Staying on Top - Sussex County Miners
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Staying on Top

Staying on Top

If any team is going to go wire to wire in the Frontier League pennant race, there are going to be all sorts of challenges along the way. So far, over the first five weeks of the season, the Miners have handled whatever’s been thrown at them and they remain on top of the East Division standings, starting a new test tonight with their longest road trip of the year.

     Sussex County has been in first place since the opening days of the 2023 schedule, starting out 6-1, then making it 10-3 on the way to a current mark of 21-11. Most recently, the Miners had to withstand a 12-game winning streak by the New Jersey Jackals, which finally ended with a Jersey loss against the Windy City ThunderBolts on Sunday in Illinois.

     The hot spell catapulted the Jackals up the ladder in the standings, but the Miners stayed on top by winning series after series, taking 3-of-4 from New York, 2-of-3 from Florence and 2-of-3 from Trois-Rivieres in a series that ended on a perfect Father’s Day afternoon in front of 2,788 at Skylands Stadium.

     Now, with the Miners in first place and the Jackals just one game back at 20-12, fans of both teams might get the urge to look ahead at what could become a feisty summer for the in-state rivalry, after the out-of-the-running Jackals knocked the Miners out of playoff contention in the final weekend of last season.

     So far this year, the two teams split two games, with a third scheduled game postponed until a make-up doubleheader at the Jackals’ new home in Paterson on July 3. They’ll play a holiday game at Skylands on the Fourth of July, then return to Hinchliffe Stadium for one more on July 5.

     The Google map says it’s 43 miles from one stadium to the other, but New Jersey residents know that they’re more like a million miles apart – Paterson, the state’s third-largest city with a population of nearly 160,000, and Frankford Township’s unincorporated community of Augusta, population 887. Obviously it’s too early for this kind of speculation, but: How much fun would it be for the Miners and Jackals to run away from the rest of the league and conduct their own head-to-head, day-to-day, game-to-game drama over the coming months?

     Right, too early for any of that kind of talk… As for the business at hand, Sussex has only lost one series so far this year, dropping two of three at Lake Erie June 6-8. Otherwise, the Miners have ridden the best pitching staff in the league with a team ERA of 2.59 to the best winning percentage in the league at .656. The hitting has not been spectacular, but it has been good enough, currently ranked 10th in the league in team batting average while ranking 13th with just 20 home runs in 32 games. But, let’s not mention team defense, where the team is ranked dead last with a team fielding percentage of .967 adding up to 24 unearned runs in those 32 games.

     Right fielder Edwin Mateo is the only Miner who’s started every game, batting leadoff and leading the team with a .310 batting average while ranking fifth in the league with 16 stolen bases. On the mound, Mark Moclair has started seven games and has a 1.50 ERA, followed by Tyler Thornton with six starts and a 2.43 ERA. Reliever Robbie Hitt still has a perfect 0.00 ERA in nine appearanes, Ronnie Voacolo is at 0.75 in 10 appearances and Matt Still also is at 0.75 in eight appearances.

     ON DECK: The Miners begin their longest road trip of the year tonight, both in number of games and mileage on the bus. And, what happens on this journey could help to make or break this entire season. A disaster would be, just that, a disaster, and bring the team home flapping around somewhere in the middle of the pack in the East Division standings. But, a big-time showing on the road at this point on the schedule would brand the Miners as legitimate contenders for the postseason playoffs and beyond.

     The adventure already started overnight with a 13-hour bus ride to Don Mattingly Way in southern Indiana, where Sussex will face the Evansville Otters in three games beginning tonight. Then comes a 5 ½- hour trip north to a Chicago suburb for three weekend games with the Schaumburg Boomers. After that comes a 12-hour ride to Canada to play three with the Ottawa Titans. Finally, after nine games covering 1,962 miles, it will be time for a nice little 7-hour, 416-mile ride home to Skylands to welcome the Empire State Greys on Friday night, June 30.

     Got it? Now that’s a trip.

     The first stop – in Evansville, about a mile from the Ohio River and the Kentucky border – is the one with the most history. For starters, this will be the Miners first visit to 5,000-seat Bosse Field. The locals joined the league in 2021, but travel was severely limited because of the lingering Covid pandemic. Last season, the Otters came east to Augusta for the only meeting of the year, when Sussex won two of three games.

     Even more historic is Bosse Field, itself, which opened in 1915 as home to the Evansville River Rats. Since then, the ballpark just off of Route 66 has hosted10 other teams, including minor-league affiliates of the Tigers, Braves, White Sox, Twins and Brewers, before the Otters settled in for the 1995 season. Named after Benjamin Bosse, the Evansville mayor from 19xx to 19xx, it was the first municipally financed stadium in the U.S. and it’s now the third-oldest in use for pro baseball, right behind Boston’s Fenway Park (1912) and Chicago’s Wrigley Field (1914). Former Evansville players include Hall of Famers Hank Greenberg and Warren Spahn and the list of visiting players at Bosse Field is awesome – Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Johnny Bench, Dizzy Dean, Reggie Jackson, Stan Musial, Mel Ott and Honus Wagner just to name a few.

     If all that isn’t enough, Bosse Field is prominently featured as home base for the Rockford Peaches in the 1992 movie “A League of Their Own,” including the famous scene where actor Tom Hanks, playing the team’s manager, leaves the Bosse Field dugout to confront a player on the diamond and says, “Are you crying? There’s no crying. There’s no crying in baseball.”

     With Sunday’s 4-1 home win over the Gateway Grizzlies, the Otters are 20-13 and in 3rd place in the West Division as the Miners arrive in Evansville tonight. From there, it’s on to Schaumburg for another once-a-year meeting, after the Boomers came east last year and lost two of three at Skylands. Final stop on this week’s marathon is Ottawa, the Miners second visit there this year, having won two of three there in May, and with the Titans due to visit Skylands for three in August.

     

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

Photo: Phil Hoops