02 Aug Playoff Push Is On
It’s time for a very special part of the baseball season – the stretch run. It’s August. It’s time for make-or-break performances, time for players to show what they’ve got, time for teams to put it all together and make a run at the playoffs.
For the Miners, it’s time to take advantage of a beneficial late-season schedule and take care of business against teams they’ve already proven they can beat.
Sussex County starts this critical month in third place of the Frontier League’s East Division. If the regular season ended today, the Miners would face the second-place Ottawa Titans in a one-game wild-card playoff game in Ottawa for the right to move on to a best-of-three divisional title series against the first-place Quebec Capitales.
Now the bad news: The Miners have three teams nipping at their heals for that third-place spot in the postseason. Trois-Rivieres, Tri-City and New York are all within three games in the loss column, and even the seventh-place New Jersey Jackals are only five games behind Sussex.
Meanwhile, Quebec has put together a magical season, leading the division since opening day with a current mark of 45-21 for a .682 winning percentage – the best in the entire league. Along the way, the Capitales posted a 13-game win streak in late May and a 12-game streak in early July.
The Miners’ best was a six-game win streak from June 11 to June 17, but the Miners are also the rare team with a winning record against Quebec, taking two of three at Skylands Stadium in early June and two-of-three in Canada in late June.
The local squad has maintained its third-place standing through most of the season with good pitching, some timely hitting and sensational success on the basepaths, leading the league all year in stolen bases.
NILO IS NO. 1
Talk to the Miners infielder/outfielder Nilo Rijo for five minutes and several things become crystal clear: First, this is a very intelligent young man; second, though he’s young, only 23, he’s already a real gentleman; third, this guy loves baseball.
And he’s been showing it all year in his first full season for Sussex County.
He’s played several positions and appeared in several different spots in the batting order, always putting up a fight for the opposing pitcher when he’s in the box and then posing an endless nightmare for pitchers and catchers once he’s on base.
In Sunday’s 6-5 win in Kentucky, Rijo played second base and batted sixth, going 1-for-4 at the plate and adding one more steal to give him a league-leading 33 at this moment. Along with Jawuan Harris, who’s third in the league with 27 steals, Rijo is a key reason the Miners are far and away No. 1 in stolen bases with a current team total of 168. Windy City is No. 2 in the league with 114 steals, while the Miners are on pace to break the league record of 204 in a season.
A Dominican native who grew up in New Jersey, Rijo signed as a 20-year-old free agent with the Boston Red Sox in 2019, but only got the chance to play in 27 games in a rookie league, and is hoping for a second chance at the Bigs in the future.
PESKY JACKALS AHEAD
While the Miners start the month in third place and the New Jersey Jackals start in seventh, the always rough and tumble Garden State Rivalry could still play a pivotal role in both teams’ hopes for a spot (or two) in the playoffs.
So far, the Miners and Jackals have faced off six times this year and the record is 3-3. First, the Jackals took two of three in a home-and-home series that began July 1, outscoring the Miners, 19-8, with 32 hits compared to the Miners’ 16. Two weeks later, the Miners won two of three at Yogi Berra Stadium. That second series included a wild four-and-a-half hour, 16-14 Miners victory.
The two Garden State teams will play two more three-game series in the coming days: Another home-and-home weekend series begins in Little Falls on Aug. 12, then they meet for a final three-game series on the final weekend of the year at Skylands Sept. 2-4.
GREYS MOVING IN
A late-schedule quirk could help the Miners in their playoff push, with the homeless road team known as the Empire State Greys making nine appearances in Augusta in August.
Nobody would ever want to look ahead or look past an opponent or count their eggs before their hatched, etc. etc., but the Greys are 5-61 at this moment and in last place in the league in every offensive and defensive category.
Of the two teams ahead of the Miners in the standings, Ottawa will play the Greys three times this month, while Quebec won’t play them at all. The team currently one game behind the Miners, Trois-Rivieres, won’t face the Greys any more, either.
Assembled by the league at the last moment to fill out an eight-team East Division, the Greys have battled all year and, just this past weekend, put together their first two-game winning streak, but most teams would rather take their chances against a 5-61 team rather than a 45-21 club like Quebec.
Overall, the Miners have 19 home games and 11 road games remaining in the regular season – yet another positive as the team makes this final push to a hoped-for playoff opportunity.
By Carl Barbati, former sports editor of the New Jersey Herald, Daily Record and The Daily Trentonian.