The Ducks were dealt an unexpected gut-punch this weekend when the woeful Road Warriors, who have been the doormat of the Atlantic League, put the final nail in their first-half championship hopes.
The Road Warriors (16-43) entered the weekend 30 games under .500, but got hot at the exact wrong time for the Ducks, taking all three games at Bethpage Ballpark in Central Islip, culminating in a 10-9 victory in front of 4,402 fans on Sunday.
“They swung the bat well,” said Lew Ford of the Road Warriors. “They started to get a little more confident and comfortable as the weekend went on. We really needed to jump on them early and we weren’t able to do that. Today, they played very relaxed and confident, and it showed.”
The Ducks scored five runs in the bottom of the ninth, but came up short of a dramatic comeback. Jordany Valdespin grounded out to end the game with the tying run on third base.
“That was the most important at-bat of the game,” Valdespin said. “I’m just looking for a fastball and they threw me a slider. So, I just tried to do my best and I hit a ground ball to shortstop, he made a good play, bobbled the ball, and made a good throw.”
“One thing about our team is we never give up,” manager Kevin Baez said. “But, there’s no moral victories right there. We just kept preaching good at-bats in the end. We put a good finish on them and came up short.”
The losses eliminated the Ducks (29-31) from the Liberty Division first-half title chase. The first-half champion is awarded an automatic playoff berth, regardless of second-half performance. For all intents and purposes, the first-half winner could go 0-63 in the second half and still host a playoff game.
Now, the Ducks must play another two and a half months of meaningful games before their postseason fate is determined. It’s something the Ducks have done before. They needed to win the second half last season to make the playoffs.
There’s a school of thought that playing meaningful games throughout the second half puts a team in better position to win in the playoffs, but the Ducks no doubt prefer to know their fate as early as possible.
Their fate was known pretty early Sunday. Ducks starter Lee Sosa struggled early, allowing five runs in the first three innings. Thanks to two Ducks errors, Sosa (0-1) was charged with only four of the five runs. He gave up five hits, walked four, and struck out one in 2 1⁄3 innings.
The Ducks had a chance to take advantage of Road Warriors starter Brandon Bargas in the bottom of the first inning but could only manage one run. Bargas walked four consecutive Ducks with two outs, including Cody Puckett who forced home Travis Snider, but centerfielder Daniel Fields struck out to end the inning.
The Ducks climbed back into the game with three runs in the fourth, chasing Bargas, who allowed four runs and four hits with six walks and four strikeouts in 3 2⁄3 innings. Emilio Bonifacio’s single drove in Audie Afenir and Ford’s two-run single drove in Valdespin and Bonifacio to cut the Road Warriors’ lead to 5-4.
But any momentum the Ducks might have had didn’t last. Gustavo Pierre’s home run off Jake Dunning with one out in the fifth put the Road Warriors ahead 6-4. The Road Warriors added one run apiece in the sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth innings.
“[The Road Warriors] come to play and, if you don’t come ready, you see the results,” Baez said. “I’m not saying we weren’t ready, but you can’t take any team lightly in this league.”
Now, with three games left in the first half, the Ducks will focus on playing more consistently in the second. They were 14-15 in June, including dropping nine of their last 12.
“We played poorly at the worst possible time,” Baez said.
The second half begins on Friday, when the Ducks host the Sugar Land Skeeters.
It will, once again, be a meaningful summer at the Duck Pond.