28 Oct

a mississippi moment

The Boston Red Sox, cursed for so many years, won their second World Series in a four-year span on this date in 2007, and the four-game sweep ended with a faceoff between two Mississippi college alums. Mississippi State product Jonathan Papelbon struck out ex-Ole Miss star Seth Smith for the final out of the Red Sox’s 4-3 win against Colorado in Game 4 at Coors Field. Though both would play on for many more years, that moment marked the last World Series appearance for either. Smith, a Jackson native and Hillcrest Christian grad, was a rookie in 2007, having gotten just eight at-bats (five hits) during the regular season. The lefty-hitting outfielder retired after the 2017 season with a .261 career average and 126 homers. Papelbon was in his third MLB campaign in 2007; he notched 37 saves that season and saved the last three games of the ’07 Series. He finished his career in 2016 with 368 saves, currently 10th on the all-time list. Papelbon and Smith, who had faced each other during their college days, met just twice more in the majors after the ’07 moment. Papelbon got Smith in a 2010 Red Sox-Rockies game, and Smith doubled off Papelbon in a 2014 San Diego-Philadelphia contest. A footnote: Papelbon’s glove from the ’07 Series went to the National Baseball Hall of Fame; the ball from the final out, strangely enough, was chewed up by Papelbon’s dog. P.S. Ex-MSU standout Kendall Graveman pitched a clean ninth inning Wednesday night for Houston in his first career World Series appearance. The last few years have been quite a roller-coaster for Graveman. He missed part of 2018 (with Oakland) and all of 2019 (with the Chicago Cubs) after Tommy John surgery, then missed time in 2020 (with Seattle) because of complications from a benign bone tumor in his neck. He moved from starter to the bullpen after that and moved from Seattle to Houston in a jolting trade in July.

26 Oct

classic anniversaries

It is guaranteed that a Mississippi product will get a ring after the 2021 World Series. Either former DeSoto Central High star Austin Riley or Mississippi State alumnus Kendall Graveman will be celebrating when the series ends. “This is why you play the game …,” Houston reliever Graveman said in an MLB Network interview. “I’m ultimately honored and blessed to be in this position, to play the game at the highest level but also on the biggest stage in baseball.” Atlanta third baseman Riley said in an interview with an Atlanta TV station that he was happy to see longtime Braves star Freddie Freeman and manager Brian Snitker make the Series. “I’ve been very blessed to be along for the ride,” said Riley, who made some pretty strong contributions to the trip. This October marks the 10th anniversary of a World Series that also featured Mississippians on opposing sides, and fans can only hope this year’s Fall Classic produces similar drama. St. Louis beat Texas in seven games in the 2011 Series, with Ole Miss alum Lance Lynn earning a ring and ex-MSU standout Mitch Moreland coming up empty. That Series is best remembered for Albert Pujols’ three-homer game, a Cardinals bullpen mix-up in Game 5 and David Freese’s walk-off homer in Game 6 that capped an incredible St. Louis comeback. Lynn and Moreland had their moments. Lynn, a rookie reliever, pitched in five of the games, getting a win in Game 3 with 2 1/3 strong innings and pitching a clean eighth in Game 7, a 6-2 victory. Moreland, in his second MLB season and second Series, was just 1-for-10 but homered in Game 5, a 4-2 Texas win that put the Rangers up 3-2 in the series. … It was 20 years ago that Arizona stunned the New York Yankees in another seven-game classic, winning on Luis Gonzalez’s walk-off hit against Mariano Rivera. Former Ole Miss star David Dellucci was a reserve outfielder on that Diamondbacks team, which had been largely constructed by former State star Buck Showalter, the first manager of the 1998 expansion team. He was fired after the 2000 season, reportedly because of a dispute with ownership. “I would think that this is killing him,” an anonymous source told the New York Times after the Series. … Twenty-five years ago, the Yankees beat the Braves in six games, famously overcoming a 2-0 deficit. Hattiesburg native and Forrest County AHS product Charlie Hayes, New York’s third baseman, caught a foul pop for the final out that year. … Thirty years ago, Minnesota beat Atlanta in a classic seven-game series that featured two worst-to-first clubs. Former Jackson State standout Marvin Freeman was a reliever for the Braves back then, and five — count ’em, five — Jackson Mets alums pitched for the Twins that season: Kevin Tapani, Rick Aguilera, Terry Leach, David West and Tom Edens. … The 1961 Yankees, featuring home run king Roger Maris, won the Fall Classic that year over Cincinnati. Silver City native Jack Reed appeared in three games for the Yanks as a defensive replacement, which had been his primary role that season. He didn’t get an at-bat — but did get a ring. Corinth’s Don Blasingame batted .143 in the five games as the Reds’ leadoff batter. … Eighty years ago, in the 1941 Series made famous by Mickey Owen’s dropped third strike, Morton native Atley Donald helped the Yankees beat Brooklyn in five games. Donald was the starter in Game 4, yielding four runs in four innings, but was bailed out when Owen’s misplay in the ninth extended the game and fueled New York’s 7-4 comeback.

23 Oct

connections

Eight years after making a trip to the College World Series with Mississippi State, Kendall Graveman is going to THE World Series with the Houston Astros. Graveman worked four scoreless innings over three appearances for the Astros, who finished off Boston 5-0 Friday in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series. It was a 2-0 game when Graveman wriggled out of a jam in the seventh inning with the help of a great throw by catcher Martin Maldonado. Graveman was disappointed when Seattle traded him to Houston back in July, but he no doubt feels better about the move today. … For the Red Sox, who scored just three total runs in Games 4, 5 and 6, ex-MSU star Hunter Renfroe had a forgettable series. He was 1-for-16 with eight strikeouts and was lifted for a pinch hitter in what would have been his final at-bat. … This will be Houston’s fourth trip to the Fall Classic; the first came in 2005, when Mississippi native Roy Oswalt and former Jackson Generals Lance Berkman and Raul Chavez helped the club win the National League pennant. Houston’s Double-A team played in Jackson at Smith-Wills Stadium from 1991-99. … The Astros’ hitting coach is Troy Snitker, son of Atlanta manager Brian Snitker, who was the first Mississippi Braves manager in 2005. The younger Snitker played briefly in Atlanta’s minor league system but did not make it to Pearl. … The elder Snitker and the Braves will lean on ex-M-Braves pitcher Ian Anderson in tonight’s Game 6 of the National League Championship Series. Only 23 years old, Anderson has made six postseason starts over two years and is 3-0 with a 1.35 ERA. In 2018-19 in Mississippi, he was 9-6, 2.62. In 2019, he started a combo no-hitter at Trustmark Park while wearing a Jackson Generals uniform on a special tribute night. … Anderson is one of several M-Braves alumni on the Atlanta roster. In addition, reserve infielder Orlando Arcia played for Biloxi on his route to the big leagues in Milwaukee’s system. … The Los Angeles Dodgers also have an M-Braves alum on their club: Reliever Evan Phillips pitched in Pearl in 2016 and ’17 on his circuitous journey to the NLCS. The Dodgers claimed Phillips off waivers from Tampa Bay in mid-August; he was previously released by Baltimore. He has thrown three scoreless innings against the Braves. … Brookhaven native and veteran MLB umpire Lance Barksdale is scheduled to work behind home plate tonight at Truist Park. P.S. Kudos to Hattiesburg native Robert Carson and Biloxi native Jacob Lindgren, who were part of championship teams in the top two independent leagues. Carson pitched for Atlantic League champ Lexington and Lindgren for American Association winner Kansas City. Both Carson and Lindgren, an MSU alum, previously pitched in the big leagues.

21 Oct

on the brink

The frustration the Boston Red Sox experienced on Wednesday night can be captured in one at-bat in the bottom of the fifth inning. Former Mississippi State star Hunter Renfroe was up with the Red Sox down 1-0, two runners on, no outs. The Crystal Springs native, who had 31 homers and 96 RBIs this season, got ahead in the count 2-0. Was it his time? No. Houston starter Framber Valdez threw his signature sinker, and Renfroe rolled into a 6-4-3 double play. The next batter, Alex Verdugo, also bounced out. Boston got nothing, and the Astros then blew up for five runs in the sixth en route to a 9-1 victory that puts them ahead 3-2 in the American League Championship Series that heads back to Houston. Valdez was brilliant over eight innings, limiting the Red Sox to three hits. The Sox had just five hits in a 9-2 loss in Game 4 on Tuesday. Several of Boston’s big bats have gone cold. Kyle Schwarber is batting .143 in the series, Xander Bogaerts .227, Verdugo .235. Renfroe’s slump has been particularly pronounced. He is 1-for-14 (.071) with one RBI, that coming in Game 1. He was 0-for-3 with a strikeout and two GIDPs in Game 5. Surely, he is frustrated, as are his teammates, but he is not down, said DH J.D. Martinez. “I think Hunter’s been even-keeled all year,” he said in a nesn.com story. “I don’t see him down at all. You know, he is still going up there. He puts up tough at-bats.” Backs to the wall, the Red Sox need some of those tough at-bats to produce hits and runs. P.S. Unsung hero in Atlanta’s crucial Game 4 win in the National League Championship Series: A.J. Minter. The former Mississippi Braves left-hander (2016-17) pitched two near-perfect innings in middle relief in the Braves’ 9-2 win against Los Angeles. Minter pitched the sixth and seventh innings when the lead was a precarious 5-2 and threw 16 of 22 pitches for strikes. He yielded just one hit. With ace Max Fried, another ex-M-Braves standout, starting tonight in Game 5, the Braves, up 3-1, have to feel they’re in pretty good shape.

20 Oct

role player

Game 4 may have been a pivotal one in the American League Championship Series, and Mississippi State product Kendall Graveman played a pivotal role. Graveman threw two scoreless innings — the seventh and eighth — and got the win as Houston rallied past Boston 9-2 Tuesday night at Fenway Park to square the series at 2-2. Graveman was one of five Astros relievers who worked 7 2/3 shutout innings after starter Zack Greinke was pulled in the second inning. The two-inning stint was the longest for Graveman since he joined the Astros in a late July trade with Seattle. “I was mentally preparing myself to go three, honestly,” he told mlb.com. The Astros went to closer Ryan Pressly in the ninth after scoring seven runs in the top of the inning. Appearing in the postseason for the first time in his seven years in MLB, Graveman has been good: three scoreless innings in the ALCS and a 1.50 ERA in five appearances overall. The right-hander was a closer with Seattle (0.82 ERA, 4-0, 10 saves) but saw his role change to set-up man in Houston. He scuffled at times, posting a 3.13 ERA with three blown saves and seven holds in 23 games. He looked to be in top form on Tuesday. Strangely enough, the only batter to reach against Graveman was Hunter Renfroe, his former teammate at MSU, who drew a two-out walk in the eighth. It was just the second time they had faced each other in the big leagues; Graveman struck out Renfroe in that previous encounter. Renfroe, who had a monster season for the Red Sox, has had a quiet series (1-for-11 with four walks).

19 Oct

razing arizona

The challenge of the Arizona Fall League appears to have brought out the best in Matt Wallner. The former Southern Miss standout, the school’s career home run leader, is off to a scorching start in the desert with six hits in his first 16 at-bats. The lefty-hitting outfielder, a top prospect in Minnesota’s system, went 3-for-5 Monday with his second home run in Scottsdale’s 7-6 loss to Salt River. Wallner batted .265 with 15 homers and 47 RBIs in High-A ball this season, his second as a pro. He spent a chunk of time on the injured list. MLB Pipeline projects the Twins’ No. 14 prospect could make the big leagues next season, which he’ll likely start in Double-A. … Salt River’s leadoff batter in Monday’s game was Joe Gray, Jr., the ex-Hattiesburg High star and a Milwaukee prospect. He is off to a sluggish start in the prospect-filled AFL, batting .071 after an 0-for-5. … Mississippi State product Justin Foscue, a Texas farmhand, hit his first homer of the fall in Surprise’s 5-3 victory against Peoria. Foscue is batting .364 on the heels of a big first pro summer that saw him reach Double-A. … Peoria’s starting pitcher was Ole Miss alum James McArthur, who worked four innings and yielded one run (not Foscue’s homer) with six strikeouts. McArthur is in his fourth year in Philadelphia’s chain.

15 Oct

just stuff

As we await Game 1 of the American League Championship Series, let’s take a moment to give a shout-out to the 2013 Mississippi State Bulldogs, an outstanding team that produced two players in this series plus five others who have played in the big leagues. Hunter Renfroe, the pride of Crystal Springs, plays right field for Boston and Kendall Graveman pitches out of the Houston bullpen. They were key members of the 2013 Bulldogs, who, under John Cohen, won 51 games before losing in the College World Series final to UCLA. Also on that club were 2021 MLB All-Stars Brandon Woodruff and Adam Frazier, as well as Jonathan Holder, Jacob Lindgren and Jacob Robson along with several others who played pro ball but never reached the majors. That team was loaded. The sting of coming within two wins of a national title might have been assuaged a bit by the Bulldogs’ run to the championship this year. Maybe. A bit. … That familiar face coaching first base for San Francisco — the face that was covered by both hands after the check-swing call that ended Thursday’s game — belongs to Antoan Richardson, the former Mississippi Braves outfielder. The Giants’ expansive list of coaches got a lot of credit for the team’s surprising success this season. Former M-Braves Tommy LaStella and Alex Wood were part of the team that saw their 109-win season end in the National League Division Series loss to Los Angeles. … Louisville native and ex-East Central Community College star Marcus Thames is looking for another job — and likely will find one — after being fired as hitting coach of the New York Yankees. The Yankees made the postseason in each of Thames’ four years on the job, but they had some well-chronicled offensive struggles this season. “At the end of the day, when you sign up to be a coach, sometimes this is what happens,” Thames said in a radio interview. “It’s just another chapter in my book … .” … Former MSU star Buck Showalter has been mentioned as a candidate for the New York Mets and San Diego Padres managerial jobs. Showalter has had success (1,551-1,517-1 career record) with several different MLB clubs. … Ole Miss product Grae Kessinger, an Astros minor leaguer, went 3-for-5 with a home run Thursday for Glendale in the Arizona Fall League. He played at the Double-A level this season. … Robert Carson, the former Hattiesburg High standout and onetime major leaguer, is with the Lexington Legends, who are playing for the Atlantic League championship. Carson has been in the independent league since 2015; the 32-year-old lefty had an 8.00 ERA in 39 games this season but worked two scoreless innings in the Legends’ division series win. The Legends now play Long Island, managed by former Jackson Mets star Wally Backman. The Ducks eliminated Southern Maryland, managed by Jackson’s Stan Cliburn. East Mississippi CC product LeDarious Clark hit .286 with a homer for Cliburn’s Blue Crabs in the division series loss.

14 Oct

coming attractions

Minor league numbers don’t always translate to major league success, but there is certainly great promise in what the crop of Mississippi products displayed this season. Consider a 2021 All-Star team of state-connected players in the minors:
The pitching staff would feature Ethan Small (Mississippi State), who went 4-2 with a 1.98 ERA over three levels and earned Milwaukee’s organizational pitcher of the year honors; Konnor Pilkington (MSU), 7-6, 3.04 in Double-A for the Chicago White Sox and Cleveland; J.T. Ginn (MSU), 5-5, 3.03 in A-ball for the New York Mets; Kirk McCarty (Southern Miss), 9-6, 5.01 in Triple-A for Cleveland; Parker Caracci (Ole Miss), 2.29, 12 saves at two levels for Toronto; Colby White (MSU), 1.44, 11 saves over four levels for Tampa Bay.
Catcher: Thomas Dillard (Ole Miss), .247, 18 homers, 75 RBIs at High-A and Double-A for the Brewers, or Nick Fortes (Ole Miss), .245, 7, 44 in Double-A and Triple-A before hitting .290 with four bombs in the majors with Miami.
First base: Blaine Crim (Mississippi College), .296, 29, 80 at High-A and Double-A for Texas.
Second base: Justin Foscue (MSU), .275, 17, 51 at High-A and Double-A for the Rangers.
Shortstop: Jordan Westburg (MSU), .285, 14, 70 plus 13 steals at three levels for Baltimore.
Third base: Blaze Jordan (DeSoto Central), .324, 6, 25 in rookie and Low-A ball for Boston.
Outfield: Jacob Robson (MSU), .295, 7, 38 and 19 bags at the Double-A and Triple-A levels, with a brief trip to the majors, for Detroit; Jake Mangum (MSU), .285, 9, 47 and 14 steals in High-A and Double-A for the Mets; Joe Gray, Jr. (Hattiesburg High), .252, 20, 90 and 23 bags in A-ball for Milwaukee.
DH: Tyreque Reed (Itawamba CC), .271, 17, 71 in High-A and Double-A for the Red Sox, or Matt Wallner (USM), .265, 15, 47 in High-A ball for Minnesota.
Utility: Sam McWilliams (Meridian CC), .298, 14, 70 and 13 steals in A-ball for the Los Angeles Dodgers; Hunter Stovall (MSU), .316, 6, 46, 25 steals in High-A for Colorado; Ti’Quan Forbes (Columbia High), .267, 6, 28, 6 steals in Double-A and Triple-A for the White Sox; Colt Keith (Biloxi High), .286, 2, 32 in A-ball for the Tigers; Grae Kessinger (Ole Miss), .209, 9, 26, 12 bags in Double-A for Houston.
Six Mississippi products made MLB debuts in 2021, with Fortes, Justin Steele (George County) and Nick Sandlin (USM) getting extended looks. There is a rising tide of prospects behind that group hoping to make a splash in the big leagues in the near future.

13 Oct

moving day

Before former Mississippi Braves star Freddie Freeman took ex-Biloxi Shuckers ace Josh Hader deep for the series-clinching home run, there was a cool all-Mississippi faceoff in Tuesday’s National League Division Series game at Truist Park. Sixth inning. Score tied. Runners first and third. Two outs. Milwaukee summoned Wheeler’s Brandon Woodruff, ordinarily a starter, from the bullpen to face DeSoto Central High product Austin Riley, Atlanta’s cleanup batter. Riley had blasted a 428-foot homer off Woodruff in the Braves’ Game 2 victory, adding to the anticipation of this clash. Woodruff won Tuesday’s battle; on the first pitch, a 97-mph fastball, Riley grounded out to the third baseman. But Riley and the Braves won the war, 5-4 on Freeman’s majestic eighth-inning bomb, and advanced to the NLCS for the second straight year. Woodruff and the Brewers have been in the playoffs four straight years but only once reached the NLCS. Riley went 5-for-15 in the NLDS with a walk, an RBI and three runs and now gets to play some more. … The Chicago White Sox, who had four Mississippi products on their roster, saw their season come to a disappointing end, getting crushed by Houston 10-1 in the decisive Game 4 of their American League Division Series. Tim Anderson, the East Central Community College alum, went 7-for-19 in the series but was 0-for-4 Tuesday. Former Ole Miss standout Lance Lynn got KO’d in his Game 2 start, yielding five runs in 3 2/3 innings. Ocean Springs High product Garrett Crochet did not allow an earned run in three relief appearances but did allow four of four inherited runners to score, including two in the fourth inning of Tuesday’s game that put the Astros up 5-1. Taylorsville’s Billy Hamilton never got off the bench in what likely was his last time in a White Sox uniform. … For Houston, ex-Mississippi State star Kendall Graveman threw a scoreless eighth inning but did manage to add to the bad blood between the teams when he plunked Jose Abreu with a pitch. It looked intentional. ChiSox manager Tony LaRussa said it clearly was. Astros manager Dusty Baker said it wasn’t. The matter will be revisited next season, count on that. Meanwhile, Graveman gets to see former MSU teammate Hunter Renfroe in the ALCS, where the Astros will play Boston.

11 Oct

only in baseball

Thanks to Rule 5.05(a)(8), Hunter Renfroe’s place in postseason history is secure. The Crystal Springs native and ex-Mississippi State standout will forever be linked to the quirky rule that had a major impact in Sunday’s American League Division Series game at Boston. In the 13th inning, with the go-ahead run at first base and two outs, a batted ball hit the short right-field wall at Fenway Park, caromed off the hip of Renfroe, the right fielder who was giving pursuit, and then went over the wall. For a few moments, confusion reigned. Apparently, no one involved had ever seen this happen before. Fenway is one of the few ballparks where something like that is even possible. Had the ball remained in play, the runner would have scored easily and the batter, Tampa Bay’s Kevin Kiermaier, likely would have made third. But the umpires got together and correctly applied Rule 5.05(a)(8), which states that a bounding fair ball unintentionally deflected out of play by a fielder is a ground-rule double. That put the runners at second and third. The score remained tied. Fair or not, the rule is the rule. Nick Pivetta then struck out the next batter, concluding his four shutout innings. In the bottom of the 13th, after Renfroe drew a one-out walk, Christian Vazquez gave Boston a 6-4 win and a 2-1 series lead with a homer over the Green Monster. … Meanwhile, in Chicago, in the other ALDS Game 3, things got a little wacky, as well, as the White Sox rallied from 5-1 down in the third inning to beat Houston 12-6 and stay alive in the best-of-5. The White Sox’s decisive three-run fourth was ignited by — who else? — Tim Anderson. The East Central Community College star led off with an infield single and eventually scored the go-ahead run. (And, yes, there was a quirky deflected-ball play later in that inning.) For his part, Anderson went 3-for-6 with two runs and an RBI Sunday and is now batting .467 in the series. … There are four games on tap today. Something crazy, something you’ve never seen before, is almost guaranteed to happen. That’s baseball.