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.
Thirteen years ago, fans of the Mississippi Braves got a glimpse of the pitcher Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash calls a “postseason stud.” They enjoyed a preview performance from the pitcher columnist Mike Lupica recently hailed as Big Game Charlie Morton. Morton is the Rays’ starter for Game 3 of the World Series tonight. Now 36 years old, he has battled through myriad injuries to become a very effective pitcher, with 93 wins and a 4.08 ERA over 13 seasons. In the postseason, he has been even better. He is 7-2 overall and 3-0 this year, including a win in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series against Houston. In 2017, pitching for the Astros, he won Game 7 in the ALCS and won another Game 7 in the World Series, beating the Dodgers with a four-inning relief effort. That’s when he picked up the nickname “Charlie Freakin’ Morton,” which has become a popular t-shirt slogan. Morton credits his postseason success to being “more anxious,” having “a little more energy” or “extra adrenaline.” Whatever it might be, M-Braves fans witnessed it firsthand back in 2007, on Sept. 7 to be precise, in Game 2 of the Southern League South Division playoffs. Morton had very modest numbers that season, his sixth in Atlanta’s system, going 4-6, 4.29 working as both a starter and reliever. With the M-Braves down 1-0 in the best-of-5 series against Montgomery, Morton got the call to start Game 2 at Trustmark Park. It was his first postseason start as a pro. Facing future big leaguer Jake McGee, Morton was brilliant, yielding just three hits and two walks while fanning eight over seven innings. He left with a 3-1 lead, which reliever Sung Ki Jung squandered in the eighth. A five-run response won the game for the M-Braves. Pitching coach Derek Botelho said postgame that Morton might have altered the direction of his career with that big-game effort. He made the big leagues the next year. P.S. Former Mississippi State standout Adam Frazier is a Gold Glove finalist at second base in the National League. Frazier, in his fifth MLB season with Pittsburgh, committed only one error in 41 games and ranked second in the league in fielding percentage (.994), double plays and assists. Other finalists include former M-Braves Max Fried, Dansby Swanson, Ronald Acuna and Jason Heyward and Biloxi Shuckers alum Trent Grisham. … M-Braves product Freddie Freeman was the Players Choice Awards winner for 2020 Player of the Year and NL Outstanding Player.
In the midst of a humble postseason, his first in the majors, Hunter Renfroe took a star turn on Tuesday night and is now on the brink of a World Series trip. The former Mississippi State star from Crystal Springs hit a two-run double and made two sparkling catches in right field to help Tampa Bay beat Houston 5-2 and go up 3-0 in the American League Championship Series. Renfroe was 1-for-10 in the 2020 postseason when he stepped in as a pinch hitter in the sixth inning at San Diego. He hit an opposite-field flare that dropped into right field and plated two runs, capping the Rays’ game-turning five-run inning. Renfroe stayed in the game as the right fielder and made lunging, run-saving catches in the seventh and eighth innings. He came up with the Padres and played many innings in right at Petco Park, though he was known more for his arm than his glove. “I feel really comfortable here, as far as playing the outfield,” Renfroe said in an mlb.com piece. “I knew, right away, what these balls were going to do.” Renfroe’s only other postseason hit was a grand slam against Toronto in the wild card round. He batted just .156 in the regular season but had a knack for productive swings. Of his 19 hits, 13 were for extra bases, and he drove in 22 runs in 42 games. P.S. So, how productive has Atlanta’s farm system been in recent years? Consider this evidence: In Game 3 of the National League Championship Series today, the Braves’ nine-man lineup included seven players who suited up for the Double-A Mississippi Braves. And the starting pitcher, Kyle Wright, also did time at Trustmark Park, as did the starters in Games 1 and 2. More than 150 players have advanced to the big leagues through Pearl since 2005. The Los Angeles Dodgers started four players who came up through their system, plus the starting pitcher, in today’s game.
Among the flood of pitchers who have toed the rubber at Trustmark Park en route to the big leagues, Ian Anderson achieved a special distinction. He had a hand in one of the three no-hitters hurled by Mississippi Braves pitchers during the Double-A club’s first 15 years in Pearl. The right-hander, now Atlanta’s No. 2 starter, worked the first seven innings of a combo no-no (with Jeremy Walker) in June of 2019. And Anderson worked his magic on a special night in front of a big crowd: The M-Braves wore throwback Jackson Generals uniforms, honoring the old Double-A franchise that played at Smith-Wills Stadium from 1975-99. M-Braves fans might remember Anderson, with his distinctive, over-the-top delivery, as a good — if not great — pitcher. He went 7-5 with a 2.68 ERA over 19 starts in 2019. Since getting the call to Atlanta in late August, Anderson has been even better: 3-2, 1.95 in the regular season. He shut down the New York Yankees in his MLB debut and handcuffed Cincinnati in Game 2 of the wild card series. He goes today in Game 2 of the National League Division Series against Miami, with the Braves up 1-0. Braves fans should be enthused. Here’s what Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci recently wrote: “Anderson, 22, is the difference-maker, capable of reshaping what you thought you knew about this postseason the way rookie Michael Wacha of the (St. Louis) Cardinals did in 2013.” Wacha went 4-1, 2.64 in five postseason starts for the World Series team. P.S. Another former M-Braves hurler, Charlie Morton, starts for Tampa Bay against the Yankees tonight in Game 3 of that division series. Morton had a down year: 2-2, 4.74 ERA. … Baseball Digest’s annual awards had a distinct Mississippi flavor, with former Mississippi Braves star Freddie Freeman earning player of the year honors and Biloxi Shuckers alum Devin Williams tabbed as reliever of the year. Freeman batted .341 with 13 home runs, 53 RBIs and an MLB-leading 51 runs scored for National League East champion Atlanta. Freeman passed through Trustmark Park in 2009 – arriving in July in tandem with Jason Heyward – and hit .248 with two homers and 22 RBIs in 41 games, missing part of the season with an injury. Williams, a rookie, had a breakout campaign for Milwaukee, finishing with an 0.33 ERA and 53 strikeouts in 27 innings, leading all relievers. He pitched for Biloxi in 2019, going 7-2 with four saves and a 2.70 ERA in 31 relief appearances. Williams joined the Braves’ Anderson on MLB Pipeline’s all-rookie team for 2020. … Ole Miss alum and Mississippi resident Andy Fletcher was behind home plate for Tuesday’s Atlanta-Miami game, which produced some drama after Ronald Acuna, who belted a leadoff homer, was hit by a pitch in his second at-bat.
Brent Rooker, the former SEC Triple Crown winner from Mississippi State, got some dents in his fender today in his first MLB game. He became the first Mississippian (native or college alum) to debut in the big leagues in 2020 when he started in left field for Minnesota against Detroit in Game 1 of a twinbill at Target Field. In his first career at-bat, vs. lefty Matthew Boyd, Rooker was hit by a pitch on a 1-2 count. He then collided with the Tigers shortstop on a force play. In his second AB, he lined out, after which he was replaced in the field. He was back in the lineup, batting cleanup, for Game 2 and got his first hit and RBI. Rooker, an outfielder/first baseman, was a first-round pick by the Twins in 2017. He has batted .267 with 54 homers and 178 RBIs in 259 minor league games, reaching the Triple-A level last summer. He was a Southern League All-Star in 2018. … Seven players with Mississippi ties are among the 30 nominees, one from each team, for the 2020 Roberto Clemente Award. The award is “an annual recognition of the MLB player who best represents the game through extraordinary character, community involvement, philanthropy and positive contributions, both on and off the field.” The honored players include Mississippi State product and Amory native Mitch Moreland (now with San Diego, nominated by Boston); Ole Miss alum Drew Pomeranz (San Diego); ex-East Central Community College star Tim Anderson (Chicago White Sox); Mississippi Braves alumni Charlie Morton (Tampa Bay), Freddie Freeman (Atlanta) and Jason Heyward (Cubs); and Biloxi Shuckers alum Brent Suter (Milwaukee). … Former Biloxi Shuckers star Josh Hader is Milwaukee’s bullpen ace, the hard-throwing lefty with the scraggly mane. Everyone knows this. The Brewers’ secret bullpen weapon is Devin Williams, another Shuckers alum who has been lights-out in 2020, his second MLB season. He has a better ERA than Hader, more strikeouts per inning and fewer walks. One analyst has called Williams “the most dominant reliever in baseball.” Featuring a great changeup, he has a 0.60 ERA and 31 punchouts and six walks in 15 innings. The right-hander, 25, pitched for Biloxi in 2019, posting a 7-2 record, four saves and a 2.36 ERA in the Double-A Southern League. He struck out 76 in 53 1/3 innings. He was also an All-Star Futures Game participant last summer before getting his first call-up in August. … Whatever happened to: Ernesto Mejia, who had a monster season with the Mississippi Braves back in 2011, is still swinging it for the Seibu Lions in the Japanese Pacific League. The 34-year-old Venezuela native hit a walk-off home run earlier this week and has seven bombs in 24 games. He has hit 340 homers in pro ball. Mejia had one of the best seasons ever by an M-Brave, batting .297 with 26 homers and 99 RBIs for the 2011 club. He reached Triple-A but never got to The Show. He has been in Japan since 2014.
Can’t really ID the proverbial “defining moment” until a season is over, but Atlanta might have experienced that event on Wednesday. The New York Yankees led all of baseball in OPS (on base-plus-slugging) and were among the best with 5.4 runs per game heading into the doubleheader at Truist Park. Ian Anderson and Max Fried, a couple of recent Mississippi Braves standouts, held the Yanks to six hits and two runs over 12 combined innings as the Braves won 5-1 and 2-1. Former M-Braves Ronald Acuna, Dansby Swanson and Freddie Freeman hit big home runs as the Braves scored the sweep in games started by New York aces Gerrit Cole and Masahiro Tanaka. This day belonged to the Braves’ young guns, Anderson and Fried. Anderson, a strapping, 6-foot-3 right-hander making his MLB debut, started with five no-hit innings before Luke Voit took him deep in the sixth. Anderson walked two and fanned six. It was precisely the kind of step-up effort the Braves needed from one of their touted but untested young guns. In Game 2, left-hander Fried, an emerging ace at age 26, yielded four hits – only one extra-base knock – walked one and struck out five. He is 5-0 with a 1.35 ERA. Atlanta reached the midpoint of its season with an 18-12 mark, good for first place in the National League East. More work — more solid pitching — must be done, but there may come a day in October when the Braves will look back at Aug. 26 as their defining moment.
The anticipation of Cristian Pache’s big league debut may not rise to the level of some others in recent Atlanta Braves history, but it is certainly worthy of some hype. As Mississippi Braves fans know, Pache has game. He arrived in Pearl late in 2018 and hit .260 in 29 games. He was back to start 2019 and batted .278 with 11 homers and 53 RBIs in 104 games before moving to Triple-A. Of course, his bat takes a back seat to his glove. MLB Pipeline rated Pache, a 6-foot-2, 215-pound center fielder, the top defensive prospect in the minors the last two years: “Not only does his speed allow him to chase down balls, he has incredible instincts, reads and routes.” He is a consensus top 20 prospect overall. “I just like to think of myself as a fun ballplayer who works really hard and gives maximum effort out there,” Pache told mlb.com through an interpreter. His originally scheduled debut Wednesday was rained out. The Braves were off Thursday and host Philadelphia tonight. It was with great fanfare, here and in the ATL, that Brian McCann made his big league debut 15 years ago, becoming the first M-Braves alumnus to make it. “B-Mac” went 2-for-3 with an RBI against Oakland on June 10, 2005. Since then, M-Braves fans have excitedly watched the debuts of Jeff Francoeur (1-for-4 with a homer in 2005); Jarrod Saltalamacchia (0-for-2 in 2007); Jordan Schafer (2-for-3 with a homer in his first AB in 2009); Tommy Hanson (6 innings, 6 runs allowed in 2009); Jason Heyward (2-for-5 with a homer in his first AB in 2010); Freddie Freeman (0-for-3 in 2010); Julio Teheran (4 2/3 innings, 3 runs in 2011); Evan Gattis (1-for-4 with a homer in 2013); Dansby Swanson (2-for-4 in 2016); Ozzie Albies (0-for-2 in 2017); Ronald Acuna (1-for-5 in 2018); and Austin Riley (1-for-3 with a homer in 2019). And now, Pache’s big day is here.
There’s a sizable list of former Mississippi Braves players who, for whatever reason, moved on to other organizations and enjoyed success. Among a group that includes current big leaguers Charlie Morton, Jose Martinez, Mallex Smith, Chasen Shreve, Tommy LaStella, Rio Ruiz, Willians Astudillo and Jose Peraza, none has been a bigger surprise than Dylan Moore. Moore, who debuted with Seattle last year and hit .206, has become one of the club’s key players this season. He is batting .294 with four homers, nine RBIs and four steals while playing five different positions. “He is an absolute stud,” teammate Kyle Seager told mlb.com. “He is a ballplayer. There is no doubt about it.” Call him a late bloomer. Moore is 28 and in his fourth organization since Texas drafted him out of Central Florida five years ago. Atlanta got him in a trade in 2016, and he was the M-Braves’ regular shortstop in 2017. He didn’t really distinguish himself, batting .207, slugging .292 and fielding at a .974 clip with 13 errors. The Braves released him in 2018 and he caught on with Milwaukee, playing briefly with Biloxi before being cut loose at the end of that year. Seattle picked him up and he made the Mariners’ roster out of spring training in 2019. In July of last year, Moore garnered attention when he infamously committed run-scoring errors on three consecutive plays. Well, forget that. He’s getting attention for very different reasons now.
Mike Soroka is done for the year, and the loss of their ace is another blow to the Atlanta Braves’ starting pitching. Cole Hamels is down, Felix Hernandez is out and Mike Foltynewicz is dazed and confused in the Gwinnett camp. But it’s not necessarily panic time. It’s more like step-up time. The Braves have spent several years acquiring and grooming young arms. Let the kids pitch. Their prospect charts are filled with them, five ranking in the current top 10, per MLB Pipeline. Mississippi Braves fans have seen their work. Soroka came through Trustmark Park in 2017 and was outstanding. Max Fried (2017-18) and Sean Newcomb (2016) flashed their potential in Pearl, as well, and have had success on the big stage. Fried looks capable of being a No. 1. Newcomb had that look, too, as a starter in 2018. It’s time for some others to get their shot, meet the moment and pump up the Atlanta rotation, which appears to be the club’s only possible weak link. Touki Toussaint, the presumptive No. 3 starter now, was frequently dominant in his two stints (2017-18) with the M-Braves. No reason he can’t recapture that stuff. Kyle Wright, who filled the fifth starter spot last week, is the team’s No. 4 prospect, and he looked the part in Pearl in 2018. There is also Bryse Wilson, the No. 6 prospect and a 2018 M-Braves standout, and lefty Tucker Davidson, the No. 10 prospect who posted a 2.03 ERA for the Double-A club in 2019. Kyle Muller, another lefty and the No. 8 prospect, put up a 3.14 ERA for the M-Braves last season. And then there’s Ian Anderson, the much-ballyhooed No. 3 prospect who went 7-5, 2.68 in Pearl last summer. Anderson and Muller aren’t on the 40-man roster but are in the alternate camp in Gwinnett. Surely there are some breakout warriors among that group of young dudes.
On this date in 2008, in the midst of a memorable season for the Mississippi Braves, Matt Young set a remarkable and yet somewhat unappreciated Southern League record. The 2008 season is still the M-Braves’ lone championship year. It was also the year of Jordan Schafer’s suspension before the home opener, the team’s 6-20 April, Tommy Hanson’s no-hitter, Jeff Francoeur’s three-game return to Double-A, Tom Glavine’s rehab appearance, the “I Smell Blood” T-shirts and the dramatic run to the pennant, capped by a wild walk-off in the 10th inning of the decisive fifth game. Considering all that, it’s easy to overlook Young’s record-setting performance. Playing against Chattanooga at Trustmark Park on July 27, Young got hits in his first four at-bats, giving him hits in 11 consecutive ABs over four games. The previous SL mark was 10, and it had stood for some 30 years. Hits in 11 straight games is a nice feat. Hits in 11 straight at-bats is something else indeed. The MLB record is 12, and it was last achieved in 1952. (Young also reached base in 16 straight plate appearances from July 24-27, 2008, another league record.) The 5-foot-8 Young, who played parts of four years in Pearl, batted .289 and stole 30 bases for the ’08 M-Braves and was named the team’s player of the year. He reached the big leagues with Atlanta in 2011 but spent only a brief time in The Show and didn’t make much of an impression there. He left his mark at Trustmark Park and in the Southern League record book.