08 Jun Rijo Sparks Miners Fast Start
Rijo Sparks Miners Fast Start
As the Miners raced off to a 7-1 record to start the season, center fielder Nilo Rijo has raced off to a .429 batting average to lead the league.
Some people might be surprised to see a 22-year-old leadoff batter who’s learning a new position on top of the Frontier League stats sheet.
But not Rijo.
“This is me,” he said. “All I needed was a chance to show what I can do. I just needed a chance to be in the lineup and to play every day.”
He definitely did not get that chance when he signed with the Boston Red Sox as a 20-year-old free agent out of junior college in October 2018.
The Sox sent him to Fort Myers, Fla., in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League for the 2019 season, where he spent most of his time on the bench, appearing in just 27 games with a .214 average in 56 at-bats.
The victim of both a numbers crunch and the Covid-virus shutdown, Rijo was released by Boston in May 2020.
Known for his speed since his teenage days at Passaic High School, Rijo has plenty of experience hitting leadoff, and he relishes that No. 1 spot in the batting order.
“I want to be the spark of the team,” he said. “I want to get on base, I want to get things going.
“I appreciate it that the team is trusting me to start things off. It’s what I call ‘good pressure.’ I want the big guys in the lineup to count on me to be on base for them, to give them some RBIs.”
Born in Puerto Plata, on the scenic northern coast of the Dominican Republic, Rijo’s family moved to New Jersey when he was 13. At Passaic, he enjoyed playing point guard on the basketball team, but baseball was his true love, and he would then play infield for the Roadrunners of Rowan College South Jersey – Gloucester.
In fact, he was always an infielder. Until now.
“I’m still getting used to the outfield,” he said. “I never played it before in my life.
“I’m learning and I’m working on getting better at it. Really, I don’t care where I play, as long as I’m in the lineup. I love playing baseball. What position really doesn’t matter to me.”
On the Miners roster, he’s officially listed as “utility,” and that’s how manager Bobby Jones thought of him when he signed him.
“The plan was for him to play all over the place,” Jones said. “We saw that he had the athletic tools to play center field and that’s what’s best for this team right now, but we may use him elsewhere down the road, you never know.
“Batting leadoff, he brings a lot of energy to the plate. He’s looked like the real thing in the leadoff spot, and he’s been a big part of our positive start.”
After opening the year with a 2-1 loss to Tri-City, the Miners have won seven straight games heading into a three-game series with Equipe Quebec beginning tonight at Skylands Stadium.
And Rijo is confident he can continue to lead a winning attack.
“I appreciate this opportunity,” he said. “I’m going to stay at it full speed. I’m not going to let up. I’m going to have fun playing baseball, but I’m also going to take advantage of this opportunity.
“I’m not surprised that I’m hitting. Other people may be surprised, but I’m not.”
But could he keep this up all year?
“I don’t know,” he said, “but why not?”
Of course, if he stays anywhere near the league lead into the summer, another chance with another Big-League organization could present itself.
For now, though, it’s Sussex County fans who get to enjoy Rijo’s early fireworks – tied for the team lead with nine hits, including a double and a triple, stealing four bases and leading the team with a .556 On Base Percentage.
His best game at the plate so far was a 4-for-6 showing in a victory over New Jersey on June 1. In the team’s most recent game on Sunday, he played a key role in a 4-3 win over New York, going 2-for-4 with a walk, stolen base, RBI and a run scored.
Even when he went 0-for-3 on June 4, he still contributed to another winner by scoring three runs after reaching base on an error, a walk and a hit-by-pitch.
Off the field, Rijo loves visiting New York City, especially for Italian restaurants and food like “lasagna, chicken alfredo, anything with cheese.” As a Jersey Guy since 13, he has accepted the responsibility for teaching his out-of-town teammates about real pizza, and about real Dominican food, as well.
And, when games end, he’s a lucky player who gets to return to Passaic each night and to his mother’s rice and beans and other home cooking.
“She makes some Italian food, too,” he said. “It’s actually Italian recipes with a Dominican taste.”
Good Show, Runners
Rijo’s former team made it to the National Junior College Athletic Association Div. III World Series in Greenville, Tenn., eventually losing last week in the semifinal round and ending the 2021 season 36-6-2.
Located in Sewell, Rowan College South Jersey – Gloucester is a dual-enrollment partner with Rowan University, in Glassboro. The Roadrunners – like Sussex County Community College – are members of the Garden State Athletic Conference.
By Carl Barbati, former sports editor of the New Jersey Herald, Daily Record and The Trentonian.