At one point this past season, Justin Steele looked like a frontrunner for the National League Cy Young Award. The former George County High star missed some time with an injury, had a few wobbles down the stretch and ultimately finished fifth in the voting revealed on Wednesday. Any disappointment he might have felt surely was assuaged by the $1 million bonus he received for that rank. Steele, a 28-year-old left-hander, went 16-5 with a 3.06 ERA and a 1.17 WHIP over 30 starts in his third MLB campaign with the Chicago Cubs. He made the All-Star Game and threw a scoreless inning. He was one of the main reasons the Cubs stayed in the hunt in the NL wild card chase until the bitter end. For all those efforts, Steele is the 2023 winner of the Cool Papa Bell Award, given here to the top performer among Mississippians (natives or school alums) in the big leagues. Steele, a Lucedale native, was drafted in the fifth round by the Cubs in 2014, persevered through injuries and finally made The Show in 2021. Now a mainstay in the Cubs’ rotation, he gets the nod for the Bell over DeSoto Central product Austin Riley, the 2022 winner who had another big year for Atlanta.
No Mississippi native has won a Cy Young Award. Justin Steele, the left-hander from Lucedale, is building a mighty strong case. Steele threw six shutout innings Tuesday night to lead the Chicago Cubs to a 1-0 victory against Milwaukee at Wrigley Field. The former George County High star has 15 wins, tied for the National League lead, and a 2.69 ERA, second in the loop. He also has a league-best 18 quality starts, perhaps none bigger or better than Tuesday’s. The Cubs’ win snapped the first-place Brewers’ nine-game win streak and trimmed second-place Chicago’s deficit to 4 games in the NL Central. Steele was struck in the left leg, just above the knee, by a line drive in the second inning but, unfazed, went on to throw 111 pitches, allowing just six hits and one walk while fanning eight. When he got a punch out for the final out of the sixth, he walked off the mound to a standing ovation from the 33,294 at the Friendly Confines. “I loved it. I love pitching in that environment,” Steele told mlb.com. Steele out-dueled former Biloxi Shuckers ace Corbin Burnes, a former Cy Young winner (2021), who pitched seven brilliant innings for Milwaukee. … Cliff Lee, a Meridian Community College alum from Arkansas, won the American League Cy Young in 2008 with Cleveland. Former Jackson Mets standout Mike Scott won the NL award in 1986 with Houston. The award was initiated in 1956. P.S. The AL West race sure looks like fun. Seattle, Texas and Houston are tied at the top after Tuesday’s results. Mississippi State product J.P. France picked up his 10th win for the Astros, going 5 2/3 (two runs) to beat Boston 6-2 at Fenway Park. France gained a measure of revenge against the Red Sox, who pounded the rookie right-hander for 10 runs in a loss last week. Ex-State star Chris Stratton got the final two outs of the sixth inning, stranding two inherited runners, to pluck the win for Texas, which beat the New York Mets 2-1 at CitiField. Stratton has a 2.00 ERA in 11 games for the Rangers.
Austin Riley, the former DeSoto Central High star, enjoyed a dream season with Atlanta in 2021. Not even assured of a starting job at third base in spring training, he became the team’s cleanup batter down the stretch, helped them to a World Series crown and earned a Silver Slugger Award. Riley’s season was clearly the best by any Mississippian in the majors, making him an easy choice for All Mississippi Baseball’s annual Cool Papa Bell Award. Previous winners of the award, which honors Negro Leagues legend Bell, the first Mississippi native to be enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame, include Tim Anderson (twice), Corey Dickerson (twice), Mitch Moreland, Brian Dozier (twice), Desmond Jennings, Lance Lynn, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Chris Coghlan. Riley, in his third MLB campaign, batted .303 with 33 homers and 107 RBIs and played occasionally spectacular defense. He ranked in the top 10 in the National League in five key offensive categories. He also produced in big moments. In the Braves’ NL East-clinching sweep of Philadelphia in late September, Riley went 4-for-13 with a double, a homer, five RBIs and two runs. (For the record: Phillies star Bryce Harper, a finalist for NL MVP, went 0-for-11 with five punchouts in that three-game set.) Riley hit .277 in the postseason, with two homers, eight RBIs and seven runs in 16 games. He hit .320 in the World Series. All told, it was one of the best years ever by a Magnolia State product. P.S. Ex-East Central Community College star Marcus Thames has been hired as the Miami Marlins’ hitting coach; he was recently fired by the New York Yankees after four years in the same role. … Kudos to Biloxi Shuckers alum Corbin Burnes for winning the NL Cy Young Award. Burnes, who pitched in Biloxi in 2017, went 11-5 with a 2.43 ERA and 12.6 strikeouts per nine innings for Milwaukee, which won the NL Central title. Former Ole Miss standout Lance Lynn was a finalist for the AL Cy Young, which went to Robbie Ray.
The competition is stiff for the Cy Young Award in the National League, home to Jacob deGrom, Trevor Bauer, Yu Darvish, Max Scherzer, et al. If Brandon Woodruff wasn’t in the conversation entering 2021, he certainly is now. Woodruff beat Scherzer head-to-head on Sunday, allowing just two hits while fanning 10 in a 3-0 win by Milwaukee over Washington. The former Mississippi State star from Wheeler is 4-2 with a 1.27 ERA — second in MLB only to deGrom — and has racked up 10 straight quality starts. Batters are hitting .138 against him — that’s second-best in MLB — and he is tied for seventh in the majors with 83 strikeouts. He toyed with the Nationals’ hitters on Sunday, utilizing three effective pitches. “I was mixing it up and getting ahead and moving the ball around to different quadrants of the zone. That’s what helps out,” Woodruff said in a classic understatement in an mlb.com article. What’s more, the 6-foot-4, 240-pound right-hander just exudes confidence on the mound. The only Mississippi-connected pitcher to win a Cy Young is Cliff Lee, the Meridian Community College product who claimed the American League honor in 2008 with Cleveland. (BTW, Ole Miss alum Lance Lynn — 6-1 with an AL-best 1.37 ERA — is off to a Cy Young-caliber start with the Chicago White Sox.)