This is the way it has to be. No, there isn’t a rule that says the Ducks and the Somerset Patriots must face each other in the playoffs. Actually, the Bridgeport Bluefish tried their hardest to flip this familiar script, but sometimes fate isn’t meant to be tempted.
And so it was affirmed Friday night when the Patriots clinched the Liberty Division second-half championship. For the second consecutive season, and the third time in the last four, the Ducks and Patriots will take their rivalry to the playoffs.
This may be only the first round and the winner of the best-of-five, slated to begin Wednesday night in Somerset, will play the winner of the Freedom Division Championship Series for the Atlantic League crown. But this is, at the very least, a headfirst dive into high-stakes baseball, something the Ducks haven’t experienced since clinching the Liberty Division first- half title in early July.
If a rivalry is defined by competitive balance over time, then it’s hard to argue that Ducks-Patriots isn’t the best matchup in the league. This season, they split their 20 head-to-head games. Last season, the Ducks won the season series 11-9, but fell to the Patriots in the Liberty Division Championship Series in five games.
The Ducks beat the Patriots in the 2013 Atlantic League Championship Series.
“It does feel like a rivalry, more so than we have with some of the other teams in the league,” Ducks Game 1 starter John Brownell said. “It will be nice to go against them in the playoffs and hopefully pay them back for knocking us out last year.”
“They’re well balanced, always have good pitching, and their lineup is pretty darn good,” Ducks manager Kevin Baez said, sizing up his well-known first-round opponent. “They have some speed in the front, some good bats in the middle and play good defense.”
Somerset also has a lock-down bullpen. Entering Saturday night, closer Jon Hunton led the Atlantic League in saves (37) and setup man Jim Miller, a former Yankee, had not allowed an earned run in 25 innings.
With a bullpen that good, it’s a seven-inning game on many nights.
“You try to score early,” Baez said. “You obviously try to get on their starters because their bullpen is pretty legit . . . We have a pretty good bullpen as well. It’ll be a pretty good matchup. That’s why we play the games.”
Ducks closer Todd Coffey, also a former major leaguer, entered Saturday night with 26 saves, good for sixth in the league.
The Patriots offense features a mix of power and scrappy determination, making every at-bat a puzzling gear shift for opposing pitchers.
Patriots outfielder Aharon Eggleston entered Saturday night fifth in the league in batting (.311), eighth in hits (141), and tied for eighth in runs (73).
“He sprays the ball and will turn on it when need be,” Baez said. “He’s a clutch player and can play some defense, too.”
Patriots slugger David Vidal entered Saturday night second in the league in home runs (25) and Bryan LaHair was fourth in the league in RBIs (83).
“They do the little things very well — bunting, running, defense and pitching,” Brownell said. “That’s what makes it difficult to play those guys. They’re very fundamentally sound.”
While Brownell (10-8, 3.30 ERA) acknowledged that Somerset can be a difficult team to game-plan for because of its plate-approach variety, he didn’t seem concerned about his team’s ability to handle it.
“At this point in the season, we should know their approaches and how to make the adjustments from batter to batter,” he said. “We just have to get on the same page with our catchers, make sure we position our defense the right way, and it should be a good series.”
Game 1 - Wednesday @ Somerset, 7:05 p.m.
Game 2 - Thursday @ Somerset, 7:05 p.m.
Game 3 - Friday @ Ducks, 6:35 p.m.
Game 4 (if nec) - Saturday @ Ducks, 6:35 p.m.
Game 5 (if nec) - Sunday, Sept. 25, @ Ducks, 5:05 p.m.