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.
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.
Lance Lynn gets the start for Chicago in today’s American League Division Series opener, which arguably is the most important game in a best-of-5. Lynn may have gone to Ole Miss, but the big right-hander is a bulldog on the mound. He went 11-6 with a 2.69 ERA for the White Sox this season, working 157 innings in 28 starts, and was considered a Cy Young Award candidate at one point. “He’s going to come at you,” White Sox catcher Yasmani Grandal told the Chicago Tribune, “he’s going to pressure you and you’d better be ready when he’s on the mound.” Lynn’s one appearance against Houston did not go well: six runs in four innings back in June. Expect him to use that as motivation. Lynn has a wealth of postseason experience, having pitched in 26 games going back to his rookie year of 2011, when he won a ring as a reliever with St. Louis. Tim Anderson, the former East Central Community College star, will lead off the game for the White Sox; he was hot down the stretch and went 9-for-14 in his first MLB postseason in 2020. Ocean Springs High alum Garrett Crochet, a lefty reliever, and Taylorsville High product Billy Hamilton, a reserve outfielder, could also play valuable roles for Chicago. But Lynn is the one to watch today. …
Hunter Renfroe feasted (.338, four homers, 18 RBIs) on Tampa Bay pitching this season, perhaps motivated by the fact the Rays cut him loose after last season. The ex-Mississippi State standout, who batted .259 with 31 homers and 96 RBIs in 2021, will be somewhere in the middle of Boston’s lineup — and in right field — in tonight’s ALDS. Renfroe has limited postseason experience, but he hit two homers for the Rays last fall during their run to the World Series and went 1-for-3 in the pressure-cooker AL Wild Card Game vs. New York on Monday. He brings game-changing power, even in a pitcher’s park like Tropicana Field.
The regular season is a wrap. Before the second season starts, here’s a tip of the cap to the best moments of 2021 by a Mississippian in the majors:
Best hit: Tim Anderson’s walk-off home run in the inaugural Field of Dreams Game on Aug. 12. The former East Central Community College star’s blast into the Iowa cornfield will endure as one of the great moments in this or any season.
Best pitch: Spencer Turnbull’s final fastball to Mitch Hanigar, which produced a swing and a miss and completed the Madison Central High product’s no-hitter on May 18. The no-no was the first ever in MLB by a Mississippian (native or school alum).
Best throw: Hunter Renfroe’s laser from deep center field to nail a runner at third base for the final out in a 2-1 Boston win on Sept. 8. It was the second assist of the game for the former Mississippi State star, who also homered to put the Red Sox ahead.
Best debut: Nick Fortes, who singled in his first career at-bat on Sept. 18, hit a home run in his second AB later in that game. The ex-Ole Miss standout was one of six Mississippians who debuted in 2021. Worth noting: George County High alum Justin Steele struck out the first batter he faced, and Delta State alum Trent Giambrone got a pinch-hit single in his first at-bat.
In a lineup packed with attention-grabbing stars like Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, Marcus Semien and George Springer, Corey Dickerson has been a quiet but steady contributor for Toronto. The former Brookhaven Academy and Meridian Community College standout went 2-for-4 with a home run Friday night as the Blue Jays beat Baltimore 6-4 to remain in the thick of the battle royale for the two American League wild card berths. Dickerson, who provides a left-handed bat in a largely right-handed order, is batting .333 over his last 15 games, .364 with two homers in his last seven. Toronto traded with Miami for the nine-year veteran, along with reliever Adam Cimber, back in late June. A foot injury kept Dickerson on the injured list until early August. He settled in quickly, driving in two runs in his second game. In 45 games overall for the Jays, he is at .289 with four homers, 15 RBIs and 16 runs. Toronto is tied with Seattle, 1 game back of Boston and 2 behind New York in the wild card standings with two games left on the schedule. Meanwhile, former Mississippi State standout Hunter Renfroe’s 31st homer broke a scoreless deadlock in the sixth inning and propelled Boston to a 4-2 win over Washington. Renfroe has three homers in the past four games. P.S. Ole Miss product Lance Lynn notched his 11th win and East Central CC alum Tim Anderson went 4-for-4 as the playoff-bound Chicago White Sox beat Detroit. … Ex-MSU star Dakota Hudson, in his second game since returning from Tommy John surgery, threw five shutout innings for playoff-bound St. Louis in a win against the Cubs. … Mississippi Braves alum Spencer Strider made his MLB debut for Atlanta on Friday, completing an impressive step-by-step rise from Low-A ball to the big leagues this season. The hard-throwing right-hander, a 2020 draftee, was 3-7, 4.71 ERA for the Double-A M-Braves but demonstrated impressive stuff with 94 strikeouts in 63 innings.
Six Mississippi Braves alumni played roles in Atlanta’s division-clinching 5-3 victory against Philadelphia on Thursday night. Included in that number is ex-DeSoto Central High star Austin Riley, who hit his 33rd homer, and Ian Anderson, who followed fellow M-Braves alums Charlie Morton and Max Fried with a stellar start on the mound. The Braves have won four straight National League East titles under former M-Braves manager Brian Snitker. … Houston clinched the American League West crown by beating Tampa Bay 3-2, with Mississippi State product Kendall Graveman, just back from paternity leave, throwing a perfect eighth inning for his seventh hold in 22 games with the Astros. (There are no Jackson Generals connections remaining with the Astros, but, interestingly enough, there is one in Atlanta. Assistant hitting coach Bobby Magallanes played for the Double-A Gens in 1996.) … Former George County High standout Justin Steele, pitching in the Steel City, tossed seven shutout innings for the Chicago Cubs in a 9-0 win against Pittsburgh. Steele allowed four hits and one walk with seven strikeouts in his ninth — and best — start for the Cubs. He is 4-4 with 4.26 ERA overall as a rookie this year. … MSU alum Brent Rooker belted his ninth homer (in 179 at-bats) in Minnesota’s loss to Detroit. He hit 20 homers in 220 at-bats at Triple-A St. Paul this season. … Ex-Ole Miss star Lance Lynn (10-6, 2.72) makes his last start of the regular season today for the Chicago White Sox, who are trying to overtake Houston for home-field edge in the AL Division Series. Ex-State star Dakota Hudson, bidding to make St. Louis’ postseason roster, makes his first start of 2021 today. Coming off 2020 elbow surgery, Hudson notched a win last Friday with 3 2/3 innings of efficient relief in his first appearance this season. … Former Bulldogs ace Ethan Small, pitching at Triple-A Nashville in the Milwaukee system, notched his second win at that level with a five-inning effort against Indianapolis. Small, a 2019 first-round pick, is 2-0, 2.06 in nine starts (35 innings) for the Sounds. … Worth noting again: This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Jackson Mets’ first Texas League title. The ’81 JaxMets, managed by Davey Johnson, featured Marvell Wynne, Mike Fitzgerald, Doug Sisk and Al Pedrique.
Austin Riley drove in three runs in Atlanta’s win on Wednesday night, and Hunter Renfroe’s 30th homer helped Boston secure a victory. Important contributions in critical games. But the feel-good story of the night from a Mississippi perspective was what happened in a relatively meaningless game in Pittsburgh. Trent Giambrone, a 25th-round draft pick out of Delta State five years ago, delivered a pinch-hit single in his first major league at-bat for the Chicago Cubs. Louisiana native Giambrone, who was not on the 40-man roster, was called up from Triple-A Iowa after fellow infielder Patrick Wisdom was placed on the injured list. The 5-foot-8 Giambrone was not having a good year with the I-Cubs, batting just .174, but the Cubs apparently wanted to reward him for grinding through 493 games in their minor league system. He had some good numbers — 17 homers, 26 steals in the Double-A Southern League in 2018 and 23 bombs with Iowa in 2019 — and was impressive in several spring training trials with the big club. His eighth-inning single Wednesday had teammates in the dugout standing and applauding — a moment Giambrone will always remember. He became the sixth Mississippi product to debut in MLB this season and the ninth Delta State alum to make The Show. Others on that list: Barry Lyons, Stewart Cliburn, Eli Whiteside and Jim Miles (the first in 1968). P.S. Shea Langeliers, fresh off winning a championship with the Mississippi Braves and earning Atlanta’s minor league player of the year honor, made his Triple-A debut on Wednesday. Catching and batting sixth, Langeliers went 0-for-3 with a walk in Gwinnett’s 6-1 win over Jacksonville. He hit .258 with 22 homers for the M-Braves.
Four Mississippians took the field in four of the biggest games on a compelling Tuesday night in the big leagues. Their results were a mixed bag. Only former DeSoto Central High standout Austin Riley celebrated a win, but he went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts and four stranded runners in Atlanta’s gut-churning 2-1 victory against Philadelphia in the crucial National League East showdown. Hunter Renfroe, the Mississippi State product from Crystal Springs, hit his 29th home run for Boston but saw his team lose to Baltimore and fall 2 games back of first-place New York in the crazy American League wild card race. Ex-Meridian Community College star Corey Dickerson had a double and an RBI for Toronto, but the Blue Jays lost to the Yankees and slipped to fourth in the wild card standings, behind both Boston and surging Seattle. MSU alum Brandon Woodruff started for Milwaukee but lasted just four innings in the Brewers’ loss to St. Louis, which won for the 17th straight time and clinched the second NL wild card in the process. The Brewers have already clinched the Central Division crown. The big games continue tonight with the Braves, leading Philly by 3.5 games, sending ex-Mississippi Braves star Max Fried (13-7, 3.12 ERA) to the bump at Truist Park. P.S. Houston, which has not yet clinched the AL West, put State product Kendall Graveman, one of its key relievers, on the paternity list on Tuesday. The Astros, with a magic number of 1 to put away Seattle, are hosting AL East champion Tampa Bay. Houston won the series opener 4-3 on a walk-off walk. The Mariners are hosting Oakland.
At Trustmark Park in Pearl, the Mississippi Braves will try to take another step toward their second pennant when they host Montgomery in Game 3 (6:35 p.m.) of the Double-A South Championship Series. The M-Braves, 2008 champs in the Southern League, evened the series at 1-1 with an 8-5 win in the second game on Wednesday. Spencer Strider (3-7, 4.71 ERA), a 2020 Atlanta draft pick out of Clemson, goes to the bump for the M-Braves. The right-hander has 94 strikeouts in 63 innings over 14 starts. Trey Harris drove in three runs, Wendell Rijo homered, Justin Dean stole two bases and scored twice and the M-Braves bullpen finished with four scoreless innings in Game 2.
At Canal Park in Akron, Ohio, former Mississippi State standout Konnor Pilkington starts for the Akron Rubber Ducks in Game 3 of the Double-A Northeast title series against Bowie. The Ducks are up 2-0. Pilkington, a left-hander, went 3-2, 2.33 for Akron after coming over to Cleveland’s system from the Chicago White Sox. He is 7-6, 3.04 overall in 2021. Bowie’s shortstop is ex-State star Jordan Westburg, who hit .232 with four homers for the Baltimore farm club; he has 15 homers on the season.
At Wrigley Field, George County High product Justin Steele will try to stop St. Louis’ 12-game win streak when the rookie left-hander takes the mound for Chicago in Game 1 of a pair. Steele is 1-3, 5.12 in seven starts since the Cubs moved him from the bullpen. None of the Cardinals hitters have faced him. In the unlikely event the lowly Cubs sweep the Cardinals today, Milwaukee can clinch the National League Central with a win against the visiting New York Mets at American Family Field.
And at Fenway Park, there’s the always enthralling renewal of the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry. Boston leads New York by 2 games in the American League wild card battle with Toronto lurking a game back of the Yanks. Gerrit Cole (15-8, 3.03) starts for the Yankees; ex-MSU star Hunter Renfroe, the Red Sox’s right fielder, is 3-for-18 with no RBIs career against the right-hander.
A panel of “MLB experts” overlooked Austin Riley in a recent mlb.com poll regarding top MVP candidates; he didn’t get a single vote. Those who follow the Atlanta Braves closely are scratching their heads. Former DeSoto Central High star Riley has been a major player in the Braves’ drive to the top of the National League East this summer, and he was at it again on Monday night. The Braves’ slumbering offense finally broke out in an 11-4 win at Arizona. Riley, the cleanup batter, contributed three doubles and three RBIs. For the year, the 24-year-old third baseman is batting .300 with 30 doubles, 29 homers, 92 RBIs and 81 runs. Since the All-Star break, he has batted .333 with 15 homers and 50 RBIs. He has been outstanding on defense, as well. It hurts Riley’s MVP case that he plays on a team that also features, among others, Freddie Freeman, Ozzie Albies and Adam Duvall, who’ve had many shining moments. The Braves have potentially crucial series looming against San Diego (Sept. 24-26) and Philadelphia (Sept. 28-30). Might be an opportunity for Riley to win over some voters. P.S. Tonight in Milwaukee, Mississippi State alum Brandon Woodruff (9-9, 2.55 ERA) gets his shot at stopping surging St. Louis, which has won nine straight to jump to second in the wild card race. … Ex-Ole Miss star Chris Ellis, who has found new life as a starter for Baltimore, won’t get a shot at the Phillies tonight because of arm fatigue. Ellis has been pushed back in the rotation because of a tired arm. He has a 2.82 ERA in five starts for the O’s. … Tampa Bay, running away with the American League East, sent Cody Reed to Triple-A Durham for a rehab appearance on Sunday, and the ex-Northwest Mississippi Community College star threw a scoreless inning. The left-hander might be due for a return to the big leagues.