As it stands, this is the best Ducks team ever to quack through Central Islip. If it already wasn’t evident on the field, that fact became undeniable on Wednesday when the Ducks broke the franchise record for wins (now 85 and counting) and clinched the Liberty Division second half title.
That is impressive, especially given that the last 2 1⁄2 months have meant absolutely nothing to their playoff hopes. The Ducks clinched the first half championship and the playoff berth that accompanies it on July 6. It is only the second time that the Ducks have won both halves, the first coming in 2011.
In a league in which second half faltering after a first half title is common, the Ducks refused to buy into the idea that they could coast into the playoffs, which will begin for them Tuesday in North Carolina against the High Point Rockers.
“These guys are professionals and they’ve come out and played hard and played good baseball, even though we had already clinched, which is good to see because we’re going to have to continue that,” Ducks outfielder/designated hitter and hitting coach Lew Ford said. “It comes back to the starting pitching. They’ve kept us in every game. Even the games that we’re losing are tight. The starting pitching is going out there and pitching every time out and giving us a quality game, so I think that’s where it starts.”
Ford, who is in his 10th season, has seen a lot of Ducks teams. He is the only one who has won a championship with the Ducks and appeared in the last two Atlantic League Championship Series, which the Ducks lost.
Ford played 72 games in 2011, the last time the Ducks won both halves. He thinks the current Ducks team is the best he’s ever been on.
“It’s got to be,” he said. “We’ve had some good teams, obviously, but we haven’t put together a full season like we’ve had here. We had already made the playoffs. A lot of times, some teams will put it on cruise control in the second half. But we’ve continued to play good baseball.”
But the Ducks are not looking for a repeat of 2011. That season didn’t end in a championship. Regular season wins are nice, but the real prize is a trophy, something the Ducks haven’t hoisted since 2013.
Darin Downs will start Game 1 on Tuesday, manager Wally Backman said. Downs, who has rebounded after being hit in the face with a line drive on Sept. 1, finished the regular season 3-3 with a 2.58 ERA in 20 starts. He struck out 133 and walked 32 in 104 2⁄3 innings.
Vin Mazzaro (11-4, 3.61 ERA) will start Game 2 and Seth Simmons (8-8, 3.86 ERA) will start Game 3, Backman said. Starters for a potential fourth and fifth game are to be determined.
Former major leaguers Brandon Beachy and Brian Matusz are available for those two starts, but Backman would not commit to naming them as part of the playoff rotation.
“We’re going to look at all the matchups,” he said.
The newly acquired Brendan Feldmann, whom the Ducks received Friday as part of a trade with the River City Rascals of the independent Frontier League for a player to be named, also could be in the mix to start later, Backman said.
Feldmann went 7-1 with a 1.97 ERA in 14 games (13 starts). He is scheduled to pitch Sunday in the regular season finale against High Point, Backman said.
Regardless of whom Backman uses, he expects the others to fill out the bullpen.
“We have nine guys in the bullpen right now,” he said. “Our main bullpen guys, [Cody] Mincey, [Myles] Smith and Joe Iorio, we haven’t had to overuse, and that’s important when we get to the playoffs. Those are our guys that we’re going to count on late in the game, and they’re 100 percent.”