30 May Great Pitching Rules
So, how are they doing it? How are the Miners all alone in first place? How are they three games ahead of the New York Boulders in the Frontier League’s East Division standings? How are they 10-4 with the second-best winning percentage in the league, right behind the West Division’s 11-4 Gateway Grizzlies?
How? With pitching, that’s how.
The hitting has been so-so – currently ranked No. 8 in the 16-team league. Defense? Less than so-so – ranked dead last with a .957 fielding percentage, worst in the league with 21 errors in 14 games.
But the pitching… that’s been sensational. Start with a team ERA of 2.22, the best in the league, giving up the fewest hits and the fewest runs in the league and ranking No. 2 in yielding the least amount of walks. Sussex County starters have been good, and the relievers have been even better.
Last year’s Miners also relied on strong pitching to overcome often- sketchy hitting, but most of last year’s hurlers are gone, either traded away, retired or on the inactive list. John Baker (12-2) is gone. Dwayne Marchall (11-3) is gone. Robert Klinchock and his 2.85 ERA in 34 relief appearances is gone.
Only three pitchers from last year’s staff are still active at Skylands today and, so far at least, all three have notably stepped up their games. Jimmy Boyce, the righty New Zealander, was solid last year with a 3.73 ERA in two starts and 24 relief appearances, and he’s been outstanding so far this year as he approaches his 26th birthday this week with a 2-0 mark and 0.00 ERA in three relief jobs, notching eight Ks and just one walk in nine innings of work. Ronnie Voacolo, a 23-year-old from Trenton, made just four late-season appearances last year and has already matched that number, throwing four innings in four outings with a 0.00 ERA, seven Ks and one walk.
And Tyler Thornton started seven games and relieved in 21 with a 5.78 ERA last year, but, during preseason training camp, the Miners new manager, Chris Widger, singled out the 27-year-old as looking ready for a breakout season. So far, Thornton has started three games and come away with three no-decisions but with a sterling 1.93 ERA.
Of course, there are plenty of new faces on this year’s pitching staff that has gotten off to such a positive start. There’s 23-year-old lefthander Alex Hart, from Raleigh, N.C., who’s now 2-0 in two starts and one relief appearance, sporting a 1.69 ERA with 18 strikeouts and two walks in 16 innings. Relievers Matt Still (1-0) and Robbie Hitt (1-1) have made four appearances apiece and both have 0.00 ERAs, while Billy Parsons (1-0) has relieved three times with a current 1.42 ERA.
As for offense, the top of the batting order has more than held its own, but the bottom of the order has not produced at all. Center fielder Edwin Mateo has been everything one could ask for in a leadoff man, starting all 14 games, batting .309 with seven walks and eight stolen bases. Left fielder Will Zimmerman has settled into the No.2 spot in the order, batting .340 with 10 walks and 13 stolen bases. And, the power guys, first baseman/dh Gavin Stupienski (.327) and catcher Jason Agresti (.324) have come through consistently. After those four players, however, the next best hitter is shortstop Juan Santana, who’s currently hitting .234.
All those errors on the field? Those are the stats that could really drive Widger or any other manager slightly crazy. Just look at today’s 10-4 record. In those four losses, the Miners committed a total of nine errors. In 14 games, they’ve given away 12 unearned runs. They’ve only played four games without an error – and, yes, they won all four.
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 Miners went 12-0 against the Greys. This year, the teams will face off in nine games at Skylands: June 30-July 2, Aug. 11-13, and in the final series of the season Sept. 1-3.
ON DECK: Now that Memorial Day is behind us, the Miners start the week hosting the defending champion Quebec Capitales. The Caps have been up and down to start the season, arriving at Skylands with a 6-8 record, including a 2-1 series hosting Evansville over the holiday weekend. The three-game series here in Augusta is the first of four meetings between the two clubs this year. Sussex will visit Quebec in mid-July and again in early August, then the Capitales will return to Skylands near the end of the season in late August for a total of 12 games in 2023. Last year, the two East Division rivals played three three-game series for a total of nine games, with the Miners winning the first two series, 2-1, and Quebec taking the final series, two games to one.
Once Quebec leaves town, the Miners face a home-and-home three-game series with the New York Boulders beginning at Skylands on Friday night then shifting to Clover Stadium, 55 miles away in Pomona, N.Y., on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon. This will be another first meeting of the year for the first-place Miners who’ve had the Boulders right behind them in second place since the season began.
Because of the rotating schedule in the Frontier League, the Miners and Boulders will meet in three series this year, as opposed to four series for the Miners and Capitales, the reverse of last year’s schedule. The Boulders will be back in Augusta for a weekend series June 9-11, then comes a final home-and-home series July 25-27. After the upcoming series with New York, the Miners hit the road next week for a quick three-game visit to the beachfront town of Avon, Ohio, 20 miles west of Cleveland, for a rematch with the Crushers.
By Carl Barbati, former sports editor of the New Jersey Herald, Daily Record and The Daily Trentonian.
photo by Phil Hoops