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.
Former Mississippi high school stars Bobby Bradley (Harrison Central) and Austin Riley (DeSoto Central) faced off, sorta, in the International League playoffs on Wednesday when Columbus and Gwinnett tangled in the semifinals. Riley homered for the Gwinnett Stripers (Atlanta’s Triple-A club), but Columbus (Cleveland) won Game 1 5-4 as Bradley went 2-for-5 with two RBIs, a run and a stolen base. Riley, currently on a big league rehab assignment, hit 15 homers for the Stripers this season before moving up to the majors, where he hit 17 more for the Braves. Bradley, who also got a look in MLB this summer, led the IL with 33 homers. … Biloxi won its Southern League South playoff opener 11-10 on a Dillon Thomas walk-off homer in the 10th inning at MGM Park. In the North opener, Delta State product Dalton Moats threw a scoreless inning in Montgomery’s 4-0 win against Jackson. … Ex-DSU star Zack Shannon hit a home run for Kane County in a loss to Clinton in the Class A Midwest League playoffs. Shannon hit 12 homers during the season. Also in the MWL, Ole Miss product Grae Kessinger and former Southern Miss standout Matt Wallner, both 2019 draftees, are on opposing sides in the Quad Cities-Cedar Rapids series. Kessinger had a hit and a run QC’s Game 1 win, while Wallner went 0-for-4. … Former Itawamba Community College star Tyreque Reed belted a homer for Hickory as the Crawdads beat Delmarva in the Class A South Atlantic League playoffs. Reed hit .282 with 13 homers for Hickory this season. … Walker Robbins, the George County High alum, notched a hold for Johnson City as the Cardinals beat Burlington to claim the rookie Appalachian League championship. Robbins, in his fourth pro season but first as a fulltime pitcher, posted a 2.52 ERA in 17 games for Johnson City.
After winning both halves of their division race, the Biloxi Shuckers will begin pursuit of an elusive pennant tonight when the Southern League South playoffs start at MGM Park. The Shuckers went 82-55 overall in 2019. They play wild card qualifier Pensacola in the best-of-5 division series. Biloxi made the postseason in 2015, its first year on the Coast, and again last year but did not capture the league title. Milwaukee’s Double-A club last won the SL pennant in 2001, when it was in Huntsville. (The Mississippi Braves, who just completed their 15th year in Pearl, have won one SL pennant, that coming in 2008.) Biloxi will be without league pitcher of the year Trey Supak, who was promoted in July, and All-Star first baseman Patrick Leonard, who is injured. All-Star closer Nate Griep (1.98 ERA, 22 saves) is still around, as is the power-hitting foursome of Weston Wilson (19 homers), Cooper Hummel (17), Jake Gatewood (13) and Dillon Thomas (13). C.J. Hinojosa is the leading hitter at .280, and Luis Aviles Jr. stole 27 bags. Alec Bettinger (5-7, 3.44) is slated to start Game 1. Former Mississippi State standout Daniel Brown (3.19) works out of the Biloxi pen, as does Clayton Andrews (2.59), who also plays some outfield (.281). … The M-Braves finished 62-74 overall and, despite a prospect-filled roster, didn’t seriously challenge in either half in the South. The M-Braves also had three players make the All-Star team: pitcher Ian Anderson and outfielders Cristian Pache and Drew Waters, who was the league’s MVP. Waters became the fifth Jackson area Double-A player to win a player of the year honor. Tim Leary, a pitcher for the Jackson Mets, won the Texas League award in 1980, a year when the league did not have a separate award for pitchers. Darryl Strawberry (1982) and Gregg Jefferies (1987) also won the TL award as JaxMets, and Roberto Petagine won it in 1993 with the Jackson Generals. Javy Lopez in 1992 was the last Braves prospect to win the SL MVP; the team was in Greenville, S.C., at that time.
Fans of Double-A baseball in the Jackson area have seen some great hitters put up some great numbers over the years. Think Darryl Strawberry in 1982 or Roberto Petagine in 1993 or Ernesto Mejia in 2011. Picking one particular season as THE best is a very subjective exercise, but suffice it to say that current Mississippi Braves star Drew Waters belongs in the conversation. Waters, 20, leads the Southern League in hitting at .324. He also leads in doubles (35), triples (nine) and runs (62). He is third in on-base percentage (.369), fourth in slugging (.490) and has five homers, 41 RBIs and 13 steals in 105 games. Those numbers compare favorably to the luminaries of the past. Strawberry, playing for the Jackson Mets at Smith-Wills Stadium in ’82, put on a show worthy of the hype he was already receiving as the No. 1 overall draft pick of 1980. He hit a modest .283 but slugged .602 with 34 homers, 19 doubles and nine triples. He also stole 45 bases and drove in 97 runs. He was the Texas League’s player of the year. Gregg Jefferies won the TL award in 1987 after a season that topped Strawberry’s in some respects. Jefferies hit a ridiculous .367 with a .598 slug; he added 20 homers, 48 doubles and five triples while also stealing 26 bases and driving in 101 runs. Petagine, playing for the Jackson Generals in ’93, also was a TL POY and won the league batting title with a .334 average. He hit 15 homers and 36 doubles (.529 slug) and drove in 90 runs. A year later, Bobby Abreu put up a .303 average with 16 homers, 73 RBIs, 25 doubles, nine triples and 12 steals. Mejia, playing for the M-Braves at Trustmark Park in 2011, batted .297 with 26 homers, 99 RBIs and 37 doubles. He slugged .531. He did not win Southern League MVP, however. That went to some guy named Paul Goldschmidt. In 2013, Tommy La Stella of the M-Braves hit .343 but didn’t have the other big numbers (21 doubles, four homers, seven steals). In 2016, the M-Braves’ Dustin Peterson enjoyed an MVP-caliber season (Tyler O’Neill won the award) with a .282 average, 12 homers, 88 RBIs and 38 doubles. Waters doesn’t have the big homer and RBI totals, but he should certainly be in the running for league MVP. (The last Atlanta prospect to win it was Javy Lopez in 1992, when the franchise was in Greenville, S.C.) Win it or not, Waters has had an unforgettable season.
The top-rated pitching prospect on the Chicago Cubs’ Double-A roster is Lucedale’s Justin Steele. But the oft-injured Steele has been outperformed on the Tennessee club by another Mississippi native who hasn’t yet cracked the MLB Pipeline prospect ratings. Southaven’s Wyatt Short, a former Ole Miss standout, is 3-1 with a 1.88 ERA and six saves for the Smokies. In 38 1/3 innings, he has 40 strikeouts and 11 walks. And he made the Southern League All-Star Game last month. “I feel like I’m really scratching the surface here,” he recently told the Memphis Commercial Appeal, “so hopefully as the year goes on, it only gets better and better.” The 5-foot-8 left-hander, drafted in the 13th round in 2016, has a 2.49 career ERA and 35 saves in 47 opportunities. He posted 11 saves as UM’s closer in 2016 and finished his Rebels career with 24. … Meanwhile, Steele, a lefty starter and the Cubs’ No. 8 prospect, has spent much of the season on the injured list and is 0-6 with a 5.59 ERA in 11 games for the Smokies. He bounced back strong last summer from Tommy John surgery, finished the 2018 season in Double-A, pitched in the Arizona Fall League and went to big league camp as a member of the Cubs’ 40-man roster. Not much has gone well since.
Awards season has begun for the colleges. To recap what’s happened so far: Mississippi State’s Ethan Small has been named the College Baseball Foundation’s national pitcher of the year. J.T. Ginn, the State star from Brandon, was named Perfect Game’s freshman of the year and a Collegiate Baseball Freshman All-American. Ole Miss’ Grae Kessinger was named the nation’s top shortstop, winning the Mizuno-sponsored Brooks Wallace Award. Southern Miss’ Matt Wallner and State’s Small were tabbed first-team All-Americans by Baseball America, which also honored Bulldogs Jake Mangum and Justin Foscue as second- and third-teamers, respectively. That MSU trio made Collegiate Baseball’s All-America list, as well. Delta State’s Jake Barlow and Hunter Riggins have earned NCAA D-II All-America honors, and Mississippi College’s Blaine Crim, the Gulf South Conference player of the year, was named a D-II Academic All-American. Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College’s Brandon Parker was an NJCAA Division II first-team All-America, Northwest CC’s Ben Van Cleve made the second team and Itawamba’s Houston Harding and Pearl River’s Wiley Cleland were on the third team. … Former Mississippi Braves are getting a lot of respect from voters in the early returns from the MLB All-Star Game ballots. Ozzie Albies led National League second basemen and Tommy La Stella, now with the Los Angeles Angels, led the AL at the same position. Brian McCann was second among NL catchers and Dansby Swanson second on the shortstop list. Freddie Freeman (first base) and Ronald Acuna (outfield) came in third at their respective positions. (Unfortunately, Austin Riley is not on the ballot.) East Central Community College product Tim Anderson, who has been at or near the top of the AL batting race all season, was fourth in the shortstop voting. … Former Mississippi State standouts Brandon Woodruff and Dakota Hudson likely will get consideration for the NL pitching staff, while Madison Central product Spencer Turnbull and Ole Miss alum Lance Lynn could be candidates in the AL. Pitchers are chosen by a vote of fellow players. … The current Mississippi Braves are slated to send seven players – five pitchers plus outfielders Drew Waters and Cristian Pache — to next week’s Southern League All-Star Game at MGM Park in Biloxi. Nine Shuckers – yes, nine — are on the South roster.