FIRST WEEKEND IMPRESSIONS
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FIRST WEEKEND IMPRESSIONS

If this first Frontier League weekend was any indication of what lies ahead for the New Jersey Jackals this season, then a sentence delivered by Hollywood legend Bette Davis in 1950 just might sum things up: “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.”

     Often misquoted as “a bumpy ride,” the line is from the Best Picture Academy Award-winning movie “All About Eve,” which still rates a 99% grade on the Rotten Tomatoes website. It’s very likely that none of the Jackals players have ever heard of it, but it might be a good choice to watch on their next long bus trip. “Bumpy night” or “bumpy ride,” an exciting and unpredictable summer could be straight ahead, maybe with a postseason playoff spot in the final scenes.

     The team emerged from the season-opening three-game series against the New York Boulders with a record of 1-2 and very little went smoothly, not even the one victory, when a 7-0 lead turned into high drama that ultimately required a ninth-inning pinch hit by Alfredo Marte to give New Jersey the 10-9 decision. 

     Another dramatic twist? Righty reliever Lance Lusk came in to pitch the last two innings to earn the win, yielding no runs on no hits after signing a contract last Wednesday, the final day of preseason training camp. He came north after playing for the new Jackals manager, PJ Phillips, last year with the Lexington Legends, of the independent Atlantic League, where he joined that team late in the season and posted a 1.80 ERA with 24 strikeouts and just four walks in 15 innings of work.

     Other positives from the opening weekend included center fielder and leadoff man Phillip Ervin, who played four big-league seasons with the Reds and Mariners. The former first-round Cincinnati draft choice went 3-for-5 in the Jackals opener, then had a hit and a stolen base in each of the next two games.  Familiar fan favorite Josh Rehwaldt had three hits, including his first home run of the year; same thing for new second baseman Ti’Quan Forbes. Lefty first baseman/DH Keon Barnum, who was signed on May 2, looks menacing just standing in the on-deck circle, and the 6-foot-5, 225-pound former first-round pick of the Chicago White Sox opened the year with two home runs on opening night, adding hits and two walks the next two nights.

     Alex Toral, recently acquired from the Sussex County Miners, shares the 1B/DH roles with Barnum, and he had five hits and two home runs in the first weekend. And then there’s 25-year-old third baseman James Nelson, another player who worked for Phillips in Lexington late last season, batting an even .400 in 17 games after he was released by the New York Yankees organization. In his first weekend with New Jersey, Nelson had a team-leading seven hits with two home runs and four RBI. Not bad for a first impression.

     The biggest early negative, of course, was the opening-weekend pitching, yielding 31 runs in three games.

     FAMILIAR NAMES: Santiago Chirino spent some good years playing shortstop for the Jackals. Now the 31-year-old is off to a quick start with the Lake Erie Crushers. Batting second in the order, he had a home run, a double and three RBI in a season-opening 10-6 victory over the Quebec Capitales, following up in Game 2 with two more hits, two walks and another RBI, then adding two more hits in Game 3 on Sunday. The always-popular Venezuelan batted an even .300 in 72 games with New Jersey last year; in 2021, he hit .306 in 72 games.

     Todd Isaacs is another NJ alumnus now playing for Lake Erie, and the 26-year-old outfielder went 2-for-4 on opening night, 3-for-5 in Game 2 and 1-for-4 in Game 3. The Bahamas native played four minor-league seasons with the Cleveland Indians and another with the Colorado Rockies before joining the Jackals and batting .304 in 2021 and .327 in 2022.

     CLOCK IS TICKING: It’s proven true in the first month of big-league play and it proved to be true in the first Frontier League weekend of 2023: The new pitch clocks have definitely made a difference in speeding up the pace of play.

     The fastest game of all occurred on Saturday night in Crestwood, Ill., where the homestanding Windy City ThunderBolts lost a 5-1 decision to the Schaumburg Boomers in a time of 2:18. In other quickies, Lake Erie topped the Quebec Capitales, 4-0, in 2:24 and the Joliet Slammers beat the Miners, 2-1, clocking in at 2:26. In 24 league games over the weekend, only four went over the three-hour mark, including the longest of all – the Jackals’ Saturday night 10-9 win over the New York Boulders that lasted 3:19.

     GO GREYS: The homeless traveling team known as the Empire State Greys beat the Ottawa Titans, 7-1, in Game 2 of the East Division schedule on Saturday night. Last year, the Greys started the season by losing 34 straight games before notching their first victory last June 25 over the Tri-City ValleyCats. The Greys finished last year at 6-90, their final win coming against the Jackals last Aug. 20.

     ON DECK: The Jackals make the 549-mile trip to Quebec City to start a three-game series Tuesday night with the Capitales, the league’s reigning champs. The Caps opened the season on the road in Avon, Ohio, going 1-2 against Lake Erie. In the season opener, they had a 6-2 lead, but lost, 10-6. In the series finale, they lost, 4-0, against former Jackals pitcher Angelo Baez, who started and worked five innings for the Crushers. This will be the first of two Quebec visits for New Jersey this year. The other will be a weekend series July 21-23. The Capitales will make one trip to Paterson, a midweek series Aug. 8-10.

     After these three games at circa-1939 Stade Canac this week, the Jackals return to the Garden State to face the Miners up in Sussex County on Friday night, then host those same Miners in New Jersey’s home opener at Hinchliffe Stadium at 6:05 on Saturday night, with fireworks following the game. The two teams conclude their first series of the year in a 4:35 p.m. game at Hinchliffe on Sunday.

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

photo by Phil Hops