Sunday, September 20, 2015

New Jersey Jackals Championship chase ends a run short


They came so close, yet so far.

The New Jersey Jackals pushed the Trois Rivieres Aigles to the brink, the fifth game of the Can-Am League Championship Series, and at the end of the day the Jackals were one run short.

A controversial play at the plate in the top of the fifth inning in which Eric Grabe appeared to have just got his fingertips on home plate as catcher Tim Quinn was applying a slap tag at home was very close. Grabe was called safe. The Jackals protested to no avail. At the end of the day that run turned out to be the difference as it gave the Aigles a 2-0 lead at the time.

The Jackals didn't help themselves. They grounded into three double plays. They left 10 men on base and never really got much going against Aigles starter Mike Bradstreet. Bradstreet was very good; the defense behind him, especially at short with Pedro Lopez and second with Jose Cuevas proved to be vacuum that sucked up one ground ball after another.

By the time the game came to an end it was the Aigles, not the Jackals who were celebrating at Yogi Berra Stadium on Sunday afternoon with a 2-1 victory.

While the loss hurts, it doesn't cloud what the Jackals accomplished this year. Having covered this team all season long, they were a pretty gritty group that overcame a lot of tough situations all season long.

The drama really began in August for New Jersey, with the team hitting the road for a 6-game trek to Canada to play the Quebec Capitales and Ottawa Champions. New Jersey proved their metal in Quebec, winning two of three from their rivals. The two victories for New Jersey were both comeback wins that New Jersey earned in the later innings. Big base hits by Leandro Castro, Tony Caldwell and Jared Schlehuber were all keys to their success in that series.

Then it got interesting. The Jackals followed that positive start to the trip, by getting swept by the Champions that week. With three weeks left in the season, the Jackals still had something to prove, and with a 5-game home stand coming up, they proved themselves in a big way.

While speaking with A.J. Kirby-Jones and Brian Ernst a couple weeks later in Fargo, the team formed a symbol that would become the status of their great run, "Fear The Jack." A simple saying that had a simple sign. Pinch the middle finger, ring finger and thumb together and raise the index and pinkie fingers into the air, and it forms a dog head -- or jackal. Whenever a player got a base hit, double, triple, home run, or scored the players would "flash the jackal" back at their teammates in the dugout.

The trend caught fire. Soon there were t-shirts, Twitter hashtags, and fans flashing the Jackal back at their stars on the field.

The Jackals beat up on the Capitales and Garden State Grays in that five game home stand, winning all five games, while scoring 59 runs in the process. It was an incredible streak.

The Jackals carried that momentum on the road to the midwest on the always difficult trip against the American Association and they came away with six wins in 11 games. They came back to beat the RailCats a couple time, held off the Fargo-Moorhead Redhawks in a pair of games as well. However their best win of the road trip came in the first game at St. Paul.

Trailing 5-4 in the top of the ninth, the Jackals stormed back for five runs to steal the game from a team that won 74 games this year in the Saints. Peter Mooney and Kirby-Jones had base hits to set up Mark Threkled, who cracked a two-run triple to left that put New Jersey on top. Matt Helms, D'Vontrey Richardson and Jared Schelhuber would all follow with RBI base hits of their own to push New Jersey to a 9-5 win.

The victories in such adverse conditions set them up nicely for the playoffs. The Jackals found a way to get some needed revenge on the Capitales in the first round of the playoffs. The Jackals trailed 2-1 in the series, and needed to win Game 4 to stay alive. Behind a great effort by Shawn Sanford, and a two-run double by Threlkeld, the Jackals prevailed 5-2.

Finally in Game 5, an outstanding catch by Threlkeld robbed Alexi Bell of a RBI base hit. The Jackals built a 5-4 lead on Quebec, and held on thanks to great pitching by John Walter, Alex Powers and Hector Nelo in order to get the win and move on to the League Championship.

Speaking of Walter, the guy was a stud this year on the mound. He won 10 games and struck out 127 batters this year. He was clearly the team's ace, and even beat the Can-Am League's pitcher of the year, Karl Gelinas, twice in the playoffs.

While the Jackals lost to the Aigles in the LCS, Jersey still had some great wins, including an 8-6 comeback in Game 2, and a 7-5 comeback in Game 4.

What a season. What a group. I truly enjoyed my time covering them, and covering this franchise for the third straight year.

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