Corey Dickerson and the Miami Marlins visit Truist Park in Atlanta tonight in the first meeting of 2021 between the National League East rivals who met in the NLDS last year. Miami is off to a 2-6 start, and Dickerson, the McComb native and ex-Meridian Community College standout, is batting .269 (7-for-26) with no homers, two RBIs and three runs as the leadoff batter. Dickerson was singled out by Sports Illustrated as the “make-or-break” player in Miami’s lineup. He “has to rediscover his swing (from 2017-19) to bolster an otherwise unthreatening Marlins lineup,” writes SI’s Nick Selbe in the April 2021 issue. In his first season with Miami, Dickerson hit .258 with seven homers in 52 games as the team made a surprising run to the postseason. The batting average was down from his career line (.284) and so was his slugging percentage (.402 compared to .497). To contend again in the NL East, the Marlins probably do need more from the lefty-hitting outfielder, 31, who is entering Year 2 of a $17.5 million, two-year deal. Tonight, he’ll face Braves righty Huascar Ynoa, a Mississippi Braves alumnus who is coming off a strong start against Washington. … The Braves, 4-5 after Sunday’s controversial loss to Philadelphia, would welcome some thunder from the bat of DeSoto Central High alum Austin Riley, the power-hitting third baseman who is batting .207 (6-for-29) and has yet to drive in a run. But Riley isn’t the only Braves hitter who is scuffling; he actually has the second-best average in tonight’s lineup.
On this date in 2010, on opening day in Atlanta, in his major league debut, on his first swing, Jason Heyward hit a three-run home run off the Chicago Cubs’ Carlos Zambrano. The “welcome to The Show” moment for the highly touted Heyward sent the Turner Field crowd into a frenzy and also provided a thrill for Mississippi Braves fans, who had witnessed Heyward’s prowess in 2009 at Trustmark Park. Former M-Braves stars have created quite a few of these moments in their big league debuts. Brian McCann, the first to get the call from the Double-A club in 2005, got a hit in his first big league at-bat. Later that summer, Jeff Francoeur homered in his first game, again rocking the Turner Field crowd. In 2009, Jordan Schafer went deep in his first at-bat, on his first swing. In 2012, Evan Gattis hit a bomb in his first game – while his father was being interviewed on Fox Sports South. In 2019, Austin Riley, the pride of DeSoto Central High, homered in his first big league game, this one at SunTrust Park. Who’ll be the next M-Braves alum to deliver on his big day? Keep an eye out for Drew Waters, the Southern League MVP and batting champ from 2019. His debut should come sometime this season.
Longtime Jackson-area fans looking for a nostalgia fix should peruse the lists of MLB coaches. Dave Magadan, the skinny hitting machine who passed through Smith-Wills Stadium with the Jackson Mets back in 1985, is the hitting coach for the Colorado Rockies. Ron Gideon, another former JaxMets star, is the Rockies’ first-base coach. Alan Zinter, who played on the last JaxMets team in 1990, is Cincinnati’s hitting coach. Washington’s staff includes bench coach Tim Bogar, a shortstop at Smith-Wills, and pitching coach Jim Hickey, who served in that role for the Jackson Generals way back when. Bobby Magallanes, who played for the Generals, is an assistant hitting coach for Atlanta, where former Mississippi Braves skipper Brian Snitker is the manager. Chris Holt, a former Gens pitcher, is Baltimore’s pitching coach, and onetime Generals hitting coach Dave Hudgens fills that role for Toronto. Eric Duncan, who played for the M-Braves in 2010, is Miami’s hitting coach, and M-Braves alum Antoan Richardson coaches first base for San Francisco. Other Mississippi connections on big league staffs: Louisville native and former East Central Community College star Marcus Thames (New York Yankees hitting coach); Laurel native Bobby Dickerson (San Diego third base coach); Biloxi native and Mississippi State alum Chris Young (Chicago Cubs bullpen coach); former Biloxi Shuckers pitching coach Chris Hook (Milwaukee pitching coach); and Jackson native Donnie Veal (Chicago White Sox rehab pitching coach). P.S. The Los Angeles Angels still list Ole Miss product Mickey Callaway as their pitching coach, but he is currently suspended and under investigation for inappropriate behavior and sexual harassment. It’s highly unlikely he’ll return to that job. … Former Southern Miss standout Kevin Young has joined the Pittsburgh Pirates’ broadcast team. He spent 11 of his 12 MLB seasons with the Bucs.
FanGraphs, the stats-driven website, doesn’t put much stock in Atlanta’s third base situation, ranking the Braves 25th among the 30 MLB clubs at the position entering 2021. That throws shade on Austin Riley, the former DeSoto Central High star who figures to get most of the playing time at third base. And he does have some things to prove, though raw power isn’t among them. He showed that off today against Pittsburgh. He mashed his first two home runs of the spring – 440 feet on a 1-2 curveball, then another deep bomb on a first-pitch sinker. He struck out in his third at-bat. Riley, 23, has 26 homers in 132 big league games but has batted just .232 with a lot of strikeouts and few walks. He hasn’t hit much in Florida this spring: 5-for-25 with one RBI before today. But neither has veteran Jake Lamb (.194, one homer), brought in presumably to push Riley for the job. The Braves have enough big bats elsewhere in the lineup that they don’t need Riley to carry them. Still, improved production would be nice. The Braves aren’t inclined to wait too long for that to happen. P.S. Mississippi State alum Adam Frazier, hitting a ridiculous .563 for the Pirates, smacked his second homer in as many days in today’s game.
Here’s what we know: Two months from today, the Mississippi Braves will open their 2021 season at home as part of the new Double-A South. What we don’t yet know is who the players will be — or who will manage them. Just guessing, there could be as many as six of Atlanta’s top 20 prospects stationed in Pearl come May 4. Catcher Shea Langeliers (rated No. 4 in the system by mlb.com), shortstop Braden Shewmake (No. 5), pitcher Freddie Tarnok (No. 11), outfielder Trey Harris (No. 13), third baseman C.J. Alexander (No. 18) and first baseman/outfielder Greyson Jenista (No. 20) appear to be at the Double-A stage of development. Shewmake, Harris, Alexander and Jenista all spent time with the M-Braves in 2019, when minor league teams last played. Langeliers and Shewmake were first-round picks out of major colleges in 2019 and look to be on the big league fast track. Langeliers, who played in low-A ball in 2019, is said to have the best arm among all catchers in the Braves’ system; he could be Atlanta’s regular catcher next year. Shewmake, long, lean and athletic, is projected to make the majors this season. Both are in big league camp as non-roster invitees, along with Tarnok, Harris and Alexander. Minor league camps haven’t yet opened. The 2021 season will be the M-Braves’ 16th at Trustmark Park. They’ve cranked out a lot of big leaguers but have won just one league championship, in 2008, Season 4. They would seem due for another. … Biloxi, also in the reconfigured Double-A South, also opens on May 4, at Birmingham. The Shuckers have announced the return of manager Mike Guerrero for his fifth season. It would not be a surprise to see ex-Mississippi State star Ethan Small, a top Milwaukee prospect, begin 2021 at Biloxi.
Nice start for Austin Riley in Atlanta’s spring training opener against Tampa Bay. The former DeSoto Central High standout, playing third base and batting third, went 2-for-3 with an RBI. The Braves are counting on Riley to produce at third base with more consistency in his third MLB season. He hit .239 with eight homers last year and had a big bomb in the postseason. His career numbers are .232 and 26. “The thing that is encouraging about Austin is all the way through, since he’s been a pro, he’s made adjustments and figured things out,” Braves manager Brian Snitker told reporters last week. “He’s gotten better every year.” … Ole Miss product Chris Ellis, in camp as a non-roster invitee, started that game for Tampa Bay and pitched a scoreless frame. Other spring debuts of note by Mississippians in the majors: Mitch Moreland got a hit in his first at-bat in an Oakland uniform. Hunter Renfroe went 0-for-2 in his first Boston appearance. Billy Hamilton, in the Cleveland lineup as the DH, went 0-for-1 with a walk and a run. Tim Anderson went 1-for-3 for the Chicago White Sox, and JaCoby Jones put up a 1-for-3 for Detroit. Jacob Lindgren registered two strikeouts in an inning of work for the White Sox. Ethan Small worked a clean inning and got a hold for Milwaukee. Grae Kessinger went 1-for-1 for Houston. Jacob Waguespack had a tough day for Toronto, yielding two home runs against the New York Yankees.
From the Where Did the Time Go Dept.: Charlie Morton, who has signed with Atlanta for 2021, pitched for the Mississippi Braves in 2007, the Double-A club’s third year in Pearl. The 37-year-old right-hander is the lone player from any of those first three teams still in the majors. A somber reminder of what a fleeting thing a pro baseball career truly is. The ’07 M-Braves’ roster also included Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Matt Harrison, Jo-Jo Reyes, Brandon Jones, Joey Devine and Brent Lillibridge, among other future big leaguers. Managed by Phillip Wellman, the ’07 M-Braves made the Southern League playoffs for the first time. Morton was not a real standout that year, going 4-6 with a 4.29 ERA mostly as a reliever, but he did throw a gem in the playoffs. He debuted with Atlanta in 2008, then was traded the next year. Morton’s MLB career really didn’t take off until 2017, when he helped Houston win the World Series. He nearly won another ring with Tampa Bay this season. He can help the Braves in what likely will be his final season.
Eleven years ago today, Chris Coghlan became the first and so far only Mississippi native or college alumnus to win an MLB rookie of the year award. Coghlan, a former Ole Miss star, claimed the trophy with the Florida Marlins in 2009. He is one of only three Magnolia State natives or college alums to win one of baseball’s three big individual player awards. Grenada native Dave Parker won the National League MVP trophy in 1978, and Meridian Community College product Cliff Lee was the American League’s Cy Young Award winner in 2008. … Former Mississippi minor league players raked in a nice haul of awards this year, including former Mississippi Braves standout Freddie Freeman winning NL MVP and Biloxi Shuckers alum Devin Williams NL rookie of the year. Williams also won the league’s Trevor Hoffman Award as reliever of the year. Freeman won a Silver Slugger, as did M-Braves alum Ronald Acuna. Former M-Braves pitcher Max Fried and ex-Shuckers outfielder Trent Grisham, who plays for San Diego, picked up Gold Gloves. … Freeman is the first M-Braves product to win an MVP but not the first former Jackson area Double-A player to do so. Former Jackson Mets star Kevin Mitchell was NL MVP in 1989 with San Francisco, narrowly beating out former Mississippi State star and Giants teammate Will Clark. The M-Braves have produced two rookies of the year, Acuna in 2018 and Craig Kimbrel in 2011, and Jackson Mets alum Darryl Strawberry took that honor in 1983. Mike Scott, a former JaxMets pitcher, won the Cy Young Award in 1986.
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.