A trio of former Biloxi Shuckers pitchers did a number on the Atlanta Braves on Monday night. The number was 16, as in 16 punchouts in Milwaukee’s 1-0 win at American Family Field. Former Mississippi Braves Ian Anderson and Spencer Strider pitched well in defeat. The series between National League rivals, who met in a memorable postseason series in 2021, continues today with Shuckers and M-Braves alums matched up as starters in each of the remaining two games. Coincidentally, the Double-A teams meet in a six-game series starting tonight at Trustmark Park in Pearl. Both clubs are under .500 in the Southern League South, though the Shuckers (16-17) come in on a three-game win streak. The M-Braves (14-19) have dropped their last two and are just 6-9 at home. Whether there is a feeling of rivalry between the teams — or their fans — is debatable. (Remember Jackson-Shreveport from the old Texas League days?) But Biloxi took five of six when the teams met in early April at MGM Park, and it’s a safe bet M-Braves players remember that. Both clubs feature highly regarded prospects that are likely to clash in the big leagues someday in the near future. The M-Braves trot out Michael Harris II, Jesse Franklin V, Freddy Tarnok and tonight’s starting pitcher, Jared Shuster. Four of Milwaukee’s top 11 prospects (per MLB Pipeline) populate Biloxi’s roster, with a fifth on the injured list. No. 1 Sal Frelick is batting .231 with seven steals, and No. 2 Joey Wiemer is at .309 with nine homers and 27 RBIs. Former Ole Miss star Thomas Dillard is a catcher/first baseman for the Shuckers, hitting .200 with three homers and 16 RBIs. In the clubs’ all-time series, which began when Biloxi entered the SL in 2015, the Shuckers lead 77-68. But Mississippi owns two league pennants, including last year’s, and Biloxi has yet to claim one.
The Mississippi Braves, who begin a six-game homestand tonight at Trustmark Park, are 8-13, and one doesn’t have to dig too deep into the numbers to uncover a reason for the poor start. The team ERA is 4.78, which ranks sixth in the eight-team Southern League. The WHIP is 1.46, second-worst in the league. This is highly unusual for the M-Braves, who ranked second, first and second in the league in ERA in the past three seasons. Maybe the ERA will improve as the team plays more games at the TeePee, one of the best pitchers’ parks in the minors. Maybe it starts this week against Pensacola, one of the weakest hitting and lowest scoring teams in the SL. Darius Vines starts tonight’s opener; he is a rated prospect who is better than his numbers: 1-1, 5.50 ERA. Wednesday starter Jared Shuster, Atlanta’s No. 10 prospect, has been outstanding: 2-2, 1.88, 28 strikeouts, five walks in 24 innings. But none of the other scheduled starters in the series has an ERA under 5.17. Closer Justin Maese is 3-for-3 in saves but has an ugly 7.27 ERA. Middle reliever Hayden Deal has a 1.06 and has been a key bullpen piece. The M-Braves have some hitters. Top prospect Michael Harris II has been as good as advertised: .333, four homers, 19 RBIs, 16 runs. Drew Lugbauer has slugged seven homers with 15 RBIs and 18 runs. Riley Delgado (.333), Luke Waddell (.296) and C.J. Alexander (.293) also have swung it well. … The World Series trophy won by the parent Braves last fall will make an appearance at the ballpark on Friday night. P.S. Anthony Alford, the ex-Petal High star, has signed a minor league deal with Cleveland and will report to Triple-A Columbus. Alford, previously with Pittsburgh, recently became a free agent (see previous posts).
The ball rose into the night sky and landed in the glove of C.J. Alexander. The Mississippi Braves third baseman squeezed it for the final out, and after a 13-year wait, the M-Braves’ second league championship was also secured. Gloves and caps flew in the air, and jubilant players rushed to the pitcher’s mound for a group embrace. The M-Braves beat Montgomery 2-1 Sunday in the winner-take-all Game 5 of the Double-A South Championship Series before a small (877 announced) but enthusiastic crowd at Trustmark Park. Atlanta’s Double-A club won the Southern League title in 2008, its only other pennant since moving to Pearl in 2005. Jackson’s Double-A Texas League teams (the Mets and Generals) won a combined five championships during the franchise’s 25-year run (1975-99) at Smith-Wills Stadium. Of all the M-Braves teams over the past 16 years, this one arguably was the best — and not just because it finished with the best record in the league over the course of the season. The roster featured numerous highly rated prospects, most of whom were on the field Sunday. The pitching staff, which finished second in the league in ERA, was thinned of some of its best arms by promotions, but starter Alan Rangel and three relievers delivered on Sunday. Rangel, 3-2 with a 4.50 ERA in seven games with the M-Braves, allowed only three hits and an unearned run in six innings, punching out eight. Alexander delivered a run-scoring double that tied the score at 1-1 in the second inning. Greyson Jenista, batting in the 9-hole, launched his third home run of the series in the fifth to put the M-Braves ahead. It was fitting that a home run would be the crucial hit. The team blasted 143 homers during the season, second-most in the league and far and away the most ever by an M-Braves club. This team battled through the constraints of COVID-19 protocols and endured a midseason managerial change to claim this championship. The ending wasn’t as exhilarating as in 2008 — a walk-off double-steal in the decisive game — but it did have some drama. Center fielder Justin Dean made a spectacular diving catch for the second out of the ninth. The tying run was at second when Nolan Kingham induced the foul pop that landed in Alexander’s glove. It’s often said that the minor leagues are all about player development. But if you witnessed the M-Braves’ celebration Sunday night, you know that’s not really true. Winning matters.
Having collected one championship on Thursday night, the Mississippi Braves can claim a more significant prize tonight at Trustmark Park in Pearl. A win against Montgomery would give the M-Braves the Double-A South regular season title and home-field advantage in the best-of-5 league championship series set to begin Sept. 21. The M-Braves (64-40), who have won 19 of their last 23, beat the Biscuits 4-3 on Thursday to clinch the league’s South Division title (which doesn’t mean an awful lot). The league’s top two teams by winning percentage, regardless of division, make the playoffs. The M-Braves will be one of those teams. Birmingham currently leads the North Division with a 59-52 mark, but several other teams are still in the race for the second spot. Now playing their 16th season in Pearl, the M-Braves have won one league pennant, way back in 2008, when it was known as the Southern League. The current club, which features 11 of Atlanta’s top 30 prospects (per mlb.com), leads the league in ERA and is second in home runs, a nice combo. Freddy Tarnok (No. 12 prospect) gets the start for the M-Braves tonight; he is 2-2 with a 2.86 ERA. Shea Langeliers (No. 2 prospect) figures to be behind the plate; he leads the team with 19 homers.
Goodbye, Southern League. The Mississippi Braves will play this season in the Double-A South league, specifically in the South Division of the Double-A South. Biloxi is also in the division. Under the new configuration set up by Major League Baseball, which has taken over minor league operations, there is no more Pacific Coast League. No Texas League. No Carolina League. Gwinnett, Atlanta’s Triple-A club formerly of the International League, will play in the Triple-A East Southeast Division. There is also a Double-A Northeast Southwest Division and a Low-A Southeast West Division. Could get confusing. But at least there will be minor league ball in Mississippi in 2021. Montgomery and Pensacola join the M-Braves and Shuckers in the Double-A South South. The Double-A South is essentially the old Southern League minus two teams: Jacksonville moved to Triple-A and Jackson (Tenn.) no longer has a team. As part of the revamped minor leagues, players will get salary increases, facilities will get needed upgrades and travel will be decreased. All good. Minor league schedules are not out yet, but it is expected that the Southern League – er, Double-A South – will start play in May and run through September.
Professional baseball will return to Mississippi in 2021. Presumably. The Double-A Mississippi Braves and Biloxi Shuckers are selling season tickets, though the Southern League doesn’t have a schedule up yet. The cancelled 2020 minor league season left central Mississippi without a pro team for the first time since 2001 and just the second time since 1975, when the old Jackson Mets moved into Smith-Wills Stadium. The Texas League franchise departed in 1999 and the independent DiamondKats played just one season (2000) before folding. The indy Senators began their four-year run at Smith-Wills in 2002. But there was a pro team playing in the state 20 years ago. This year will mark the 20th anniversary of the swan song of the Greenville Bluesmen. The independent team played at Legion Field from 1996-2001 in first the Big South League and then the Texas-Louisiana League (along with the DiamondKats). The Bluesmen are remembered in some circles as the team that made a 1998 trade for a pitcher involving 10 pounds of catfish. (You can look it up.) They also won back-to-back Big South titles in 1996 and ’97. Alas, their Texas-Louisiana League years weren’t so good. They finished last every season, going 34-62 overall in 2001. Patrick O’Sullivan was the best player on that team; the former New York Mets draft pick, who played many years of pro ball, hit .323 with 18 homers. Tunica native Keith Dunn won 11 games. Southern Miss alum Danny Stout and Jackson native Sim Shanks also played on that club. There’s rich baseball history in Greenville. It’s the birthplace of former MLB stars George Scott and Frank White, and the city hosted minor league clubs in various leagues going back to 1902.
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.
There will be holes in Atlanta’s roster next season, and the Braves may well have the talent in their minor league system to fill them. The club’s Organization All-Stars squad, selected by the good folks at milb.com, features six prospects who played at Double-A Mississippi or higher in 2019, three of whom rank among the top 31 prospects in all of the minors. (M-Braves fans know these names.) Austin Riley, the DeSoto Central High product who moved off the prospect list and into the big leagues this summer, could be in line for the third base job if Josh Donaldson isn’t re-signed. Riley showed flashes of brilliance in Atlanta, with 18 homers and 49 RBIs in 80 games (playing mostly as a left fielder). He blasted 33 homers between Triple-A and the majors. Alex Jackson, another former M-Braves star, should be in the mix at catcher, where Brian McCann’s retirement opens a door. Jackson, who also got some big league time this summer, hit 28 homers at Triple-A Gwinnett. In the outfield, where there could be two starting jobs available next spring, there’s Cristian Pache and Drew Waters, the Nos. 11 and 23 overall prospects. Both started and excelled this season with the M-Braves before moving to Gwinnett. Waters was the Southern League MVP and batted .309 with 40 doubles and 16 steals between the two levels. Pache, whose forte is defense in center field, batted .277 with 12 bombs on the year. A step behind those two is outfielder Trey Harris, who played at three levels in 2019, finishing in Mississippi, and hit .323 overall, earning organization player of the year honors from Atlanta. “Trey probably had about as good a year as a player could have … on both sides of the ball,” Braves farm director Dom Chiti told milb.com. The two pitchers on the milb.com Organization All-Star team are right-hander Ian Anderson and lefty Tucker Davidson, both of whom starred for the M-Braves before moving to Gwinnett. Anderson, the No. 31 overall prospect, had a hand in the no-hitter in June, and Davidson made the SL All-Star team at season’s end. So, when do pitchers and catchers report?
Congratulations to Phillip Wellman, the former Mississippi Braves manager who piloted the Amarillo Sod Poodles to a Texas League championship on Sunday, beating Tulsa 8-3 in the decisive fifth game. This is the team’s first year in Amarillo after the franchise – still a San Diego affiliate — moved from San Antonio. (Sod poodle is a pioneer nickname for prairie dog.) It was the second championship for Wellman in 19 seasons as a minor league skipper; he won the other in 2008 in the second of his four seasons with the M-Braves. … Condolences to the Biloxi Shuckers, who lost at Jackson, Tenn., on Sunday in Game 5 of the Southern League Championship Series. The Shuckers, a Milwaukee affiliate, have lost in the SL finals in three of their five seasons on the Coast. … It’s now been 11 years since Mississippi celebrated a pro baseball championship, which is beginning to feel like a drought. Over a 15-year span starting in 1981, Jackson’s Texas League clubs won five championships – the Mets in 1981, ’84 and ’85 and the Generals in ’93 and ’96. The independent Senators won a Central League crown in 2003, and five years later, the M-Braves won their lone Southern League title. Long before that, Jackson-based teams won league championships in 1908, 1913, 1925, 1927, 1931, 1940 and 1947, according to research in the Minor League Encyclopedia of Baseball. The 1913 team, known as the Lawmakers, posted an impressive 71-24 record (.747 winning percentage) in the old Cotton States League. Mississippi did not have a pro club from 1953, when the original Senators left town, to 1975, when the Mets moved into Smith-Wills Stadium.
The team he left behind in late June will play for the Southern League championship this week. But rest assured former Biloxi Shuckers standout Trent Grisham is quite happy to be where he is – with Milwaukee in the heat of a playoff race. The 22-year-old outfielder, batting leadoff for the Brewers at Miami, matched a franchise rookie record with five hits on Monday, sparking the club to an 8-3 win that kept it within 2 games of the second wild card in the National League. “It’s a lot of fun,” Grisham told mlb.com. Grisham doubled, tripled, scored twice and drove in two runs in Monday’s victory. Called up on Aug. 1, the lefty hitter is batting .260 with four homers and 13 RBIs in 32 big league games. He batted .254 with 13 homers for the Shuckers this season – his second tour with the Double-A team – and made the SL All-Star Game. He was promoted to Triple-A San Antonio on June 20. A 2015 first-round pick, Grisham is one of several ex-Shuckers having an impact with the Brewers. … The current Biloxi team, in the SL Championship Series for the third time since 2015, hosts Game 1 against the Jackson (Tenn.) Generals tonight at MGM Park.