Jul 13, 2014; Minneapolis, MN, USA; World infielder Jose Peraza (4) beats the throw to USA first baseman D.J. Peterson (left) in the first inning during the All Star Futures Game at Target Field. Mandatory Credit: Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

The Hottest Team in All of American Baseball

No, it’s not the Atlanta Braves (clearly)… though they could certainly take a lesson or two about what a “playoff push” looks like from the AA Mississippi Braves.

The M-Braves have now won eight games in a row and 13 of their last 16 to put themselves into first place in the South division of the Southern League with just five games to play.  They are the hottest team in all of professional baseball… unless you wish to count an Orioles club of teenagers playing in the Dominican Summer League that has rolled up 9 straight.

Mississippi needs to be hot right now:  the second place Jacksonville Suns (Miami affiliate) have won 5 in a row and sit just a single game behind.  Third place Mobile (ARIZ) are 3 behind and have won four in a row – almost every game played since Mississippi left town.  So Aaron Holbert‘s club is doing what they have to do – and at the right time.

 

How Have They Done It?

A lot of offense on some nights and a lot of pitching on virtually every night.  Over this stretch of success since August 10th, they are 4-1 in 1-run games, just once yielding more than 4 runs in any game (and they won that game 6-5).

The last three nights have been dominate:  7-1, 8-3, and 6-1 over the Birmingham Barons, a team that themselves has been fighting for a playoff spot in the other division, but now are lumped in a 3-way tie for last place after limping out of Pearl, MS.

Strangely enough, the M-Braves have been doing a lot of this without top prospect Jose Peraza, as he’s been on the shelf with a groin injury since August 12th.  How significant is that?  If Peraza qualified for the batting title, he’d be ahead by 23 points (.341 vs. .318 for Jake Lamb of Mobile).  [Note - Tommy La Stella hit .343 last year for this club... just sayin' ]

No matter.  Replacement Gustavo Nunez (normally at SS) is hitting .304 and filling in nicely.  Elmer Reyes and Daniel Castro have been playing SS and are hitting .303 and .277 respectively.  Kyle Kubitza has been hitting over .300 since April (officially 12th in the league at .293) and has a .404 OBP (1st in the league) and 75 walks (also 1st, plus 5th in OPS).  Even Kyle Wren, who had been slumping a lot after his first month at AA, has suddenly rebounded and is back up to .262 now.  LF Cedric Hunter has had a great year (.295 with 13 HR, .874 OPS, 51BB/52K).

This is also the fastest team in the Braves’ system, with seven players into double-digit stolen bases.  Peraza is the leader on the team with 25… and he’s only been at AA for 42 of the games – not quite 1/3rd of the schedule.

 

When I gave my minor league preview of this team back in April, I expressed my concerns that this team might have trouble with offense.  That was true… until the end of April.  The M-Braves stumbled to a 6-12 start, but then a couple of things happened:
  • CF Mycal Jones got healthy and was transferred from Gwinnett to AA.
  • Kyle Kubitza hit 2 home runs in one game.  That seemed to ignite him, and he’s been hitting .300 ever since.
  • Robby Hefflinger, who was expected to provide power but never got on track, was lost for the year due to injury (while hitting .119)

May then completely reversed a bad April with a 21-8 record… 23-8 going back to April 29th.

In June, there were some significant additions as promotions occurred:  Peraza, Wren, and Castro on the offensive side, Greg Ross for more pitching… which helped balance a significant loss as the Atlanta Braves stole closer Chasen Shreve.

Currently, Mississippi is 17-6 during this torrid August.

 

Oh, and the Pitching

Feb 24, 2014; Jason Hursh. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

It’s official:  Jason Hursh is back – and working hard.  He’s 8th in the league in innings pitched (145), and throwing to a 3.23 ERA, which is 6th in the league… to teammate Williams Perez, who is first with a 2.91 ERA (133 innings).

Perez also has the 3rd best WHIP with Hursh 10th.  So yes:  you may wish to start thinking about the 23-year-old Perez as an Atlanta candidate.  His last outing?  8 innings, 1 earned run, 4 hits, no walks, 6 strikeouts.  That’ll work.

The aforementioned Greg Ross hasn’t been around long enough to make those ‘league-leader’ charts, but his 2.28 ERA over 11 starts (71 innings) cannot be ignored.  His WHIP is 1.11 – best on the team among the current starters.  He actually got better after his promotion from Lynchburg.

The bullpen support has been in flux all year due to personnel moves, but Ryne Harper and John Cornely have been consistently solid at the back end – and clearly, the Braves have been winning even those close games lately.  J.R. Graham has been used out of the pen lately as well, and there’s a few signs that he might be coming around with 2 scoreless outings this past week… though he’s clearly had a rough year.

 

Wrapping this Season

The Southern League has a 1st half/2nd half playoff breakdown.  In short, Mobile won that division for the first half, so the Braves need to win out from here to secure a playoff spot.  They still have that in front of them with five games left, playing Huntsville (MILW) starting Thursday evening while Jacksonville and Mobile bash each other.  Huntsville has lost 4 straight, but could ultimately face Mississippi again in another 2 weeks:  the Stars won the North Division’s first half and will be in the playoffs that start next week.

So if everything goes according to plan, it will be the M-Braves vs. Mobile (just like last year) in the first round next week, with the winners going on to face the North Division champs thereafter.

Hopefully, they can have Jose Peraza back for that.  But the way this club has been playing… it might not matter.

 

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Tags: Atlanta Braves Minor Leagues Mississippi Braves

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