Miners On Top at Halfway Point - Sussex County Miners
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Miners On Top at Halfway Point

Miners On Top at Halfway Point

     It’s the middle of the baseball season for the Sussex County Miners and it would be hard to imagine a better first half than the one that’s taken place at Skylands Stadium.

     Start with the standings.

    The locals have the best record in the entire Frontier League, entering Game 48 on Friday night at 31-16 for a winning percentage of .660.

     Game 49 of the 96-game schedule also occurs on Friday night as the second game of a doubleheader against the New Jersey Jackals, who trail the Miners by 8 ½ games in the Northeast Division.

     The hitting has been there. The pitching has been there. The defense has been there.

     The Miners are being called “The Bad Boys of Baseball,” not because they break the rules but because they play with such intensity night after night.

     Players from all over the country – and beyond – now want to play here. That’s not the way it’s always been, but that’s clearly the way it is now.

     Manager Bobby Jones is being celebrated on Saturday with the second bobblehead doll in the team’s history, the first having been Herbie, the team’s mascot, in 2019.

     Everything looks perfect from the stands.

     But Jones is far from satisfied.

     “We’re definitely not there yet,” he said. “We’ve still got a lot of things to work on.

     “We’ve done alright, considering a lot of injuries and other issues. It’s a good group. We need more consistency. That’s something we need to get right.”

     In truth, Jones’ quest for perfection notwithstanding, the Miners have not exactly been a classic “up and down” team.

     After losing on opening day, Sussex County went on a 7-game winning streak, winning 11 out of 12. They had a 3-game losing streak in mid-June and a 4-game losing streak not long after that. But they broke out of that with a 6-game winning streak. Entering the Friday night doubleheader, they’d won four of their last five games.

     If consistency is the issue, then several players are already on top of it.

     Outfielders Chuck Taylor and Aaron Knapp have played in all 47 games in the first half. Same for infielders Cito Culver and Audy Ciriaco. They are easy “automatics” when Jones fills out his lineup card every night.

     Consistent? Taylor has been far more than consistent. The 27-year-old from Arlington, Tex., is batting a cool .360 while leading the team with 63 hits, 43 runs, 15 doubles, three triples, 33 RBIs and 30 walks. He’s also tied for the team lead with 14 stolen bases.

     Culver, a former first-round draft pick of the New York Yankees, has played several positions with panache and is one of five Miners hitting above .300 with his .318 batting average.

     Martin Figueroa has had a first half of the season that’s been nothing short of spectacular, leading the Frontier League with a .369 batting average over 35 games.

     The other two leaders on the stat sheets are new arrivals. Juan Kelly played his first game here on June 24. Since then, the Santo Domingo native is batting .325. And Kaleo Johnson, of Almeda, Cal., arrived June 29, batting .308 in his 19 games here so far.

     “Players want to come here now,” said Miners general manager Justin Ferrarella. “The word has gotten out about what Bobby has accomplished here. 

     “He’s created a culture that you don’t find everywhere. It’s all about winning. It’s all about everything being on a very professional level.”

     Jones’ success in Augusta has gone beyond the Xs and Os. He became a fan favorite almost instantly when he took over the dugout in 2016, the team’s second year on the diamond. That popularity has continued to grow as Jones has run a class operation both on and off the field – and he’s put a crisp, winning ballclub on the field.

     So, a bobblehead doll.

     “It’s pretty awesome,” the always-humble, soft-spoken skipper said. “I’m honored by it. I’m sure I’ll grab a few for friends and relatives.”

     However, Jones’s tone turns back to serious matters immediately, and it’s not good news for the rest of the league.

     “We’re going to be a better team in the second half,” he said. “We’re going to get some guys back and, hopefully, put all the pieces together. We haven’t been able to do that so far.

     “I’m always going to be pushing for greatness, nothing less.”

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