PLAYOFF PUSH IS ON
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PLAYOFF PUSH IS ON

 The Jackals start the work week tonight in first place in the Frontier League’s East Division. They’re barely in first place by the smallest margin possible, but there they are – on top – where all the others wish they were to start the week. In fact, New Jersey has the best record in the entire league at 45-26, but that doesn’t matter. Not this year and not in this division.

     This is one for the books: With just 24 regular-season games left on the Jackals’ schedule, they are one of five teams still very much alive and tangled up in the kind of free-for-all, nerve-racking, game-to-game pennant race that doesn’t come around every day.

     Something’s got to give, right? We can’t have a last-minute, five-team scramble going down to the wire, could we?

     Right now, New Jersey leads the second-place Tri-City ValleyCats by half a game in the standings, with third-place Quebec a half game behind Tri City. Hard to get more crowded than that at the top of the heap. Meanwhile, New York and Sussex County are right behind the pack in the race for three postseason playoff spots.

     If the Jackals want to take charge of things and open up some breathing room, they get that chance this week, starting tonight at Hinchliffe Stadium when they open a three-game series with Quebec, then this weekend when they head north along the Hudson River to Troy, N.Y., for a three-game series with Tri-City.

     If the Jackals are still on top after those two showdowns, that might finally brand them as division favorites, especially since, after that, they’ll then be playing 14 straight games against sixth-place, seventh-place and eighth-place teams they’ve already dominated earlier this year – 2-1 so far vs. Ottawa, 5-1 vs. Trois-Rivieres, and 7-0 vs. Empire State.

     But, before the Jackals can try to take care of business against those three lesser opponents, they’ll need to play at the top of their game this week in these last meetings of the year with their main playoff rivals.

     New Jersey takes the field tonight with an awesome offense, leading the league in home runs, on-base percentage and slugging percentage, and leading the East Division in team batting average while ranking No. 2 in runs, hits and RBI. The pleasant twist has been a definite improvement on the pitching side of the equation. 

     The 5.18 team ERA is still near the bottom of league stats, but the pitching has notably improved in recent weeks, especially with the July 19 return of last year’s league strikeout leader, Jorge Tavarez, who’s already 4-0 in four starts, including a one-hit complete-game shutout over Sussex and a three-hit complete-game shutout over Washington. The team has also gotten a late-season boost with the July 17 signing of veteran righty David Lebron, now 1-0 in three starts with a 3.15 ERA and 20 strikeouts vs. five walks.

     It’s been the hitting, however, that’s been the centerpiece of this year’s success.

     Back in the 1920s, the New York Yankees had such a powerful lineup that they were known as “Murderers Row,” and, while nobody’s making comparisons to that iconic group, the Jackals’ batting order this year has totally dominated the league in a manner seldom seen at any level of play.

      Start with home runs: first baseman Keon Barnum is No. 1 in the league; outfielder Josh Rehwaldt is No. 2 in the league; third baseman James Nelson is No. 3 in the league. Nelson is No. 2 in the league with a .372 batting average; Barnum (.338) and Rehwaldt (.337) are in the top 10. Barnum is No. 2 in RBI, with Rehwaldt, Nelson and Alfredo Marte in the top 10.

     The trio of Barnum, Rehwaldt and Nelson has bullied Frontier League pitchers all year, and each one of them has defied traditional baseball thinking by hitting for both power and average. Nelson has even shown an extra dimension by currently ranking fifth in the league in stolen bases. Add in Marte (.289), Ti’Quan Forbes (.284) and Rusber Estrada (.273) and that’s a lineup no pitcher would want to face.

     THE ORIGINALS: The nickname had been used before, but it came to stick to the 1927 New York Yankees: Murderers Row. It especially referred to the first seven batters in the New York batting order: Earle Combs (.356), Mark Koenig (.285), Babe Ruth (.356), Lou Gehrig (.373), Bob Meusel (.337) and Tony Lazzeri (.309).

     READY TO ROLL: Two offseason acquisitions have yet to make big impacts for New Jersey, but recent signs indicate that big things could be in the near future, just in time for the stretch drive. Last year, pitcher John Baker went 12-2 with a 2.67 ERA for Sussex, but he’s currently 4-6 with a 5.99 ERA for Jersey. However, the Jackals 25-year-old opening-day starter has had some good outings lately, including his most recent start, when he gave up one run in seven innings to beat Tri-City. Another import from Sussex, Martin Figueroa, was inactive until joining the club July 14 and he’s been in the starting lineup 22 times since then, either in the outfield or at second base. He’s hitting .259 as he shakes off the rust, after batting .305 with 11 home runs and 68 RBI in 91 games last year.

     GARDEN STATE NUMBERS: Last week saw the final games of the year between the Jackals and the Miners, with the Jackals winning three out of four in the home-and-home series. That left New Jersey with an overall 7-2 advantage over Sussex for the year. Last year, New Jersey earned a 6-5 advantage, with the final game of the year cancelled after the Jackals had eliminated the Miners from the playoff race with a complete-game no-hitter by Tavarez in the final weekend.

     SCHEDULE COUNTDOWN: The Frontier League plays a 96-game regular season, but the Jackals will only play 95 games at the most. That’s because a home game vs. the Schaumburg Boomers was rained out on Sunday, July 16, the last time the two teams would have met this year. So, no postponement, no makeup date, just a cancellation. 

       

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

Photo by Phil Hoops