TIME TO TURN UP THE HEAT
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TIME TO TURN UP THE HEAT

These are the Dog Days of Summer. It’s time to dig in. It’s time to grind it out. It’s time to sweat. It’s time to produce… It’s time to win games.

     The Jackals struggled in the first few weeks of the season, then they flipped a switch, went on a 12-game winning streak, won 18 out of 19 and moved into first place in the Frontier League’s East Division. After that, there was only a hint of minor turbulence, like being swept for the first time all year by the Tri-City ValleyCats the first weekend of July, but New Jersey rebounded and won five of the next six games heading into the all-star break.

     And it was a sensational mid-season event for the franchise, sending seven players to the all-star game and seeing Keon Barnum named MVP after Josh Rehwaldt finished as champion of the home run derby event.

     The Jackals reunited in Paterson on July 14 and won two against the West Division’s Schaumburg Boomers before a rainout halted the post-break momentum. Since then, the locals have faced challenges, going 1-6, including this past weekend’s sweep at the hands of the red-hot Quebec Capitales, who have won 13 straight games to take over first place and leave New Jersey one game behind in the loss column.

     Now comes yet another crucial part of the 96-game regular season – the Dog Days… time to get things done, time to take care of business, time for the 35-23 second-place Jackals to win games that must be won against weaker opponents, and that begins tonight with a three-game series against the 27-33 Washington Wild Things on the road in Washington, Pa., 37 miles southwest of Pittsburgh.

     Washington is currently running fifth in the West Division, coming home tonight after taking two of three over the weekend at the Windy City ThunderBolts. It will be the second, and final meeting between the Jackals and the Wild Things after New Jersey achieved a three-game sweep at Hinchliffe Stadium June 6-8, hitting seven home runs and scoring 27 runs.

     Right now, despite the recent cold spell, the Jackals still lead the entire league in both home runs and runs, not to mention RBI, walks, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. They’re also No. 2 in the league but No. 1 in the East in stolen bases and team batting average (.291) and No. 3 in the league in hits.

     Barnum, Rehwaldt, and James Nelson have combined to form the league’s most dangerous heart of a lineup, with each player enjoying fantasy-like success since opening day, each of them defying traditional baseball logic and hitting for both average and power.

     Third baseman Nelson has started 56 of the team’s 58 games and is No. 3 in the league with a .378 batting average and No. 3 with 18 home runs. First baseman/DH Barnum leads the league with 22 home runs and ranks second with 65 RBI and fifth with a batting average of .363. Outfielder Rehwaldt, the only player to start every game, is No. 2 with 21 homers, No. 3 with 61 RBI and No. 6 with a .354 batting average, on pace to exceed his outstanding season with New Jersey in 2022 when he batted .325 with 29 home runs and 79 RBI.

     Heading into tonight’s game at Washington, the Jackals’ mission is a clear one: win the games they “should” win. After the series with the Wild Things, the locals return to Paterson to face the travel team known as the Empire State Greys, who are running last in the East with a current record of 12-47. Of course, nothing in sports is guaranteed and no team ever wants to take any opponent for granted, but the Greys are obviously a squad that the Jackals “should” beat, at least if they want to make a serious run at a postseason playoff spot.

     The Jackals first hosted the Grays June 19-22 and swept the four-game series, scoring a total of 47 runs. This time, it will be a three-game weekend series, with another three-game series Aug. 18-20 and a quick two-game series Aug. 30-31, right before the last series of the year at the New York Boulders. That’s a total of eight upcoming games against the Greys over the final 37 games of season – “should wins” that become more like “must wins” as the days dwindle down to a precious few.

     DOG DAYS: According to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, founded in 1792, the Dog Days of Summer run from July 3 to Aug. 11, when Sirius, known as the “dog star” displayed itself at sunrise. In ancient times, the almanac says, people theorized that the combined heat of Sirius and the sun caused these summer days to swelter.

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