13 Jun STREAK ROLLS ON
Quick: Name the hottest team in the East Division of the Frontier League. Easy, it’s the New Jersey Jackals. Now name the hottest team in the entire league. Yup, it’s the New Jersey Jackals. They start today’s road trip to St. Louis and Chicago with a seven-game winning streak, the longest in the East all year and a streak that’s moved them up to second place, just two games behind the first-place Sussex County Miners.
It was exactly two weeks ago that the Jackals were battling each day to stay at .500 and the new manager, PJ Phillips, said, “we’re going to figure things out, and we’re going to be a better team.”
Mission accomplished. At age 36, Phillips is the youngest manager in the league and maybe the coolest manager in the league in more ways than one.
“I don’t panic” he said. “This is baseball. You have your ups and downs. It happens. There’s never a reason to panic. I knew we have a good team here. No panic, just straight ahead.”
Packing his bag for the longest road trip of the year that begins tonight against the Gateway Grizzlies on the banks of the Mississippi River, Phillips said there was nothing magical or mysterious about the Jackals’ recent string of success and continued to downplay his own role in the win streak that began last Sunday with a 20-0 blasting of the Florence Y’Alls on the road in Kentucky.
“I just write out the lineup card” Phillips said. “It’s the players who are getting the job done.”
Mostly, it’s the hitters. And often with the long ball.
New Jersey leads the league with 51 home runs. The Tri-City ValleyCats are No. 2 with 37 homers. Outfielder Josh Rehwaldt and first baseman Keon Barnum are tied for No. 2 in the league with 10 round-trippers apiece, while third baseman James Nelson is No. 2 with a .410 batting average and was named the league’s most recent Player of the Week with 14 hits in six games, including hitting for the cycle in last Saturday’s 8-6 win over the Trois-Rivieres Aigles.
Nelson is currently enjoying an eight-game hitting streak and has only gone hitless one time in 25 starts, notching 13 multiple-hit games. Rehwaldt (.402 and No. 3 in the league) is one of three players to start all 26 games so far and he’s had 13 multiple-hit games and just four hitless games. Barnum (.388) had hits in five straight games after returning to the lineup following a short absence due to injury, but he was placed on the Seven-Day Injured List yesterday.
The Jackals are No. 2 in the league in team batting average, runs, hits, RBI, slugging and on-base percentage. Just one problem – an immediate problem: their opponent the next three nights, the Grizzlies, are No. 1 in all of those offensive categories. It will be an early-season showdown when the East Division’s 15-11 Jackals visit the 19-7 West Division leaders at 6,000-seat Grizzlies Ballpark, adjacent to the St. Louis Downtown Airport in Sauget, Ill., seven miles from the big-league Cardinals’ home at Busch Stadium.
So far this year, the Jackals are 10-3 at home and 5-8 on the road, and they’ve done most of their slugging at home, as well, swatting 32 dingers in 13 games at Hinchliffe Stadium and 19 more in 13 games on the road. The Grizzlies have been most potent at home, as well, hitting 25 homers at their own ballpark and another 10 on the road.
The one glaring oddity in the league, as far as hometown home runs go, belongs to Tri-City, who’ve hit just 14 home runs at home in Troy, N.Y., and 23 on the road. And, while New Jersey (51), Tri-City (37) and Gateway (35) lead the pack, the Schaumburg Boomers are at the opposite end of the home run category with 12 – two at home and 10 on the road. The Windy City ThunderBolts are second worst at this moment with 13 homers – five at home and eight on the road.
Windy City will be the second stop for the Jackals this week, leaving the first-place Grizzlies behind and traveling 300 miles north to the Chicago suburb of Crestwood for three games with West Division’s last-place 10-17 ThunderBolts at Ozinga Field, named in 2019 after a local construction materials company. These will be the Jackals’ only meetings of the year with the Grizzlies and ThunderBolts. Last year, those two teams came east to visit New Jersey, with the Grizzlies claiming a three-game sweep and the Jackals taking two of three over the ThunderBolts.
STREAKS AND SWATS: The Jackals’ current seven-game win streak is the longest in the league at this moment. The Ottawa Titans open a three-game series in Washington tonight riding a three-game streak. The Miners had the second-longest streak in the East Division when they won six in a row May 13-19. Overall, the Grizzlies (yes, again) had the longest streak in the league, winning nine straight May 24-June 2. During their current streak, New Jersey swept a three-game home series over Washington and a three-game home series over Trois-Rivieres, smacking 18 home runs in those six victories at Hinchliffe.
In 13 home games so far this year, the Jackals have hit at least one homer in every game but one – a 12-0 home loss to Evansville on May 23, when the visitors hit five over the fence. There has not been a single home game when neither team hit a home run. So far, the Jackals have hit at least one homer in 10 of their 13 road games.
The problem, of course, has been pitching. While the offense leads the league in hitting home runs, New Jersey’s pitching staff is the worst in the league in giving up home runs, yielding 25 at home and another 20 on the road. They’ve helped add up to a 6.43team ERA, second-worst in the league.
The most successful starters have been Dylan Castenada and Vin Mazzaro, each with four starts, Castenada with a 4.61 ERA and Mazzaro at 4.66. Thankfully, the Jackals bullpen has come to the rescue on a regular basis, notably Matt Vogel (0.00 ERA in eight relief appearances), Lance Lusk (1.35 in 11 appearances) and Cody Whitten (3.55 in 10 appearances).
But what would the manager say? “Don’t panic.”
ON DECK: After this week’s road trip and a 12-hour bus ride home following Sunday’s Father’s Day matinee at Windy City, the Jackals will host the only game on the Frontier League schedule on the Juneteenth National Independence Day holiday next Monday. Hinchliffe Stadium was chosen for the honor because of its history as one of the last remaining ballparks in America that hosted Negro leagues games in the 1930s and 1940s, before Jackie Robinson broke pro baseballs’ “color line” when he signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Three months after Robinson’s feat, Larry Doby, the pride of Paterson Eastside High School, became the second black player in the majors and the first in the American League when the lefty-swinging center fielder joined the Cleveland Indians, beginning a 12-year all-star career that wound up in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Before that, Doby had become the second black manager in the big leagues when he took over the Chicago White Sox in 1978.
The Jackals’ opponent for this historic 6:35 p.m. game will be the much-improved Empire State Greys, the travel team that was 6-90 in their first year on the road in 2022. This year, they’ve already exceeded that win total and are currently 7-19. Fireworks will follow the game – the first game of the Jackals longest homestand of the year that includes 16 games with a make-up doubleheader on July 3 and a quick one-game trip to Sussex County on July 4.
By Carl Barbati, former sports editor of the New Jersey Herald, Daily Record and The Daily Trentonian.
Phot by PHIL HOOPS