In many ways, the high point of the summer came on July 2. It was then that the Ducks clinched the Liberty Division first half title, and with it an automatic playoff berth. With Fourth of July fireworks still in their cases, the Ducks already knew their fall fate — a second consecutive playoff berth and fourth in the last five seasons.
What followed was largely forgettable. A second half marred by injuries, offensive ineptitude, and a starting staff mass exodus led to a sub-.500, last place finish in the second half standings.
But, newfound health, a rebuilt pitching staff and a strong final road trip has infused new life into the Ducks, who begin their quest at a fourth Atlantic League Championship Wednesday night in Bridgewater, New Jersey, when they face the Somerset Patriots in Game 1 of the Liberty Division Championship Series. The two rivals split the season series 10-10.
The winner of the best-of-five first round series will face the winner of the Sugar Land/York series in the Atlantic League Championship Series next week.
The Ducks closed out the second half by winning two out of three in Sugar Land and three out of four in York.
“It was a tough half for us as a team,” shortstop Dan Lyons, who battled injuries and hit .272 with 49 RBIs and seven home runs this season, said at a workout at Bethpage Ballpark in Central Islip Tuesday afternoon. “On the last road trip, we were able to fine tune some things. We’re coming together right now at the right time . . . We have confidence right now and will hopefully ride that through the playoffs.”
After spending virtually the entire second half rebuilding a pitching staff that lost five starters to outside organizations and another two to injuries, the Ducks finally feel confident in their rotation.
John Brownell, a verifiable constant for the Ducks, will start Game 1. Brownell, who was a driving force behind the Ducks last championship run in 2013, was 10-8 with a 3.30 ERA and 147 strikeouts in 25 starts this season.
Matt Larkins, who the Ducks acquired on Sept. 7 from another independent league, will start Game 2. Nick Struck will start the third game and Jarrett Leverett will start the fourth. Ducks manager Kevin Baez has not named a starter for Sunday’s potential game five.
“I feel great about our rotation right now,” Ducks president and general manager Michael Pfaff said.