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At first glance, he may not look like an overpowering right-hander, but he was clearly the one show-stopper of last year’s pitching staff, and Jorge Tavarez will be back on the mound for New Jersey next month after recently signing a contract extension for a second season with the Jackals. The 5-foot-10, 150-pounder led the entire Frontier League with 142 strikeouts last year, and tossed one of the most memorable games in team history.

     That milestone achievement came in the last weekend of the season, on the road facing the Sussex County Miners as they were waging what turned out to be a losing battle for the final postseason playoff spot in the East Division. Tavarez ended the Miners’ hopes with a complete-game, nine-inning no hitter that was highlighted by 16 strikeouts. The victory meant nothing for New Jersey in the league standings, but etched the pitcher’s name into the team and league record books.

     Tavarez wound up leading the league with 11.41 Ks per nine innings, but there were few other bright spots when it came to Jackals’ pitching last year, as the team finished with the league’s third worst ERA that led to an overall record of 45-49 and sixth-place in the division. Now 27, Tavarez led New Jersey with 18 starts, going 9-4 with a 4.58 ERA.

     As a 19-year-old in Loma de Cabrera, Dominican Republic, Tavarez signed a free agent contract with the Los Angeles Angels and played in that organization’s minor league system for five years. After Covid shut things down in 2020, Tavarez in 2021 joined the Gateway Grizzlies, of the Frontier League, coming to New Jersey for the 2022 season.

     DOMINICAN CONNECTIONS: Just like Tavarez, Jose Guzman was a teenager in the Dominican Republic when he signed on with the Angels. Last week, the 22-year-old signed a contract to play shortstop for the Jackals.

     Growing up in Santo Domingo, Guzman joined the Angels when he was just 18 and played parts of four seasons on LA farm teams. Last year, he appeared in 62 games with the Class High-A Tri-City Dust Devils in Pasco, WA.

     MORE BIG BATS: When first baseman Dalton Combs was traded away on Jan. 30, he left behind some big shoes to fill after a 2022 season that placed him second in the league with a .354 batting average, playing in all 94 of New Jersey’s games.

     But, two recent signings of players who grew up in the Sunshine State may have filled the gap at first, and it could turn into a home-run producing spot in the lineup.

     First, there’s 30-year-old Keon Barnum, a 6-foot-5 long-ball crusher from Tampa who was a first-round draft pick of the Chicago White Sox in 2012. The big lefty spent seven years in that organization before jumping in independent ball in 2019, when he batted .311 with the Chicago Dogs, including 31 homers and 90 RBI in 98 games. Last year, with the Milwaukee Milkmen, he hit .265 with 24 home runs and 84 RBI in 86 games.

     New Jersey also signed first baseman/outfielder Alex Toral, a 24-year-old from Hialeah who came right out of Florida State University last year to join the Sussex County Miners for the last month of the season, batting .284 with 11 homers and 33 RBI in 34 games. He came to the Jackals in that Jan. 30 trade, along with pitchers John Baker and Cody Whitten, in return for Combs, infielder Trevor Abrams and pitcher Mark Moclair.

     FAMILY ROAD TRIP? Jackals training camp opens May 1, the season begins on the road in Pomona, NY, on May 11 and the home opener at Hinchliffe Stadium is set for May 20.

     But, what about a family road trip to follow the team some time this summer?

     How about brushing up on the High school French and heading to one of the prettiest cities you can name? That, of course, would be Trois-Rivieres, roughly 440 miles due north, with possible stops along the way in Saratoga or Lake George.

     Exactly halfway between Montreal and Quebec City, Trois-Rivieres is located on the banks of the Saint Lawrence River and boasts every type of hotel and restaurant on the map, not to mention all the history and story-book scenic streets.

     And, the Jackals travel there twice this year, first for a three-game series against the Aigles July 7-9 at circa 1938 Stade Quillorama, and again for another three-spot Aug. 25-27. The first visit happens to coincide with the final weekend of the 10-day Le Festivoix music festival, with 15 indoor and outdoor stages serving up every sort of sound from morning till late night.

     Or forget about the music and just enjoy this one-of-a-kind treasure of a place.

photo by Phil Hoops

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