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.
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.
For the first time in 19 years – and just the second time over a 44-year span — there will be no minor league baseball played in central Mississippi. The minor league season was officially cancelled on Tuesday, meaning no games at Trustmark Park in Pearl, or MGM Stadium in Biloxi, where the Double-A Braves and Shuckers reside. We have to go back to 2001 to find a year here without pro ball. (And, no, semi-pro ball doesn’t count.) When Jackson’s Texas League franchise left Smith-Wills Stadium in 1999 after a 25-year run, the independent Jackson DiamondKats moved in for the 2000 season. The club folded after its first year. Smith-Wills hosted a college summer league in 2001 but no pro ball. The independent Senators arrived in 2002 and played through 2005, when Trustmark Park opened and the Southern League M-Braves began play. … Though no players will suit up as M-Braves this year, there are 13 players from the 2019 Mississippi club on Atlanta’s 60-man roster for summer camp, which starts today at Truist Park (nee Sun Trust Park). Among that group is Braden Shewmake, Atlanta’s No. 7 prospect and the M-Braves’ shortstop at the end of last season. Shortstop at the TeePee is practically a portal to the big leagues. From Luis Hernandez, the M-Braves’ opening day shortstop in 2005, to Dylan Moore, who held the job most of 2017, there have been 13 M-Braves shortstops who have made it to the majors. The list includes Dansby Swanson, Ozzie Albies, Johan Camargo, Andrelton Simmons, Yunel Escobar, Brent Lillibridge and Brandon Hicks. Though he isn’t expected to make Atlanta’s active roster this season, Shewmake figures to join that group someday soon. A 2019 first-round pick out of Texas A&M, the 6-foot-4, lefty-hitting Shewmake got 14 games worth of experience with the M-Braves last summer. He didn’t hit much in his Double-A debut, but his resume suggests he’ll adapt. He hit .318 at low Class A Rome before skipping a level to join the M-Braves. In his three years at Texas A&M, in the fiercely competitive SEC, Shewmake batted .322 with 22 homers and 39 doubles in 187 games. He was the SEC’s freshman of the year in 2017 after batting .328 with 11 homers for a College World Series club. Shewmake was an athlete for all seasons in high school in Wylie, Texas, competing in football, soccer, basketball and track when not on the diamond. Apparently, his best sport was never in doubt. “I always loved baseball, and every kid’s dream is to be a professional baseball player,” he told milb.com last summer. Presuming there is a 2021 season in Pearl, we might be fortunate enough to see Shewmake out there again at shortstop before he follows the well-worn path to The Show.
Ran across an interesting old scoresheet while missing baseball and rummaging through some folders of baseball stuff. It’s from April 30, 2009, a game at Trustmark Park between the Mississippi Braves and the Montgomery Biscuits. It’s memorable not for any particular milestone but because it turned into a sort of showcase for Mississippi junior college baseball. The Biscuits, a Tampa Bay affiliate, won the game 9-2, fueled by the offensive exploits of state juco products Desmond Jennings, Rhyne Hughes and J.T. Hall. They combined to reach base 11 times, score five runs and drive in five runs. Collectively, they hit for the cycle. Leadoff batter Jennings, drafted by the Rays out of Itawamba Community College in 2006, went 2-for-3 with a walk and a double. He was on his way to Southern League MVP honors and a seven-year major league career with the Rays. No. 3 hitter Hughes, a 2004 Rays draftee out of Pearl River CC, went 3-for-5 with a homer off M-Braves starter Ryne Reynoso. Hughes made The Show in 2010, playing 14 games for Baltimore. Hall, drafted by Tampa Bay in 2004 (41st round) out of Southwest Mississippi CC, was the 6-hole hitter that day and went 3-for-3 with two walks, a triple, a homer (off Reynoso), a stolen base and three RBIs. The 2009 season was the last in affiliated ball for the 6-foot-3, 210-pound outfielder, who batted .253 with 43 homers in six minor league seasons. April 30, 2009, might’ve been Hall’s best day in pro ball. Bottom line: You never know what treasure you’ll find in an old scoresheet.
Today marks the 10th anniversary of what some might consider a lost classic among the bundle of college games played at Pearl’s Trustmark Park over the years. At least it was classic from Jackson State’s perspective. Playing a rare home game at the TeePee, JSU beat Mississippi State 3-1, ending a 23-game losing streak in their series. The pitcher the Tigers beat that night was a true freshman who is now a major league veteran, Kendall Graveman. While SWAC schools rarely beat SEC schools, this one might not have been an upset. JSU was 28-14 going in and on its way to a 36-win season and a league championship. The Bulldogs were 20-23 at the time, en route to a 23-33 finish under second-year coach John Cohen. On this particular night, JSU’s pitching was impressive: Cortney Nelson and Quintavious Drains combined to hold the Bulldogs to three hits. Connor Powers’ sixth-inning home run accounted for State’s scoring. The Tigers, who had scratched out a run in the third inning on Chad Hall’s infield hit, reclaimed the lead in the bottom of the sixth on a squeeze bunt by Braneric Holmes and a Graveman wild pitch that plated Cortez Cole. Drains allowed just one hit over the final three frames to save it for Nelson. JSU hasn’t beaten State since that night and trails in the series 52-8. But on May 4, 2010, the Tigers roared.
On what would have been Opening Day in the major leagues, here’s a few themed trivia questions to jog the memories of Jackson-area pro baseball fans. (Answers below.)
1. When the Jackson Mets played their first game 45 years ago at Smith-Wills Stadium, who was their starting pitcher?
2. What future big leaguer threw a one-hitter for the JaxMets in their 1982 home opener?
3. How many future major league players were in the lineup for the JaxMets in their 1984 home opener?
4. What future major league catcher hit a walk-off home run for the Jackson Mets in their 1985 home opener?
5. What former Ole Miss star hit a walk-off home run in the Jackson Generals’ home opener in 1995?
6. What former Tupelo High standout knocked in the winning run for the Jackson DiamondKats in their home opener in 2000?
7. What former Purvis High star was the winning pitcher in the Jackson Senators’ home opener in 2003?
8. Who hit the first home run in Mississippi Braves history in their season opener in 2005?
9. When the M-Braves played their inaugural home game at Trustmark Park, who scored their first run?
10. What three players hit home runs for the Atlanta Braves when they played a season-opening exhibition game in 2013 at the TeePee?
1. Greg Pavlick, who would go on to be a longtime major league pitching coach, beat Arkansas 6-4 with relief help from Joe Klenda, who threw four perfect innings. A crowd of 2,862 turned out on a drizzly Saturday afternoon.
2. Jeff Bittiger beat Arkansas 2-0; the Travelers’ lone hit was an infield single by Jose Gonzalez with two outs in the eighth inning. Bittiger went 12-5 that season and led the Texas League in strikeouts.
3. Eight: Lenny Dykstra, Mark Carreon, Billy Beane, Dave Cochrane, Randy Milligan, Al Pedrique, Greg Olson and Jay Tibbs. The OJMs, who would win the Texas League pennant in 1984, beat Tulsa 6-0; Dykstra was on base five times, scored twice, drove in a run, stole a base and threw a runner out at third base.
4. Barry Lyons, the ex-Delta State standout from Biloxi, went yard on the first pitch in the bottom of the ninth to beat Shreveport 3-2. Led by Lyons’ 108 RBIs, the ’85 OJMs won their second straight Texas League crown.
5. Kary Bridges, the Oak Grove product now the coach at St. Martin High in Ocean Springs, belted a three-run bomb in the ninth to beat Arkansas 7-6. Bridges batted .301 that season but hit just two more homers.
6. Willie Gardner’s eighth-inning single scored Perry Miley with the go-ahead run in a 5-4 defeat of Alexandria, one of the rare highlights of the independent D-Kats’ lone season at Smith-Wills.
7. Kenny Rayborn cruised through five innings to beat Springfield/Ozarks in a 10-3 game. Rayborn, in the seventh of his 13 minor league seasons, went 10-2 for the Sens, who won the Central League title that year.
8. Jeff Francoeur went deep – very deep — at Montgomery’s Riverwalk Stadium in a 9-8 defeat on April 7. Francoeur hit 12 more homers for the M-Braves before his July promotion to Atlanta, where he famously homered in his first game.
9. Jonathan Schuerholz, son of the former Atlanta GM, scored on an infield hit by Scott Thorman in the first inning of an 11-6 loss to Montgomery. The younger Schuerholz is now Atlanta’s assistant director of pro scouting.
10. Dan Uggla, Chris Johnson and Evan Gattis, a former M-Braves catcher whose three-run bomb in the seventh inning landed somewhere in the parking lot beyond left field. Gattis hit 21 homers for Atlanta that season, his rookie year.
Things to look for this weekend when – weather permitting! — the NCAA Division I schools launch their season: At Mississippi State, ranked in the top 10 in just about every preseason poll, J.T. Ginn is the acknowledged ace, coming off a season that saw the right-hander claim national freshman of the year honors. But almost every other significant contributor from the 2019 College World Series pitching staff is gone. It’ll be interesting to see how roles start to shake out in the opening series against Wright State at Dudy Noble Field. … At Ole Miss, there is a lot of buzz about top-ranked Louisville coming to Oxford for the opening series, but there might be just as much about Rebels freshmen Jerrion Ealy and John Rhys Plumlee. What will the roles be for the football players doing double duty this spring and how much impact will they have on the diamond? Both were highly touted baseball prospects in high school – some considered Ealy the best prep player in the state – and both play center field. … At Southern Miss, the playing surface at Taylor Park is now artificial (Field Turf), which will play a little differently than grass and dirt. The Golden Eagles will break in the new field against Murray State in a three-game set. Minus Matt Wallner and a couple of other mashers from last year’s C-USA Tournament champs, the lineup will also have a new look. “We’re probably going to be a little bit different team in the fact that we’re going to have to manufacture some runs. On-base percentage is going to be very crucial for us,” coach Scott Berry said at media day last month. P.S. In the SWAC, Jackson State is at home against Southern Illinois, Alcorn State opens with Prairie View in New Orleans in the Andre Dawson Tournament (formerly the Urban Invitational) and Mississippi Valley State travels to McNeese State. … Alcorn’s second game in New Orleans, against Southern University on Saturday, will be televised by MLB Network at 1 p.m. … On the Trustmark Park College Series docket: USM and State play in Pearl on March 4, USM and Ole Miss meet there on March 31 and the Ole Miss-State Governor’s Cup clash is set for April 21. … Mississippi State will play Texas Tech in a two-game series at MGM Park in Biloxi on March 10-11. The matchup features teams that have gone to the College World Series in each of the last two seasons. … The C-USA Tournament is slated for Biloxi’s MGM Park May 20-24 of this year, its fourth year at the Double-A Shuckers’ home. A scheduling glitch was resolved when Overtime Sports, which is currently managing the C-USA tourney, reportedly agreed to pay the Shuckers to move a Southern League game from May 20 to another date (May 17) as part of a doubleheader. There is some question as to whether the C-USA event will continue in Biloxi beyond 2020.
Way back in 2014, he was a full-blown star at Columbia High and then a second-round draft pick by the Texas Rangers. On Tuesday, Ti’Quan Forbes was back on a ballfield in Mississippi, playing third base and banging out a couple of hits for the Double-A Birmingham Barons against the M-Braves at Trustmark Park in Pearl. He’s come a long way – but still has a ways to go on the big league highway. Forbes was the state’s Mr. Baseball as a rangy — and toolsy — shortstop at Columbia. He has filled out to 6 feet 3, 220 pounds and moved to third base but has yet to develop the power expected at that position. Batting .245 this year, his first in Double-A, Forbes has three home runs and a .332 slugging percentage in 103 games. He has a .251 career average and just 24 homers over six seasons, 11 of those bombs coming in A-ball in 2017. That was the year he was traded, in August, from Texas to the Chicago White Sox. His defense has been solid – 15 errors in 94 games at third this year – but the bat needs to perk up. Even though he is only 22 – he turns 23 on Aug. 26 – time may not be on his side much longer.
In a span of six days starting July 31, the Mississippi Braves’ prospect-packed roster was gouged. Pitcher Joey Wentz, Atlanta’s No. 9 prospect (MLB Pipeline), was traded on deadline day. On Aug. 4, No. 7 Kyle Muller, also a pitcher, went on the injured list. On Aug. 5 — the final day of the last homestand — No. 1 Cristian Pache, No. 2 Drew Waters, No. 3 Ian Anderson and No. 13 Tucker Davidson (two outfielders and two more starting pitchers) were promoted to Triple-A Gwinnett. Boom. As the M-Braves begin a 10-game homestand tonight, you might be wondering, what’s left? Well, Atlanta does have one of the strongest farm systems, and there are several intriguing top 20 prospects on the current club. Start with Trey Harris, a former SEC (Missouri) outfielder promoted from A-ball last month. The No. 18 prospect, he is batting .310 in 20 games after blowing through low-A Rome (.366, eight homers) and high-A Florida (.303, four homers). William Contreras, No. 8, the younger brother of big leaguer Willson, is regarded as a strong defensive catcher and is batting .237 in 44 Double-A games. No. 11 Greyson Jenista is a 6-foot-4, 210-pound outfielder out of Wichita State who has four homers and 20 RBIs in 55 games. Another potential power bat belongs to C.J. Alexander, No. 19, a 6-5, 215 third baseman who has two homers in 20 games as he comes back from an injury earlier in the year. And Jassell De La Cruz, No. 14, is a hard-throwing right-hander with a 3-7, 4.41 ledger over 13 games. Bradley Roney isn’t on the top prospect charts, but the former Southern Miss star has been pitching like one: one earned run allowed in his last nine appearances, 3.26 ERA in 15 games all told. The team is in a period of adjustment – they went 1-4 on their recent road trip – but has enough pieces to put together a nice run over the next 10 days at Trustmark Park.
P.S. Biloxi High’s Colten Keith was invited to the USA Baseball 18-and-Under National Team Trials and Training starting today in California. The final 20-man 18U National Team will be named on Saturday and will compete in the World Baseball Softball Confederation U-18 Baseball World Cup in Gijang City, South Korea, from Aug. 30-Sept. 8. Keith hit .527 with eight homers for Biloxi as a junior in 2019 after transferring from Arizona; he was Mississippi’s Gatorade Player of the Year. … Oxford’s Tyrus Williams competed in the 15U National Team Trials held in July at the National Training Complex in Cary, N.C. Two Mississippians took part in this summer’s 14U National Team Development Program in Cary: Keondre Fields of Nesbit and Keilon Parnell of Pascagoula.
Once upon a time, there was a Double-A team at Smith-Wills Stadium in Jackson. Twenty years ago, the Jackson Generals, a Houston Astros affiliate in the Texas League, played their ninth and final season before bolting for Round Rock, Texas. Twenty years is a long time. No former Generals are still playing in the big leagues. There isn’t – or wasn’t — much left to remember them by here in central Mississippi. Until now. The Mississippi Braves will rekindle good memories for some old Smith-Wills fans on Friday night when they don throwback apparel and give away Generals replica jerseys at Trustmark Park in Pearl. Former Generals have been invited to attend. Con Maloney, former owner of the Texas League franchise, will throw out the first pitch. (Yes, the M-Braves are playing a team called the Jackson Generals, a Southern League club from Tennessee. Don’t let that confuse you.) The Mississippi-based Generals, who followed the Mets at Smith-Wills in 1991, won two league titles during their time at the ballpark on Lakeland Drive. Future big league stars such as Bobby Abreu, Lance Berkman, Billy Wagner, Freddy Garcia and Richard Hidalgo played there. (There’s a long list.) Former big leaguers Rick Sweet, Gary Allenson and Sal Butera managed there. Hall of Famer Jeff Bagwell rehabbed there for the Astros. If all goes well, maybe a Jackson Mets throwback game will be next — though the idea of putting Braves prospects in Mets unies seems a little weird.