07 Jun UP & DOWN
It’s already been a rock-em, sock-em, back-and-forth, up-and-down scrappy start to the season and two things are already clear about this year’s Jackals after a 10-11 record in the first three weeks of the 2023 Frontier League season:
The hitting has been outstanding. The pitching has not.
New Jersey is near the top of the league in almost every hitting category, including No. 1 in home runs with 35. But, the team is near the bottom in almost every pitching category, including being worst in the league giving up 36 homers.
Right fielder Josh Rehwaldt has been a monster at the plate. He was 3-for-5 with two home runs and four RBI in Tuesday’s 12-4 victory over the Washington Wild Things at Hinchliffe Stadium. And that came one long bus ride after he went 5-for-7 with a home run, two doubles and six RBI in the finale of a road trip Sunday afternoon in Kentucky against the Florence Y’Alls.
With today’s game against Washington postponed because of bad air quality due to Canadian wildfires, Rehwaldt is tied for the league lead with eight home runs and ranked in the top 10 with a .387 batting average and 23 RBI, starting in all 21 games so far this year. Of course, none of this is any surprise to New Jersey fans. The 6-foot-6 lefty slugger from Sioux Falls, SD, arrived here in 2021 and batted an even .300, then topped that last year when he was top 10 in batting at .325 with 29 homers and 79 RBI, playing in every game on the schedule.
Approaching his 26th birthday on June 18, Rehwaldt is currently enjoying a six-game hitting streak, notching hits in 14 of his last 15 games, and he’s one of three players to start every game so far, along with shortstop Ti’Quan Forbes and first baseman/dh Alex Toral. Third baseman James Nelson and left fielder Alfredo Marte have each started 20 games.
Overall, the hitting has been there so far, just like last year when the Jackals led the league with a .295 team batting average. Right now, New Jersey is fifth in the league at .276.
Yesterday’s postponement will (hopefully) be made up as part of a doubleheader tomorrow, then the Jackals stay at home for a three-game weekend series hosting the Trois-Rivieres Aigles, who bring a sixth-place record of 8-14 to face fourth-place New Jersey. After that comes a long road trip, first stop in a St. Louis suburb to face the Gateway Grizzlies who are on top of the West Division standings with a first-place record of 16-5, the best in the entire league.
Once they survive that journey, the Jackals return to Paterson and settle in for their longest homestand of the year – a 15-game span including one game against the Sussex County Miners. The homestand also includes the Jackals first meeting with the traveling team known as the Empire State Greys, the homeless road team that will play the Jackals 12 times this year at Hinchliffe.
The Greys were not good in their first season in 2022, finishing with a record of 6-90 after being assembled over the previous offseason when an established team abruptly went out of business. This year’s Greys are better, already matching last year’s wins total with a sixth victory on June 2 over the Tri-City ValleyCats.
As for the Jackals, the pitching woes of last year have carried over to this season, despite a nearly-total overhaul. Last year, New Jersey ranked 14th in the 16-team league with a 6.00 team ERA. So far this year, the staff is currently 15th with a team ERA of 6.77.
Despite an 0-1 record, Vin Mazzaro has been the most successful starter so far. The 26-year-old righty from East Rutherford has started three games with a 3.14 ERA and 22 strikeouts vs. just four walks. The next best has been Dylan Castaneda, who also has three starts with a 5.06 ERA. Nick Belzer leads the staff with five starts and the 27-year-old from Iowa lowered his ERA to 7.62 with a complete-game shutout win over the Florence Y’Alls this past Sunday.
The Jackals’ bullpen, however, boasts two real standouts in Lance Lusk and Matt Vogel. Lusk has made nine relief appearances and still sports a 0.00 ERA with 17 Ks and just three walks, while Vogel has relieved six times with 11 Ks and four walks.
Overall, it’s been a challenging three weeks to start the season, as the Jackals have epitomized the term “up-and-down” with this summary since opening day: lose 2, win 3; lose 2, win 1; lose 2, win 2; lose 1, win 1; lose 1, win 1; lose 3, win 2.
By Carl Barbati, former sports editor of the New Jersey Herald, Daily Record and The Daily Trentonian.
photo by Phil Hoops