01 Aug STRIKEOUT KING RETURNS
He’s back. Jorge Tavarez is back as a starter in the Jackals pitching rotation, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. Last year’s Frontier League strikeout leader missed the first 10 weeks of the season on the inactive list because of a visa issue back home in the Dominican Republic, but now he’s back and with two good starts under his belt and looking red hot.
For sure, New Jersey needs him and that means right this minute as the locals are tangled in a crowded pennant race and opening a four-game series with a doubleheader under a full moon tonight in Paterson, facing the Sussex County Miners, one of the teams battling the Jackals on a day-to-day nip-and-tuck battle to make the playoffs in the league’s East Division.
Over the past weekend, the Miners won two of three from the Aigles in scenic Trois-Rivieres while the Jackals were at home sweeping the last-place Empire State Greys. So, the Jackals enter tonight’s twin bill tied for first place in the loss column with the Tri-City ValleyCats and the Miners are two games behind them, with the Quebec Capitales squeezed into the middle in the No. 3 spot at one game behind Tri-City and New Jersey.
Got it? In other words, it’s a four-team mad scramble for three playoff spots – five teams including the fifth-place New York Boulders, just two games behind the Miners in the loss column.
Because of a rainout on what should have been the Jackals home opener on May 20, the Miners and Jackals will play a makeup doubleheader beginning at 4:35 p.m. today at Hinchliffe Stadium, followed by a morning game at Hinchliffe tomorrow and a series finale Thursday night at Skylands Stadium.
Tavarez will likely start one of those games during the series and Miners fans will not be happy to see him. Last year, with the Miners battling for a final playoff spot in the last weekend of the season, Tavarez walked into Skylands Stadium and tossed a 9-inning complete-game no-hitter, striking out 16 batters to close the door on any Sussex playoff hopes.
This year, after the long wait on the sidelines, the 5-foot-10 150-pound righthander finally took the mound on July 19, working six innings for a 6-1 victory over the Florence Y’Alls. Then, last Wednesday, he pitched a complete-game three-hit shutout to top the Washington Wild Things, 4-0, on the road. Turning 28 this Friday, Tavarez played five years of minor league ball with the California Angels before joining the Frontier League’s Gateway Grizzlies in 2021 and moving to the Jackals last year, when he led the league with 142 strikeouts.
New Jersey could really use him in the rotation. The team has stayed alive in this pennant race despite ranking No. 6 out of eight teams in the East with a team pitching ERA of 5.22. Instead, the Jackals have bullied their way by leading the league in home runs and leading the East in team batting average and on-base percentage.
In addition to welcoming back Tavarez, the Jackals added another proven righty with the signing of 29-year-old David Lebron on July 17. Like Tavarez, he’s now started two games, going six innings in a loss at Quebec then working seven with no runs and two hits in a win over the Greys.
OFFICER ON DECK: The Thursday night game in Augusta, will be a big one, not just for its impact on the Frontier League pennant race, but because of the unusual addition to the Miners lineup that night and for the reason behind it.
That new player will be New Jersey State Police Detective Miguel Hidalgo, the first active officer ever signed to a pro baseball contract, and he will be donating his one-day salary and any incentive pay he earns for walks or hits to a local family to help with the purchase of a new semi-powered wheelchair for an 11-year-old baseball fan.
Miners manager Chris Widger says that 35-year-old Hidalgo will be in the starting lineup playing an infield position.
MINERS/JACKALS RIVALRY: This will be the third and final series of the year between the two in-state rivals. In May, they split two games, with the third scheduled game postponed until now because of a rainout. Then, July 3-5, the Jackals swept a three-game series.
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.
By Carl Barbati, former sports editor of the New Jersey Herald, Daily Record and The Daily Trentonian.
Photo By Phil Hoops