08 Apr

the long goodbye

Trustmark Park in Pearl, which has seen a virtual parade of players roll through en route to the big leagues, formally opened on April 18, 2005, before a crowd announced at 7,062. Anthony Lerew, one of the ’05 Mississippi Braves who would reach The Show, struck out the first Montgomery batter that night. Alas, the Biscuits went on to spoil the home opener, 11-6. Not the start the club wanted, but there have been many, many memorable moments at the ballpark over the years. As the M-Braves’ long goodbye begins Tuesday tonight, here are just a few:
The first M-Braves hit: a Jon Schuerholz single
The Chipper Jones rehab games
Ronald Acuna’s first-pitch home run
The double-steal to win the ’08 pennant
Brian McCann’s no-hitter-breaking, walk-off home run
Drew Lugbauer’s 3-homer game
Jason Heyward-Freddie Freeman July 4 debut
Three no-hitters (won by Tommy Hanson, Julio Teheran and Ian Anderson)
Evan Gattis’ home run in the Atlanta Braves exhibition game
Justin Dean’s ninth-inning catch in the ’21 championship clincher
Jason Perry’s homer over the batter’s eye
Jose Peraza’s triple in his debut
AJ Smith-Shawver’s 7 K’s in 5 innings in his home debut
There will be few more moments in the months to come as the latest crop of Atlanta prospects make their marks. But come September, all we’ll have are memories.

08 Apr

matchups

Teheran v. Morton: Longtime followers of the Mississippi Braves — if there are any — should perk up at the mention of these two names. Julio Teheran (M-Braves, 2010) will make his first start for the New York Mets tonight against Atlanta and Charlie Morton (M-Braves, 2007). Morton has 131 career MLB wins, tops among former M-Braves in The Show. Teheran, who spent the first nine years of his career with Atlanta, has 81 wins, third on that list. Morton was on the ’07 M-Braves team that made the Southern League playoffs for the first time in the club’s third year in Pearl. Teheran threw a combo no-hitter (with Tyrelle Harris) for the M-Braves in 2010.
Waldrep v. Blue Wahoos: Current M-Braves pitcher and ex-Southern Miss star Hurston Waldrep pitched 2 2/3 innings — twice through the order against Pensacola — and got rocked for 11 hits, a walk and seven runs as the M-Braves lost 9-1 Sunday and fell to 0-3 this season. The highly rated Waldrep, who posted a 1.53 ERA over four levels in Atlanta’s system last summer, has a 23.63 after his first appearance of 2024.
Crochet v. Renfroe: Ocean Springs native Garrett Crochet got Crystal Springs native Hunter Renfroe to ground out in their first confrontation on Sunday, but Renfroe tagged Crochet for a two-run homer in the second encounter, breaking up a shutout in the fifth inning and propelling Kansas City to a 5-3 win over the Chicago White Sox. It was the first homer of the season for Renfroe, the veteran slugger in his first year with the Royals. Crochet, making his third career start, got a no-decision; he is 1-1 with a 2.00 ERA for the ChiSox, who have won only the one game.
Foscue v. Hader: Ex-MSU standout Justin Foscue got his first MLB hit on a 3-2 pitch in the ninth inning against fearsome lefty closer Josh Hader, the former Biloxi Shuckers star. Foscue’s single up the middle produced the only run Texas would score in a 3-1 loss at Silver Boot rival Houston on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball.
Dogs on Dogs: The weekend SEC clash between Georgia and Mississippi State at Dudy Noble Field was one to remember. State (21-12, 6-6) took two of three, winning Sunday’s rubber game 9-8 after trailing 5-0 in the third inning and 8-7 in the eighth. Of course, the “highlight” of the series was Saturday’s ejection-filled affair, which Georgia (24-8, 5-7) won 3-2 on a late homer. Emotions ran high all weekend. Wouldn’t it be fun if these two clubs were to meet again in the SEC Tournament?

05 Apr

batter up

The Mississippi Braves’ opening day lineup at Pensacola on Friday featured a blend of old and new and speed and power, with three Top 30 prospects — Nacho Alvarez, Drake Baldwin and Geraldo Quintaro — in the top six in the order.
The M-Braves, beginning their farewell season, faced Blue Wahoos right-hander Evan Fitterer, a Miami Marlins prospect in his fifth pro season.
Ian Mejia, second-year pro out of New Mexico State, got the starting nod from M-Braves manager Angel Flores. He went 4-11 with a 4.69 ERA at High-Class A Rome last year.
Ex-Southern Miss star Hurston Waldrep, Atlanta’s No. 2 prospect (MLB Pipeline), is expected to start Sunday’s series finale.
The leadoff batter Friday was M-Braves returnee Cody Milligan, who was injured for a chunk of time but hit .280 and stole 23 bases in 69 games.
In the 2-hole was Alvarez, the No. 6 prospect, a 20-year-old shortstop whom Baseball America rates as the best overall hitter in the Atlanta system. At Rome last season, he hit .284 with seven homers, 66 RBIs and 16 steals.
Hitting third was Baldwin, rated No. 11 in the system, a power-hitting prospect who mashed 16 homers at three levels in 2023. A lefty-batting catcher, he played 14 games (.321, one homer) for the M-Braves late last season before finishing in Triple-A.
Keshawn Ogans, up from Rome, was in the cleanup spot and playing third base. The Cal-Berkley product, 5 feet 8, 180 pounds, hit .266 with nine homers at Rome and .299 in the Arizona Fall League, where he made the Fall Stars Game.
Hitting fifth was first baseman Bryson Horne, who has 28 homers over his three pro seasons and finished his ’23 campaign with the M-Braves, batting .299 in 23 games.
Quintaro, batting sixth and playing left field, is cut from the Ozzie Albies mold (5 feet 5, 155 pounds). The Braves’ No. 28 prospect, he stole 29 bases while batting .251 for Rome last year and has 96 career steals in three minor league years.
Returnee Tyler Tolve, a catcher, was the DH in the 7-spot. He hit .238 with seven homers for Mississippi in 2023. Rounding out the nine were second baseman Cal Conley (.219, 32 steals for the ’23 M-Braves) and right fielder Justin Dean, who has spent parts of the last three seasons with the M-Braves and has 151 career steals.
P.S. Batting ninth for the Blue Wahoos was former Mississippi State star Tanner Allen, the 2021 Ferriss Trophy winner and SEC player of the year who was drafted by the Marlins in the fourth round that summer. He hit .274 in 17 games for Pensacola, the third level he played at in 2023.

03 Apr

last dance

There are some names that pop on the Mississippi Braves’ 2024 roster, the first roster for the last team that will play at Trustmark Park in Pearl.
Start with J.J. Niekro, son of former big leaguer Joe and nephew of Hall of Famer Phil. There’s Hurston Waldrep, the ex-Southern Miss star and Atlanta’s No. 2-rated prospect. And Brandon Parker, the former Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College standout from Saucier.
All told, five of Atlanta’s Top 30 prospects (per MLB Pipeline) will start out with the M-Braves this year, the team’s 20th and last in Pearl before the Double-A franchise moves to Columbus, Ga., in 2025.
“This is a place that has been so good to the organization, we want to make it a special one,” first-year manager Angel Flores said at a Wednesday press conference.
The M-Braves open the Southern League season on Friday at Pensacola. The home opener is next Tuesday (April 9) against Biloxi.
More than 170 players have passed through Pearl en route to the big leagues, and there are some on this year’s club who will also make that climb.
Waldrep figures to be one of those. Drafted in the first round last summer out of Florida — where he finished his college career — he pitched so well in his pro debut that he earned an invitation to Atlanta’s big league spring camp this year and nearly made the 26-man team. The right-hander said he wasn’t disappointed to land in Double-A, that he “wasn’t dead-set on making the (big league) club.”
There is a stockpile of pitching talent in Atlanta’s organization, which can make advancement tough, even for a guy with a 99-mph fastball and a wicked slider.
“As someone who loves a challenge, it’s great to be in an organization where you’re challenged everyday,” said Waldrep, who grew up a Braves fan in Thomasville, Ga.
Atlanta challenged Ignacio “Nacho” Alvarez with a move from third base to shortstop in 2022, his first pro season after being drafted out of a California junior college. Now the organization’s No. 6 prospect, Alvarez, only 20, will start at short for the M-Braves after also making an impressive showing in the big league camp.
“Coming up (in California), I never had a tool that popped out,” he said. “As I grew, I just learned how to play the game.”
Obviously a quick study, he hit .284 with seven homers, 66 RBIs and 16 stolen bases at High-Class A Rome in 2023. At a stocky 6 feet, 200 pounds, he may not look it but he may well be Atlanta’s shortstop of the future.
“I feel comfortable (at shortstop) at the moment,” Alvarez said.
The first thing to know about Niekro is this: He does not throw a knuckleball like his famous uncle and father. “I know how to throw it,” he said. “But it’s a backup plan.”
Signed by the Braves as an undrafted free agent in 2021 out of NCAA Division II Florida Southern, the 26-year-old right-hander has posted a 3.81 ERA in 65 minor league games, working as both a starter and reliever. He is slated to start the home opener.
Niekro’s father died suddenly when he was just 8. Uncle Phil worked with him on his pitching as he grew up, teaching but never pushing him to throw the knuckler.
“He always said just go with your best stuff,” J.J. Niekro said. “My stuff’s gotten me here.”
The main thing his legendary uncle stressed, Niekro said, “was just to be the best person I can be. That’s the legacy I want to live up to.”
For Parker, an outfielder, playing for the last M-Braves team has a special significance. He grew up a Braves fan and often made the trip up from the Coast to Trustmark Park.
“I still have a jersey I bought here way back,” he said. “It’s an honor to play in my home state. It’s a blessing.”
Parker — a national juco player of the year at Gulf Coast — finished his 2023 season with the M-Braves. He hit .239 with five homers and 11 steals across three levels in his fourth pro season.
His goals for 2024? “Winning games,” he said. “And a personal goal is to be as good of a teammate as possible. They watch for that in Atlanta.”
The M-Braves’ initial roster also includes No. 11 prospect Drake Baldwin, a catcher; No. 20 Luis De Avila, a left-hander back from 2023; and No. 28 Geraldo Quintaro, a second baseman.
Flores, still tinkering with the lineup and the starting rotation as of Wednesday, said he likes the mix of speed and power on this club. And the Braves always have pitching.
“It’s a very electric team, a dynamic team,” Flores said.
P.S. Six of Milwaukee’s Top 30 prospects are on Biloxi’s initial roster, announced on Tuesday. Included in that group is right-hander Jacob Misiorowski, rated No. 2 in the Brewers’ system by MLB Pipeline, and catcher/first baseman Wes Clark (No. 25), who hit a Southern League-best 26 home runs in 2023. The Shuckers, heading into their ninth season at MGM Park, open SL play at home Friday against Montgomery.

02 Apr

birds of a feather

On a Baltimore team loaded with youthful talent, Jordan Westburg is fitting right in. The second-year big leaguer out of Mississippi State hit his first walk-off home run on Monday night, giving the Orioles (3-1) a 6-4 victory against Kansas City. “I just love being a part of this clubhouse,” Westburg, 25, said in a postgame TV interview. “It’s just so much fun to play here in Baltimore.” A first-round pick out of Starkville in 2020, Westburg debuted with the Orioles last summer and hit .260 with three homers in 68 games for a playoff-bound club. He hit just 10 homers in three years at State but blasted 60 in the minors in three seasons. He started at second base Monday but has also played third and shortstop, versatility that should serve him well. Westburg was 0-for-3 Monday when he dug in against the Royals’ Nick Anderson in the ninth inning and drove an 0-2 pitch the opposite way and into the right-field seats at Camden Yards. “I’m pretty excited about that one,” the normally even-keeled Westburg said. P.S. Former DeSoto Central High star Austin Riley hit the first homer of 2024 by a Mississippian in the majors, a three-run bomb earlier Monday in the Braves’ 9-0 win at Chicago’s frigid Guaranteed Rate Field. Riley, who has 135 career homers, has started at third base on opening day for the Braves for five straight seasons. The team had six different starters in an eight-year stretch following the Chipper Jones era. … Ex-MSU standout Justin Foscue might get his first big league opportunity with Texas after Rangers third baseman Josh Jung went down Monday with an injury (fractured wrist). Foscue was a late cut this spring and is now at Triple-A Round Rock. … Former Bulldogs ace Ethan Small is rehabbing an oblique injury and is not currently with San Francisco, which acquired the left-hander in a spring trade with Milwaukee.

30 Mar

worth noting

The Gwinnett Stripers, Atlanta’s Triple-A club, opened their season Friday and Southern Miss alum Hurston Waldrep was not on the roster. That has fueled speculation that the Braves’ No. 2 prospect will start the season with the Double-A Mississippi Braves, who open next week. Waldrep posted a 1.53 ERA (and 41 strikeouts in 29 1/3 innings) over four levels of the minors in 2023, after being drafted in the first round out of Florida. He allowed no runs in 4 1/3 innings in the Grapefruit League for Atlanta this spring. … Ex-Mississippi State standout Jake Mangum homered in his first Triple-A game on Friday for Durham (Tampa Bay system) and threw out a base runner from center field. … USM product Chuckie Robinson, starting at catcher, got a hit and threw out a runner attempting to steal in his debut with the Chicago White Sox’s Triple-A Charlotte club. … Perhaps disappointed not to make the New York Yankees’ 26-man roster, ex-Jackson Prep star Will Warren allowed three hits, three walks and five runs while getting just one out in his start for Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. … Former Ole Miss star Drew Pomeranz has signed a minor league contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers after being released by the Angels. … Tim Anderson, ex-East Central Community College standout, is 3-for-8 in his first two games for Miami, where he signed as a free agent after the White Sox cut him loose after last season. … In college ball, the state’s six NCAA Division I schools went 0-6 Friday, the most glaring loss suffered by Alcorn State, a 29-3 loser at Arkansas-Pine Bluff. Also of note: Mississippi State squandered a 6-2 lead in the eighth inning and fell at Florida 7-6.

07 Mar

breakout breakdown

Highly rated prospects Justin Foscue, Jacob Gonzalez, Will Warren and Kemp Alderman are among the 19 Mississippians on the preliminary rosters for next week’s Spring Breakout series, a new event that will feature a ton of the top talent in the minor leagues. Each of MLB’s 30 teams will play a game — two teams will play two — beginning on March 14 in Arizona and Florida. Atlanta’s team will feature a bunch of former and future Mississippi Braves, as well as ex-Smithville High star Jared Johnson, a right-hander who pitched in A-ball in 2023. The Braves will play on March 16 against Boston, which lists DeSoto Central High product Blaze Jordan and ex-Southern Miss standout Dalton Rogers. Milwaukee’s team includes 2023 Biloxi Shuckers star Jackson Chourio — the No. 2 overall prospect in the minors — and Cooper Pratt, Mississippi’s prep player of the year in 2023 at Magnolia Heights. The Brewers play on March 17 against Kansas City; ex-MSU standout Eric Cerantola is on the Royals’ roster. Former MSU star Foscue is Texas’ No. 5 prospect, and he may make the Rangers’ opening day roster. Gonzalez, a first-round pick out of Ole Miss last summer and the Chicago White Sox’s No. 5 prospect, is joined on the ChiSox roster by former Rebels teammate Tim Elko. Jackson Prep product Will Warren, the New York Yankees’ eighth-ranked prospect, pitched in Triple-A in 2023 and is close to his MLB breakthrough. Alderman won the Ferriss Trophy last year at Ole Miss and is rated No. 8 on Miami’s chart. Among the other notable Mississippi products on the rosters are South Panola High alum Emaarion Boyd, Philadelphia’s No. 17 who swiped 56 bases in A-ball last season, and Colton Ledbetter (Tampa Bay’s No. 16), a second-round pick out of State in 2023 who batted .274 over two levels last season.

02 Mar

present arms …

Justin Steele, the former George County High standout, won’t be resting on his laurels this spring. His first Cactus League outing on Friday was evidence of that. Steele worked three innings for the Chicago Cubs against the White Sox, throwing 46 pitches, 32 for strikes, and using his entire arsenal, per reports. The 28-year-old left-hander from Lucedale yielded two hits, a walk and two runs with two strikeouts. Steele went 16-5 with a 3.06 ERA in 2023, helping the Cubs stay in the playoff chase till the bitter end. He finished fifth in the Cy Young Award voting in the National League. “I gotta do it again, that’s how I’m looking at it,” he told mlb.com. The Cubs are counting on that. … Spencer Turnbull, the ex-Madison Central star, made his first appearance with his new club, throwing two clean innings with four punchouts for Philadelphia vs. Miami in the Grapefruit League. Turnbull was non-tendered by Detroit after battling injuries in 2023 and posting a 7.26 ERA in just seven games. the Phillies signed him as a free agent, a one-year, $2 million deal. “I can’t even begin to explain how grateful I am to have a new opportunity, a new situation here,” Turnbull told nbcsportsphiladelphia.com. He was 12-29 with a 4.55 ERA overall in five seasons with Detroit but was on a nice roll from 2020 into ’21 (8-6, 3.46) before being beset by injuries. … Southern Miss product Hunter Stanley, getting a look as a minor leaguer in Cleveland’s camp, struck out the only batter he faced against the Los Angeles Dodgers. In two Cactus League outings, Stanley has yielded one run in 1 1/3 innings. He has a 4.58 ERA over the minor league seasons, having made Double-A last year. … Minor league vet Zac Houston, a Mississippi State alum and non-roster invitee in Tampa Bay’s camp, had a rough outing, allowing four runs (including a three-run homer) in 2/3 of an inning against Pittsburgh. The 29-year-old Houston, in pro ball since 2016, has made three appearance for the Rays. … Hurston Waldrep, the ex-USM star now a top prospect with Atlanta, is from Thomasville, Ga., and — yes — grew up a huge Braves fan. The Braves drafted the right-hander in the first round out of Florida last summer. “The way it worked out, I really couldn’t ask for anything different,” he said in an MLB Network interview. Waldrep pitched at four levels in 2023, including a stint with the Double-A Mississippi Braves. He is in camp vying for a big league roster spot but has yet to debut in the Grapefruit League. Waldrep was 7-2 with a 3.22 ERA and three saves in two years in Hattiesburg before transferring to Florida and helping the Gators make the College World Series.

02 Feb

spotlight on …

Kendall Williams, an Olive Branch native and Los Angeles Dodgers minor leaguer, made an appearance on MLB Network’s Hot Stove show today and spoke some words of wisdom about his chances of someday cracking the loaded Dodgers’ pitching staff. “If I do my job, there’ll be a job for me,” said the 23-year-old right-hander, who also talked about his rise to Triple-A in 2023 and about meeting Shohei Ohtani recently at Dodger Stadium. The 6-foot-6 Williams posted a 4-7 record and 3.73 ERA over four levels in 2023 and made the Arizona Fall League’s Fall Stars Game. He’s not on the 40-man roster and didn’t receive a non-roster invite to spring training, but he figures to get a look there at some point. Williams transferred from Olive Branch to IMG Academy in Florida during his sophomore year and was drafted in the second round in 2019 by Toronto, which traded him to LA the next fall. … Among the Mississippians to receive non-roster invites thus far are ex-Southern Miss standout Hurston Waldrep (Atlanta), Mississippi State alum Konnor Pilkington (Arizona), ex-Bulldogs standout Jonathan Holder (Texas), Ole Miss product Chad Smith (New York Mets) and UM alum Jacob Waguespack and ex-MSU stars Jake Mangum and Zac Houston (all with Tampa Bay). P.S. Ethan Small, a former first-round draft pick out of MSU, was designated for assignment by Milwaukee after the Brewers acquired two prospects from Baltimore in the Corbin Burnes trade. Left-hander Small likely will wind up with a new team. Also DFA’d on Thursday was Columbus native Michael Rucker by the Chicago Cubs, who signed free agent Hector Neris. Rucker, 2-1 with a 4.91 ERA in 35 MLB games in 2023, grew up in Washington and was drafted out of BYU. … William Carey University, ranked No. 4 in NAIA, lost its opener on Thursday, 5-3 to visiting Missouri Baptist, a 44-win team last year. Andrew Shirah, 10-1 for the Crusaders in 2023, yielded four hits, three walks and four runs in his three innings and took the loss. Preseason All-America pick R.J. Stinson went 1-for-5. … Belhaven University has scheduled an alumni game for Saturday (noon) at Trustmark Park in Pearl, the NCAA Division III Blazers’ home field for 2024. Andrew Gipson has taken the reins as BU coach. … Gulfport’s Bobby Bradley went 0-for-4 in Mexico’s 6-5 loss to Curacao on Thursday in the Caribbean Series in Miami. Mexico plays again tonight vs. Puerto Rico. Former Mississippi Braves star Ronald Acuna Jr. did not appear in Venezuela’s 3-1 victory over the Dominican Republic on Thursday. Acuna played for the Venezuelan Winter League champion Tiburones de La Guaira this season and was listed on the preliminary roster for the CS.

01 Feb

winter’s classic

The star attraction in the Caribbean Series — the seven-team international event that begins today in Miami — is National League MVP Ronald Acuna Jr., who’ll play for his native Venezuela. Among the other current and former big leaguers dotting the rosters is Bobby Bradley, the ex-Harrison Central High star who’ll play for Mexico. Bradley hit .281 with three homers and 19 RBIs in a short stint with Monterrey in the Mexican Pacific League this season. The power-hitting first baseman has belted 216 homers in his nine-year pro career, including 17 in the big leagues with Cleveland. He hit 30 for Charleston in the independent Atlantic League last summer. Mexico opens round-robin play today against Curacao. Acuna, a former Mississippi Braves standout who hit .337 with 41 homers, 106 RBIs and 70 steals for Atlanta in 2023, will lead Venezuela against the Dominican Republic tonight in what ought to be a rousing affair. (ESPN-plus is carrying all the games.) On the D.R. roster is Jairo Asencio, who racked up 28 saves as the closer for the Southern League champion M-Braves in 2008, when he was known as Luis Valdez. Other notable M-Braves alumni on the rosters: Christian Bethancourt (now with the Miami Marlins) will play for Panama, Andrelton Simmons for Curacao and Jonathan Morales for Puerto Rico. P.S. On the home front today, William Carey University hosts Missouri Baptist; Blue Mountain Christian welcomes Lane College; and Southeastern Baptist (of Laurel) visits Southern-New Orleans to launch the season for the state’s four-year colleges.