31 Aug Playoff Crunch Time is Here
PLAYOFF CRUNCH TIME IS HERE
There is only one way for the Sussex County Miners to be playing ball under the harvest moon in late September and that’s by taking first place in the Northeast Division of the Frontier League.
And right now, it looks like it will be a sprint to the finish line.
Yesterday was the last day off on the regular-season schedule with 14 games remaining – eight at home and six on the road, beginning tonight with the first of a three-game series in Quebec.
The Miners will take the field at Stade Canac with a one-game lead over the Washington Wild Things in the Northeast Division standings.
Meanwhile, Quebec opens tonight’s series with a half-game lead in the race for the Atlantic Division pennant. And the Miners can expect a large hostile crowd as Quebec – only recently opened up after a 15-month U.S.-Canada border closing – has the second-highest attendance per night in the league.
In fact, all of the Miners remaining games will be against teams fighting their own battles for division crowns.
After the visit to Quebec, the locals return to Skylands Stadium for what could be the showdown of the year – a four-game series against Washington with first place on the line, beginning Friday night and finishing on Labor Day next Monday.
When that dust settles, the Miners head for Troy, N.Y., to face Tri-City, the team that’s currently a half-game behind Quebec, then they finish the regular season back at home facing Quebec one last time.
Or will that be the last time?
If the Miners win the Northeast and Quebec wins the Atlantic, then those two division champs will face off in the first round of the playoffs.
Or will it be the Miners against Tri-City in the first round?
Whatever happens over these final weeks of the season, Sussex County fans will expect to see explosive production from the top of the batting order, just as they’ve enjoyed all year.
Outfielder Chuck Taylor has been simply sensational, entering tonight’s game with a 23-game hitting streak and leading the league with a .354 batting average. The 27-year-old switch hitter from Arlington, Tex., enjoyed a 20-game streak earlier this year and leads the team with 66 runs, 108 hits, 10 home runs, 57 RBI, 21 doubles and 26 stolen bases.
It’s no wonder that he’s grabbed most of the headlines in 2021, but it would be a huge mistake to overlook the man who often bats ahead of him in the leadoff spot – third baseman Martin Figueroa.
He’s batting .352, and he’s right behind Taylor with 25 steals.
Together, Taylor and Figueroa have accounted for 191 hits and 110 RBI in 81 games. That’s some 1-2 punch to start the lineup.
Figueroa, a 25-year-old from Elizabeth, has had two shots with major league organizations but received limited opportunities to show what he could do.
Drafted by the Houston Astros out of the University of Rhode Island in 2017, they sent the 21-year-old to the rookie-level Appalachian League, where he appeared in 21 games and batted a solid .273. But that wasn’t enough for him to stick.
So, Figueroa came to Skylands Stadium in 2018 and played a full season – appearing in 96 games and batting .328.
That got him a second look with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2019, but, again, his chances were limited, appearing in just 35 games at the Class-A level. Again, he looked good, batting .282, but, again, not enough to stick.
Back with the Miners this year, he’s done it all from opening day until now. All that’s left for him is to have the kind of playoffs that will force big league organizations to maybe take another look. And maybe to give him more opportunities next time around.
NOT LOOKING AHEAD, BUT…
No matter what the sport, everybody knows it’s just not cool to look ahead, to look past that day’s opponent.
Players are taught to avoid it; coaches constantly preach against it.
So, nobody’s about to do that here.
On the other hand, there’s probably nothing wrong with just a little bit of… research.
At first glance, the Wild Things might appear to face a less stressful stretch run in the Northeast Division race.
Starting tonight, they have 13 games left in the regular season – six at home, seven on the road. But, while all of the Miners games are against playoff contenders, Washington has a series against New York and a series against New Jersey, both of whom are likely out of playoff contention.
And, while the Miners must travel to face Tri-City on the road, Washington will host Tri-City in the final series of the year.
Playoff possibilities? Is it too early to glance at the Evansville Otters? Of course it is, even if they’ve got the best record in the league with a .602 winning percentage.
A Miners-Otters championship series? Nobody’s looking that far ahead, but it would start on Tuesday, Sept. 21, probably at Skylands, and under the harvest moon.
By Carl Barbati, former sports editor of the New Jersey Herald, Daily Record and The Trentonian.