22 Aug It Ain’t Over…
The great Yogi Berra was a World War II hero and maybe the best catcher in the history of baseball. He was born in St. Louis but spent most of his adult life in New Jersey. He sometimes spoke as a poet and sometimes spoke straight ahead with no frills to be found. More than once, he combined the two styles like when he uttered the following:
“It ain’t over ’till it’s over.”
Yogi said that in 1973 when he was managing the New York Mets and they were 9 ½ games behind the Chicago Cubs late in the season. Then his team rallied, overtook the Cubbies for the division title and went on to play in the World Series.
It’s the perfect quote of the moment for this year’s Sussex County Miners.
Heading into tonight’s three-game home series against the Trois-Rivieres Aigles, the Miners are four games behind the Tri-City ValleyCats in the Frontier League’s East Division standings and the race for the third and final postseason playoff spot with 12 regular-season games left on the schedule.
Can a team overcome a four-game deficit with just 12 games remaining? Absolutely. Will that team need to win most of its 12 games? Positively. Will that team still need help from certain other teams beating certain other teams? Definitely. But yes, it can be done.
The fifth-place Miners need the third-pace ValleyCats and the fourth-place New York Boulders to lose a few games in these final days, but, of course, there’s nothing Sussex County can do about that other than watch the scoreboard with hope. The only thing the locals can do is to win their own games and hope for the best in the league roundup, and it all begins tonight at Skylands Stadium with the seventh-place 33-50 Aigles in town. Exactly one week ago, the Miners traveled to Trois-Rivieres and swept a three-game series with the Aigles, outscoring them by a combined total of 34-9. Something close to a repeat performance here in Augusta would certainly provide a boost and keep the Miners’ playoff hopes alive.
After that comes a tougher challenge hosting the second-place Quebec Capitales, who are currently just a half-game behind the New Jersey Jackals for top spot in the East. The three-game weekend series with Quebec will be the fourth meeting of the year, with Quebec holding a 6-3 advantage in three previous series. This time, these games could very well pose a make-or-break ultimatum for Sussex.
If the Miners can survive those two Canadian visitors, then they will get a clear shot at a playoff spot when they face the ValleyCats head-on in Troy, N.Y., in a midweek series that begins one week from today. This will be the Miners’ third series with Tri-City, having swept them back in May, but losing two of three games this past weekend.
Finally, if the Miners are still alive after all of that, they’ll be given a last-chance opportunity to qualify for the postseason when they host the last-place Empire State Greys in the final three games on the schedule, Sept. 1-3. Sussex would be very happy to face the Greys with a playoff berth on the line, but nobody will be taking the visitors lightly, despite their 16-68 record that looks like a typing error. It was just two weeks ago that the Greys visited Skylands and scored a 2-2 split in a four-game series.
AT THE PLATE: The Miners have never exactly knocked the cover off the ball this year, winning, instead, behind one of the best pitching staffs in the league. But the hitting has definitely improved since the early months of the season.
The one constant since opening day has been the consistent mastery of right fielder Edwin Mateo, who has started all 83 games batting leadoff and playing in every inning of every game. And, it’s been at a consistently high level, currently batting .325 and ranking fifth in the league with 36 stolen bases. The 24-year-old switch-hitter from Santo Domingo signed a free agent contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers as an 18-year-old and played with that organization until last year, when he joined the Miners for the last 11 games of the season.
Mateo enters tonight’s game riding a 13-game hitting streak that included a four-hit game in a win last Tuesday at Trois-Rivieres and a four-hit game in a win over the weekend at Tri-City.
Another 24-year-old switch-hitter has been another standout all year long. That’s outfielder/dh Oraj Anu, who’s anchored the heart of the Sussex order and is now batting .324 with a team-leading 19 home runs and 60 RBI. First baseman Gavin Supienski has been solid in 80 starts, batting .290 with 15 homers and 52 RBI; Willie Escala (.280 in 80 starts), Juan Santana (.255 in 80 starts) and catcher Jason Agresti (.274 in 46 starts) have also posted consistent contributions at the plate. Oufielder Johnny Hipsman, who signed on as a free agent on July 18, has provided a late-season boost, batting .333 over the past 28 games.
ON THE MOUND: Sussex County is still alive in the postseason race largely thanks to its pitching.
Entering these final days of the season, the Miners’ team ERA of 4.06 is the best in the East Division and second best in the entire league. (Quebec is No. 2 at 4.48.) Sussex has yielded the least hits in the league – 623 compared to No. 2 Quebec’s 714, and Sussex has yielded the least runs in the league – 373 compared to No. 2 Quebec’s 406.
Tyler Thornton, a 28-year-old righty from Varnville, S.C., leads the team with 92 innings pitched in 17 starts, holding a 6-2 record with an ERA of 3.82, while Mark Moclair, a 26-year-old righty from Valrico, Fla., has a 4-6 mark with a 4.12 ERA and ranks 10th in the league with 86 strikeouts.
It’s the bullpen, though, that has really excelled all year with fantasy-type stats on the books: Robbie Hitt 0.79 ERA in 23 games, 28 Ks, 5 BBs; Billy Parsons 1.19 ERA in 23 games, 27 Ks, 6 BBs; Ronnie Voacolo 1.30 ERA in 25 games, 47 Ks, 13 BBs; Tyler Luneke 1.93 ERA in 17 games, 23 Ks, 5 BBs; Jimmy Boyce 2.57 ERA in 16 games, 23 Ks, 3 BBs.
That’s one incredible bullpen, and it’s a good thing since Miners’ starters very rarely went deep into games.
ONE GAME SHORT: The Frontier League plays a 96-game regular season, but the Miners will wind up playing 95 games at the most. That’s because a July 16 Sunday afternoon game hosting the West Division’s Windy City ThunderBolts was rained out on what would have been the final meeting of the year between the two teams. So, no chance of a “postponement” or a “makeup date,” just a plain old “cancellation.”
ONCE IN A…: Next Wednesday night, the Miners will be in Troy, N.Y., facing the Tri-City ValleyCats under the first “blue moon” since 2021. This occurs when there are two full moons within a month, which happens every two to three years. So, technically speaking, if you do something “once in a blue moon,” you do it every two or three years. Recent blue moons have occurred Nov. 21, 2010; Aug. 20, 2013; May 21, 2016; May 18, 2019; and Aug. 22, 2021.
By Carl Barbati, former sports editor of the New Jersey Herald, Daily Record and The Daily Trentonian.
Photo by Phil Hoops