By Mike Christensen
The ball rose into the night sky and landed in the glove of C.J. Alexander on Sunday. 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 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.