Wally Backman isn’t worried anymore.
Just a week ago, the Ducks manager was concerned about the way his team was playing down the stretch of the season that he scheduled a workout on the final off day before the playoffs.
It was a wake-up call, a message sender, a reminder that the Ducks were the best team in the league — if only they’d start playing like it.
The Ducks responded. Through Saturday night's game, they had won four straight, scoring 25 runs. Speaking before Friday’s game, Backman said that he thought another corner was being turned — one with the postseason on the other side.
"I really feel that the guys are turning it back on right now," Backman said.
The Ducks, who end the regular season at home Sunday against the York Revolution, qualified for the Atlantic League postseason by winning the North Division first half championship. The playoffs begin Monday night in Central Islip (as of Saturday the opponent is still to be determined). The Ducks, who have the league's best record for the second straight season, are looking to win their second straight league title (they won in 2019 and there was no season in 2020 because of the pandemic) and fifth league crown in franchise history.
"I think we're the team to beat," Backman said. "I think we have what it takes to win. I think we're a different team than we were in '19. But when you really look at it, we have the core that we won with in ’19."
Backman continued: "I feel good going into it because I've seen what they did in the playoffs and in the championship in '19. They didn't back down. They played their butts off and that's why we won. I expect the same from them this year. I know it’s probably a different opponent that we're going to play. Crazy things can happen in a short series, but I think our guys are prepared."
The league championship series, should the Ducks advance, is a best-of-five series that begins Friday in Central Islip.
Ducks ace/pitching coach Darin Downs will start Game 1 Monday. Downs, a former Tigers and Astros reliever, was 5-3 with a 4.45 ERA in 11 second half starts. Although his final two outings were lackluster, including allowing four earned runs in five innings in a 12-6 loss to Lancaster on Tuesday, he had a good September.
Downs was 4-1 with a 3.41 ERA in the regular season’s final full month. He allowed one run or less in four straight starts. In a 9-0 win over Southern Maryland on Sept. 7, he allowed two hits in seven shutout innings and struck out 10. In a 7-6 win over York on Sept. 17, he didn’t allow an earned run and struck out five in five innings.
"I thought I pitched really well in the second half," Downs said. "I caught a stride there for about four or five stars and did well, throwing strikes and doing all the things I needed to be successful. I’m feeling good going into the playoffs, the body feels good. Just hoping to keep that momentum going forward."
The Ducks have had a knack of playing well at the exact right time. After struggling to find consistency in the season’s first few weeks, they reeled off a franchise-record-tying 12 straight wins to help capture the first half championship.
After a similar lull to start the second half, they won seven of eight games to vault themselves back in the driver’s seat for the North Division second half crown. They then lost six straight and nine of 11.
Backman believes the team is past its late-season woes and ready to go.
"They've turned that corner," he said. "They know that it's time."
Game 1: Monday at Ducks, 5:05 p.m.
Game 2: Tuesday at TBD
Game 3*: Wednesday at TBD