09 Sep

southern exposure

No trophy is on the line when the Mississippi Braves and Biloxi Shuckers engage in their season series each year. Wouldn’t it be cool if there were such a thing? The Magnolia Cup? Catfish Clash? Blues Bowl? It might help generate a little more interest in the Southern League rivalry that has been going on since Biloxi became a league member in 2015. The teams sit at the bottom of the league in attendance in 2022, Biloxi at 137,298 and Mississippi at 135,467. That’s kinda sad. The season series has been competitive. The teams met for the 27th time on Thursday at Biloxi’s MGM Park, and the Shuckers — Milwaukee’s Double-A affiliate — beat the M-Braves — Atlanta’s farm club — 5-3 before an announced crowd of 2,015. Biloxi now leads the season series 15-12 with three games remaining. The series was even at 9-9 before the Shuckers took five of six at Trustmark Park in Pearl in August. Ouch. The M-Braves won the first two games of the current six-game set by identical 13-2 scores, bashing eight home runs. Take that. The M-Braves’ Drew Lugbauer, the SL’s home run leader, hit two on Wednesday, boosting his total to 26. Of his team-record 44 career homers, 16 have come at MGM Park. The Shuckers won Thursday’s game on the strength of two homers — the first of the season — by Terence Doston. The M-Braves, 30-28 in the second half, still have a mathematical shot at the South Division title; they are the defending league champs. The Shuckers (25-34) have been eliminated, reduced to a potential spoiler role. In the overall league standings, the Shuckers (59-67) lead the M-Braves (59-68) by a half-game. P.S. Former M-Braves star Jason Heyward and Shuckers alum Brent Suter are among the 30 nominees for the 2022 Roberto Clemente Award. The annual award “recognizes the MLB player who best represents the game through extraordinary character, community involvement, philanthropy and positive contributions, both on and off the field.” Heyward is with the Chicago Cubs, Suter pitches for the Brewers.

02 Sep

hit parade

Matt Wallner’s power isn’t in question. The key to the ex-Southern Miss star’s long-term success, according to the scouting report by MLB Pipeline, is improving his overall hit tool. Minnesota Twins brass have to be beaming over what they saw on Thursday night, when their No. 5 prospect put on a veritable hitting clinic at Triple-A St. Paul. Wallner hit for the cycle, banging out five hits all told, including his fifth homer for the Saints, and driving in six runs in an 18-6 victory against Omaha. “It felt pretty good,” Wallner told milb.com. “It was the first time I’ve ever been able to do something like that in my life, so it was pretty fun.” The career home run leader at USM, Wallner now has 26 homers this season, not including the jaw-dropping one he blasted in the All-Star Futures Game. The 6-foot-5, lefty-hitting outfielder batted .299 with 21 homers at Double-A Wichita before being promoted to St. Paul on July 14. He is at .245 in 37 games for the Saints. He is still striking out at a high clip — 49 in 139 at-bats — but has 27 walks, boosting his on-base percentage to .379. A Minnesota native, Wallner was the 39th overall pick in 2019 by the Twins, the team he dreamed of playing for as a kid. He is close. … Jordan Westburg, the former Mississippi State star and Baltimore’s No. 5 prospect, homered for the third straight game for Triple-A Norfolk, giving the infielder 14 for the Tides and 23 on the season. Overall, between Double-A and Triple-A, Westburg is batting .253 with 85 RBIs. The 30th overall pick in 2020, he is also close to his MLB debut. P.S. In MLB, it was quite a night for Mississippi Braves alums. Rookie Spencer Strider set a franchise record with 16 strikeouts in a dominating performance during Atlanta’s 3-0 win vs. Colorado; Austin Riley hit his 33rd homer for the Braves, and rookie Michael Harris II hit his 14th. Joey Meneses, up after 10 years in the minors, hit a walk-off homer for Washington to cap a four-hit game and is batting .354 with seven homers in 25 games. In that same game, a 7-5 Nationals win, 2021 M-Braves star Shea Langeliers hit his third homer and drove in three runs for Oakland.

30 Aug

something’s clicked

You might say Cade Bunnell has exceeded expectations. Actually, that would be a large understatement. A former 40th-round draft pick who played sparingly in college and hit .185 in A-ball this season, Bunnell finds himself batting .344 with six homers and 23 RBIs in 27 games for the Mississippi Braves. Having replaced Atlanta No. 1 prospect Vaughn Grissom as the M-Braves’ shortstop earlier this month, Bunnell is batting .327 with four homers in 15 games since he took on that role. Double-A pitching? What’s the big deal? The lefty-hitting Bunnell goes into the team’s home series (today-Sunday) against Tennessee after banging out three homers and driving in 10 runs in a six-game set at Birmingham. Bunnell, 25, who goes 6 feet, 190 pounds, was drafted in the last round — No. 1,207 overall — by the Braves in 2019 out of Indiana. In two years there, he hit under .200 with one homer in 60 at-bats. He hit .141 in rookie ball in 2019 and .216 (albeit with 13 homers) at Low-A Augusta last year. He has served three stints in 2022 with the M-Braves, having spent most of the season at High-A Rome, batting .185 with seven homers. But forget all that. Bunnell is in some kind of groove right now, helping the M-Braves (27-23, 4.5 games out of first) stay in the chase for a second-half title in the Southern League South. P.S. The top-rated position player prospect on the M-Braves team, No. 13 Justyn-Henry Malloy, also has been productive, batting .284 with five homers and 25 RBIs in 37 games since he came up from Rome. The 6-3, 212-pound outfielder was a sixth-round pick last year out of Georgia Tech. … Tennessee, a Chicago Cubs affiliate, features a pair of Mississippi products: pitcher Walker Powell out of Southern Miss and infielder Delvin Zinn from Pontotoc by way of Itawamba Community College. … The M-Braves’ Negro Leagues Tribute Night (see previous post), rained out in the last homestand, has been rescheduled for Saturday (6:05 p.m. start) at Trustmark Park.

24 Aug

minor matters

Former Southern Miss star Chuckie Robinson, having received his second big league call-up on Tuesday, might be in line for his debut tonight when Cincinnati plays Philadelphia. Robinson joined the Reds for the recent Field of Dreams Game but did not play and was sent back to Triple-A the next day. The right-handed hitting catcher, now in his seventh pro year, was batting .253 with two homers and 12 RBIs at Louisville after starting the season in Double-A. Cincinnati’s No. 1 catcher, Austin Romine, is batting .194. The Phillies are starting a left-hander tonight. … The minor league transaction wire was humming on Tuesday. In other noteworthy moves: Mississippi State product Jake Mangum, coming off a rehab stint in rookie ball, was assigned to Double-A Binghamton and promptly went 2-for-5 with a homer for the New York Mets’ affiliate. Mangum was in Triple-A when he went on the injured list in late May. … Ex-Ole Miss slugger Tim Elko was promoted from the rookie level to Low-Class A Kannapolis by the Chicago White Sox and went 1-for-4 in his first game. He was batting .154 with three homers in the Arizona Complex League. In a related move, the White Sox bumped Loyd Star High product James Beard from Kannapolis to High-A Winston-Salem. He went 0-for-4. Beard was batting .163 with four homers and 25 stolen bases in Low-A. … USM alum and former big leaguer Cody Carroll was released from San Francisco’s Triple-A Sacramento club. He had a 7.62 ERA over 31 appearances. … Ex-USM standout Jarod Wright was activated from the IL at High-A South Bend in the Cubs’ system; he is 2-4, 4.60 ERA this season. … MSU alum Peyton Plumlee was activated at Low-A Fayetteville in the Houston chain. He had been on the IL all season before making a rehab appearance in rookie ball. … When Milwaukee put left-hander Aaron Ashby on the IL, it did not recall Ethan Small, the former State star and No. 12 prospect who has made two big league appearances this season, both fairly shaky. The left-hander is 6-4, 3.50, at Triple-A Nashville but has not been sharp of late. P.S. Former Mississippi Braves catcher Christian Bethancourt caught the first eight innings for Tampa Bay on Tuesday, homered and drove in three runs and then pitched a scoreless ninth in an 11-1 blowout of the Los Angeles Angels. The homer was Bethancourt’s eighth. He has made eight career pitching appearances (7.36 ERA). Oddly enough, ex-M-Braves infielder Phil Gosselin got the last three outs for the Angels working in the eighth. … Bryce Harper went deep twice in his first rehab game for Philadelphia’s Triple-A Lehigh Valley team, both bombs coming against former M-Braves pitchers, Jared Shuster and William Woods, now at Gwinnett.

23 Aug

one more for the show

Another day, another big league debut for a Mississippi Braves alumnus. And, no, it doesn’t get old. Drew Waters made his long-awaited debut on Monday, with the Kansas City Royals, joining the more than 160 former M-Braves who have appeared in The Show since 2005. He didn’t set off any fireworks, but the 23-year-old outfielder drew a bases-loaded walk in the eighth inning that put the Royals ahead in a game they would win 6-4 against the Chicago White Sox. He revealed afterward that he was almost late for the day game at Kauffman Stadium because he was confused over the starting time. He played right field, hit ninth, went 0-for-3 — but was awarded player of the game honors by his teammates for drawing the clutch walk. A second-round pick by Atlanta in 2017, Waters had a monster year for the M-Braves in 2019, winning the Southern League batting title and MVP honors at age 20. A five-tool prospect — and a really sharp guy — the switch-hitter hit .319 with five homers, 41 RBIs, 63 runs, 35 doubles, nine triples and 13 stolen bases. His progress seemed to stall at Triple-A Gwinnett, and the Braves traded him in mid-July to the Royals for a 2022 draft pick. He took off again at Triple-A Omaha, hitting .295 with seven homers and 17 RBIs in 31 games before the call-up. “There’s definitely been peaks and valleys in my journey,” Waters told mlb.com. “But I would say this tops it all, being here with the guys who are now my teammates and being able to put on a Royals uniform.” … Waters’ debut notwithstanding, the Former M-Brave Player of the Day Award has to go to Michael Harris II, whose 13th homer of the year helped Atlanta beat Pittsburgh 2-1. Harris, a strong rookie of the year candidate, debuted back in May, the first of an impressive crop to arrive in 2022. That list includes Vaughn Grissom (.391, three homers with Atlanta), Joey Meneses (.318, five homers with Washington) and Shea Langeliers (.273, one homer in six games with Oakland).

17 Aug

touching the bases

There is much to absorb from a busy Tuesday. Start with Charlie Morton’s brilliance against the first-place New York Mets. The former Mississippi Braves pitcher threw 6 2/3 shutout innings, yielding three hits and fanning 12, in Atlanta’s 5-0 win — its eighth straight — at Truist Park. The Braves are 3.5 games back in the National League East. … Down at High-Class A Rome, M-Braves alum Mike Soroka, on a big league rehab assignment, struck out eight batters in four scoreless innings. He hasn’t pitched in an MLB game since Aug. 3, 2020. … The Braves gave rookie sensation Michael Harris II, who started this season at Double-A Mississippi, a well-deserved new contract: $72 million over eight years. (Don’t the Braves need to find some cash to re-sign Dansby Swanson?) … The tally is now 160 (at least) of M-Braves alums who have reached the majors with the promotions of Freddy Tarnok by the Braves and Shea Langeliers by Oakland. Tarnok was 2-2 with a 4.31 ERA for the M-Braves this season before moving to Triple-A Gwinnett. Langeliers, a star on last year’s Double-A South championship club before being traded, doubled on the first pitch he saw for the A’s. He was hitting .283 with 19 homers at Triple-A Las Vegas. … Former Mississippi State star Adam Frazier had two hits, two RBIs and two runs in surging Seattle’s 8-2 win against the Los Angeles Angels. Frazier is hitting .318 in his last seven games for the American League wild card leader, which has won 35 of its last 50. … MSU alum Hunter Renfroe, on with a bunt single — yes, a bunt — in the 11th inning, scored the game-winning run for Milwaukee in a 6-5 victory vs. the Los Angeles Dodgers. Fellow former Bulldogs star Brandon Woodruff struck out eight L.A. batters in five innings. … Ole Miss product Nick Fortes homered twice and scored a third time in run-starved Miami’s 4-3 win over San Diego. Fortes is at .259 with six homers. … Ex-MSU standout Nathaniel Lowe went 3-for-4 in Texas’ loss to Oakland and is batting .400 in August, .291 on the season. … Former Ole Miss star Drew Pomeranz, moving closer (maybe) to returning to San Diego’s active roster, got two outs and gave up a three-run homer in a rehab appearance for Triple-A El Paso. The 33-year-old lefty has been on the shelf all season. … Ex-MSU star Jake Mangum, on the injured list at Triple-A Syracuse since May 23 with a back problem, went 0-for-2 in a rehab game for the Mets’ Florida Complex League club. Mangum was hitting .333 in 11 games at Syracuse. … DeSoto Central High product Blaze Jordan had a 4-for-5 game with his third homer for High-A Greenville in Boston’s system. Jordan is batting .435 in six games at his new level. … Logan Tanner, drafted out of MSU in the second round last month by Cincinnati, got his first two hits as a pro at Low-A Daytona. He is 2-for-17. … Third-round pick Dalton Rogers, a Southern Miss alum, pitched a scoreless inning in his pro debut for Boston’s rookie team in the FCL. … Ex-State standouts Jordan Westburg (in Baltimore’s system) and Justin Foscue (Texas) are ranked Nos. 80 and 82 in MLB Pipeline’s new Top 100 Prospects list.

15 Aug

farm to table

Time to take a moment to appreciate the quality of pitching talent that has been funneled through Double-A Mississippi and into Atlanta. If you’ve frequented Trustmark Park in Pearl in recent years, you know about these guys. It’s been quite a treat. The Braves take a six-game win streak into this week’s titanic National League East clash with the New York Mets. Five of those six games were started by M-Braves alums, including the last three at Miami, where young guns Kyle Muller, Ian Anderson and Bryce Elder — all just up from Triple-A — held the Marlins to five runs in 18 combined innings. Elder, 23, who went 7-1 for the 2021 Double-A South champion M-Braves, was brilliant on Sunday, allowing one run in seven innings with 10 strikeouts. Unfortunately, he got no support and a no-decision. All told, former M-Braves have 53 of Atlanta’s 70 wins this season. They’ve made 113 of the 116 starts. Spencer Strider (M-Braves ’21), a rookie of the year candidate, is 6-4 with a 3.11 ERA heading into tonight’s start against the Mets’ Carlos Carrasco. Graybeard Charlie Morton (M-Braves ’07), the Tuesday starter, is 5-5, 4.26. The Braves haven’t announced a starter for Thursday (vs. Jacob deGrom), but it’ll likely be either 14-game winner Kyle Wright (M-Braves ’18) or All-Star and 10-game winner Max Fried (M-Braves ’17-18). Anderson (M-Braves ’18-19), a postseason star for the world champion Braves last fall, has 10 wins despite not having his best stuff this year. And there’s this news: Erstwhile staff ace Mike Soroka (M-Braves ’17), who is 15-6, 2.86, in his injury-interrupted career, is slated for a rehab assignment on Tuesday at High-Class A Rome. (It also bears mentioning that the Braves have developed a slew of other pitchers now on other clubs, including Alex Wood, Mike Minor, Bryse Wilson, Sean Newcomb and Tucker Davidson.) Atlanta’s scouting and development personnel have done a helluva job in recent years. Brimming with young talent, the Braves put a World Series trophy on the shelf in 2021 and are well-positioned to add more. Pitching is always the key, and they’ve got it.

13 Aug

worth noting

Though prospects Michael Harris II, Vaughn Grissom, C.J. Alexander, Jared Shuster and Darius Vines, among others, have been plucked from their roster, the Mississippi Braves are still kicking. Atlanta’s Double-A club beat Tennessee 16-14 on the road Friday night and is 20-17, second place in the Southern League South in the second half. Recent arrival Javier Valdes, a catcher, is batting .353 with two homers and six RBIs in four games. Cade Bunnell, who has moved to shortstop to replace Grissom, is batting .400 with two homers and 10 RBIs in 14 games for the M-Braves. Outfielder Justyn-Henry Malloy, in 25 games since arriving from A-ball, is hitting .289 with three homers and 16 RBIs. And first baseman Drew Lugbauer, on the roster all season, leads the SL with 23 homers. If the pitching can hold up, this club appears to have the firepower to make a run at the second-half title and a playoff berth. … Overshadowed by the exploits of Harris and Grissom with Atlanta, Joey Meneses, another former M-Braves star, has had quite a debut in The Show himself. Playing for Washington, Meneses is batting .370 with four homers in eight games since being called up. The 30-year-old Mexico native, who played in Pearl in 2016-17, logged more than 3,000 at-bats over 11 years in the minors, hitting .281. “I feel like, up here, you have a little bit more energy and more motivation, obviously,” he told the Washington Post regarding his hot start. … Southern Miss product Chuckie Robinson had a great seat — the Cincinnati bench — for Thursday night’s Field of Dreams Game in Dyersville, Iowa. Called up for the first time in his pro career, he did not get in the game and is now back with Triple-A Louisville. Hopefully, that won’t be his only major league experience. … Former Taylorsville High star Billy Hamilton was outrighted to Triple-A Jacksonville by Miami on Friday. Used primarily as a pinch runner, the veteran Hamilton scored nine runs and stole seven bases in 20 games but had just one hit in 13 at-bats. … Ex-South Panola standout Emaarion Boyd, one of two prep players drafted out of the state in July, is 2-for-5 with two walks and a caught stealing in two games for Philadelphia’s Florida Complex League team. The 11th-round pick was considered one of the fastest players in the 2022 draft.

11 Aug

now that’s a big splash

Ever since Brian McCann made the jump from Mississippi to Atlanta in 2005 and banged out a couple of hits in his first game, we’ve seen some splashy MLB debuts from a number of former M-Braves. We’ve never seen anything like what Vaughn Grissom did on Wednesday night at Fenway Park in Boston. In fact, no one has. Grissom, 21, became the youngest player in the modern era to both hit a home run and steal a base in his debut. He is the only Braves player (Boston, Milwaukee or Atlanta) ever to do it. Not to be overlooked is the fact that Grissom, primarily a shortstop who played only one game at second base in 22 games for the M-Braves, handled eight chances flawlessly at second. He registered four assists and four putouts and turned two double plays. “He was like a kid out on the playground pretty much, just having a ball,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said in an mlb.com article. Having recently been elevated to the top of Atlanta’s prospect chart, Grissom was having a breakout season in the minors, batting .324 with 14 homers and 27 steals between High-Class A Rome and Double-A Mississippi. He was hitting .363 with three homers and seven bags for the M-Braves when he got the call-up. He was promptly inserted as the No. 9 hitter and plugged in at second base, filling a hole created by injuries. In the bottom of the first inning, the ball found him; he dug out a grounder by Rafael Devers, completed the 4-3 and flashed a broad grin. He was hitless in two at-bats when he came up in the seventh against lefty Darwinzon Hernandez. “The competitive nature kicked in,” Grissom told mlb.com. He launched a first-pitch fastball over the Green Monster, 412 feet, punctuated with a playful bat flip. In the ninth, he lashed a single to left and then stole second. He scored on a Dansby Swanson hit, the last run in the Braves’ 8-4 win. Jeff Francoeur homered in his first MLB game, as did Evan Gattis and Austin Riley. Jordan Schafer and Jason Heyward homered in their first at-bat. But the splashy debuts of those former M-Braves stars have to take a back seat to what Grissom did on Wednesday night. P.S. On a somber note, we mourn the passing of Corky Palmer, a legend in Southern Miss circles and beyond. Palmer, an affable character, is a thread through USM baseball history, having played for Pete Taylor, coached under Hill Denson and served as head coach for 12 years, taking the 2009 team (featuring Brian Dozier) to the College World Series. Current USM coach Scott Berry coached with Palmer for most of those years. He was 68.

10 Aug

whatever happened to …

Braxton Lee, whose serpentine career includes a minor league batting title and 17 MLB at-bats, is flourishing in the independent Atlantic League. Lee, 28, who played at Picayune High, Pearl River Community College and Ole Miss, set an Atlantic League record with a three-triple game on Tuesday for Southern Maryland, the club managed by Jackson’s Stan Cliburn. A lefty-hitting outfielder, Lee is batting .315 with three homers, 57 RBIs, 19 doubles, nine triples and 14 stolen bases. Originally drafted by Tampa Bay in 2014, he won the Southern League batting title in 2017 (playing for two different teams) and reached the big leagues with Miami in 2018. He played in the New York Mets’ system in 2019 and Cincinnati’s in 2021, getting some Triple-A time both years. He moved on to the Atlantic League after becoming a minor league free agent last fall. Cliburn’s Blue Crabs won the first-half title in their division with a 48-18 record; they’re 18-11 (second place) in the second half. P.S. Debut alert: Vaughn Grissom, making the jump from Double-A Mississippi to Atlanta today, is in the Braves’ lineup, batting ninth and playing second base at Boston. Grissom, 21, Atlanta’s No. 1 prospect, hit .363 with three homers in 22 games for the M-Braves, playing one game at second base, the others at shortstop. The 6-foot-3, 210-pound Grissom has played 19 games at second in his three-year pro career. He is a .315 career hitter.