(Long Island, N.Y.) Coming into a season, everyone has their sights set on the defending champions. Such was the case with the Long Island Ducks, who won their second Atlantic League title last year and even the usual roster overhaul that takes place annually on the independent league circuit made no difference. To make your mark and statement moving forward, beating up on the guys with the trophy is good for the psyche.
The Ducks were knocked down a few times, but not out.
An extremely slow start had them closer to the basement in the Liberty Division than the top, but a recent resurgence has cut the deficit to a very reasonable three games for the 20-28 Ducks. Luckily, the division-leading Southern Maryland Blue Crabs are three games under .500, so grabbing first place before the first half ends – and an automatic playoff berth – is not a reach by any means.
The Ducks made a few roster moves lately that will hopefully give them the push they need to get back into the postseason. Pitcher Bob Zimmerman was brought back and his team-leading 27 starts in 2012 were no doubt a big reason. The righthander was also with the team in 2011.
“Bob was a key contributor in helping us win the Atlantic League championship last season,” said Mike Pfaff, Ducks president and general manager, in a statement released by the team. “We are excited to have him back on the roster while adding an accomplished major leaguer in Bill (Hall).”
Hall, 33, has 11 years of major league experience as a utility infielder and his best campaign came back in 2006 with the Milwaukee Brewers when he hit .270 with 35 home runs, 85 RBI, 101 runs scored and 39 doubles.
The same day, the Ducks also activated opening day starting pitcher Dontrelle Wills, who pitched five shutout innings in his first game back to improve his record to 3-2 with a 3.68 ERA. The former Florida Marlins star southpaw has surrendered two or less earned runs in five of his seven starts and has not given up double digit hits in any.
With 28 games remaining on the schedule before the All-Star break, the Ducks have plenty of wiggle room to keep things going in the right direction. The one detriment is that they do not face Southern Maryland head-to-head between now and then, but took three out of four this past weekend to let them know to keep looking in the rearview mirror.
One player that has been hot for the Blue Crabs is Cyle Hankerd, who is hitting just under .300 with very respectable production numbers (11 home runs, 32 RBI, 16 doubles). But the power-hitting outfielder has also struck out 33 times and only drawn 14 bases on balls.
Another player shining for Southern Maryland is closer Jim Ed Warden, who has a 2-0 record with 12 saves and a minuscule 0.44 ERA. He has struck out 20 batters and only given up four walks.
So this divisional race can – and will – go down to the wire. It will be important to clinch a spot now with the impending roster purges by affiliated organizations of the successful players. So expect both teams to play it now as if it were already mid-September. Because in the Atlantic League, that is certainly the case.