Here we go again - Sussex County Miners
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Here we go again

Here we go again

  Here we are, late in the season, the stretch run is fast approaching, and it all comes down to this… again: While the rest of the league can sit back and watch as spectators, this Route 80 four-game series in our own Garden State begins today and could go a long way toward deciding the fate of the Frontier League’s East Division and which of our two local teams may or may not move on to the postseason playoffs.

     Over the past weekend, the Miners won two of three from the Aigles in scenic Trois-Rivieres while the New Jersey Jackals were at home in Paterson sweeping the last-place Empire State Greys. So, the Jackals are now tied for first place in the loss column with the Tri-City ValleyCats and the Miners are two games behind the leaders, with the Quebec Capitales squeezed into the middle in the No. 3 spot at one game behind Tri-City and New Jersey.

     Got it? In other words, it’s a four-team mad scramble for three playoff spots – five teams including the fifth-place New York Boulders, just two games behind the Miners in the loss column.

     Because of a rainout on what should have been the Jackals home opener on May 20, the Miners and Jackals will play a makeup doubleheader beginning at 4:35 p.m. today at Hinchliffe Stadium, followed by a morning game at Hinchliffe tomorrow and a series finale Thursday night at Skylands Stadium. 

     And that one, the Thursday night game in Augusta, will be a big one, not just for its impact on the Frontier League pennant race, but because of the unusual addition to the Miners lineup that night and for the reason behind it. 

     That new player will be New Jersey State Police Detective Miguel Hidalgo, the first active officer ever signed to a pro baseball contract, and he will be donating his one-day salary and any incentive pay he earns for walks or hits to a local family to help with the purchase of a new semi-powered wheelchair for an 11-year-old baseball fan.

     “He’s been working out with us and he looks good,” Miners manager Chris Widger said about the 35-year-old Hidalgo, who will start the game in the Sussex infield. “If you didn’t know anything about this, he would look like just another ballplayer. He can hold his own out there.”

     The first-year manager has guided the team to first place in the early season and then to stay right there in the heat of the pennant race with just a four-game losing streak right before the all-star break and a five-game losing streak right after the break as the only serious setbacks.

     Before managing in both affiliated and independent minor leagues, Widger spent 10 years as a major league catcher, including his time as a backup to Jorge Posada with Joe Torre’s 2002 New York Yankees, where he caught Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens, among others, not to mention Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera.

     Widger says he’s been happy with the Miners play all year.

     “I think we’re all proud of what we’ve done so far,” he said. “We need to score a couple more runs here and there. If we can do that, we’ll be right there at the end.”

     However, scoring runs has not been easy for Sussex this year. The Miners are next to last in the East in runs scored, ahead of only the Empire State Greys travel team. The locals are also dead last in home runs and next to last in team batting average. Obviously, it’s the pitching that has kept the Miners in the pennant race, leading the East in team ERA and fewest home runs and leading the entire league in giving up the fewest hits and the fewest runs.

     Outfielder Edwin Mateo has been one of the bright spots in the lineup for Sussex, starting all 63 games and currently sporting a .303 batting average while ranking in the league’s top 10 with 24 stolen bases.

     “He’s our leadoff hitter, he’s played every inning of every game and that’s the way he wants it,” Widger said about the 24-year-old switch-hitting outfielder, who signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers as an 18-year-old in Santo Domingo.

     “He is everything you could want in a professional ballplayer and, if anything, he’s underrated. He’s not the fastest guy in the league and yet he makes every play. He might be the best all-around outfielder in the league.”

           MINERS/JACKALS RIVALRY: This will be the third and final series of the year between the two in-state rivals. In May, they split two games, with the third scheduled game postponed until now because of a rainout. Then, July 3-5, the Jackals swept a three-game series.

     That’s nine games between the two teams this year, compared to 12 head-to-head matches in past seasons. Last year, the Jackals won six out of 11, with the cancellation of the 12th game which would have been the last game of the 2022 season.

     Today and tomorrow will be the final chances of the year for Miners fans who haven’t visited Hinchliffe Stadium to make 42-mile trip. 

     Designated as a National Historic Landmark because of its past glory hosting teams in the Negro leagues, Hinchliffe is located off of Route 80 and right next door to the Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park. That’s where the 77-foot waterfall first inspired Alexander Hamilton in 1778 to create the nation’s “first planned industrial city” eventually founded as Paterson in 1791.

          The Jackals first took the field in 1998 at Yogi Berra Stadium, on the campus of Montclair State University. They played in the Northeast League and the Northern League before joining the Can-Am League in 2005, merging into the Frontier League to start the 2021 season.

     The Miners were founded in 2015 to take over what had been known as Skylands Park, first opened in 1994 as home to the New Jersey Cardinals, the Class-A affiliate of the St. Louis organization playing in the iconic New York-Penn League. The ballpark had been empty for five years before the Miners joined the Jackals in the Can-Am League setting the stage for a natural in-state rivalry. The two teams met in the league championship series in 2019 – the last year of existence for the Can-Am – and the Jackals came out on top, three games to two. 

     LOOK WHO’S BACK: Miners fans will certainly remember Jackals pitcher Jorge Tavarez, and they won’t be thrilled that he’s now back in the Jersey rotation after missing the first 10 weeks of the season on the inactive list due to a visa issue back home in the Dominican Republic.

     Last year, with the Miners battling for a final playoff spot in the last weekend of the season, Tavarez walked into Skylands Stadium and tossed a 9-inning complete-game no-hitter, striking out 16 batters to close the door on any Sussex playoff hopes.

     After the long wait on the sidelines this year, Tavarez finally took the mound on July 19, working six innings for a 6-1 victory over the Florence Y’Alls. Then, last Wednesday, the 27-year-old righty pitched a complete-game three-hit shutout to top the Washington Wild Things, 4-0, on the road. He’s due to face the Miners during their current series.

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

Photo By Phil Hoops