KEON CRUSHING THE BALL
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KEON CRUSHING THE BALL

     The Jackals are approaching the halfway point in the 2023 Frontier League schedule with a lineup of sluggers that has them in first place and riding high after sweeping their in-state rivals, the Sussex County Miners.

     Game 48 of the 96-game regular season is set for Saturday night on the road – the middle match of a three-game series against the Aigles in Trois-Rivieres, Canada – with the annual four-day all-star break taking the stage next week.

     The Jackals lead the league’s East Division in the standings and in team batting average, home runs, runs, hits, RBI, on-base percentage and slugging percentage, not to mention stolen bases. In other words, this team is just a monster on offense and is sending four position players, all batting over .300,  as starters in the All-Star game next Wednesday night at Ozinga Field, 23 miles south of Chicago and home of the Windy City ThunderBolts.

     Senior man in the Jersey contingent is 30-year-old first baseman Keon Barnum, a former first-round draft pick of the Chicago White Sox. Like his teammates, Barnum has been defying baseball logic this year by hitting for both batting average and power, currently ranked sixth in the league at .362 and fourth in the league with 15 home runs.

     But, can he – and the Jackals – keep up this kind of fantasy offense in the second half of the season?

     “I believe we can,” said the modest, soft-spoken native of Tampa, who played seven seasons with White Sox farm teams.

     “This is a very good team. This is not a team that’s going to disappear. There’s a lot of individual confidence here and there’s also an overall team confidence, we have confidence in each other that we’ll find a way to win the game, no matter what the score happens to be at that moment.”

     Barnum clearly epitomized that sentiment recently when he hit a two-out walk-off home run to win an 8-7 game last Wednesday, then did it again last Thursday, another two-out walk-off homer for a 7-6 victory.

     “That was fun,” he said, allowing himself a slight laugh as he said it.

     “There’s got to be some fun involved in playing baseball, and I give a lot of credit to our manager for recognizing that and making that a part of our game.”

     In fact, Barnum doesn’t stop there when describing the youngest manager in the league, 36-year-old PJ Phillips, in the clubhouse and the dugout.

     “He’s the best manager I ever played for, hands down,” Barnum said. “He’s just got a feel for the game and a feel for how to talk to people. It’s not about putting pressure on people, it’s about letting you be free to do what you can do.

     “He’ll laugh it off and he won’t take any credit, but he’s a big part of where we are right now.”

     Sure enough, a few weeks ago, when Phillips was asked what he was doing to produce a team that was then enjoying a 12-game winning streak, he did laugh and said, “I just write out the lineup card. It’s the players who are getting the job done.”

     As for his unreal success at the plate this year, Barnum said he’s always playing “but just a little” with his swing and he’s been keeping his hips “under control.” Otherwise, he said, he’s always “trying to figure things out,” especially when it comes to opposing pitchers.

     “I think about what pitchers are trying to do to me,” said the 6-foot-5, 225-pound lefthander. “I think about what I would try to do me if I was a pitcher.”

     So far, however, he hasn’t seen much of common strategy among enemy pitchers. Some try to work him inside, but he hits those. Others try to work him outside, but he hits those, too. Some go after him high in the strike zone, some go at him low, but he just hits them all. So, what’s a pitcher to do?

     “I don’t know, really, Barnum said. “The way I’m hitting right now, I’ve just got a lot of confidence at the plate no matter what they throw me.”

     ALL-STAR JOURNEY: In addition to Barnum, the Jackals are sending three other players to start the All-Star game: third baseman James Nelson (.390 with 13 home runs), outfielder Josh Rehwaldt (.356 with a league-leading 19 home runs and the only player to start every game this year) and catcher Rusber Estrada (.319 and currently on a six-game hitting streak).

     A fifth Jackal was chosen as an All-Star reserve, but he won’t be there. Instead, shortstop Ti’Quan Forbes had his contract purchased on July 5 by the Leones de Yucatan of the Mexican League. With New Jersey this year, the 26-year-old was batting .301 with 10 home runs and 14 stolen bases in 40 games. A second-round draft pick of the Texas Rangers, Forbes spent eight seasons in the minors, playing for the Rangers, the White Sox and, last year, the Arizona Diamondbacks.

     ON DECK: The Jackals open a three-game series in Trois-Rivieres on the banks of the St. Lawrence River tomorrow night, the last series before the All-Star break. The Aigles visited Paterson in June and were swept by the Jackals, 16-1, 8-6 and 16-6. New Jersey will make another trip north for a third three-game series Aug. 25-27.

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

Photo by: Phil Hoops