08 May TRAINING CAMP WRAPPING UP
Preseason training camp is winding down – just three more days of workouts before the Jackals open the Frontier League season on the road Thursday night against the New York Boulders. The team’s new manager, P.J. Phillips, already has his starting pitching rotation planned out and he’s got most starting positions on the field accounted for, as well.
But, Phillips said there are still a handful of key decisions yet to me made after trimming his roster to the league-mandated limit of 28 over the past weekend. He’s now got until Thursday to cut that number down to 24 for the season opener in Pomona, NY.
The 36-year-old skipper is the youngest in the league and his drive and confidence are obvious. But, it has not been an easy training camp for the New Jersey Jackals. The team was supposed to take the field at their brand-new home last Monday and spend all of last week tuning up, but that never happened. Instead, construction delays at historic Hinchliffe Stadium have forced the team to practice at nearby William Paterson University, in Wayne, and the players still have not taken a step into their new home ballpark.
And, it’s unlikely that the Jackals will get to test the new setting and the new artificial turf at Hinchliffe this week, either, before they hit the road for Pomona, then make a three-game visit to Quebec to face the Capitales before their home opener in Paterson on Saturday night, May 20.
“I just want to get on our own field and see what it’s like,” Phillips said. “We’re doing what we have to do elsewhere and the players have been putting in the work, but you want to get on your own field and see how it feels, see how the mound feels, see how the ball carries, see what the background looks like.”
As for opening day, it will be 25-year-old righthander John Baker on the mound for New Jersey, acquired in a trade with the Sussex County Miners on Jan. 30.
Baker, from Detroit, was enjoying a solid collegiate career at Ball State University, including his junior year in 2019 when he went 7-2 with a 2.13 ERA, prompting the Miami Marlins to draft him in the 29th round. But, Baker chose to stay in school. With the 2020 season lost to the pandemic, he was 9-3 with a 2.32 ERA in 2021, posting 107 strikeouts with just 25 walks. That summer, he pitched for the Chicago Dogs of the independent American Association and manager Butch Hobson, the former Boston Red Sox star. In 2022, he made a big splash with the Miners, finishing 12-2 with a 2.66 ERA, 122 Ks and 19 walks.
“He’s looked outstanding from day one,” Phillips said. “Even before I ever saw him in person, he looked like a number one starter from the video I’d seen of him. He looks like a guy that you have no second thoughts about sending him out to the mound.”
After Baker, look for 27-year-old righty Nick Belzer to pitch Game 2. Belzer pitched two years in the Milwaukee Brewers organization and worked last season for the Kansas City Monarchs in the independent American Association, where the Iowa native went 6-2 in 17 starts. Phillips also liked the traing-camp looks of 24-year-old right Lance Lusk, who played for him at the end of last year, when Phillips was managing the Lexington Legends of the independent Atlantic League and Lusk relieved in 13 games with a 1.80 ERA last year.
Expect to see lots of new faces up and down the New Jersey lineup when the season opens, including Jose Guzman at shortstop and the team of Keon Barnum and Alex Toral sharing first base and designated hitter roles. And, count on at least two consistent and productive familiar names in the outfield – Josh Rehwaldt, who started every game last year and batted .325 with 29 home runs and 79 RBI and Alfredo Marte, who hit .295 in 83 games with 18 homers and 82 RBI.
THE WHATS? For the past two years, the new Jackals manager, P.J. Phillips, managed the Lexington Legends in the independent Atlantic League, like the Jackals in the Frontier League a partner league of Major League Baseball. But, with a recent change in ownership, the Legends are history.
They’re now the Lexington Counter Clockers. The Whats? The new owners wanted to reach out to the community for a new name, new logo, now identity and what they heard was a pride in the great state of Kentucky which was accented by horse racing and bourbon. They chose to go with the horse racing.
The British raced on grass and the horses ran a clockwise course, turning to the right at each curve. But, in Kentucky, it was decided to race on dirt… and to run counterclockwise. So, there it is, the Lexington Counter Clockers.
By Carl Barbati, former sports editor of the New Jersey Herald, Daily Record and The Daily Trentonian.
Photo by Phil Hoops