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     The Frontier League championship series ended over the weekend, but the New Jersey Jackals went home a long time ago. 

     It wasn’t supposed to be like that. 

     These 2023 Jackals set franchise records and league records on a daily basis. They were a force. They were a powerhouse. They bullied their way into the postseason playoffs and pulled off a miracle Hollywood ending in the first game of the East Division pennant series. Everything felt right. They’d been in first place for much of the season, leading the league in runs, hits and home runs. Even the pitching, which had been iffy in the early months, had come around. 

     This was a team that seemed destined for a championship, or, at the very least, to play for a championship. There was just one hitch. There was just one team in the league that seemed to have New Jersey’s number and that was the defending champ, the Quebec Capitales. 

     The two teams had met nine times in the regular season and Quebec had won six of the nine. So, when the two teams finished the season with identical records of 60-35, Quebec won the head-to-head tie breaker and was declared the No. 1 seed in the East playoffs, earning a first-round bye while the No. 2 Jackals had to face No. 3 Sussex County in a one-game wild card.

     The local sluggers took care of business and beat Sussex, 5-0, behind the brilliant pitching of Jorge Tavarez, who tossed a complete game with 10 strikeouts, after he finally came off the inactive list July 19 and went 6-1 with a 2.25ERA down the stretch. 

     The victory over the Miners set the stage for the Jackals to face the Capitales for the East Division pennant. After a restless 45-49 season a year earlier, this year’s Jackals were ready for prime time with a lineup of hitters who’d enjoyed fantasy-type numbers since opening day – numbers that defied baseball logic by hitting for average and hitting for power. 

     In fact, New Jersey had dominated the league stat sheets in an almost bizarre manner all summer, starting with league MVP James Nelson, the 25-year-old third baseman and former Miami Marline draft pick, who led the league with a .388 batting average, tied for the league lead with 30 home runs and ranked in the top 10 with 82 RBI, not to mention 34 stolen bases.

     Nelson’s achievements were out of this world, but he was just the tip of the iceberg for this Jersey crew. This team had a murderers’ row batting order that included Keon Barnum (.316, 30HRs, 87 RBI); Josh Rehwaldt (.315, 29 HRs, 90 RBI); Alfredo Marte (.311, 21 HRs, 90 RBI); Rusber Estrada (.308, 22 HRs, 54 RBI); and Alex Toral (.274, 24 HRs, 72 RBI). Those are some monstrous numbers. They sure sounded like championship numbers.

     But, then came Quebec, the one team in the league that had come up with one way after another to get the best of New Jersey all season long.

     Or would this East Division pennant series be a different story? It definitely looked that way in Game 1. The Thursday night game was halted by rain and when it resumed at noon on Friday, the Jackals tied the score, 2-2, in the bottom of the eighth inning. With buses waiting for the trip to Canada for Game 2, the first game went to extra innings and Quebec took a 3-2 lead in the top of the 10th.

     Same script as usual? Quebec finds another way to win? Nope, not this time. Bottom 10, Nelson whacks a solo home run to tie the score at 3-3. The next batter is Barnum. He crushes one over the right field wall. It’s gone. Way gone. “Mr. Walk-Off” had done it again. Jackals win Game 1. Forget all those Quebec victories all year. It was postseason time. It was the Jackals time to shine. Things had changed. It was in the air. The Jackals were finally going to score some revenge over Quebec and knock off the defending champs.

     At least that’s how it felt at that moment. Things changed, however, when those buses traveled north of the border. Playing in front of a big, boisterous crowd inside circa-1938 Stade Canac, Quebec roared back and won Game 2 on Saturday night, 14-2, then won the series with a 15-6 decision on Sunday. The Jackals headed home and the East champion Capitales went on to play the West champion Evansville Otters, with Quebec winning the five-game series this past Sunday on the road in Indiana.

     MORE THAN SCORES: 2023 was a year of change for the New Jersey Jackals. Really, the changes began in 2022, when, last October, Bobby Jones became the team’s top front-office executive, taking the title of vice president after serving the  past eight years as the manager of the Sussex County Miners. Before that, Bobby had been the pitching coach for the team now called the New York Boulders, after pitching six seasons in the big leagues with the Rockies, Mets, Padres and Red Sox.

     Soon after Bobby’s arrival, PJ Phillips was named as the new manager of the Jackals – at 36 the youngest manager in the Frontier League. And, of course, 2023 saw the Jackals move from their 25-year home at Yogi Berra Stadium to the newly renovated Hinchliffe Stadium, in Paterson, a national historic site due to its history hosting Negro Leagues games in the 1930s and 1940s.

     This was also the year that the Jackals and all of professional baseball adopted the use of the “pitch clock,” eliminating much of the time between pitches and resulting in quicker ballgames.

     By Carl Barbati, former sports editor of the New Jersey Herald, Daily Record and The Daily Trentonian.