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.

06 Feb

better than most

In recognition of Black History Month, take a moment to appreciate the career of Vicksburg native Ellis Burks, arguably the best all-around player the Magnolia State has ever produced. His 1996 season with the Colorado Rockies might be the best single season any Mississippi native has put up in the big leagues. Born in Vicksburg in 1964, Burks also lived in Jackson for a time before his family moved to Texas. He was drafted out of Ranger College, a Texas juco, in the first round of the 1983 January draft by Boston. He debuted in MLB in 1987 at age 22 — amid Willie Mays comparisons — and batted .272 with 20 home runs as a Red Sox rookie. The 6-foot-2, 175-pound outfielder’s career ended in 2004, when injuries limited him to a handful of games, none in the postseason, for the Red Sox in their historic World Series-winning campaign. In between, he made two All-Star games, won two Silver Slugger awards and received a Gold Glove. He is now a scout for San Francisco. In 1996, as one of Colorado‚Äôs Blake Street Bombers, Burks batted .344 with 40 homers, 128 RBIs, a league-leading 142 runs, 45 doubles, 211 hits, 32 stolen bases and a 7.9 WAR, earning third place in the National League MVP voting. Among Mississippi natives, Burks is first in career homers (352), second in runs, RBIs and hits and fourth in stolen bases and batting average. And note that injuries curtailed several of his 18 seasons. On the career WAR chart, Burks is second among Mississippi-born position players with a 49.8; Jackson native Chet Lemon had a 55.6, aided considerably by his defense. Surprisingly, Burks lasted just one year on the BBWAA Hall of Fame ballot, getting just two votes in 2010. But make no mistake: He had an impact, on and off the field. In 2004, when the Red Sox arrived back in Boston after winning the World Series in St. Louis, it was Burks — at the suggestion of Pedro Martinez — who got the honor of carrying the championship trophy off the plane. P.S. Mississippi State alum Ethan Small has landed with San Francisco, traded for cash by Milwaukee which had DFA’d the left-hander last week. … Mississippi College product Blaine Crim has received a non-roster invite to Texas’ spring camp.

09 Nov

what comes next?

The swarm of minor league free agents hitting the open market includes Demarcus Evans, the former Petal High star whose once promising career hit a pothole in 2023. Evans, who signed with the New York Yankees last year as a minor league free agent, went to spring training with the big league club but was sent to the minors and then missed the entire year with an undisclosed injury. The 6-foot-5, 265-pound right-hander, 27, has pitched in 29 MLB games, all with Texas from 2020-22, posting a 4.75 ERA while battling command issues. In the minors, he has piled up 444 strikeouts and a 2.76 ERA in 297 innings. So, he’s got some stuff. Drafted in 2015, he made it to the majors on Sept. 18, 2020. He was welcomed by Albert Pujols, who belted Evans’ second pitch over the wall in Anaheim for his 662nd career home run. If Evans is healthy, he figures to get another look. … Veteran big leaguers Billy Hamilton and Jonathan Holder are also now minor league free agents, along with fellow Mississippi products Zac Houston, Cooper Johnson, Tyreque Reed, Chuckie Robinson and Chad Smith. Taylorsville native Hamilton, 33, who appeared in three games with the Chicago White Sox this year, finished 2023 in Tampa Bay’s system. Gulfport’s Holder, 30, who last pitched in the majors in 2020, posted a 5.40 ERA in Triple-A with the Los Angeles Angels. Robinson, a Southern Miss alum with a touch of MLB experience as a catcher, hit .290 with 13 homers for Cincinnati’s Triple-A Louisville team; he has been playing in the Dominican Winter league. Ole Miss product Smith had a 6.59 ERA for Oakland this year and spent most of the season in the minors. Reed, former Itawamba Community College slugger from Houlka, missed the 2023 season in Boston’s system with an injury. In pro ball since 2017, he has a .268 average and 64 homers in 374 minor league games. Houston, a Mississippi State product, has a 3.18 career ERA in 230 minor league games and spent this season in the Yankees’ system. Ex-Ole Miss star Johnson batted .206 this season, playing in A-ball and Double-A in Texas’ organization. P.S. Ex-State star and 2021 College World Series hero Will Bednar has been pulled from the Arizona Fall League reportedly because of lingering back trouble. The San Francisco prospect allowed eight runs in 5 1/3 innings. He made only four rookie ball appearances this past season because of injury issues.

22 Oct

cheers

Happy 44th birthday to Eli Whiteside, the former All-America catcher at Delta State who played parts of six seasons in the major leagues. New Albany native Whiteside, drafted in the sixth round by Baltimore in 2001, played in 216 MLB games, batting .210 with 10 homers, and got two World Series rings despite never playing in the postseason. Whiteside, backing up Buster Posey, hit .238 for the 2010 San Francisco Giants and was on their Series roster but didn’t get in a game as they beat Texas 4-1. He also spent part of the 2012 season with the Giants but didn’t make the postseason roster for a club that won another Fall Classic. After he retired in 2015, Whiteside served for a time as a bullpen catcher for the Giants and a roving instructor. Whiteside’s first career homer was a grand slam for the Giants in 2009, and he also caught a Jonathan Sanchez no-hitter that year. He is one of nine Delta State alums to have made The Show. Others on that list: Barry Lyons, Stewart Cliburn and Jim Miles (the first in 1968).

20 Oct

the right stuff

The Arizona Fall League has been described as an All-Star game every night, and Mississippi State product Rowdey Jordan is showing that he belongs among the highly rated prospects in the league. Jordan — who isn’t among the New York Mets’ Top 30 prospects — had a three-hit game for Glendale on Thursday night, raising his average to .275 in 11 games. The switch-hitting infielder/outfielder scored twice and picked up his sixth double, which is tied for the AFL lead. He has eight runs and three RBIs. Alabama native Jordan batted .323 with 10 homers for State’s national championship team in 2021 and was drafted, as a senior, in the 11th round by the Mets. The 5-foot-10, 190-pound Jordan reached Double-A Binghamton late in 2022 and spent all of 2023 there, hitting .230 with 13 homers, 63 RBIs and 30 steals. P.S. Jordan’s teammate on the ’21 Bulldogs, College World Series star Will Bednar has had a rocky go in the AFL as he attempts to get his pro career on track. Bednar, the 14th overall pick in 2021 by San Francisco, has a 9.82 ERA in four appearances for Scottsdale. The right-hander, beset by injuries since he was drafted, has allowed four runs on three hits and seven walks in 3 2/3 innings. He does have six strikeouts. Once the Giants’ No. 4 prospect (by MLB Pipeline), Bednar is now listed 26th. He went 1-2, 4.22, in four games in rookie ball this season.

19 Oct

the wait is over, but …

After eight years in the big leagues and 302 regular season appearances, Chris Stratton got in a postseason game for the first time on Wednesday night. It wasn’t an outing the former Mississippi State ace from Tupelo will remember fondly. Stratton yielded two hits and a walk and was charged with two runs in an inning of work during Texas’ 8-5 loss to visiting Houston in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series. An effective reliever for the Rangers much of the season (3.41 ERA in 22 games after being acquired in a trade), Stratton was idle for the first seven playoff games. The 33-year-old right-hander entered Game 3 in the sixth inning with the Rangers down 5-2. He got the last two outs of that inning and the first of the seventh before a couple of singles chased him from the game. Will Smith relieved, walked the bases loaded and gave up a two-out, two-run knock to Yordan Alvarez. Stratton, 33, was the 20th overall pick by San Francisco in 2012 after winning SEC pitcher of the year honors — and the Ferriss Trophy — at MSU. He made the majors in 2016 and won 10 games (with a 5.09 ERA) for the Giants in 2018. Traded twice in 2019 and converted to the bullpen, he became a solid reliever, winning 30 games, registering 21 holds and notching 10 saves from 2019-22. He pitched well for St. Louis as a trade acquisition last year, and the Rangers added him to their pen at the deadline this season. The Rangers lead the ALCS 2-1 but the series appears far from over. Stratton may well get another shot, which he surely covets.

04 Oct

thrill-ing start

On this date in 1989, in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series, Will Clark enjoyed one of the greatest single-game performances in postseason history. Living up to his nickname, “The Thrill,” the former Mississippi State All-America went 4-for-4 with two home runs, six RBIs and four runs, leading the San Francisco Giants to an 11-3 victory over the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field. Both of the homers — one a grand slam — and all of the RBIs came in the first four innings against Cubs ace Greg Maddux. “Clark had a helluva week tonight,” Cubs manager Don Zimmer told the Chicago Tribune after the game. Clark didn’t stop mashing after Game 1. He went 13-for-20 (an eye-popping .650 average) with eight RBIs and eight runs as the Giants won the best-of-7 series in five games. In the deciding game, a 3-2 win at Candlestick Park, Clark went 3-for-4 and broke a tie with a two-run hit in the eighth inning against nasty lefty Mitch Williams. Yes, Clark was named the NLCS MVP. Alas, he didn’t fare as well in the ’89 Fall Classic, going 4-for-16 with no RBIs as the Giants fell to Oakland in the so-called Earthquake Series. Though he never won a Series ring, Clark was a man for the postseason, batting .333 with five homers and 16 RBIs over 31 games with three different teams.

04 Sep

come monday

This was so cool. Watching Lucedale native Justin Steele, the Chicago Cubs ace, mow down the San Francisco Giants today on MLB Network and this happened: After Steele punched out the last batter in the top of the seventh inning to roars at Wrigley Field, the Cubs played a video of the late, great Jimmy Buffett, another Mississippi native, singing the traditional “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” anthem from the press box during a game in 1998. Wearing Harry Caray-replica glasses, Buffett punctuated his rendition with Caray’s pet phrase “Let’s get some runs.” And, of course, the Cubs did, scoring twice in the seventh to take a 3-0 lead en route to a 5-0 win. Only baseball, it seems, can deliver moments like this. For the record, Steele went eight, allowing two hits and two walks, striking out a career-high 12 and running his record to 16-3.

17 Aug

to the rescue

On a night when ace Justin Verlander got a little wobbly, Kendall Graveman led a four-man relay team of relievers who carried home Houston’s 12-5 win against Miami. Former Mississippi State standout Graveman, rescued from the sinking Chicago White Sox at the trade deadline, has been just what the Astros wanted, posting a 2.35 ERA in seven appearances. After Verlander allowed a five-run lead to shrink to one on Wednesday night, Graveman replaced him in the sixth inning and put the Marlins down 1-2-3 on eight pitches. (None of the four Astros relievers allowed a hit.) It was Graveman’s fourth straight scoreless outing for a team that is trying to chase down Texas in the American League West. (The Rangers lost Wednesday and lead by just 2.5 games.) Graveman, a converted starter now in his ninth MLB season, is in his second stint with the Astros, who acquired him from Seattle in a deadline trade in 2021. After helping Houston reach the ’21 World Series, he went to the White Sox as a free agent. He pitched well there, racking up 14 saves and 35 holds in 110 games before the Astros, the reigning world champs, got him back. “It’s an organization that’s run very well and … (I’m) thankful that they would want me back,” he told the Houston Chronicle at the time of the trade. P.S. Charlie Morton was masterful for Atlanta in a 2-0 win against the New York Yankees, notching his 12th win of 2023 and 128th career. That total leads all former Mississippi Braves by a wide margin on the career wins list. For the record, the leader among former Jackson Generals is Freddy Garcia with 156. Kevin Tapani, with 143, is tops among ex-Jackson Mets. … Tough break for ex-Ole Miss star Justin Bench, who was hitting .354 at Low-Class A San Jose (San Francisco system) when he went on the injured list on Wednesday. A utility player who made the All-College World Series team for the ’22 champs, Bench hit .370 in rookie ball before moving up to San Jose in mid-July.

27 Oct

reelin’ in the years

Hopping in the Wayback Machine for a trip to three World Series past, each celebrating an anniversary this fall and each featuring Mississippi connections. Going back 90 years to 1932, we have New York Yankees vs. Chicago Cubs, a contentious Series swept by the Yankees and made famous by the “Called Shot.” Babe Ruth hit that legendary home run in Game 3. Guy Bush, “The Mississippi Mudcat,” played a tangential role. Aberdeen native Bush, a 19-game winner for the Cubs in 1932, started Game 1 at Yankee Stadium and got shelled: eight runs in 5 1/3 innings. At Wrigley Field for Game 3, in the fifth inning with the score tied at 4-4, Ruth came to the plate. Players on the Cubs bench reportedly were riding Ruth hard; Bush was one of their most vociferous bench jockeys. Ruth made a gesture with a finger, possibly pointing toward center field, possibly pointing at the Cubs’ bench. Accounts differ, but not about what happened next. He homered to right-center field. New York won Game 3 7-5. Bush started again in Game 4. In the first inning, he gave up two hits, hit Ruth with a pitch, yielded a sac fly and walked the next batter. He was pulled. His ERA for the series: 14.29. Three years later, as fate would have it, Bush yielded the last two home runs of Ruth’s career, ensuring that the pair will be forever linked. … Sixty years ago, we have Yankees vs. San Francisco Giants, a seven-game classic that ended in OMG fashion. Jackson native Marshall Bridges, the “Sheriff,” was a relief pitcher for New York. Ex-Southern Miss star Jim “Peanut” Davenport played third base for the Giants. Neither had a great Series. Bridges posted a 4.91 ERA in two appearances, surrendering a grand slam to Chuck Hiller in a Game 4 loss. Davenport went 3-for-22 with one RBI. Both were watching when Yankees second baseman Bobby Richardson snared Willie McCovey’s line drive to end Game 7, a 1-0 Yankees victory, with the winning run in scoring position. … Thirty years ago, in the 1992 Toronto-Atlanta Fall Classic, no Mississippi native or college alum saw the field. But a current Mississippi connection put on quite the show in a losing cause. It should come as no surprise perhaps that Jackson State football coach Deion Sanders, aka “Prime Time,” would thrive on the big stage for the Braves. Sanders played in four of the six games, going 8-for-15 with two walks, four runs, an RBI and five stolen bases. Oh, and he was also playing for the Atlanta Falcons that fall; he skipped a road football game (a 56-17 loss at San Francisco) to play for the Braves in Atlanta on Oct. 18, going 1-for-3 in the Game 2 loss. Strange but true. P.S. The Mississippi connection in this year’s World Series won’t take the field but will have a great view: Laurel native Bobby Dickerson is Philadelphia’s infield coach.