15 May First Weekend Impressions
Pitching and defense. That’s how the Miners new manager, Chris Widger, described his approach to the game of baseball when he was first hired last Nov. 1. Sure, he’d like to see his guys hitting with consistency and whacking a few over the wall now and then, but the former major league catcher knows that hitting comes and goes, while pitching a defense should be constants.
And, there they were in the first weekend of the Frontier League season – pitching and defense that resulted in a 2-1 record in a three-game series on the road outside of Chicago facing the Joliet Slammers.
Sussex County lost the season opener by the score of 2-1, then won the next two games with scores of 1-0 and 3-2. Not much fireworks to be found – no home runs, just three doubles for the entire weekend. Still, it was a nice little 2-1 road trip and that’s really all that mattered. In fact, the pitching was even better than it looked on first glance. The Miners gave up a total of four runs, but three of those runs were unearned as the result of six errors, so the Sussex staff yielded just one earned run all weekend.
Pitching? Check. Defense? Not stellar, but good enough when it counted to win two of three. Hitting? Hopefully a work in progress. Third baseman Jackson Valera had the team’s only two-hit performance in Game 1, adding single hits in the other two games to lead the team with four hits overall. First baseman Gavin Stupienski and designated hitter/left fielder Oraj Anu were the only other Miners with hits in all three games, including two doubles by Stupienski and one double by Anu.
Second baseman/outfielder Will Zimmerman had just one base hit over the weekend, but he added a team-leading four walks, plus a key fielder’s choice to produce a team-leading five stolen bases, after the Miners led the league decisively in that category last year.
With pitching as the key element to the positive opening, it’s hard to know where to begin. The starters? Cole Davis threw 4 2/3 shutout innings; Tyler Thornton went 4 shutout innings; Mark Moclair went 3 shutout innings.
And the relievers were just as good! Alex Hart pitched 3 shutout innings; Freisis Adames, Griffin Baker and Jimmy Boyce each pitched 2 no-hit shutout innings; Robbie Hitt was the only hurler to make two appearances and gave up zero earned runs while suffering two unearned runs; Billy Parsons and Ronnie Voacolo pitched 1 shutout inning apiece; Jose Ledesma Jr. gave up one earned run in 2 1/3 innings. In that 1-0 gem, Thornton, Hart and Adames combined on a two-hitter.
FAMILIAR NAMES: Dwayne Marshall formed half of last year’s one-two punch on the Miners pitching staff and he was on the mound over the weekend for the Tri-City ValleyCats in their season-opening home victory over the Trois-Rivieres Aigles. The 25-year-old righthander worked five innings and yielded two earned runs while striking out four. Last year, teaming up with fellow righty John Baker, Marshall went 11-3 with a 2.67 ERA. Meanwhile, Baker is now with the New Jersey Jackals, taking this year’s opening-day loss against the New York Boulders, giving up eight earned runs on five hits and five walks in 2 1/3 innings. Last year with Sussex County, Baker was 12-2 with a 2.66 ERA.
Cito Culver was a first-round pick of the New York Yankees, and he played eight seasons of minor league ball for the Bombers before joining the Miners in 2019, where he was the starting shortstop for three seasons. Over the weekend, he played short and batted leadoff in the first three games of the year for Tri-City.
Trey Hair played two minor-league seasons with the Tampa Bay Rays organization, then became super-popular at Skylands Stadium in 2019, when he played second base and third base and batted .324 while appearing in 94 games. In 2021, he played in 15 games for the Miners, then had his contract purchased by the Texas Rangers. He was released by that organization and he’s now with Tri-City where he played second base in one game over the weekend and catcher in another, hitting his first home run of the year.
CLOCK IS TICKING: It’s proven true in the first month of big-league play and it proved to be true in the first Frontier League weekend of 2023: The new pitch clocks have definitely made a difference in speeding up the pace of play.
The fastest game of all occurred on Saturday night in Crestwood, IL, where the homestanding Windy City ThunderBolts lost a 5-1 decision to the Schaumburg Boomers in a time of 2:18. In other quickies, the Lake Erie Crushers topped the Quebec Capitales, 4-0, in 2:24 and the Joliet Slammers beat the Miners, 2-1, clocking in at 2:26. In 24 league games over the weekend, only four went over the three-hour mark, including the longest of all – the New Jersey Jackals’ Saturday night 10-9 win over the New York Boulders that lasted 3:19.
GO GREYS: The homeless traveling team known as the Empire State Greys beat the Ottawa Titans, 7-1, in Game 2 of the East Division schedule on Saturday night. Last year, the Greys started the season by losing 34 straight games before notching their first victory last June 25 over Tri-City. In their first three games at Ottawa, the Greys scored a total of 25 runs, but they’re now 1-2 after losing scores of 17-7 and 13-11. The Greys finished last year at 6-90, their final win coming against the Jackals last Aug. 20.
ON DECK: After today’s regular Monday day off, the Miners welcome Tri-City for a three-game series beginning with this year’s home opener at Skylands on Tuesday night at 7:05. The ValleyCats opened the year at home in Troy, NY, going 2-1 in a three-game series with Trois-Rivieres. After facing the Cats, Sussex stays at home for a Friday night fireworks game against New Jersey. On Saturday night, the Garden State rivalry moves to Hinchliffe Stadium, in Paterson, for the Jackals’ first home opener in their new ballpark. Finally, the two teams conclude their first series of the year in a 4:35 p.m. game on Sunday.
By Carl Barbati, former sports editor of the New Jersey Herald, Daily Record and The Daily Trentonian.