Suddenly, it seems, the New York Yankees are hitting like the Bronx Bombers of old. Better, actually. The Yankees, who’ve won seven straight games after a major swoon, hit seven home runs Wednesday in a 13-2 win against Toronto at Yankee Stadium. They hit six homers on Tuesday. It’s the first time in franchise history – a history that includes Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle, Maris, Jackson, et al. – that the Yanks have hit six-plus bombs in back-to-back games. New York is 28-21 heading into tonight’s game vs. the Blue Jays and has climbed to within 3 games of first-place Tampa Bay in the American League East. The Yankees, despite a spate of injuries, lead the league in homers and are second in runs and slugging. Some credit here has to go to hitting coach Marcus Thames, the Louisville native and former East Central Community College star who was a pretty good slugger in his MLB time. A big league hitting coach puts in a tremendous amount of work each day, from preparing scouting reports on the opposing pitchers to helping scuffling hitters make adjustments. In a Yankees Magazine article from 2018, Thames said he also plays the role of a mental coach. “Baseball is a game of failure, and guys need somebody to lean on,” he said. “Sometimes you come to the cages, and it’s not all about baseball; you talk about other things, too.” Evidence suggests Thames, in his third year in the job, is doing some good work here lately. “I would say the confidence has grown with every run that we put on the board,” outfielder Clint Frazier, who homered in Wednesday’s rout, told mlb.com. “We have 33 runs in the last two games. I think that speaks for itself.”
The Chicago White Sox are on top of the heap in the American League. Having won eight of 10, they lead the AL Central with a 30-16 record, also best in the league. It’s no coincidence, really, that their leadoff batter, former East Central Community College star Tim Anderson, is leading MLB in batting with a .362 average, chasing a second straight batting crown. The White Sox have a stable of good hitters, from veterans Jose Abreu and James McCann to up-and-comers Eloy Jimenez and Luis Robert. But Anderson, the 27-year-old shortstop in his seventh big league season, is the one who stirs the drink, both with his on-field skills and his forceful personality. “They’ve got great hitters. It starts with their leadoff guy, one of the better players in this league at a young age,” Detroit manager Ron Gardenhire told mlb.com after Anderson’s four-hit game on Saturday. Anderson is tied for the AL lead (with Mike Trout) in runs with 39. He has seven homers, 17 RBIs and five steals in 36 games. He is also improving on defense. “He can beat you with his bat, he knew that. He can beat you with his legs, he knew that. But now he’s beating you with his glove and with his smarts, and that has stardom written all over it,” ChiSox broadcaster Steve Stone said during a game recently. Abreu is having a monster year with 15 homers and 48 RBIs and is generating MVP buzz. Anderson should be getting some, too. P.S. What are the odds that three Mississippians in the majors would suffer broken bones and hit the injured list within a 12-day span? Only in 2020. Mississippi State product Brent Rooker, off to a nice (.316) start in his MLB debut with Minnesota, went on the IL on Sunday with a broken forearm. He joins Richton High alum JaCoby Jones (wrist) of Detroit and ex-Petal High star Anthony Alford (elbow) of Pittsburgh on the sideline. All are expected to miss the rest of the season.
Tim Anderson, the ex-East Central Community College star, didn’t waste any time making an impact for the Chicago White Sox in his first game off the injured list. Anderson led off Tuesday’s game with a walk and came around to score the first run in the White Sox’s 8-4 win at Detroit. He got a hit and scored again later in the game as the White Sox, expected to bid for a playoff spot this season, improved to 9-9. The defending American League batting champ, who hit .335 last season, is at .324 in 34 at-bats in 2020. He had been out since July 31 with a groin injury and was no doubt eager to get back in the lineup. Anderson told reporters pregame that his plan for his return was simple: “Just have fun. We’ll have fun. We’ll bring fun back.” Anderson has scored nine runs in his limited duty but has just one homer and no stolen bases. He hit 18 bombs last year and stole 17 bases. In addition to fun, he’ll bring some power and speed back, too.
Major league baseball will happen this year. Or at least a version of it, one with no fans, a quirky 60-game schedule, the three-batter minimum, a universal DH and a silly extra innings rule. But it’s gonna happen. Well, maybe. With a month to go before the first games, nothing can be certain. While we wait, here’s a 6-pack of Mississippi-connected storylines to ponder:
1) How does Tim Anderson follow up on last season, when he won the American League batting title? The East Central Community College product isn’t just trying to lead the Chicago White Sox to better days; he has taken on a much larger duty. Bob Nightengale of USA Today describes Anderson as “the new leading voice in the African-American community of Major League Baseball, vowing to do everything in his power to change the game and lead a renaissance to recreate the game for kids and a hip audience.” “I don’t look at it as a responsibility,” Anderson told Nightengale, “but it’s something I’m so proud to do. I want to represent the black community, and everything that comes with it.”
2) Will Brandon Woodruff take another step forward as one of the most dominant pitchers in the National League? Ex-Mississippi State star Woodruff, a 2019 All-Star who has a star-quality fastball, went 11-3 with a 3.62 ERA and 143 strikeouts in 22 starts for Milwaukee. (He missed six weeks with an oblique injury.) Athlon Sports in its 2020 season preview noted: “Woodruff’s breakout last year was real, and it was spectacular. He allowed one of the lowest barrel rates in baseball while striking out nearly five for every walk … .”
3) How will Hunter Renfroe fare in his new setting, Tampa Bay and the American League East? The former State standout blasted 33 homers last year and 89 in three-plus seasons with San Diego, which traded him for Tommy Pham in a curious move in the off-season. Renfroe, a former first-round draft pick, is just a .235 career hitter (.289 OBP) who strikes out a lot. Pham, also an outfielder, is a better all-around player. The Rays’ motivation for the deal, which also brought them touted prospect Xavier Edwards, was partly financial. But they expect to contend for the postseason, and they’ll expect Renfroe to contribute.
4) What does Brian Dozier have left? The Southern Miss alum signed a minor league deal with San Diego after an uneven 2019 season with Washington. Dozier, only 32, has 192 homers, an All-Star appearance and a Gold Glove on his eight-year MLB resume, but he has faded the last couple of seasons as he moved from Minnesota to the Los Angeles Dodgers to the Nats. He hit .238 with 20 homers a year ago but scarcely played in the postseason. Still, he’s probably the best second baseman in the Padres’ camp.
5) How does Kendall Graveman’s comeback go in Seattle? Graveman, a former State standout, missed most of 2019 recovering from Tommy John surgery. Once the No. 1 starter in Oakland, he hasn’t pitched in the majors since May of 2018. The 29-year-old right-hander, 23-29, 4.38 for his career, is penciled as part of the Mariners’ largely unheralded rotation. “I feel like my stuff has gotten a lot better from right before I got injured …,” Graveman told mlb.com months ago on the eve of spring training. “I’m excited with where it’s at.”
6) What does Year 2 hold for Austin Riley? It was a tale of two seasons in 2019 for the DeSoto Central High alum, who batted .273 with 14 homers in May and June but then crashed, finishing at .226 with 18 long balls. The rookie third baseman/outfielder, who also spent time on the DL late last year, hit just .132 in September and was basically a non-factor down the stretch. Riley entered spring training battling Johan Camargo for the starting job at third. The switch-hitting Camargo might be a better fielder but doesn’t have Riley’s power.
It has only happened 30 times in major league history. First career at-bat. First pitch. Home run. Louisville native Marcus Thames did it on this date in 2002. And he did it against a future Hall of Famer, no less: Randy Johnson. Thames was batting ninth for the New York Yankees before a crowd of 45,000-plus at Yankee Stadium. Johnson was pitching for Arizona in an interleague rematch of the 2001 World Series. Johnson threw a fastball up and over the middle and the right-handed hitting Thames deposited it over the left-center field wall. The two-run bomb in the third inning gave the Yankees a 2-0 lead – yes, Thames got a curtain call from the amped-up crowd — and the Yanks went on to beat the Diamondbacks 7-5. Thames, now the Yankees’ hitting coach, wasn’t drafted out of high school and wasn’t picked until the 30th round out of East Central Community College by the Yankees in 1996. Defying the odds, he went on to play parts of 10 MLB seasons. And that show of power on June 10, 2002, was no fluke. He hit a bunch of big home runs, 115 all told in the big leagues on top of 147 more in the minors. … Other notables on the list of batters to homer on the first pitch they saw: Bert Campaneris, Jay Bell, Kaz Matsui, Starling Marte and Willson Contreras, the last to do it in 2016.
A walk-off home run isn’t just a bomb — it’s “the bomb,” to borrow the cringe-worthy slang of another era. Of the many cool things you miss about baseball, the sudden, exhilarating finality of the game-ending homer rates near the top of the chart. There were 77 walk-off homers in the big leagues in 2019. Mississippians accounted for five of them, and this seems like a good time to relive them. The first was struck on April 9 by Jarrod Dyson, the former Southwest Mississippi Community College standout from McComb. Dyson, not a slugger by any stretch, was sent up as a pinch hitter in the ninth inning for Arizona and surprised a lot of folks when he belted a two-run shot to beat Texas 5-4. It was Dyson’s first career walk-off homer and just the 15th homer of his 10-year career. Walk-off No. 2, Mississippi edition, came on April 26. East Central CC alum Tim Anderson stroked his first career walk-off – punctuated with an award-worthy bat flip – to give the Chicago White Sox a 12-11 win over Detroit. In a much-publicized incident a few days earlier, Anderson had ignited a benches-clearing kerfuffle when he bat-flipped after a mid-game homer against Kansas City. On May 5, Hunter Renfroe, the ex-Mississippi State star from Crystal Springs, got into the walk-off act. Renfroe came up as a pinch hitter for San Diego in the ninth with the bases loaded and his team down a run to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Closer Kenley Jansen was on the bump. Renfroe delivered a 429-foot game-winner, his second career walk-off bomb, and threw his arms up as if signaling a touchdown. Next was Nate Lowe, another State product and a rookie with Tampa Bay. One Sept. 21, in the heat of the American League playoff battle, Lowe slugged a two-run homer in the bottom of the 11th inning to beat Boston 5-4. It was his seventh of the season (and career) and first walk-off. It snatched victory from the Red Sox, who had gone ahead in the top of the inning on a homer by former Bulldogs star Mitch Moreland. Two days after Lowe’s heroics, Petal High product Anthony Alford, playing for Toronto, launched a two-out solo homer in the 15th inning to beat Baltimore 11-10. It was Alford’s first career homer, and he broke out in a huge grin as he rounded the bases. “I was trying to hold my smile as best I could, but it was pretty tough,” he told mlb.com. “It was my first-ever walk-off, so it felt pretty good.” It’s a feeling we’re all missing.
As baseball has become awash in new-age statistics, batting average has somehow been devalued. Yet even in this era of WAR, OPS+, hard-hit rate, et al., there remains something special about a batting title. Tim Anderson, the former East Central Community College standout, won one this year in the American League, adding his name to a list that includes, just from this decade, Miguel Cabrera, Jose Altuve, Mookie Betts and Josh Hamilton. Good company. Myriad Hall of Famers own batting titles: Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Mickey Mantle, Rod Carew and Wade Boggs, to name a few. There is nothing fluky about batting average. Anderson hit .335 in 2019, becoming the first Mississippian (native or college alum) to earn a batting crown since Dave Parker won the second of his two in the National League in 1978. The only others to do it: Buddy Myer (1935) and Harry Walker (1947). Anderson, a shortstop in his fourth MLB season for the Chicago White Sox, also hit 18 home runs, drove in 56 runs, stole 17 bases and scored 81 runs. For the record, he posted a 4.0 WAR. It was the kind of season that deserves to be recognized with a Cool Papa Bell Award, given here for the most outstanding performance by a Mississippian in MLB. 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 Corey Dickerson (twice), Mitch Moreland, Brian Dozier (twice), Desmond Jennings, Lance Lynn, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Chris Coghlan.
With its season down to one game, Milwaukee will hand the ball to Brandon Woodruff to start Tuesday’s National League Wild Card Game at Washington. The former Wheeler High and Mississippi State star went 11-3 with a 3.62 ERA in 2019 and threw four scoreless innings in his last two starts after a long stint on the injured list. He put up a 1.46 ERA in 12 1/3 postseason innings a year ago. “Obviously, I probably won’t be able to go six, seven innings,” Woodruff told mlb.com, “but I’ll be ready to go as long as I can until they take me out.” … Tampa Bay will throw ex-Mississippi Braves right-hander Charlie Morton (16-6, 3.05) in Wednesday’s American League Wild Card Game at Oakland. … East Central Community College alumnus Tim Anderson of the Chicago White Sox won the AL batting title with a .335 average, which also led all of MLB. The last Mississippian (native or college alum) to win a batting title was Grenada native Dave Parker, who took the National League crown in 1978 with Pittsburgh. … A pair of former M-Braves swept the stolen base crowns in the majors: Ronald Acuna of Atlanta led the NL with 37 bags and Seattle’s Mallex Smith topped the AL with 46. For the record, Jackson Generals product Brian Hunter twice won the AL title – in 1999 with Detroit and Seattle and in 1997 with Detroit – and Chuck Carr, a Jackson Mets alum, won the NL title in 1993 with Florida. The only Mississippi native to lead a league in steals is Ellisville’s Buddy Myer, who bagged 30 for Boston in the AL in 1928. … Former Madison Central High star Spencer Turnbull, who yielded three runs in 5 1/3 innings for Detroit against the White Sox on Sunday, absorbed his 17th loss of the season, most by a Tigers pitcher in 11 years. But he has good company: Justin Verlander dropped 17 in 2008. … Former JaxMets skipper Clint Hurdle was fired as Pittsburgh manager prior to Sunday’s finale, which he did not work. Hurdle went 735-720 with three playoff teams in nine seasons with the Pirates, who finished 69-93 this season.
2 – Number of Mississippians who celebrated Milwaukee’s playoff-clinching win against Cincinnati on Wednesday night. Neither Mississippi State alum Brandon Woodruff nor Ole Miss product Drew Pomeranz pitched in the game, but both could play key roles in the postseason for a club that still has a shot at winning the National League Central title.
4 – Hits by Tim Anderson, the East Central Community College product whose efforts helped the Chicago White Sox beat Cleveland and clinch the American League Central title for Minnesota. Anderson, riding a 12-game hitting streak, leads MLB with a .339 average and tops the AL batting race by 11 points.
20 – Home runs this season by Brian Dozier, who went deep in postseason-bound Washington’s win over Philadelphia. The ex-Southern Miss standout reached the 20-homer plateau for the sixth straight year with his first round-tripper since Aug. 18.
19 – Homers this season for Mitch Moreland, the former MSU star who went deep as part of a four-hit performance for Boston. Moreland has four homers in his last five games and 56 in his three seasons with the Red Sox, who have missed the playoffs for the first time since 2015.
5 – Wins this year for Jacob Waguespack, the Ole Miss product who threw six shutout innings for Toronto against Baltimore. Waguespack is 5-5 with a 4.38 ERA in 16 appearances as a rookie for an up-and-coming Blue Jays club.
83 – Wins by Mickey Callaway’s New York Mets, a six-game improvement over 2018 but not quite good enough to make the playoffs. The former Ole Miss pitcher, in his second season as Mets manager, saw his club eliminated from NL wild card contention Wednesday when Milwaukee won.
On this date in 2013, Taylorsville’s Billy Hamilton made his first big league start for Cincinnati and flashed the skills that had so many in baseball excited about his future. Hamilton, who had already stolen five bases as a pinch runner before he got his first start, went 3-for-4 with a double, two walks, two runs, an RBI and four stolen bases as the Reds beat Houston 6-5 in 13 innings at Minute Maid Park. Hamilton led off the 13th with a walk, stole second, went to third on a wild pitch and scored on Jay Bruce’s two-run double. Though he now has 298 steals – most ever by a Mississippi native – Hamilton’s inability to hit consistently (.242) has dogged his career. He is currently filling a role – and filling it well — as a pinch runner/defensive replacement for Atlanta. … With a 4-for-6 effort on Tuesday, East Central Community College alumnus Tim Anderson moved into the major league lead with a .336 batting average. The Chicago White Sox shortstop hit his 17th home run in a loss to Minnesota. The last Mississippian (native or college alum) to win a batting title was Grenada native Dave Parker, who won the National League crown in 1978 with Pittsburgh. … Corey Dickerson may have played his last game for Philadelphia. The Meridian Community College alum from McComb, a free agent after this season, went on the injured list for the Phillies on Tuesday with a broken foot. He hit .293 with eight homers and 34 RBIs in 34 games for Philly. Dickerson, a .286 career hitter, also missed a lot of time early in the season with Pittsburgh because of a shoulder injury.