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This is it. This is the stretch run. The Frontier League’s East Division pennant is on the line, and the six-game road trip that begins tomorrow night automatically becomes the Jackals’ biggest road trip of the year. 

     The old traditional thinking says that the long baseball season is a marathon, not a sprint. But this 2023 marathon is almost over. Now it’s a sprint to the finish line, and it’s a crowded group that’s racing for a spot in the postseason playoffs.

     New Jersey has 12 games remaining on the schedule and there are still five teams jockeying for position in these final days. That’s crowded. That’s a rare type of pennant race that could go a dozen different ways, maybe even all the way down to the league’s final games on Sunday, Sept. 3. The top three teams go on to the postseason, but everybody wants to finish No. 1 and avoid the one-game playoff between No. 2 and No. 3 for the right to take on No. 1 for the East pennant.

     This road trip is huge for the Jackals. Forget for a minute that it comes against two of the bottom teams in the division, the sixth-place Ottawa Titans and the seventh-place Trois-Rivieres Aigles. And forget that the Jackals are 5-1 against the Titans and 5-1 against the Aigles, dominating them so far this year by a combined score of 119-54. So, why is this the trip of the year? Because it’s the trip that’s here – right here, right now, right in front of a New Jersey team with big aspirations. 

     No opponent can be taken lightly at this point in the year. A slip-up is not allowed. Winning is the only thing right now. And the Jackals begin the week holding onto first place in the standings, but only by the slightest of margins – a half-game lead ahead of the Quebec Capitales.

     With a winning percentage of .639, New Jersey’s 53-30 record is the best in the entire league, and the team’s dynamite offense leads both divisions in batting average, runs, hits, home runs, RBI, walks, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage. But none of that matters if the locals stumble on this six-game road trip to Ottawa and Trois-Rivieres.

     This past weekend, the Jackals scored 27 runs to sweep a three-game series with the Empire State Greys. That came right after they scored 43 runs to sweep three with Ottawa at Hinchliffe Stadium. Third baseman James Nelson continues his astounding season, currently ranking No. 2 in the league with a hard-to-believe .397 batting average in 79 games. (Gateway’s Gabe Holt is No. 1 at .435, but that’s in just 48 games and with just 191 at-bats compared to Nelson’s 312.)

     On Saturday, Nelson became the first player in league history to score 100 runs in a single season, leading the league in that category and in both hits and total bases. He’s also No. 2 in the league in home runs, No. 3 in RBI, and No. 6 in stolen bases.

     The Jackals’ Keon Barnum, Nelson, and Josh Rehwaldt own the league’s top three spots in home runs, with Alex Toral and Rusber Estrada also ranking in the top 10. Estrada, the team’s starting catcher since opening day, has had an incredible month of August, raising his batting average to .317 while belting 12 home runs, including four two-homer games.

     Meanwhile, New Jersey’s pitching has improved dramatically since the early months of the season, when the staff had been ranked among the lowest in the league. Starters Vin Mazzaro (4-1, 3.27 ERA) and Dylan Castaneda (6-4, 5.32) have held down the fort and the recent additions of Jorge Tavarez and David Lebron and the recent reversal of fortune for John Baker have made this pennant drive into a more balanced attack.

     Tavarez, who’d been inactive until July 19, is now 5-1 with a 2.36 ERA in six starts, including two nine-inning shutouts and a seven-inning one-hit shutout, firing 47 strikeouts and yielding just five walks along the way. Lebron, signed as a free agent July 17, is 3-0 in five starts with a 2.53 ERA and 29 Ks vs. eight walks. 

     Baker, who went 12-2 with a 2.67 ERA for the Sussex County Miners last year, was New Jersey’s opening-day pitcher but struggled through much of the season. Recently though, he’s bounced back and his last three starts have been outstanding, yielding one run in seven innings, then no runs in seven innings, then no runs in six innings. He’s still just 6-6 with a 5.12 ERA in 15 starts, but he’s also No. 4 in the league with 98 strikeouts, and if he keeps doing what he’s been doing lately, the Jackals would be a very difficult team to beat in any series.

     BACK “HOME”: Following this week’s road trip, the Jackals return home to Jersey, but not to Hinchliffe. Because of a scheduling conflict in Paterson, the Jackals will play two “home” games against the Greys next Tuesday and Wednesday at Skylands Stadium, home of the Miners. (The Miners will be on the road in Troy, N.Y., against the Tri-City ValleyCats.) Including this past weekend’s sweep, the Jackals are 10-0 vs. the last-place Greys. After facing the Greys, the Jackals end the regular season with a four-game series against the Boulders on the road in Pomona, N.Y. The Jackals and Boulders are 3-3 so far this year. 

     ONCE IN A…: Next Wednesday’s game vs. the Greys will start at 5 p.m., hours before the first “blue moon” since 2021. This occurs when there are two full moons within a month, which happens every two to three years. So, technically speaking, if you do something “once in a blue moon,” you do it every two or three years. Recent blue moons have occurred Nov. 21, 2010, Aug. 20, 2013, May 21, 2016, May 18, 2019, and Aug. 22, 2021.

      ONE GAME SHORT: The Frontier League plays a 96-game regular season, but the Jackals will only play 95 games at the most. That’s because a home game vs. the Schaumburg Boomers was rained out on Sunday, July 16, which was the last time the two teams would have met this year. So, there was no “postponement” and no “makeup date,” just a flat-out “cancellation.”  

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

Photo by Phil Hoops