First Place Pace - Sussex County Miners
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First Place Pace

First Place Pace

This could be a tricky week ahead for the first-place Miners. Or, maybe not. It could be a week of danger at every turn. Or, it could be a week when this team validates its strong start to the year and stamps itself as a real contender for a first-time appearance in the Frontier League playoffs.

     Too early for any mention of the postseason? Maybe… maybe not. For the past two years, the Miners just missed that goal and were knocked out of the playoff race in the final hours of the season. Think they didn’t wish they had a few more wins back in June that might have given them a little breathing room down the stretch in September?

     This week starts with a quick little seven-hour bus ride to open a three-game series tomorrow night against the Lake Erie Crushers in the summer-fun beach town of Avon, OH, 20 miles west of Cleveland. After that, it’s right back to Skylands Stadium for a four-game series with the New York Boulders – a rematch with the No. 2 team in the East Division after the Miners and Boulders split two games over the past weekend.

     The first of those two, on Saturday night after the Friday  game was rained out, was a routine loss for Sussex, a 5-1 defeat and with just four singles in a brisk pace that lasted 2:25. But, there was nothing routine about yesterday’s 14-0 victory as rookie lefthander Griffin Baker tossed a complete-game one-hit shutout with nine strikeouts while the Miners hitters produced their biggest run total of the year.   

     Baker was brilliant. The 25-year-old from North Carolina faced just 30 batters, mowing them down 1-2-3 in six of the nine innings, giving up only a harmless single to lead off the bottom of the seventh, then retiring the next three batters in a row.  

     The Miners new manager, Chris Widger, was a major league catcher for 10 years, so he had a particular appreciation of Baker’s performance.

     “First of all, he was locating his fastball,” Widger said, “and he had all four of his pitches working well. His change-up might be his next best pitch, plus he has a cutter-slash slider and a curve and he was doing a great job with all of them.”

     Widger said he never seriously considered lifting Baker late in the game because his compact innings had kept his pitch count relatively low and because “he wasn’t changing his mechanics, he was very consistent.”

     After his final year at Belmont Abbey College in his home state in 2021, Baker joined the Frontier League’s Florence Y’Alls at the endf of the 2022 season, appearing in nine games with a 4-3 record. In this year’s season opener with the Miners, Baker was the first reliever out of the bullpen and pitched two scoreless innings while striking out four.

     Four nights later, Baker was the starting pitcher in a 6-1 victory over the Tri-City ValleyCats, giving up one run in four innings. However, his ERA skyrocketed in his next start, when he was hit with six earned runs in 3 2/3 innings. But, he bounced right back with a solid start five nights later, yielding two runs in seven innings with seven Ks against Lake Erie. Then came yesterday’s one-hit gem.

     “He had a couple of rough innings a couple of games ago,” Widger said. “That’s long forgotten now.”

     PITCHING PROWESS: It’s definitely been pitching that’s carried the Miners for the first three weeks of the season, still boasting the best staff in the league with a team ERA of 2.54. Next best in the league is Evansville at 3.14. Miners pitchers have given up the fewest hits and the fewest runs in the league, and rank No. 2 in fewest walks.

     Mark Moclair has started four games and now has a 2.20 ERA. Tyler Thornton has started four, as well, with a 2.75 ERA, while Griffin Baker lowered his ERA from 4.86 to 3.16 with his beauty on Sunday. In the bullpen, relievers Jimmy Boyce, Robbie Hitt and Ronnie Voacolo all maintain 0.00 ERAs, with Matt Still at 1.04 and Billy Parsons at 1.08.

     There’s been little juice on offense, however, ranking eighth in the league in batting but 12th in home runs and dead last in extra base hits. On the positive side, the team is fourth-best in the league in avoiding strikeouts and is third-best in stolen bases. Ironman catcher Jason Agresti leads the team at the plate with a .340 batting average, followed by first baseman Gavin Stupienski at .329, newcomer Abraham Mow at .314 in 11 games and Will Zimmerman at .297 with 16 steals.

ON DECK: Now, about this being a potentially tricky week coming up. It starts with one of those odd quirks in the league schedule – dash out to Lake Erie for three nights, then dash right back. It’s exactly the kind of quick road trip that sometimes turns into a 1-2 adventure… or worse.

     The Crushers have not been a great team so far this year, currently in last place in the West Division with a record of 9-12. But, they’ve lost a lot of close games, they beat the Miners earlier this season at Skylands and they’re coming off a 6-4 road win against the Washington Wild Things on Sunday. Angelo Baez, a 24-year-old from the Bronx is 3-1 in four starts with an incredible 0.75 ERA, and Matt Mulhearn (2-1) has started five games with a 2.25 ERA. Both pitchers are due to face the visiting Miners, not to mention reliever Trevor Kuncl, who’s now sporting a 1.86 ERA in 10 appearances out of the pen.

     When the Sussex bus returns to Augusta in the wee hours of Friday morning, the players will have little time to rest up and prepare for the Boulders to show up Friday evening, as the Boulders make the short bus trip from Pomona, NY, after playing at home this week while the Miners are in Ohio.

    And, those Boulders are always pesky, to say the least. Right now, they’re 11-9 and right behind Sussex in the East Division standings, just as they have been all year. Last Friday’s rainout will be made up as part of a doubleheader this coming Friday, adding a 10th game to what was already slated to be the Miners longest homestand of the season. After this series, the Miners and Boulders will square off one more time in a three-game home-and-home series in late July.

     The Boulders are not-so-fondly remembered by Sussex County fans who remember them winning their last 12 games of the year in 2022 to overtake the Miners for one of three East Division postseason spots.

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

photo by Phil Hoops