As the Ducks open their 16th season Friday night on the road against the York Revolution, the feeling surrounding the team is decidedly different from a year ago. After they missed the playoffs for only the second time since 2003, it's about new beginnings and a restarting of a winning tradition.
Only eight players return from last year's roster, and only four from the 2012-13 back-to-back title-winners are back. Two of those holdovers return to the Ducks after having record-breaking seasons.
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Lew Ford, the former Minnesota Twins and Baltimore Orioles outfielder, broke the Atlantic League record for games played (140) and hits (189) in a single season. Ford hit .347 with 15 home runs and 95 RBIs. He was named Atlantic League Player of the Year, only the second player in Ducks history to earn the honor. Ray Navarrete won the award in 2009.
"I wish I knew what I could do to repeat it," Ford said Saturday, reflecting on the magical year. "It's not going to be easy . . . I got in the groove a couple times last year. There were also times I wasn't in it. I was just able to get a couple hits here and there, stay alive and keep it going until I found it again. That's the key."
Ford also is entering his second season as the team's hitting coach.
Righthander John Brownell, who is scheduled to start Friday night's opener in York, Pennsylvania, made 29 starts and threw 202 innings last year, both franchise records. He was 13-9 with a 3.61 ERA and struck out 130.
"Every time I take the mound, I want to throw the whole game," Brownell said. "I look forward to throwing 200-plus innings. It's been my goal for a few years. I achieved that last year and I'd like to do it again this year."
Brownell heads a rotation that features righty Sergio Perez and lefty Eric Niesen, both of whom spent last season in the Ducks' bullpen. Niesen had two separate stretches of 15 appearances in which he didn't allow a run. He had a 3.06 ERA and struck out 65 in 59 games. Perez went 1-1 in 20 appearances, posted a 2.37 ERA and struck out 13.
Righthanders Ian Marshall and Mark Rogers enter the rotation after playing elsewhere in the Atlantic League last year. Marshall was with Southern Maryland and Rogers, who spent parts of two seasons pitching for the Milwaukee Brewers, was with Lancaster.
The Ducks finished 73-67 last season and were 19-33 in one-run games.
Fifth-year manager Kevin Baez believes that this team is much better defensively than the one that lost a franchise-record 13 consecutive games last July and 12 of their final 15 games in September.
This, along with an improved bullpen, should help turn the ugly record in one-run games around and stop losing streaks before they get out of hand.
"I don't think it was poor," Baez said of last year's defense. "But it just seemed like we didn't make that double play late in the game. It snowballed and, all of a sudden, we were losing. I think we're a little quicker [this year]."