03 Sep Showdown at Skylands
SHOWDOWN AT SKYLANDS
Two teams, one playoff spot. The 2021 Frontier League season has come down to this for the Sussex County Miners: a four-game series that begins tonight and could decide the Northeast Division pennant.
The Washington Wild Things make their third and final regular-season visit to Skylands Stadium, and they arrive here as the hottest team in the league and with a one-game lead over Sussex County in the Northeast standings.
In their first trip here from Washington, Pa., in June, the Miners got the best of the Wild Things with two victories followed by a rainout.
In visit number two, the Miners and Wild Things split four games in early August with Sussex winning the first two and Washington taking the final two.
This time around, Washington has won its last four games, having gone 8-2 over the past 10, while the Miners must bounce back from two straight losses in Quebec and break out of a 5-5 funk the past 10 games.
The fact that this will be just the third series between the Miners and the Wild Things illustrates one of several scheduling quirks that arose out of the Covid-influenced season.
Three series, all in Augusta. By contrast, the New Jersey Jackals had six series scheduled against Washington – two at home, four on the road.
And, while the Miners played 96 percent of their games this year against Can-Am conference opponents, the Wild Things were all over the map.
The Miners played just three games outside the conference, hosting the Florence Y’Alls for a quick series in August. But, the Wild Things played 29 games outside the conference, facing the Y’Alls 14 times and the Lake Erie Crushers 15 times.
HOW WE GOT HERE
The Miners took the long bus ride to Quebec in first place in the Northeast Division. In fact, they’d owned first place since the first weeks of the season, losing on opening night, then winning13 of their next 14 games and never looking back.
Until this three-night trip north of the border.
It started out with promise when eight players had hits Tuesday night in an 8-5 victory. Kaleo Johnson had three hits including a home run, upping his average to .317. Catcher Nick Garland, playing in his eighth game, had two hits and a homer.
Meanwhile, Washington was rained out at home, leaving them one-and-a-half games behind.
So far, so good. Oh, Canada…
But, bad winds blew in Wednesday night. The Miners led, 4-3, at seventh-inning stretch, but Quebec scored two in the seventh and three more in the eighth for an 8-4 victory.
And, while the Miners were losing, Washington swept their makeup doubleheader over New York, producing a tie at the top of the Northeast standings.
Then came last night’s series finale at Stade Canac, a 1939 ballpark currently named after the Canac hardware store chain, and a mile from the St. Lawrence River. The negative vibes immediately returned for the Miners, falling behind, 3-0, by the end of the first inning, on their way to a 6-1 loss. That occurred just as Washington was holding on for an 8-7 victory, putting the Wild Things in first place for the first time this year.
TAYLOR, MILLER ON CLOUD NINE
Call them “dream seasons.” Or maybe “fantasy seasons.” Call them whatever. Pitcher Jalen Miller, Sr., and outfielder Chuck Taylor are living them out in person at Skylands Stadium this year.
Their stats look like typos, like mistakes. But Miners fans know they’re right and real.
Even with last night’s 0-for-3, Taylor is second in the Frontier League with a .350 batting average and he’s tied for seventh in the league with 58 RBI.
He’s played in all 84 games so far this year. That’s zero nights off from May 27 until now. The 27-year-old switch hitter from Texas also leads his team in runs, hits, doubles, home runs and stolen bases.
Oh, and by the way, last night ended Taylor’s 25-game hitting streak. August was a month to remember, though he was hitless the first two games. After that, he went 38-for-101 for a batting average of .376 over the remainder of the month.
Miller had just as big a month on the mound.
After making 33 relief appearances and posting a nearly impossible 0.54 ERA, the 28-year-old Missouri righty moved into the starting rotation and produced three outstanding performances before being roughed up in his most recent start in Quebec on Tuesday night.
Even in that one, Miller picked up a “W” as his ERA kicked up to a still-amazing 1.38.
By Carl Barbati, former sports editor of the New Jersey Herald, Daily Record and The Trentonian.