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.
Speculation about Hunter Renfroe’s next home has included the Chicago Cubs and Houston, two clubs that might be in the market for right-handed power. The ex-Mississippi State star was designated for assignment by Tampa Bay on Friday and is apparently bound for free agency. Renfroe hit eight homers – plus two more in the postseason – during his one year with the Rays but batted just .156 and struck out in roughly a third of his at-bats. The Rays added several minor leaguers to their 40-man roster last week and needed to clear space. Renfroe was deemed expendable. He was expected to command about $3 million in arbitration for 2021. He is a .228 career hitter with 97 homers since his first MLB season with San Diego in 2016. … MSU product Nate Lowe, still on the Rays’ roster, has left his Dominican Winter League club, reportedly because of concerns about COVID-19. He was 3-for-16 in five games. A lefty-hitting first baseman, he smacked four homers in a brief stint in the majors in 2020. … Ex-Ole Miss star Lance Lynn is widely rumored to be on the trading block in Texas. The right-hander, 33, due to make about $9M in the last year of his contract, went 6-3 with a 3.32 ERA for a bad Rangers team last season. Starting pitching is an especially hot commodity this off-season.
Scanning the stat charts from the Dominican Winter League, a few familiar names pop up, including two Mississippi college products. Ex-Mississippi State star Nate Lowe, who played 21 games for Tampa Bay this past season, is getting some bonus work with Escogido, while former Ole Miss standout Chris Ellis, who became a free agent last spring, is pitching for Cibao. Lowe, a 25-year-old first baseman, spent most of 2020 in the Rays’ alternate camp. He hit seven homers as a rookie in 2019 and four more this season; he played in one wild card game but was not on the postseason roster thereafter. “We believe that (Lowe’s power) can be an attraction in the league,” Escogido’s GM, Jose Gomez Frias, told en24.news. Ellis made one MLB appearance with Kansas City as a Rule 5 pick in 2019, then was returned to St. Louis’ system. He had a shaky ’19 season in Triple-A and ultimately was released last May when big league clubs were purging their minor league rosters. Once a highly rated prospect, Ellis, 28, has 164 minor league appearances under his belt. He went 8-2 for the 2016 Mississippi Braves, two years after winning 10 games for Ole Miss. … The DWL season began Sunday. The Mexican Pacific League season also is under way; no Mississippians appear on the current rosters.
“Baseball’s fun.” Brett Phillips, the former Biloxi Shuckers outfielder and hero of Game 4 of the World Series, threw out that little pearl in his breathless postgame TV interview Saturday night. Baseball can be gut-churning and soul-crushing, too, because one team has to lose. That’s how it works. But at its core, baseball is a kids’ game — and it’s fun. How could Game 4 be described as anything else? Filled with twists and turns, capped by a crazy walk-off play, three images will endure: Tampa Bay’s Randy Arozarena, who scored the winning run, lying in the third-base line, slapping home plate with his hand. Phillips, whose two-out hit set in motion the game-deciding play, imitating an airplane in the outfield as his exhuberant teammates chased after him. Dave Roberts, the Los Angeles Dodgers manager, looking out incredulously at the scene from the dugout railing. Game 4, an 8-7, series-squaring win for the Rays, featured six home runs, including a tape-measure blast by ex-Mississippi State star Hunter Renfroe. There was some clutch pitching, too, as a parade of arms went to the bump. There was some good defense — Renfroe was credited with two outfield assists and Mookie Betts made another athletic snag — and there was the shaky D on the final play, where a bobble, a hesitant relay throw and a whiffed catch allowed the winning run to score. It’s a best-of-3 now. Game 5 is tonight. It’s gonna be fun.
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 addition to Crystal Springs native and Mississippi State alum Hunter Renfroe, Tampa Bay’s right fielder and cleanup batter tonight, there are several other Magnolia State connections on this year’s World Series clubs. Former Mississippi Braves standout Charlie Morton, who pitched for the Southern League playoff team in 2007, is likely to start Game 3 for Tampa Bay. The veteran right-hander has seven career postseason wins and is 3-0 in this year’s playoffs. The Rays’ roster also includes former Biloxi Shuckers outfielder Brett Phillips, a self-anointed player-coach of sorts. “I’m looking around and I’m like, we got the manager and the bench coach, and the analytical guy, but we don’t have the keep-it-simple guy,” Phillips said in a recent Sports Illustrated story. “So I call myself the keep-it-simple guy. I consider myself a player-coach.” Phillips played for the Shuckers in 2015 and 2016, belting 16 homers the latter season. He has been with four organizations in his brief pro career and batted .150 in 20 at-bats for the Rays this season. The Los Angeles Dodgers have a couple of Mississippi ties: left-hander Alex Wood, a onetime M-Braves star, and, behind the scenes, Director of Player Health Ron Porterfield, who was the trainer for the Double-A Generals when the Houston farm team first arrived in Jackson in 1991. Wood pitched at Trustmark Park in 2013, going 4-2 with a 1.26 ERA in 10 starts before earning a promotion to Triple-A. He has an MLB career ERA of 3.45. Porterfield, a widely acclaimed trainer, spent 12 years in the Rays’ organization before joining the Dodgers in 2017.
Just like the last time Tampa Bay was in the World Series, there is a Mississippi native and state college alum on the roster. Current Rays outfielder Hunter Renfroe is hoping for a better result than former Rays pitcher Chad Bradford witnessed in 2008. Bradford, a Hinds Community College and Southern Miss product from Byram, made two scoreless appearances in the ’08 Series, which the Rays lost to Philadelphia in five games. Bradford was a late-season acquisition from Baltimore who posted a 1.42 ERA in 21 games for Tampa Bay down the stretch in 2008, his next-to-last season in The Show. The submarine-style reliever, one of the key figures in “Moneyball,” was money in the postseason over his career, putting up a 0.39 ERA in 24 games spread over seven postseasons. He didn’t have a big impact in the ’08 Series. Renfroe, the ex-Mississippi State star from Crystal Springs, might be in a position to do a bit more in his first postseason. Renfroe belted eight homers for the Rays during the year but has been relatively quiet at the plate in the postseason so far. He has one homer and six RBIs while going 3-for-15 with nine strikeouts. He did not play in Saturday’s Game 7 win. He figures to get some swings against left-handers in the World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers. … The last time Atlanta was in the World Series, there was a third baseman from Mississippi on the roster. Current Braves third sacker Austin Riley will have to wait at least another year to experience the Fall Classic as Howard Battle did in 1999. Ex-DeSoto Central High star Riley went 1-for-4 with an RBI – and a baserunning gaffe – as the Braves fell to the Dodgers on Sunday night in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series. Riley hit a huge home run in Game 1 (see previous post) but ultimately batted just .143 in the NLCS and .178 in the postseason overall, striking out 18 times. Back in ’99, Battle, an Ocean Springs native and Mercy Cross High product, was on a Braves team that made it through a dramatic NLCS but was swept in the World Series by a New York Yankees juggernaut. In his 10th pro season in 1999, Battle was a late addition to the Braves’ roster, going 6-for-17 with a homer in September, and was a surprise addition to their postseason roster. He went 0-for-3 in the first two rounds and made just one “appearance” in the Fall Classic. He was announced as a pinch hitter in Game 1 and then lifted for another. He never appeared in another major league game. Riley, just a second-year big leaguer, will have more opportunities to chase a ring, though, after Sunday’s painful loss, he probably isn’t thinking about that just yet.
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.
You never know what postseason moments will stick with you as the years roll along. For fans of the Atlanta Braves and devoted followers of Mississippi baseball, there’s a strong chance this one will: Former DeSoto Central High standout Austin Riley’s tie-breaking home run in the ninth inning of Monday night’s National League Championship Series opener. The 448-foot blast, on a 1-2 pitch, with actual fans in the stands, propelled the Braves to a 5-1 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers. Riley can rake: He hit 18 homers as a rookie in 2019, including one in his first game, and added eight more this season. He has had some well-documented struggles, including in this postseason and even in Monday’s game, but Atlanta manager Brian Snitker has stuck with him as the regular third baseman. Riley’s bomb, which sent the Braves’ dugout into a frenzy, had to evoke a feeling of tremendous gratification for all involved. As teammate Freddie Freeman told mlb.com: “For him to have that moment, the biggest home run of his life, I’m just so happy for him.” … BTW: Former Mississippi Braves star Max Fried and the Dodgers’ Walker Buehler put on a good show as the opposing starters in Game 1 at Arlington, Texas, but tonight’s matchup might be even better: M-Braves alum Ian Anderson against Clayton Kershaw. … A trivia question: Who is the all-time leader in MLB wins by a former M-Braves pitcher? Answer: Charlie Morton, with 93. Morton, who pitched for the M-Braves in 2007, also has six postseason wins, including Monday’s Game 2 of the American League Championship Series for Tampa Bay against Houston. The 36-year-old right-hander won a ring with Houston in 2017, earning the victory in Game 7 of the World Series. (The all-time wins leader among ex-Jackson Mets is Mike Scott with 124 and among ex-Jackson Generals is Freddy Garcia with 156.) … Hunter Renfroe, who was mic’d up for the TBS broadcast of ALCS Game 1, might not be tempted to do it again. The Mississippi State product wore the dreaded golden sombrero after striking out four times and leaving four runners on base in the Rays’ 2-1 win. He was not in the lineup for Game 2 against a right-handed starter. … On this date in 1974, in Game 2 of the World Series, Belzoni native Herb Washington, representing the tying run for Oakland in the top of the ninth, got picked off first base by Mike Marshall of the Los Angeles Dodgers. The A’s lose the game but win the series in five. “Designated runner” Washington, a world-class sprinter who never batted in 105 big league games, made two other appearances in the ’74 Series but did not attempt a steal. He stole 29 bases in the 1974 season but just two more in ’75 before he was released.
It’s unlikely to happen, but it would be kinda cool from a Magnolia State perspective. Tampa Bay faces the New York Yankees in Game 5 of the American League Division Series tonight, which means former Mississippi State teammates Hunter Renfroe and Jonathan Holder could face each other, possibly in a key spot. Renfroe, an outfielder, is not in the Rays’ lineup and has had just one at-bat, as a pinch hitter, in the series. Holder, a reliever, is down in the pecking order in a deep Yankees bullpen. But in an all-hands-on-deck kinda game, anything could happen. Renfroe, from Crystal Springs, and Holder, from Gulfport, were on one of the best teams State has ever had, the 2013 club that reached the finals of the College World Series, falling to UCLA. Renfroe was the hitting star, batting .345 with 16 homers and 65 RBIs. Holder was the closer, posting a 1.65 ERA and 21 saves. Renfroe was drafted that year in the first round by San Diego; Holder went in 2014 in the sixth round to the Yankees. Both are now big league vets. Holder had a 4.98 ERA this season, but that figure was inflated over his last three outings when he yielded eight runs in 4 1/3 innings. Renfroe hit eight homers for the Rays this season but was 0-for-14 against the Yankees and 0-for-1 vs. Holder. They faced off one other time: Holder struck out Renfroe in 2019, when Renfroe was with the Padres. Maybe a third matchup is in the stars for tonight. Unlikely, sure, but it would be kinda cool.