Having playoff berth, the Ducks can party like it's 2019
It’s beginning to look a lot like 2019 in Central Islip.
The dominant Ducks — the team that breezed to an Atlantic League championship two years ago — reappeared in mid-July and clinched another first half division title.
The Ducks had hovered around the .500 mark for the first month and a half of the season in the Atlantic League North Division. But they reeled off a franchise record-tying 12 wins in a row and clinched their second straight first half division title the night after the streak came to an end.
An 8-2 win over the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs Wednesday night earned the Ducks an automatic berth in the playoffs, which will begin in mid-October. It is their sixth consecutive playoff berth and 15th in the last 17 seasons.
"These guys have proven themselves to be the class of the league since the beginning of 2019," said Ducks president and general manager Michael Pfaff. " . . . We've picked up where we left off in 2019."
The 12-game winning streak included a 6-0 road trip that began with a sweep of the Lexington (Kentucky) Legends. Entering the series, the Legends had the best record in the league and were tops in multiple offensive categories. The Ducks scored 27 runs in the first two games and won 5-1 on get-away day.
"Everybody said Lexington was the best team and we beat the [heck] out of Lexington three times in a row," Ducks manager Wally Backman said. "I think we proved our point to everybody that thought ‘Lexington is a great team.’ We beat them six out of seven times."
Said Ducks outfielder L.J. Mazzilli: "We wanted to go down there and show that we were the best team in the league and get on them early, and that's exactly what we did."
In essence, the Ducks won’t play another meaningful game until mid-October. In a league where the ultimate goal is to leave it, the approach for players is no different. Getting signed by a Major League organization is the hopeful endgame for most and they want to impress scouts by continuing to play as hard as they can. But, the automatic berth does allow Backman the opportunity to ease off the gas a bit and make sure his best players are ready for October.
Off days will be more plentiful now that their playoff ticket is punched, he said. It’s not a 60-game spring training, but it isn’t a sprint to the finish either.
The pitching rubber will be moved back 12 inches for the second half of the Atlantic League season, which begins Wednesday. The traditional distance of 60 feet, 6 inches will shift to 61 feet, 6 inches, a move that Major League Baseball believes will provide batters with more time to react to pitches and, thusly, result in more contact and less strikeouts. The change comes as part of the agreement between MLB and the Atlantic League that allows new rules and equipment to be tested in the formerly-independent league.
"The fastball is going to be almost two miles an hour slower," Backman said. "That’s obviously to a hitter’s advantage. The breaking ball’s going to have bigger break, so that's advantage to the pitcher. But, I have to wait and see. Is it a disadvantage to the pitcher that they have to change their release points now? We just have to wait and see."
MLB said in a pre-season news release said that the change was determined to be safe for pitchers and that they would not have to change their mechanics to remain effective.
Ducks starter Joe Iorio said he’s curious about the change and is willing to trust the MLB’s confidence that pitchers won’t get hurt.
"We’ve got to adjust to the rules and see how it goes," he said
Said Ducks starter and pitching coach Darin Downs: "It’s just going to be trial and error. We’re not going to know until we go out there and see how it affects the game."