerial win on June 25. Only 12 others have reached that milestone. Sweet was the manager of the first two Generals clubs in 1991 and ’92, winning 131 games overall with the Houston Astros’ Double-A affiliate. Sweet, 66, a former big league catcher, has logged 30 seasons as a manager and is now at Triple-A San Antonio in Milwaukee’s system. Sweet has had some other jobs in the game, including two stints as a big league coach, but managing apparently suits him best. “I love going to the ballpark every day,” Sweet said in the article. “The fact that I get to help and be a part of so many young people’s lives, even when I started managing 30-something years ago, that’s what resonates with me. That’s what drives me every day.” The mustachioed “Sweetie,” as everyone called him at Smith-Wills Stadium back in the day, was a very vocal kind of guy but was always easy to work with for those who covered the Gens. “He’s lasted so long because of his commitment to open, honest communication,” writes Joe Bloss.