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     Sussex County Miners fans had to cringe Tuesday night when they saw Jorge Taverez take the mound for the Jackals in the one-game wild card playoff game at Skylands Stadium.

     It was almost exactly a year ago that Tavarez had stood on that same mound and tossed a nine-inning no hitter to knock the Miners out of playoff contention in the last weekend of the regular season. And, even more vivid in their memories, it was just a month ago that the Dominican righthander pitched a beauty of a one-hitter to beat Sussex, 1-0.

     Tuesday night, he did it again.

     Tavarez was at his best, striking out the first six batters he faced, on his way to throwing a complete-game 5-0 shutout with 10 strikeouts and one walk, completely dominating the Miners in the Frontier League’s East Division wild card playoff game. The victory sent the Miners home for the winter and lifted the Jackals into the best-of-three East Division pennant series that begins Thursday night with New Jersey hosting the defending champion Quebec Capitales at Skylands.

     Friday will be a travel day, then Game 2 will be played Saturday night in Quebec, with Game 3, if necessary, in Quebec on Sunday at 5:05 p.m. The East Division winner will then face the West Division winner in a best-of-five series for the ultimate league championship beginning with West at East on Tuesday, Sept. 12.

     The Jackals-Capitales series will pit two teams that finished in a dead tie in the final East Division standings – tied with records of 60-35, a .632 winning percentage that was better than the .615 winning percentage posted by the West Division’s first-place Gateway Grizzlies. Because the Jackals and Capitales finished even, head-to-head results during the regular season added up in the Capitales’ tie-breaking favor because Quebec won six of the nine games between the two teams.

     Tuesday night at Sussex County, Tavarez stole the show. Again. The 5-foot-10, 150-pound righthander was in control as soon as the national anthem was over, facing just 30 batters and scattering three meaningless singles in a fast-motion event that was all over in two hours and 11 minutes. And, really, it was all over way before that, with New Jersey’s 28-year-old hurler seeming to toy with one batter after another.

     That 1-0 victory over Sussex in the first game of an Aug. 1 doubleheader was the only time the Miners saw Tavarez this year as he was inactive for the first 10 weeks of the season due to a visa issue back home in the Dominican Republic.

     When he finally returned to the field, he picked up right where he left off last year, when he led the league in strikeouts. In his first outing of 2023 on July 19, he gave up one run in six innings to beat the Florence Y’Alls, striking out seven with no walks. Six days later, he went nine innings to shut out the Washington Wild Things, yielding just three singles, striking out eight with no walks, facing 29 batters with a mere 88 pitches in a fast-motion two hours and four minutes.

     Johnny Hipsman led off the third inning with the Miners’ first base hit, but a 5-4-3 double play doused any hopes of denting Tavarez. Trailing, 3-0, in the fourth, Willie Escala came up with a one-out hit and then stole second base. But, again, Tavarez buckled down and got a strikeout and a ground out. Gavin Stupienski led off the fifth inning with a hit, but a fly out, a fielder’s choice and Tavarez’s ninth K of the night wrapped up the Sussex offense.

     Tavarez would issue his only walk of the game to Stupienski with two out in the seventh, but that was it for Miners on the basepaths. The Jackals pitcher was both wily and efficient, taking care of nine innings of business with 109 pitches. After an abbreviated 6-1 season with a 2.25 ERA, Tavarez is now 1-0 in the postseason with no indication at all of slowing down. He was first signed by the Los Angeles Angels as a 19-year-old in Loma de Cabrera and spent five seasons playing in the Angels farm system, jumping to the Gateway Grizzlies of the Frontier League in 2021 and coming to the Jackals in 2022, when he was 9-4 with a 4.58 ERA and leading the league with 142 strikeouts.

     The Jackals took a 2-0 lead Tuesday night with a walk and three singles in the second inning, then made it 3-0 in the third with two singles and a double play that scored the run. With two outs in the fifth, New Jersey expanded to 5-0 with a double, a run-scoring error and a home run by Keon Barnum, who tied with teammate James Nelson for the league lead in homers.

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

photo by Phil Hoops