Off to a Great Start - Sussex County Miners
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Off to a Great Start

Off to a Great Start

  Before the season began, the Miners new manager, Chris Widger, was talking so confidently about the roster that he was asked if this team might go 96-0 this year. Of course, the former big-leaguer laughed it off and said, “I guarantee you one thing: we will not go 96-0.”

     And, of course, they won’t. That was proven on Opening Day when Sussex County lost a 2-1 heartbreaker on two unearned runs in the bottom of the ninth inning on the road against the Joliet Slammers. But the Miners won the next day and the day after that, winning six in a row before losing to the New Jersey Jackals yesterday afternoon.

     So, the Miners start this week with a 6-2 record – all alone in first place in the Frontier League’s East Division standings, two games ahead of the New York Boulders. Not a bad start to the season for a new manager and a roster stocked with many new faces.

     Even with all the changes, though, this year’s squad resembles last year’s squad in one striking way: Just like last year, this team, so far, is winning with top shelf pitching. In fact, over the first three series of the season, the Miners pitching staff has the league’s best team ERA of 1.78, yielding just 14 earned runs in 70 2/3 innings. Eight different Sussex pitchers enter this week with an ERA of 1.50 or better.

     Those are incredible numbers that would be virtually impossible to keep up over the course of the summer, but it was certainly fun to watch them pile up in these early-season games. This staff has been so sharp in the early going that it’s hard to know where to start with the praise – perhaps with 23-year-old lefthanded rookie Alex Hart (1-0), who was pitching last year for Barton College in North Carolina. Hart has started one game and relieved in another, leading the Miners with nine innings worked and an even 1.00 ERA with 10 strikeouts and just one walk.

     Righties Tyler Thornton and Mark Moclair have each started two games, and while neither of them has notched a “W,” they’ve both been outstanding, Thornton with a 1.13 ERA and Moclair with a 1.42 ERA. Lefty Griffin Baker has excelled, too, starting once and relieving once with a 1.50 ERA. All incredible numbers, but the Miners bullpen boasts even more excellence: Ronnie Voacolo, the pride of Trenton, has made three relief appearances – 0.00 ERA; Robbie Hitt, three appearances, 0.00 ERA; Jimmy Boyce, two relief appearances, 0.00 ERA; Matt Still, two appearances, 0.00 ERA.

     In their first seven games, Miners pitchers never gave up more than two runs in any game, not until yesterday’s 10-6 loss in the Jackals home opener at their new home of Hinchliffe Stadium in Paterson.

     As for offense, Sussex has been led by first baseman Gavin Stupienski, making a big return to the team with an awesome .414 batting average so far, including two home runs and nine RBI. Third baseman Jackson Valera has been the next best hitter at .321, but he was traded away over the weekend to the Lexington CounterClocks of the independent Atlantic League.

     Jason Agresti, the tough and consistent all-star catcher acquired during an offseason trade with the Jackals, is hitting a predictable .294, and left fielder Will Zimmerman is hitting .280 with a league-leading 10 stolen bases. Right fielder Edwin Mateo, who’s batted leadoff in all eight games, is hitting .267, and he’s currently third in the league with six stolen bases. Overall, the Miners are No. 2 in the league with 24 steals, again reminiscent of last year when Sussex led the league in that category.

     ON DECK: The Miners begin this week with a quick little trip north of the border for a three-game series visiting the East Division Ottawa Titans, beginning with an 11 a.m. start on Tuesday, followed by two night games. Then, they come right back to Skylands for a weekend series hosting the West Division Lake Erie Crushers.

     Like last year, Sussex will face Ottawa nine times in 2023, with another trip north in June and a home series in August. The Titans opened the season 2-2, including a loss to the vagabond Empire State Greys. After yesterday’s 6-4 victory over the Gateway Grizzlies, they currently have a 3-6 mark as they welcome the Miners. Ottawa’s pitching ranks 15th in the Frontier League so far with a team ERA of 7.82. Their hitting has been spotty, as well, except for infielder/outfielder Jackie Urbaez, who’s currently batting an incredible .389. Last year, Ottawa swept the first series with Sussex, 3-0, then the Miners swept the second series two weeks later. The homestanding Titans won the final series, 2-1, giving Ottawa the yearly 5-4 advantage.

     Back home for the upcoming weekend, Sussex hosts the Crushers in the first of two series this year, and the visitors will show up with two former New Jersey Jackals in key roles: Infielder Santiago Chirino, the league’s all-time hits leader, played two of his nine seasons with New Jersey, batting an even .300 in 84 games last year, while outfielder Todd Isaacs also played two years with the Jackals, hitting .327 in 50 games last year.

     In June, the Miners travel to scenic Avon, Ohio, to repay the visit at Mercy Health Stadium, three miles from the Great Lakes shoreline with haunts like Jake’s On The Lake and the beachfront Fratello’s, with maybe the best pescatore and veal saltimboca west of the Bronx.   

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

photo by Phil Hoops