Wild Card Game Tonight - Sussex County Miners
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Wild Card Game Tonight

Wild Card Game Tonight

  It was a seven-game winning streak to end the season that sent the Miners into the Frontier League playoffs. In particular, it was last week’s three-game sweep of the Tri-City ValleyCats on the road in Troy, N.Y., that lifted Sussex County from fifth place to third place to claim the final postseason spot in the league’s East Division postseason.

     Now, as the No. 3 team in the final standings, the Miners will play the No. 2 New Jersey Jackals in a one-game wildcard showdown tonight at Skylands Stadium, where the higher-seeded Jackals will be the “home team” since their ballpark in Paterson is unavailable. Tonight’s winner will then face the No. 1 Quebec Capitales in a best-of-three series for the East Division pennant.

     Actually, the Miners and ValleyCats finished the regular season with identical 55-40 records, but the Miners earned the third-place spot in the playoffs by virtue of the head-to-head tie breaker, after Sussex won seven of nine games against Tri-City this year.

     “Even if we didn’t get into the playoffs, I would have still been very proud of this team,” said first-year manager Chris Widger. “We had our ups and downs but that was to be expected with such a young team like we had. When we needed to win, we got it done.”

     At times during the year, the Miners had 14 rookies in the dugout, but Widger managed to mix and match the young talent with a core of more experienced players to keep the local squad near the top of the standings from opening day on.

     Now, it all comes down to tonight’s wildcard game against the Jackals, who beat the Miners in seven out of nine games this year. Big righthander Tyler Thornton will be on the mound for the Miners, having pitched most recently last Thursday when he got a no-decision in a 5-4 victory over Tri-City, giving up two runs over seven innings.

     Thornton (7-2, 3.57 ERA) faced the Jackals twice this year. In his second start of the season on May 19, he gave up one run in four innings, notching a no-decision in a 10-2 victory. The 6-foot-4, 275-pound 28-year-old was even better on Aug. 2, earning a win over New Jersey with six innings of shutout pitching.

     “This would be his normal day to pitch,” Widger said. “He’s been there for us all year. We’ll try to approach it as business as usual.”

     Of course, facing the Jackals is never easy. The teams split two games in May, then the Jackals swept a three-game series in July and took three out of four in August. New Jersey led the entire league in batting, home runs, runs, hits, walks, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. The Jackals led the league with 195 home runs, including 19 in the nine games against the Miners, though none against Thornton. The Miners had 82 home runs for the year.

     But the Miners were masters on the mound, leading the league in team ERA, fewest hits allowed and fewest runs allowed. Thornton and Mark Moclair started 19 games apiece and the Sussex bullpen posted hard-to-believe numbers, such as: Ronnie Voacolo 1.10 ERA in 30 appearances; Robbie Hitt 1.26 in 28; Billy Parsons 1.50 in 28; Jimmy Boyce 2.61 in 19; Tyler Luneke 2.63 in 21.

     For sure, it was pitching – particularly relief pitching – that carried this team to the playoffs, but Sussex hitting also improved steadily throughout the year, led by leadoff man Edwin Mateo, who played every inning of every game and batted .323. Oraj Anu hit .321 in 90 games and led the team with 20 home runs and 69 RBI, while Gavin Stupienski finished at .301 in 94 games with 17 homers and 59 RBI.

     “It’s a cliché, but we really did take it one game at a time,” Widger said. “Even down the stretch, even when we went to Tri-City last week, we never talked about needing a sweep. We did need it, but it was never really said. I was proud of our guys for that, for sticking to one game at a time, to concentrating on just winning the one game that was in front of us that night.”

     SCHEDULE DETAILS: No matter who wins tonight’s one-game wildcard event, the three-game East Division championship series against Quebec will begin at Skylands on Thursday night, with either the Miners or the Jackals hosting the defending-champion Capitales. Friday will be a day off for travel, with Game 2 in Quebec on Saturday night. If necessary, Game 3 would be in Quebec on Sunday at 5:05 p.m.

     The league championship best-of-five series begins with West at East on Tuesday, Sept. 12, and Wednesday, Sept.13, followed by a travel day on Thursday, Sept. 14. Then it’s East at West on Friday, Sept. 15 and, if necessary, the subsequent Saturday and Sunday.

     BRET’S THE BEST: Longtime Miners fans have known this fact for eight years now: Play-by-play broadcaster Bret Leuthner makes every game a great experience. Whether the team is winning or losing, Bret always has all the facts and sprinkles them with humor, baseball knowledge and behind-the-scenes insights into the game and the players. So, it should have been no surprise for Sussex fans to learn that he’s been named the Frontier League’s Robert Ford Broadcaster of the Year. The award, announced over the weekend, might say “2023” on it, but we’ve known it all along that Bret was the best. A native of Paramus, he arrived at Skylands for the 2016 season, the Miners second year of play in the old Can-Am League.

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

phot by phil hoops