PENNANT RACE SHOWDOWN
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PENNANT RACE SHOWDOWN

 It’s now a dead tie at the top of the East Division standings in the Frontier League pennant race. First, the Sussex County Miners were in front to open the season. Then, the Miners put together a 12-game winning streak and won 18 out of 19 to claim the No. 1 spot.

     Now, it’s a tie, setting the stage for some dramatic baseball in the Garden State on the Fourth of July as the two teams confront each other in four games beginning with a rain-makeup doubleheader under a full moon at Hinchliffe Stadium tonight, with fireworks after the final out.

     After that comes more fireworks after the holiday game at Skylands Stadium tomorrow night, followed by the series finale Wednesday night back in Paterson. Somebody sweeping all four? That would certainly separate the two rivals in the standings. A split? That would leave things just where they are now, and better beware those Tri-City ValleyCats and New York Boulders, both two games behind in the loss column. 

     Today, the two teams are tied for first place with identical records of 27-16. That’s because the Jackals lost a 9-5 decision against Tri-City yesterday while the Miners game against the Empire State Greys was postponed by threatening weather. That combination of events produced the first dead tie of the year, after each team had enjoyed a turn on top.

     It didn’t help any that New Jersey wound up being swept by Tri-City – the first time they were swept all year. The Jackals lost three games in a row for just the second time, after losing one at Joliet and two at Florence June 1-3. Immediately after those three losses, however, the team went on that 12-game hot streak, the longest in the league this year.

     Now, the heat is on. 

     The Jackals have gotten here with their bats, leading the league in home runs, slugging percentage and runs scored, while currently ranked No. 2 in team batting average (.302), hits, RBI, on-base percentage and stolen bases and No. 3 in drawing walks. They’ve bullied their way to victories despite a team pitching ERA of 5.59.

     The Miners have been the exact opposite type of club with the best pitching staff in the league, ranked No. 1 with a team ERA of 3.25. They’ve given up less hits and less runs than any other club, and they’re among the top three in fewest walks and home runs allowed. 

     The offensive-dominant Jackals and the defensive-minded Miners met earlier this year, splitting two games of a planned three-game series that was shortened because of a rainout, resulting in the make-up doubleheader tonight at the Jackals’ new home of Hinchliffe Stadium in Paterson. 

     New Jersey’s Josh Rehwaldt leads the league with 19 home runs and is No. 7 in the league with a .363 batting average, joining teammates James Nelson (No. 3 at .399) and Keon Barnum (No. 5 at .373) in the league’s elite. For Sussex, it’s been all about the pitching, led by Mark Moclair (9 starts, 2.93 ERA), Tyler Thornton (9 starts, 3.19) and Griffin Baker (8 starts, 3.27). The Miners bullpen has been sensational, including Robbie Hitt (13 appearances, 7 saves, 0.00 ERA), Ronnie Voacolo (13 appearances, 0.60) and Billy Parsons (12 appearances, 0.96).

     On May 19 at Skylands, the Miners took an early 2-1 lead and turned it into a 6-1 spread in the middle innings on the way to a 10-2 victory over New Jersey, holding the power-happy Jackals to just five singles and one double.

     The following Saturday night was supposed to be the Jackals home opener, but bad weather prevailed, so it was a Sunday matinee to open the renovated 1932 ballpark. And, both teams had their hitting shoes on for that one, with New Jersey whacking six home runs on their new turf and Sussex adding four more in a 10-6 Jackals victory to make it a 1-1 draw for the abbreviated series.

     First pitch for tonight’s first seven-inning game is 4:35, followed by a second seven-inning game, which will then be followed by fireworks. 

     MINERS/JACKALS RIVALRY: After this series, the Miners and Jackals will meet just one more time in a midweek home-and-home three-game series Aug. 1-3, the first two at Hinchliffe and the finale at Skylands. That’s nine games between the two teams this year, compared to 12 head-to-head matches in past seasons. Last year, the Jackals won six out of 11, with the cancellation of the 12th game which would have been the last game of the 2022 season.

     The Jackals first took the field in 1998 at Yogi Berra Stadium, on the campus of Montclair State University. They played in the Northeast League and the Northern League before joining the Can-Am League in 2005, merging into the Frontier League to start the 2021 season.

     The Miners were founded in 2015 to take over what had been known as Skylands Park, first opened in 1994 as home to the New Jersey Cardinals, the Class-A affiliate of the St. Louis organization playing in the iconic New York-Penn League. The ballpark had been empty for five years before the Miners joined the Jackals in the Can-Am League setting the stage for a natural in-state rivalry. The two teams met in the league championship series in 2019 – the last year of existence for the Can-Am – and the Jackals came out on top, three games to two. 

     ON DECK: With yesterday’s postponement of the Miners-Greys game, the teams will have two chances in the future for a make-up date. The travel-team Greys will be back at Skylands for a three-game series Aug. 11-13 and again for a three-game series to end the regular season Sept. 1-3. 

     First, the Miners and Jackals will finish their current business after the holiday with a Wednesday night game in Paterson, then the Miners take a weekend road trip 28 miles outside of Pittsburgh for a three-game series with the West Division’s Washington Wild Things, and that’s followed by the annual four-day mid-season all-star break.

     Meanwhile, after that Wednesday night game at Hinchliffe, the Jackals will head north across the border for a three-night stand against the Aigles in scenic Trois-Rivieres, leading up to the all-star break.

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