22 May WILD 4-4 START
It’s been a wild and wacky two weeks for the New Jersey Jackals – plenty of ups, plenty of downs, a little bit of history and a whole lot of drama. The roller coaster comes to a brief stop for a day off today with the team’s new manager, PJ Phillips, looking at a 4-4 record to start the season, leading the Frontier League with 20 home runs but ranking dead last in pitching with a 7.94 team ERA.
The hitting has been a blast, scoring 10 or more runs in three of the first eight games of the year, including a 10-6 victory over the Sussex County Miners yesterday afternoon in the home opener at Hinchliffe Stadium, the Jackals’ new ballpark next to the Paterson Great Falls National Park.
Alexander Hamilton made history at the scenic waterfall in 1791, and baseball legends made history at Hinchliffe Stadium in Negro Leagues games of the 1930s and 1940s. Now, the newly renovated stadium is home to the Jackals, though last-minute construction work kept the team off the diamond until game time yesterday, when the players could finally test it out after the originally planned home opener was rained out on Saturday night.
New Jersey spent preseason training camp at William Paterson University in Wayne, then started the year with road trips to Pomona, N.Y., to play the New York Boulders, then to the Chicago suburbs to visit the Joliet Slammers. After that came a single game against the Miners at Sussex County’s Skylands Stadium, followed by – finally – the homecoming weekend at Hinchliffe.
It was an unlikely and hectic start to the season, but Phillips does not seem like a manager who could be easily rattled. Instead, he was cool and calm as he steered the ship straight into strange waters. About the only thing he couldn’t steer were his pitchers’ errant throws, as they yielded 54 walks in the first eight games – worst in the league.
The early-season pitching has struggled, for sure. The one exception has been righty reliever Lance Lusk, who signed with the Jackals on the last day of training camp after pitching for Phillips with the independent Lexington Legends last year. Lusk is currently 2-0 in four relief appearances, posting a 0.00 ERA in 5 1/3 innings of work with eight strikeouts and two walks.
Every other pitcher on the squad has an ERA of at least 4.50, including the projected top two aces, John Baker (two starts, 9.00 ERA) and Nick Belzer (two starts, 14.85 ERA).
But… back to the hitting: New Jersey starts the week all alone in third place in the East Division and that’s obviously due to some big-time at-bats up and down the lineup, beginning with third baseman Jeff Nelson and his incredible .500 batting average with four home runs in seven games. And then there’s the big man, first baseman/dh Keon Barnum, one of four players who’ve started all eight games the team has played. Barnum is batting .355 with four homers and a team-leading 10 RBI.
Fan favorite right fielder Josh Rehwaldt, who batted .325 and led the Jackals with 29 home runs last year, is batting .333, but center fielder Phil Ervin, who’s also batting .333, was placed on the 14-day injured list on May 19. The 30-year-old from Mobile, Ala., had hit in the leadoff spot the first five games of the season. He was a first-round draft choice of the Cincinnati Reds and played four seasons of big-league ball there, his best year coming in 2019 when he appeared in 94 games and batted .271.
Infielder Ti’Quan Forbes has been another key contributor in the early going, batting third in every game while starting at second base, shortstop and third base and currently hitting .276 with three home runs, including one in yesterday’s win over the Miners. Designated hitter Alex Toral had two homers in that one, as the Jackals totaled six for the day and produced a line score of 10-11-0, a pretty sight to see for any team in any league.
ON DECK: The Jackals now continue their eight-game homestand with a three-game series hosting the Evansville Otters. This will be the only meeting of the year with the West Division club from Indiana, and both the Tuesday and Wednesday games will begin at 10:35 a.m. The Thursday finale is set for 6:35 p.m. This will be Evansville’s first road trip of the year after opening the season with a nine-game homestand, starting out 1-2, then winning six in a row, including yesterday’s 6-1 victory over Trois-Rivieres, arriving here with the entire league’s best record of 7-2.
Pitching has been the Otters’ strength in the early going, with a team ERA of 2.22 – third best in the league – led by righty Zach Smith, who’s 2-0 in two starts with a 0.00 ERA, and 14 strikeouts with one walk in 14 innings of work. They also have six relievers with 0.00 ERAs, including lefthander Hunter Kloke – 10 Ks and two walks in 6 1/3 innings. On May 18, Otters reliever Eric Foggo had his contract purchased by the New York Mets. The 23-year-old had barely arrived in Evansville after finishing his college career at Alabama in 2022.
Last year, New Jersey opened the season with a road trip to 23 Don Mattingly Way in Evansville, where the Otters took two of three in the teams’ only meeting of the year.
After Evansville, the Ottawa Titans come to town for a three-game weekend series at Hinchliffe. Ottawa will return here for another series in mid-August, then the Jackals will travel to Ottawa a week later. Likewise, the two East Division rivals faced off in nine games last year, with Ottawa prevailing, 7-2. Following the Ottawa series, New Jersey hits the road next week to visit the West Division’s Joliet Slammers and Florence Y’Alls.
By Carl Barbati, former sports editor of the New Jersey Herald, the Daily Record and The Daily Trentonian.
photo by Phil hoops