NELSON SLUGGING AWAY
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NELSON SLUGGING AWAY

 The New Jersey Jackals third baseman is having an outrageous season. Just outrageous.

     James Nelson has started 34 of the team’s 36 games, and he’s batting .416, second-best in the entire Frontier League.

     The 25-year-old from Georgia leads the league in on-base percentage and he’s in the league’s Top-10 in hits, home runs, RBI, doubles, total bases, and slugging percentage, not to mention stolen bases. He’s hitting for average, he’s hitting with power, he’s getting timely hits to win games, and he’s been a big part of how New Jersey has climbed into the No. 1 spot in the East Division’s standings.

     “For me, it all comes down to having the right feeling when I step into the batter’s box,” he said.

     “I think you can have a lot of information about how a guy throws or how his pitches move, maybe too much information sometimes, but, to me, none of that matters if I don’t have the right feeling when I get in there.”

     A former draft pick of the Miami Marlins, Nelson was the Minor League Player of the Year in 2017 when he hit .309 for the Class-A Greensboro Grasshoppers. He was traded to the New York Yankees for the 2021season and released last year, finishing up last summer playing 17 games for the Lexington Legends who were then managed by PJ Phillips, who moved here to manage the Jackals this year.

     In between his big year in 2017 and his Yankees release in 2022, Nelson said he’d struggled to regain that feeling in the batter’s box that had made him such a success to begin with.

     “I went through a lot of hitting coaches, a lot of different changes to my stance and a lot of information about pitchers,” he said. “I probably took in too much information about the pitcher. At one point, going up to the plate, I think I knew the dude’s mother’s name and what she cooked for breakfast.”

     But not anymore. After he was released by the Yankees, Nelson did a lot of soul-searching and worked with a coach in Florida, finding his way back to that old winning feeling in the batter’s box before joining the Legends and batting an even .400 down the stretch. That’s the feeling he has right now with the Jackals, a feeling he plans never to lose again.

     “Basically, it was getting back to my roots,” he said. “Keep things simple. See the ball, hit the ball. You have to feel like you’re going to hit the ball. If you don’t, then there’s no way you’re going to hit the ball.”

     After a rare Friday off today, the first-place Jackals (24-12) return to the Hinchliffe Stadium diamond for a Saturday night fireworks game against the third-place New York Boulders (21-15), and Nelson will show up riding a 17-game hitting streak. In fact, he had a 16-game hitting streak to open the season, so he’s hit in 33 of the 34 games he’s started (with multiple hits in 18 games), going hitless just once – a 0-for-3 night in a loss to the Florence Y’Alls June 2 in Kentucky.

     Nelson’s 10 home runs and 35 RBI have helped New Jersey lead those two categories in the league rankings. Josh Rehwaldt (.377) leads the league with 16 home runs, while Keon Barnum (.351) and Ti’Quan Forbes (.321) have 10 apiece. As a team, the Jackals have smacked 65 homers compared to 53 for No. 2 Tri-City and 40 apiece for New York, Gateway and Quebec.

     Jackals pitching has improved a bit recently, moving up from dead last to 13th in the league right now with a team ERA of 5.58. Vin Mazzaro has been the most successful starter with a 3.55 ERA in five starts, with Dylan Castaneda at No. 2 with a 5.26 ERA in six starts. Fortunately for the home team, the bullpen has been solid, led by Lance Lusk, with a 1.02 ERA in 16 relief appearances and Matt Vogel, 0.00 in12 games.

     As for Nelson, forget all the stats. Forget all the hits, forget all the runs. There’s something more important going on in his life and it’s hard not to think that he was meant to be wearing a Jackals uniform this year.

     Travel back to his days in the Miami Marlins organization in 2019, while he was playing for the Advanced Class-A Juniper Hammerheads in the Florida State League. That’s where he met a young woman named Nadia. They began dating, then became, as he now says, “inseparable.” Long story short, he recently proposed, and they’ll be getting married at the end of the year. Just one other detail: The woman he met in Florida, she’s still in Tampa at the moment, but she didn’t grow up there. She grew up in New Jersey – in Paterson, New Jersey. Her mom still lives here. So maybe it’s a little bit of home cooking that’s really responsible for that .416 batting average.

     ON DECK: It’s an odd weekend followed by an odd week ahead to finish off the Jackals longest homestand of the year.

     After a four-game sweep of the Empire State Greys, the locals enjoyed the only Friday day off on the 2023 schedule today, then welcome New York for an unusual two-game series on Saturday and Sunday, The Jackals and Boulders played a three-game series in Pomona, N.Y., on the first weekend of the season, with New York winning two. After New York, the Jackals host the Lake Erie Crushers for three, then the Tri-City ValleyCats for three, leading up to a July 3 fireworks doubleheader against the Sussex County Miners at Hinchliffe Stadium on July 3. After that, the two teams will head for Skylands Stadium for a Fourth of July fireworks game, then return to Paterson for a series finale on July 5. That home-and-home series will be followed by another quirk – the only Thursday day off of the year – and then a quick trip to Canada for a series with Trois-Rivieres before the annual four-day All-Star break. 

     

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