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Pitching was the glaring weakness for last year’s Jackals. Or, to be more precise, it was lack of pitching. That’s why a good chunk of this offseason is being spent revamping a new-look pitching staff under new manager P.J. Phillips.

     The 36-year-old skipper is spending the winter at his lifelong home outside of Atlanta, but he’s constantly on the phone and on the internet looking for his kind of players – particularly pitchers – and working with New Jersey vice president Bobby Jones, a former Big League hurler, himself.

     In fact, the kind of research and backstage hustling that Phillips is doing right now was one of the exact reasons that Jones chose him for the job.

     “He’s been an excellent player procurement guy,” Jones said when he announced the hiring last November. “I’m sure he’ll be able to bring in some good players. I don’t want him to change. I just want him to keep doing what he’s been doing.”

     Phillips first demonstrated his recruitment abilities when he became a 29-year-old manager of Vallejo Admirals in the independent Pacific Association and completely overhauled the roster during the offseason. His maneuvers helped catapult the team from last place in 2016 to the league championship in 2017. A few years later, he came east to manage the Lexington Legends to the championship of the independent Atlantic League.

     “Recruiting players is a big part of working in independent baseball,” Phillips said. “It’s not like the affiliated leagues where the major league organization is sending you all the players.

     “I enjoy this part of the job. I enjoy putting the pieces together. You try to predict the future. You try to look ahead at what each guy can bring to the mix. It’s the middle of the winter, but you’re thinking like it’s the middle of summer.”

     A second-round draft choice of the Anaheim Angels in 2005, Phillips played infield and outfield at the Double-A and Triple-A levels before playing for the Long Island Ducks and Camden RiverSharks of the Atlantic League. Now, as a manager, he says he wants players “who can play with a passion and still have fun with it.” His older brother, Brandon Phillips, was a three-time National League all-star and four-time Gold Glove Award winner with the Cincinnati Reds.

     When the Jackals open the 2023 season on the road against the New York Boulders on May 11, Phillips takes charge of a team that went 45-49 last year, finishing sixth in the East Division despite leading the entire Frontier League in batting. The problem all season, of course, was on the mound, where New Jersey used 40 different pitchers to post the league’s third-worst team ERA of 6.00. By contrast, league-champion Quebec sent 21 different men to the mound all year, with a league-best team ERA of 3.47.

     Two recent trades with the Sussex County Miners could help turn things around. On Nov. 30, the Jackals acquired right-hander Dwayne Marshall, who turned 25 earlier this month, and, on Jan. 30, acquired fellow righty John Baker, who turns 25 on Feb. 23. Both pitchers took slightly unusual paths to get here, and each appears loaded with potential as Jersey makes the move to its new home of Hinchliffe Stadium in Paterson.

     Born in Summit, Marshall pitched and played outfield for parts of four seasons at the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore. In 2018, he pitched in 12 games and played outfield in another 48, batting .307. After his 2020 season, he still had NCAA eligibility remaining and appeared in 10 games for Felician University, in Lodi, in 2021. That same summer, he pitched for the Frederick Keys in the brand-new MLB Draft League and also pitched in nine games for the Miners, going 3-1 with a 3.68 ERA. Then, he had a breakout season in 2022, going 11-3 with 111 strikeout and a 2.67 ERA.

     Baker, from Detroit, was enjoying a solid collegiate career at Ball State University, including his junior year in 2019 when he went 7-2 with a 2.13 ERA, prompting the Miami Marlins to draft him in the 29th round. But, Baker chose to stay in school. With the 2020 season lost to the pandemic, he was 9-3 with a 2.32 ERA in 2021, posting 107 strikeouts with just 25 walks. That summer, he pitched for the Chicago Dogs of the independent American Association and manager Butch Hobson, the former Boston Red Sox star. In 2022, he made a big splash with the Miners, finishing 12-2 with a 2.66 ERA, 122 Ks and 19 walks.

      “I’ve seen them both on video,” Phillips said. “They look like the kind of guys you’d like to see at the top of a rotation.”

FOR THE BOOKS: Speaking of pitching, it’s hard to forget that Jackals righty Jorge Tavarez threw the only no-hitter of the year in the league last year, and it was a real doozy. Remember? It was the last weekend of the year and his nine-inning complete game with 16 strikeouts knocked the Miners out of the last-minute scramble for a final postseason playoff spot …The story of the Frontier League single-game strikeout record is even more unlikely. It’s 25 Ks in a nine-inning three-hitter tossed by Brett Gray of the London (Ontario) Werewolves on June 3, 2000. Aside from 25 being an astounding number, it was the only game Mr. Gray pitched for London that year, immediately moving on to the Cincinnati Reds’ Class-A team in Dayton.


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