The Ducks are back in familiar territory, and they'll have a very familiar face leading the way. John Brownell, whose last Atlantic League playoff start ended with the Ducks celebrating the 2013 championship, will start Game 1 of the best-of-five Liberty Division Championship series against the Somerset Patriots Wednesday night at Bethpage Ballpark in Central Islip.
The Ducks are back in the Atlantic League playoffs after failing to qualify last year. And who better than Brownell to start the quest for the franchise's fourth title in 16 years? The righthander, who was named MVP of the 2013 Atlantic League Championship Series, has both the pedigree and the numbers.
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Brownell went 12-6 this season with a 3.38 ERA and a league-leading 146 strikeouts in 26 starts (1752/3 innings). He also led the league with four complete games.
"I expect Brownie to be Brownie," Ducks manager Kevin Baez said during a team workout at Bethpage Ballpark Tuesday. "He's a competitor. He wants the ball. He's not afraid of the situation. I expect him to keep us in the game ... He's been a good pitcher for a long time and has been giving us length. He deserved to start Game 1."
Brownell said he struggled with his fastball command during his last start, a 7-5 loss to Lancaster on Friday in which he allowed seven runs in 42/3 innings.
Brownell is scheduled to face Somerset lefthander Roy Merritt, who was 8-6 with a 2.88 ERA. Merritt will be charged with stopping the Ducks dynamic offense, not an easy task for anyone.
The Ducks boast three of the top four hitters in the league, including midseason acquisition Sean Burroughs, who hit .340 and won the batting title. Outfielder Delta Cleary Jr. (.308) was third and shortstop Dan Lyons was fourth (. 301).
"I don't think there's any team that really wants to play us right now," Burroughs said. "No one feels comfortable playing us and we feel the same. We feel that we're good."
The lineup is hardly only a "big three,'' either. Lew Ford, the defending Atlantic League Player of the Year who returned Sept. 11 from a stint in the Mexican League, hit .364 with 63 RBIs in 75 games. Randy Ruiz hit .349 with 11 home runs in 62 games, and Cody Puckett's .275 average ranked 11th in the league.
Add it up and the Ducks proved to be a juggernaut this year. They won 80 games, their most since 2000, when they won 82 in their first season. The Patriots won 89 games, but the Ducks took the season series, 11-9.
After clinching a playoff berth last Tuesday, the Ducks lost their last five games of the regular season. Many players believe that was just a consequence of the games not having any playoff implications.
"We're due to get hot," Brownell said. "We're not going to stay cold throughout the playoffs. We'll be ready to go. We're excited and confident."