21 Sep 2023 Season in Review
As soon as the 2022 baseball season ended, it was clear that 2023 would be a year of big changes for the Sussex County Miners.
Manager Bobby Jones was leaving. The former big league pitcher had been the face of the team since he took over in 2016, the club’s second year of existence, and he’d run things with such class that this team was highly respected throughout the league. Both on and off the field, Bobby set the tone and set high standards. Players who’d never heard of Augusta and could barely find New Jersey on a map all wanted to come here to wear a Miners uniform and play for him, and he was widely recognized in baseball circles for establishing a workplace culture of responsibility and respectfulness – and winning.
The 2022 season ended last September with the Miners knocked out of playoff contention in the final weekend, and Bobby was gone a month later to become vice president and chief business officer of the New Jersey Jackals.
A few weeks later, another huge departure: General manager Justin Ferrarella, who’d run the front office since 2017, had accepted a new position in Kentucky as president of the Lexington Legends, an independent team in the Atlantic League, which, like the Frontier League, is a partner of Major League Baseball.
Ferrarella had held various jobs with the Miners since they were first created in 2015, eventually becoming operations manager before he was named GM, all the while building an admirable reputation with corporate and community supporters and becoming a fan favorite around the ballpark with his always-ready-to-pitch-in attitude and his big smile.
Bobby Jones gone. Justin Ferrarella gone. Four big shoes to fill. Time for new faces. Time to turn the page. Time for a new look at Skylands Stadium.
It began with the Nov. 1 appointment of former big league catcher Chris Widger as the Miners new manager. Not only had the 51-year-old played 10 seasons in the majors – including a .297 year as Jorge Posada’s backup with Joe Torre’s Yankees – but he also had more recent experience as a minor league manager, both with affiliated and independent teams.
Next came a new GM: Vinnie Sangemino’s resume included work at a non-profit organization and in financial services to go along with his lifelong love of baseball. A native of Nutley, the 37-year-old had played third base at Rutgers University and had watched games at Skylands as a spectator. Now, he was chosen to carry on with the strong foundation left by Ferrarella.
Widger spent last winter at home in South Jersey building a roster that he hoped would better the 2022 final record of 54-41, and his troops opened the 2023 season by charging into first place with a quick six-game winning streak and a 10-4 mark on May 30.
Just like the previous year, pitching was the key to this team’s success, and Sussex County stayed on top of the East Division standings throughout June and into July. The Jersey Jackals, however, became just as hot, winning 12 in a row and 18 out of 19, resulting in a dead tie for first place between the two in-state rivals just in time for a three-game Fourth of July series.
The Jackals swept that holiday meeting to take control of the division, leaving the Miners to battle throughout the rest of the season to stay in the playoff contention race, dropping as low as fifth place by the end of July, but still close enough to the leaders to remain a contender.
By the last week of August, Sussex was four games behind Tri-City for the third and final postseason playoff spot, but the Miners got on the bus, went to Troy, NY, and swept a three-game series over the ValleyCats, ending the regular season with a seven-game winning streak to forge a tie for third place and to earn that third playoff spot on a tie breaker.
Unfortunately for the Miners, the one-game wild card playoff game had them face their arch-nemesis, New Jersey ace Jorge Tavarez, who did it again, beating Sussex with a complete-game, three-hit shutout.
Still, Widger had to consider his first year here a success. The team made it to the playoffs. That was the original goal and that was accomplished. And, to say that this team never quit would be both a cliché and an understatement.
This year’s Miners improved steadily at the plate, but never exactly knocked the cover off the ball, finishing No. 7 in the league with a team batting average of .274 – a remarkable high number after getting off to a horribly slow start. Right fielder Edwin Mateo was the standout in the lineup. The 24-year-old switch hitter from Santo Domingo batted leadoff, played every inning of every game and placed eighth in the league at .323. He was also sixth in the league with 39 stolen bases.
Another 24-year-old switch hitter, Oraj Anu, came to Sussex right out of the University of Kentucky at the end of the 2022 season and really blossomed this year, batting .321 in 90 games, with 20 home runs and 69 RBI. Gavin Stupienski was a key contributor, hitting .301 in 92 starts, shortstop Juan Santana started 94 games and hit .267 and infielder Willie Escala made 92 starts and hit .285. Outfielder Johnny Hipsman joined the team July 18 and provided a late-season boost, hitting .313.
Hitting? The Miners were middle of the pack in the league’s final stats, but they were No. 1 in pitching, leading the league with a team ERA of 3.83 and leading the league in yielding the fewest hits and fewest runs.
A pair of experienced righthanders were the key starters: Tyler Thornton, a 28-year-old from South Carolina, started 19 games and went 7-2 with a 3.57 ERA; and Mark Moclair, a 26-year-old from Florida, finished with a hard-luck mark of 5-6 despite a 3.66 ERA.
It was the Miners bullpen that was the true centerpiece of the winning season, with relievers posting simply sensational numbers: Ronnie Voacolo (30 appearances, 1.10 ERA); Robbie Hitt (28-1.26); Billy Parsons (28-1.50); Jimmy Boyce (19-2.61); Tyler Luneke (21-2.63).
By Carl Barbati, former sports editor of the New Jersey Herald, Daily Record and The Daily Trentonian.