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“We’re going to figure things out and we’re going to be a better team,” said the Jackals new manager, PJ Phillips, enjoying a few minutes of peace on Memorial Day, before packing his bag for a long road trip.  “When you don’t have everything going right, you try to hang in there and stay floating around .500 and we’ve done that.”

     In fact, exactly that, emerging with a 7-7 record after the first two weeks of the Frontier League season despite having the worst pitching staff in the league with a team ERA of 6.93.  New Jersey pitchers have given up the most home runs in the league and they rank second worst in runs allowed and third worst in walks given up.

     Still, Phillips and a handful of hefty hitters have kept this team afloat, and the cool-as-a-cucumber manager has been busy scouring the nation for pitching help and could have a big announcement or two in the near future. 

     In the meantime, the Jackals are No. 1 in the league with 28 home runs, led by first baseman/designated hitter Keon Barnum who’s batting an eye-bulging .404 and is tied for the league lead with seven homers. The other early-season show-stopper has been third baseman James Nelson, who’s currently No. 7 in the league with a .408 batting average and five home runs, leading New Jersey with seven stolen bases.

     “Overall, as a team, our hitting has been up and down,” Phillips said, “but we’ve had some very timely hits when we’ve really needed them. That’s what’s kept us going, timely hitting.”

     The Jackals have been middle of the pack on offense, currently ranked ninth in the league with a team batting average of .248. There’s been nothing average, however, about 25-year-old Nelson, from Rex, Ga., and 30-year-old Barnum, from Tampa, a former first-round draft pick of the Chicago White Sox and the Frontier League’s reigning Player of the Week.

     “Nelson’s got extremely fast hands and a good eye at the plate, and that’s a great combination,” Phillips said. “He fights you on every at-bat.

     “And Barnum is both a legitimate hitter and a great guy to have on your team. He brings a lot of experience and intelligence to the field. He’s quiet but he’s a leader that the younger guys look up to. He leads with his approach to the job and with his performance when it’s time to go.”

     Outfielder Josh Rehwaldt has been the third major cog so far, but that’s no surprise since the South Dakota native played in every game for New Jersey last year, batting .325 with 29 home runs, third best in the league. Approaching his 26th birthday on June 18, Rehwaldt is now batting .333 with six multiple-hit games, and currently enjoying an eight-game hitting streak.

     As for that pitching staff, one of the few bright spots has been 24-year-old righty Lance Lusk, from Spring, Texas. Like Nelson, he played some games for Phillips at the end of last season when Phillips was managing the Lexington Legends in the independent Atlantic League. So far this year, Lusk (2-0) has made seven relief appearances and still has a 0.00 ERA with 11 strikeouts and two walks.

     “He’s a workhorse,” Phillips said with admiration. “He always wants the ball.”  

     Fellow relievers Cody Whitten and Luke Hansen (1-0), both lefties, have made five appearances apiece, Whitten with a 3.38 ERA and Hansen at 3.60, but the only successful starter has been veteran righty Vin Mazzaro (0-1) who’s started two games and has a 3.86 ERA with 12 strikeouts and three walks in 9 1/3 innings of work. After that, the next best number for a New Jersey pitcher – starter or reliever – is the 5.65 ERA shared by Dylan Castaneda and Anthony Rodriguez.

     Still, the team is staying afloat at the .500 mark and the manager says he could have a major pitching announcement coming soon. If not, then 36-year-old Phillips, the youngest skipper in the league, could be sprouting some gray hair by the Fourth of July.

     BEWARE THOSE GREYS: Last year, the travel team known as the Empire State Greys finished the year with a 6-90 record – hardly great but fully understandable given the fact that the homeless squad was put together at the last minute to fill out the league schedule after an established team abruptly went out of business.

     But watch out in 2023. This year’s Greys are now 4-10 after Sunday’s 8-3 loss against the Trois-Rivieres Aigles. They’d already clinched the series with two straight wins, including Saturday’s 16-6 victory, their highest run total in two seasons. Last year, the Greys didn’t notch their fourth win until July 29; this year it was May 27. Designated hitter/first baseman Josh Sears is batting .358, third baseman Zak Whalen is at .310 and center fielder/leadoff man Eric Jenkins is hitting .322. Relief pitchers Wilbur Perez (2-0) and Tanner Propt (1-1) have made six appearances apiece, Perez with a 0.00 ERA and Propt at 3.60.

     Last year, the Jackals went 8-1 against the Greys, losing to the visitors, 10-5, last Aug. 5 in what would be the Greys’ final win of their inaugural season. This year, the teams will face off in 12 games at Hinchliffe. The first will be on the Juneteenth National Independence Day holiday on June 19, with the Jackals hosting the only game on the Frontier League schedule that day in their historic newly renovated ballpark that was home to games in the Negro leagues during the 1930s and 1940s. The Greys will return to town in July and twice in August.

     ON DECK: Now that Memorial Day is behind us, the Jackals hit the road this week with their first stop tonight 45 miles outside of Chicago to face the Joliet Slammers. It’s a nice little 12-hour bus ride away, and the three-game series will be the only meeting of the two teams this year after the Jackals went 1-2 against the Slammers here in New Jersey in 2022. Joliet is currently 6-9 and in last place in the West Division, riding a four-game losing streak after getting swept over the weekend at the Gateway Grizzlies. Their top hitter is outfielder Liam McArthur (.327), and the ace of their mound staff is lefthander Cole Cook (2-0), who’s started three games and posted a 2.11 ERA with 24 strikeouts and four walks in 21 innings. The Slammers are ranked 15th in the league with a team batting average of .217 and ranked 12th with a 5.67 team ERA.

     The series finale on Thursday is “80s Night” at Duly Health and Care Field. Unfortunately for the Jackals, they’ll leave town before Saturday’s “Sitcom Night,” when actress Kate Flannery, of “The Office,” will make a guest appearance. For $50, patrons can have their photo taken with the redhead who played Meredith on the hit TV show; a pregame meet-and-greet will cost $150 and include a photo, an autograph and a game ticket.

     From Joliet, the Jackals will head 320 miles southeast to a small Kentucky town about 13 miles outside of Cincinnati to visit the Florence Y’Alls. Last year, New Jersey was 2-0 against the Y’Alls, with a planned third game rained out and never made up. This year, the Miners will face the Y’Alls in six games, the second three-game series coming at Hinchliffe July 18-20.

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

Photo by: Phil Hoops