Brian Snitker, a 67-year-old grandfather who managed the 2005 Mississippi Braves, has the Atlanta Braves in first place by nine games. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

As this is written, the Atlanta Braves, who have several Mississippi markings, have the best record in baseball. The Braves are insanely hot at present, having won 23 of their last 26 games to improve their record to 56-27.

How hot are they? The Braves just completed a three-game sweep of the second place Miami Marlins. And check this out: The Braves are 9-1 against the Marlins, who are a remarkable 47-28 against every other team they have played.

Rick Cleveland

How hot are the Braves? Eight Braves will play for the National League All-Stars, including the entire infield. You could have made a good case for other Braves, as well.

How hot are they? In Saturday’s game at Atlanta, Marlins starter Eury Perez entered as baseball’s best pitcher having not given up more than five hits in any of his previous nine starts and having given up only one run in his last 33 innings. You read right: one run in 33 innings. Perez had not given up more than four runs in any appearance.

So former Mississippi Brave Ronald Acuna homered to lead off the bottom of the first inning, and then former Mississippi Brave Ozzie Albies homered behind him. Eury had allowed one run in 33 innings. He gave up two in two batters. Before the first inning carnage was complete, the Braves would score six runs. Against a pitcher who had not allowed more than five hits in any game, the first six Braves hit safely. Against a pitcher who had not allowed more than four runs in any game, the Braves scored six before Eury could record his second out. In fact, he never did get that second out.

And, dear reader, the Braves are doing this game after game after game. Now this is baseball, and the Braves will undoubtedly cool down. And some other team will get hot — watch out for the Phillies — and perhaps make a race of it in September. We will see.

But the Braves are playing the best baseball these eyes have seen in a long, long while. The scary part is they have achieved most of this with two of their best starters — left-handed ace Max Fried and right-hander Kyle Wright (21-5 last season) — sidelined with injuries. They will be back. Fried and Wright are former Mississippi Braves, too. And so is Michael Soroka, a Major League All-Star in 2019, who finally appears to be returning to that form after career-threatening injuries. Soroka, you may recall, won 11 games for the 2017 M-Braves with a 2.75 earned run average.

Now seems a good time to look at all the former M-Braves who are producing, big-time, in Atlanta. Acuna, the best player in baseball not named Shohei Ohtani, leads the list and is surely the mid-season leader for National League MVP honors. Acuna hit .327 with nine home runs and 19 stolen bases in 56 games for the 2017 Mississippi Braves. 

Albies, the second baseman, hit .321 with four home runs, seven triples, and 22 doubles for the 2016 M-Braves. Southaven native Austin Riley, the former DeSoto Central wunderkind, hit .333 with an eye-popping slugging percentage of .677 in just 27 games for the 2018 M-Braves.

As has been written in this space before, the last piece of Atlanta’s everyday lineup puzzle is none other than 22-year-old Michael Harris II, who was playing for the M-Braves just last spring when he hit .305 with five home runs, 16 doubles, two triples and 11 stolen bases during the first 43 games of the Southern League season. He skipped Class AAA altogether and was called up to Atlanta on May 28. Since then, Harris has hit .286 with 26 home runs and 30 stolen bases and has turned untold doubles, triples and home runs into outs as one of the best centerfielders in the sport.

READ MORE: Atlanta Braves’ No. 1 prospect Michael Harris is a chip off the old Alcorn State block

Another measure of just how good these Atlanta Braves are: Harris bats ninth in the order. He would bat first, second or third for most Major League teams.

And then there’s Spencer Strider, the fire-balling 24-year-old with a 10-2 record and 155 strikeouts in just 98 innings. Hard to believe Strider was 3-7 with a 4.71 ERA, pitching for the M-Braves in Pearl just two years ago. It is true.

We would be remiss not to mention perhaps the most important of all the former Mississippi Braves contributors to the current Atlanta Braves success. He would be skipper Brian Snitker, a Braves lifer who managed the 2005 Mississippi Braves. “Snit,” as his players and friends call him, is the glue that holds it all together.

Watch Snitker, a 67-year-old grandfather, and you cannot tell whether the Braves are down 12-0 or up 5-4. He never changes expression whether the Braves are two games behind in the standings or nine games ahead, as they currently are. Snit is a throwback to Hall of Famer Bobby Cox, whom Snitker constantly praised back in 2005 when he spent the season in Pearl.

Said Mississippi Sports Hall of Famer Jay Powell, who did a rehab stint under Snit back in the summer of 2005: “There are certain managers or coaches you just want to do the best you can for them. There’s a respect there, a trust. I was fortunate to play for some Hall of Fame managers including Bobby Cox and Jim Leyland, and I put Snit right in there with them. He just gets it. He gets baseball.”

To which Snitker would probably tell you: “It’s pretty easy to manage with guys like Acuna, Albies, Riley, Harris, Strider and all the rest.” 

There’s some truth to that, too. But it is an amazing blend of talent, management (in the front office and on the field, and esprit de corps the Braves display night after night. And we watched a lot of it in Mississippi before it became, at least for now, the best in baseball.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.