As the Ducks continue to concoct the roster they hope will bring a championship back to Long Island, they have thrown in a dash of just about everything thus far. Familiar tastes (Dan Lyons and Cody Puckett), new ingredients (Tyler Wilson and Jim Fuller) and even some international zest (Chin-Hui Tsao and Eury De La Rosa) have been thrown into the mix. In addition to bringing back left-handed starting pitcher Jack Snodgrass this week, Long Island also added its first bit of local flavor into the recipe by signing right-handed starter Keith Couch.
The native of Elmont, New York spent his entire amateur career playing baseball on Long Island. He pitched for Holy Trinity Diocesan High School in Hicksville before going on to throw for the Panthers of Adelphi University. Now, after spending seven seasons in the Boston Red Sox organization with teams up and down the east coast, Couch is coming back home.
“It’s a cool experience to be able to be home and play in front of my family and friends for the first time in a while,” said the righty via telephone this week. “It makes it a little more special because usually during the season, you don’t get to see anybody for a long time. When you get to see your friends, family and familiar faces, it just makes it that much better.”
The journey has been a wild one for the 27-year-old to this point. While pitching in high school for Holy Trinity, it did not appear that Couch was destined to play professionally. He claimed that Major League or college teams never recruited him very highly, despite being named Team MVP and receiving All-County and All-Island honors his senior year. However, one man took notice of what Couch had done and helped pave the way for his future success.
“Adelphi was really the only offer I had [after high school], and Coach [Dom] Scala just saw something in me,” noted Couch. “Once I had that opportunity, it was a no-brainer. I wanted to continue playing in college, and my career just took off from there. He was the only person to see that in me and give me the opportunity. Everything that’s happened to me, I owe it all to Adelphi.”
Couch took the chance and ran with it. In three seasons at Adelphi, he compiled an 18-7 record, a 2.07 ERA, 10 complete games, four shutouts, and 224 strikeouts in 239 innings of work. He immediately entered the radar of several Major League scouts, and the possibility of achieving his lifelong Major League dream no longer seemed out of reach. Following his junior season, Couch had the opportunity to get drafted and begin a career on the professional side of baseball. Sure enough that summer, the moment he dubbed the highlight of his baseball career took place.
“I was actually at Adelphi up in one of the conference rooms hanging out with some teammates, my coach and my parents,” Couch reminisced. “I got a call before it happened talking about the rounds and negotiating. Then it happened, I heard my name and it was awesome. It was a happy time to have my family and coach there and to have the feeling that everything I worked hard for had happened.”
The Red Sox selected the right-hander during the 13th round, and he was able to join an organization full of outstanding prospects. Boston’s farm system had produced several key contributors to their 2004 and 2007 World Series championship teams and was in the midst of cultivating even more for their eventual run to the title in 2013. During his seven seasons with the organization, Couch shared the diamond with the likes of Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr., Steven Wright and many others who would go on to reach the big leagues. Although he never reached the game’s highest level, the experience provided a positive forum for Couch to grow as a player.
“All the guys there were good teammates and friends,” he recalled. “[The Red Sox] treated us like adults and took care of us. They provided a good environment, whether it was the facilities, supplements or training. Everyone was top notch, and it was a great seven years. I’m glad I got to experience that.”
Couch posted some strong seasons in the organization as well. He earned 11 victories in back-to-back seasons with Advanced-A Salem (2012) and Double-A Portland (2013), tossing over 130 innings both years. He also compiled a career-best 2.97 ERA in 18 games (17 starts) with Portland in 2014. That September, the organization promoted him to Triple-A Pawtucket and gave him the opportunity to gain some postseason experience.
Pawtucket earned a spot in the International League playoffs with a 79-65 record during the year and advanced to the Championship Series following a three-game sweep of Syracuse. The finals proved to be a tougher task, as Pawtucket split the first four games with Durham, including a trio of one-run ballgames. In the decisive fifth game, Couch was given the ball with a chance to give Pawtucket their second title in three seasons. He rose to the occasion, firing six and two-thirds innings of shutout baseball and yielding just one hit and two walks while striking out four. The Red Sox won the game 4-1 to claim the championship and give Couch a memory that he will never forget.
“It was pretty cool to have that experience,” he exclaimed. “I had never experienced a playoffs or championship or anything like that in pro ball. That was the first time I got to experience it, and sure enough, we won it all.”
As Couch succeeded, the Red Sox also made it a point to show that he was a highly though of prospect. They sent him to pitch in the Arizona Fall League following the 2013 and 2014 seasons, but the move proved to be costly to both the team and the pitcher. Couch totaled a 5.10 ERA in 18 games (seven starts) over his two stints in Surprise, and his 2015 season was compromised because of the extra work. That year with Pawtucket, he went just 4-10 with a 6.14 ERA, saw his walk total balloon from 22 to 50, and spent time in the disabled list. After the season, he knew the key to finding his form again was rest.
“I knew I just needed some rest and needed to recover and feel healthy,” Couch said. “By the time I was able to shut down and rest [the previous two years], I had about five or six weeks off total before I had to start throwing again. It was a lot of wear and tear, a lot of grinding through injuries and trying to feel 100 percent. I got some rest [after 2015], felt good and got back to doing what I knew I could do.”
Indeed, the stats greatly improved for Couch this past season. He combined for a 10-8 record and a 3.96 ERA with Portland and Pawtucket, lowering his walk total and increasing his strikeouts in the process. Among his 20 starts in 2016 were back-to-back complete game efforts in early July with Portland that led to him being named the Eastern League’s Pitcher of the Week on July 10. It was quite the turnaround for Couch, but despite the improvements, his time with the organization came to an end. Boston granted him free agency in November, and the hurler was now in search of a job.
Couch had developed a relationship with Ducks manager Kevin Baez over the years while growing up on Long Island. Whether in batting cages or giving lessons, the two had forged the initial ground for an eventual partnership. In the midst of the 2016-17 offseason, the possibility finally arose where Couch could come back home to play and where Kevin could add a strong arm to his rotation.
“I was just looking to sign with a team, and then I got a call from the Ducks,” Couch recalled. “I was at a batting cage on Long Island where I saw Kevin Baez, we talked and then the Ducks called. It just kind of worked out from there.”
Despite being in a league that is completely new to him, Couch will have several things to help him transition easily. He already has the pre-existing relationship with his manager, and he will be able to pitch in an environment that he has called home for the majority of his life. While he knows that there will certainly be new challenges, Couch is heading into 2017 with completely positive emotions.
“I’m just going into it with an open mind and the hope that I can get back into a Major League organization,” he noted. “Hopefully, I can one day get to the big leagues; that’s been my goal my whole life, just to pitch in the big leagues. Hopefully, this helps get me there.”
That goal has been the same for nearly every player to put on an Atlantic League uniform. Couch, however, is not letting that be his primary focus. Instead, he wants to take the opportunity to simply enjoy playing the game and let things work themselves out.
“If you focus on that stuff and put too much pressure on it, that stuff never happens,” Couch stated. “For me, honestly, I’m just happy to be playing baseball. I learned [last year] to just sit back, enjoy the moment and just go out there and give it my all. That’s all I’m really looking forward to this year, just going out and being able to play baseball, have some fun and give it my all. It’s just about doing what I know I can do.”
Welcome home, Keith.
“Speak softly, and carry a big stick.”
The phrase was first utilized by former United States President Theodore Roosevelt with regards to his foreign policy in the early 1900’s. In fact, he even used the proverb in an address to the Minnesota State Fair back in 1901 prior to being appointed President. Although it may be coincidental, it’s no surprise that the phrase can be perfectly applied to the mentality of Long Island Ducks shortstop, and Minnesota native, Dan Lyons. The most consistent presence in the team’s lineup since he arrived in 2011 has been able to adopt this philosophy and translate it into his unquestionable role as the clubhouse leader.
“I think, especially at this level, players don’t react as much to the ‘rah rah’ type of leadership,” said Lyons in by telephone on Tuesday. “They want to see somebody go about their business the right way and get the job done on the field. From there, people will follow suit. That’s the leader I’ve always seen myself as, and I think that’s what a lot of players tend to follow.”
Those who have been around him know that Lyons is not the type of player who gives big speeches in the clubhouse or displays intense emotion on the field. They also know that he is the guy to come through when it matters most and someone who has frequently produced year in and year out. Despite batting just .248 during the 2012 season, he delivered time and time again. From his walk-off single to clinch the First Half Liberty Division title to his game-winning hits in Games Two and Five of the Atlantic League Championship Series, Lyons made his presence known on the field.
The past two seasons have been his best in a Ducks uniform. 2015 saw “Shorty” post career-high totals in nearly every category. He batted .301 in 131 games, launched 11 home runs while driving in 73 runs and stole 18 bases in 22 attempts. Not to mention, his defense, which had always been very strong, impressed so much that he received the league’s inaugural Rawlings Gold Glove Defensive Player of the Year Award. Although his numbers decreased slightly in 2016, in part due to injuries during the year, Lyons still batted .272 in 102 games, hit seven home runs, collected 49 RBI and posted a .972 fielding percentage. Ultimately, his leadership was a big factor in helping the Ducks to a fourth Liberty Division championship in his six seasons with the club.
“I think, especially the last two or three years, I’ve viewed myself as having more of a leadership role with the organization and in the clubhouse,” Lyons noted. “I feel like I have a lot to offer my teammates from being around for so long and getting to know what the pitching is like and what to expect from fans and opposing players. I definitely feel like I’ve taken on more of a leadership role, and I’m going to continue to do that.”
When Lyons came to the Ducks in 2011 after being released by the Washington Nationals, he immediately spoke about his desire to help the team win a championship. He also, understandably, hoped to find his way back to a Major League organization and ultimately achieve his big league dream. While that goal still remains very much a part of him, he has grown fond of having a place outside of the Land of 10,000 Lakes that he can truly call home.
“It’s nice to have that comfortability with an organization like the Ducks,” exclaimed the University of Minnesota alum. “It really gives me something to look forward to in the offseason when I’m getting ready for the next year.”
Some guys decide to hang up the cleats when they see their chance at the Majors dwindling. For them, the glitz and glamour seem too far away to justify the grind of the baseball season. Lyons comes from a different breed though. His fuel comes from the desire to win and rekindle the memories and celebrations that echoed throughout Long Island in 2012 and 2013.
“I’m realistic with the knowledge that it’s getting tougher and tougher getting back into a Major League organization now,” he said, “but that’s not going to change my approach. I’ve always been the kind of guy that’s going to want to go out and prepare to win, not so much put up the numbers and try to get signed. I’m out here trying to win. I find I’m a lot happier when I win, so I just want to be happy.”
One of the keys to happiness for the three-time Atlantic League All-Star this year will be staying healthy. At the outset of the 2016 season, Lyons picked up right where he left off in 2015. He compiled a .319 batting average through the first half of the season and went to the All-Star Game hitting .329 at the time. However, Lyons struggled following the break, going hitless in five consecutive games (17 at-bats). He ended up missing 10 games at the end of August due to injury, and nagging bumps and bruises kept him from finding the same groove he had during the first half.
“I had some injuries that knocked me down a little [in the first half] but was still able to play through,” he recalled. “Once the All-Star break came, some of those injuries got a little too much, and I wasn’t able to perform at the level I was accustomed to the year before.”
At 32 years old, age is beginning to become somewhat of a factor for Lyons. His ability to play the game at a high level is certainly still there, but playing through injuries and recovering rapidly is becoming more challenging, as is the case with any player as they get older. Knowing this, Lyons has made it a point to focus his goals for this season on maintaining his physical health.
“Injuries are going to happen no matter what, it’s just about how your body bounces back from them,” he stated. “We’ve seen guys in this league who have gotten older by baseball standards do very well and stay healthy. I think, especially as you get older, it’s very important to get out there and do something active every day away from the field or when you get to the field to get some type of a workout in.”
With that in mind, Lyons plans to change his approach when facing the injury bug this season.
“Sometimes, it’s tough to want to go in and work out before a game when you’re hurting; you just want to rest,” he said. “I think last year, I was more concerned with resting to get better rather than going out and doing some activities to get my body in better shape. My goal this year is to go out there and do a little bit more.”
2017 will be Lyons’ seventh season on Long Island. He has won championships, been to All-Star Games and received many terrific honors. In addition, he has become the leader of a franchise that has seen so many great players don the uniform in just 17 seasons. Though time wears on and the mileage increases, Lyons is nowhere near ready to think about putting the car in park.
“I have the drive to continue to want to get better,” he noted, “and I also still like playing the game. As long as I have both of those, I’ll be able to stay in the lineup, be competitive and make a difference on the field.”
Couple his sage wisdom with his consistent performance, and it’s easy to see why Lyons is a true leader.
A pair of champions has been reunited on Long Island.
The Ducks have signed their first pitcher to the 2017 roster, bringing aboard reliever Tyler Wilson. His rights had been acquired about one week earlier from the Ottawa Champions of the Can-Am League for future considerations. Now, he has officially put pen to paper on a contract to solidify his place in the bullpen. In doing so, he also assured himself of a reunion with new Ducks pitching coach Billy Horn after the pair spent the past two seasons together in Ottawa.
“Billy’s been awesome to me and has given me all the opportunities in the world to show what I have,” said Wilson by telephone on Friday. “When no one would give me a chance, he believed in me. Even when things weren’t going so hot, he didn’t stray from believing in me.”
Wilson and Horn’s relationship has blossomed in their two seasons together with the Champions. Both joined the club for its inaugural season in 2015. Wilson was looking to get his career back on track after mixed results over four seasons in the Red Sox organization and struggling as a starter with two other Can-Am League clubs. Horn, meanwhile, was beginning his first coaching opportunity in professional baseball and looking to help his ballplayers reach the next level.
The two immediately clicked, and it proved to be a mutually beneficial tandem. Wilson was given several different roles in his first season with Ottawa, handling everything from mop-up duty in blowout games to a set-up role and even closing on occasion. After compiling a 5.50 earned run average in 30 starts over his first two seasons in the league, the right-hander was able to turn in a 3.15 ERA in 32 relief appearances during the 2015 campaign. He also struck out 53 batters and walked just 17, a 3.1/1 ratio, compared to 118 strikeouts and 65 walks in 2013 and 2014 combined a 1.8/1 ratio.
“Tyler is the ultimate competitor and has a perfect mentality for a reliever,” commented Horn. “He is extremely focused and always wants the ball. For a power arm, he throws a lot of strikes, with good run on the fastball and a hard slider.”
His 2016 season was even more impressive. Wilson lowered his ERA even further to a miniscule 2.08 and made 42 appearances during the year. He nailed down 14 saves as Ottawa’s closer and struck out 60 batters while walking 24 and helped the Champions clinch a spot in the playoffs. Wilson then made five appearances in the postseason without allowing a run and struck out seven in six and two-thirds innings. The end result: A Can-Am League championship.
What could Wilson attribute to yielding, in his words, the best two years of his career?
“I’ve just really busted my butt and watched a lot of film of myself,” he noted. “I think I just went out there and was an even greater competitor than I had been. I wanted to have a lot of fun, leave it all out on the field and know that if I gave 100% that day and it didn’t turn out the way I wanted, there was nothing more I could have done to change that.”
Thanks to his success and a strong working relationship with Horn, Wilson put himself in a position to seek further opportunities to enhance his career. While he was proud to be part of a championship roster in Ottawa, the Georgia native’s dream to one day reach the big leagues was still very much alive. As the offseason began, he reached out to his manager with the Champions, Hal Lanier, about options to take the next step.
“I asked Hal if there was any way I could get in the Atlantic League and move up in my career to better my chances,” recalled Wilson. “He was all for it. He wants the best for my career, and I just felt like the Atlantic League was the best place for me to further my career.”
Horn was able to use his relationship with Ducks President/GM Michael Pfaff to eventually become Long Island’s next pitching coach. Wilson’s bond with Horn helped get the barrel rolling to bring the pitcher to Bethpage Ballpark as well. Now, their relationship will be able to continue growing.
“Here I am two years later, he gets a promotion and I’m getting a promotion myself,” exclaimed Wilson. “I’ve been able to build a special relationship with him. Some people would say like he’s been a father figure to me.”
He went on to add, “It’s just awesome that I get to experience this with him. We’re both getting a big opportunity here, and I know we are both willing to give everything we’ve got to show everyone that we belong here.”
The move to the Ducks, and the Atlantic League, will provide a great challenge for Wilson. The 27-year-old has never faced a competition level like he will in the ALPB. His career in the Red Sox organization reached as high as Single-A in 2012, and he has spent the past four seasons in the Can-Am League. While some of his teammates are sure to be younger than him, Wilson will be joining a league and a roster filled with Major League veterans and guys who have reached the highest levels of minor league baseball. Rather than being intimidated, he plans to use that fact to his advantage.
“This will be my fifth year in independent baseball, and all that I’ve heard about the Atlantic League is how much better the players are,” noted Wilson. “I feel like this is the big leagues of the independent world. I’m sure I will be playing with guys that are older than me and have a lot more experience than I do, and I’m going to walk in eager and willing to work. I haven’t established myself yet, so I’ll be here learning from these guys that have been with the Ducks, in the big leagues and at Double-A or Triple-A. I’ll just be eating up all the information I possibly can to help me get to where I want to be.”
Horn believes that Wilson will be able to make the change in stride, stating “He will definitely fit in any clubhouse no matter what level he makes it to. He just wants to go out there, compete, pitch and just like anyone else, make it to the big leagues.”
Much like in 2015, Wilson will begin the year without a definitive role in the bullpen. He knows that Horn and Ducks manager Kevin Baez might utilize him as a late-inning reliever or as a long man option behind the starter if necessary. Considering he served as a starter throughout the first three seasons of his career and two more years with the Trois-Rivieres Aigles, the options are endless. Wilson tends to use that versatility to his advantage.
“Whatever opportunity they want to give me, I’m willing to be that guy,” he affirmed. “It doesn’t really matter to me. I’m not coming in here focused on one job. I’m just here to prove myself in whatever job that they may give me.”
In the end, Wilson is hoping to enjoy the sweet taste of victory in the season’s final game, just like he did last year with Ottawa. Every player wants to win a championship in their career, and that is his primary focus coming into 2017. Now that he had the chance to experience what life was like on top, with Horn by his side, Wilson’s desire to have that moment again has become even stronger.
“That would icing on the cake for me,” he stated, “especially with getting an opportunity to pitch in the Atlantic League. Going to the playoffs and the Championship Series again would honestly be a dream come true. There aren’t too many years in a row that you get to go to the playoffs, much less the championship. As a guy coming into his first year in the league, I would love to be a part of that.”
Wilson’s journey begins in April, and the man who got him here will be right by his side.
The first brick has been laid in the construction of the 2017 Long Island Ducks roster. On Monday, the team announced Cody Puckett as its first player signing for this year, kick-starting the exciting build up to Opening Night. With his return, the infielder will begin a fourth consecutive year with the Ducks. It is certainly not difficult to see that Puckett has become an important piece of the “core” that has shaped this team during its second decade on Long Island.
“I feel like our whole team has been there for a while, not just me,” said Puckett by telephone on Monday. “There is a core group of guys that are more of the leaders, and those guys take on the bigger roles. It’s just fun to go out there and be around everybody.”
Those who have been in the clubhouse and around the team over the past three seasons know that Puckett is more of a quiet leader. He is not the most vocal guy nor does he show a great deal of emotion on the field. Instead, the California native prefers to lift the team through his performance, and he has unquestionably been a model of consistency. Just look at the numbers from those three years:
2014: .298 AVG, 10 HR, 77 RBI, 64 R, 169 H, 17 2B, 138 G
2015: .275 AVG, 9 HR, 53 RBI, 67 R, 147 H, 23 2B, 135 G
2016 .272 AVG, 9 HR, 73 RBI, 62 R, 121 H, 20 2B, 120 G
Despite the success he has had on the diamond, Puckett also knows where he stands among his teammates. While he has helped the Ducks to a Liberty Division championship in 2016, a postseason berth in 2015 and 73 regular season victories in 2014, he has yet to take home the ultimate prize in the Atlantic League. The same cannot be said for others that he shares the clubhouse with, guys like Dan Lyons and John Brownell, for example.
“Those guys have been here and won championships,” Puckett noted. “I just kind of follow their lead, and there is a mutual respect between everybody.”
Even though none of his three seasons has ended on a winning note, Long Island has become home for Puckett. The fans at Bethpage Ballpark have grown fond of his style of play, combining an ability to get on base with power and superb defense to form an overall outstanding ballplayer. He has also been a regular presence in the lineup, playing an average of 131 per season with the Ducks. With the grind that goes through a 140-game schedule along with frequent roster changes, having a player that can be as durable as Puckett goes a long way for any team. Fortunately, that team is the Ducks.
“Long Island has been really good to me, the people there are great and the fans are awesome,” he affirmed. “I wouldn’t want to be with any other team in the Atlantic League.”
Puckett posted strong numbers overall for the Ducks in 2016 as a middle-of-the-lineup bat and primary third baseman. Although his season was limited to 120 games due to minor injuries at the end of May and end of August, his 73 RBI were second-most on the team behind Fehlandt Lentini (75) and sixth-most in the Atlantic League. He also launched nine home runs, equaling his mark from 2015, and eight of them came at Bethpage Ballpark. In the end though, Puckett had mixed reviews about his season.
“I was a little disappointed in the power numbers, but I was pretty good in the RBI department so that was more important,” he recalled. “I just want to get better at hitting with runners on because you can always improve in that. Situational hitting is always big, and games always come down to that.”
Despite wanting to improve, Puckett’s numbers in key situations stood out the most in 2016. With runners on base, he posted a .318 batting average and eight home runs. With runners in scoring position, the average skyrocketed to .371. In 11 at bats with the bases loaded, Puckett hit a staggering .455 with 15 runs batted in. If Puckett can boost those numbers, watch out Atlantic League.
As for the rest of the team, the Ducks found their way into the postseason thanks to clinching the First Half Liberty Division title. Long Island then pulled off one of the greatest comebacks in league history, becoming only the second team in league history to rally from a 2-0 series deficit, as they defeated the Somerset Patriots for the Liberty Division title. However, Puckett’s dream of winning his first Atlantic League championship was dashed when the Sugar Land Skeeters swept the Ducks to claim their first-ever title. Despite achieving his first appearance in the Championship Series with Long Island, the former eighth round draft pick was left unsatisfied.
“Getting there is always a good thing, but after losing, it always leaves a sour taste in your mouth,” Puckett said. “Even if it’s in the Championship Series, it’s never a good thing to end the season on a losing note. You just want to go back out there the next year and finish the job.”
While the team fell short of its final goal, Puckett was confident that the group was good enough to become champions. Faced with a great deal of adversity during the year, losing several key pitchers to outside organizations and other players to injury, Long Island still managed to be one of the final two teams standing. It was that result which made the infielder confident about returning to the Flock.
“We were pretty solid all around last year,” Puckett noted. “Losing our starters in the middle of the year to affiliated baseball and Taiwan kind of hurt us, but besides that, there were new guys who came in and stepped up.”
He went on to add, “I think we had that good group of guys to take it all last year. Things just didn’t work out in our favor at the end, but that’s why you play the games.”
Unlike many of his teammates who flew south to play winter ball in the Caribbean, Puckett’s offseason was a bit more tranquil. The majority of his time was spent in Las Vegas, which he now calls home after moving from Apple Valley, California. Cody’s mother, Kerry, received a new job offer there, and Cody’s father, Rock, made the move with her. He hopes to get a job as an usher at the new T-Mobile Arena, home of the Las Vegas Golden Knights, who will join the National Hockey League in the fall.
Also joining Cody and his parents in Las Vegas was Cody’s girlfriend, Alexandra, a native of Long Island. The couple is currently expecting a baby in the next couple of weeks, and that has allowed them both to spend quality time together while also feverishly preparing for the arrival of the newest Ducks fan.
“It’s exciting,” Puckett exclaimed. “We’ve been getting all of our stuff ready; I think we’re pretty much all set. I’m just waiting for her to give me the word to take her to the hospital.”
They have already decided upon a name, but they’re waiting until the baby comes before revealing it.
Once April hits and Puckett makes his way out East, baseball will surely take over much of his focus. The 2015 Atlantic League All-Star knows he will be returning to the team he wants to play for and a league that has treated him well ever since he arrived in 2014. In fact, it did not take Puckett long to know that this was where he wanted to be.
“After that first year, I thought it was the most fun I had playing baseball in a long time,” he reminisced. “You just go out there and play, and that was awesome for me.”
He later noted, “In the Atlantic League, you get to see a lot of ex-big leaguers and older veterans but you also get to see a lot of younger guys coming up. It’s a very diverse league, and the competition is second to none.”
As for expectations this year, his mission is simple: “I’m looking forward to bringing a championship back there in 2017.”
The Caribbean Winter Leagues are now deep into the playoffs, and the competition has become increasingly tense as the Caribbean Series draws closer. As we have documented previously, there are a host of Atlantic League alumni playing down in countries like Puerto Rico, Mexico, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic. Many spent time in the ALPB as recently as this past season, but several others have played in the league prior to that point.
Throughout the coming weeks, we will break down the performances of many of these alumni throughout each of the four main leagues. However, this post will focus solely on the excitement taking place in Puerto Rico. The five-team winter league has now been whittled down to the final two, with Cangrejeros de Santurce battling Criollos de Caguas for the championship.
Santurce, who posted the league’s best record during the season at 28-12, reached the finals thanks to a dominant 4-1 series victory over Gigantes de Carolina in the seminfinals. The series saw Santurce outscore Carolina 20-8, including a pair of shutout victories and two games where Carolina was held to one run. Among the pitchers that shined for Santurce in the victory was Ducks alumni Darin Downs, who threw four innings of two-hit, shutout baseball and struck out three as the starter in Game Three.
Although his team was defeated, another Ducks alumnus also pitched well. That would be Jarret Leverett, who earned the win in Game Two with three and one-third innings of scoreless relief. Other ALPB alumni who joined Leverett on Carolina were former Skeeters pitchers Michael Nix and Andrew Johnston and outfielder Jeff Dominguez.
Caguas finished third during the season at 19-21, but they found a way to triumph over an Indios de Mayaguez team that was 26-14. Although Caguas found themselves trailing the series two games to none, their pitching staff turned things around with a dominant performance of their own, limiting Mayaguez to just six runs over the final four games (compared to nine in the first two games). Caguas won all four of those games to secure a place in the championship.
Leading the way in the comeback was Ducks fan favorite John Brownell. The righty pitched five and two-thirds innings of two-run ball in Game Three to earn Caguas its first win of the series and then turned in a vintage effort in the clincher, firing seven innings of three hit, shutout baseball and striking out four to earn another victory. Closing out both of his wins was former Ducks and York Revolution reliever Ricardo Gomez, who collected three saves in the series overall and pitched in five games, allowing just three hits while striking out seven over six innings. Although he took the loss in Game One, former Somerset Patriots pitcher Will Oliver also posted strong numbers. He allowed only one unearned run in seven and one-third innings of relief, yielding six hits while striking out two. Former Ducks pitchers Patrick Crider and J.C. Romero also pitched for Caguas in the series.
Offensively, Ruben Gotay led the charge for Caguas. The former Ducks infielder batted .400 for the series (8-for-20) and drew four walks as well. He collected a pair of doubles as part of a three-hit performance in Game Two, drove in both of Caguas’ runs in Game Five on RBI singles and picked up the lone RBI in the Game Six clincher on a bases loaded walk. Former Duck Randy Ruiz also performed well in the series, batting .333 (7-for-21) with seven RBI and two runs. His big performances came in Game Three, when he picked up an RBI double and a three-run home run, and Game Four, where he collected three hits and one RBI.
Despite suffering the series loss, former Ducks pitcher Andrew Barbosa impressed for Mayaguez. The southpaw tossed three scoreless innings in relief during his team’s win in Game One and then started Game Four, pitching five and one-third innings of one-run ball while striking out four. Teammates of his included 2015 Atlantic League Player of the Year Welington Dotel and former Patriots pitchers Connor Little and Efrain Nieves.
That brings us to the Puerto Rican Winter League Championship Series, which is already off to an exciting start. Game One, which took place on Saturday, featured a terrific pitcher’s duel that saw the teams combine for just 11 hits. Caguas took an early 1-0 lead thanks to a two-out RBI infield single in the first inning from Ruiz, who finished with two hits on the night. Orlando Roman started and threw four and two-thirds scoreless innings, but Oliver collected the eventual win with two scoreless and hitless innings of relief. Gomez ended up nailing down the save with a 1-2-3 ninth to secure the 1-0 victory.
Game Two featured a matchup of Atlantic League alumni on the mound. Downs took the ball for Santurce, while Barbosa got the nod for Caguas. Barbosa was picked up by Caguas in a draft held following the semifinals where the winning teams are permitted to draft two players from the teams they had eliminated. Caguas built an early lead against the former Ducks southpaw, scoring single runs in the second and fourth innings. Ruiz walked and scored on a double in the second, while former Patriots infielder David Vidal walked and scored on a double in the fourth. Meanwhile, Barbosa dominated on the rubber with six scoreless innings, surrendering just one hit and two walks while striking out four. However, Santurce’s offense exploded against the Caguas bullpen, scoring six runs over the final three innings to earn a 6-3 win.
Following a day off, the series resumed on Tuesday night for Game Three. Once again, Caguas jumped in front against Santurce with a pair of runs in the first inning. The eventual game-winning run was tacked on in the fifth when Vidal led off the frame with a solo home run. Former big leaguer and Patriots pitcher Jose De La Torre started for Caguas and was strong for the first five innings. However, he ran into some trouble with a 3-0 lead in the sixth, as a fielding error prevented another scoreless frame. After one run scored on a force out, Oliver entered the game and allowed an RBI double. Fortunately for him, the tying run was thrown out at the plate to keep Caguas in front 3-2. Caguas added an insurance run in the ninth on an RBI double from Ruiz, and Gomez picked up another save with two scoreless innings of relief despite allowing a pair of hits and a pair of walks.
Caguas maintains a 2-1 series lead, but there is still plenty of baseball to be played. Puerto Rico’s Championship Series is a best-of-nine, meaning that a team must win five games to claim the title. Here is the remaining schedule for the series:
Game Four: Wednesday, January 18 – 6:15 p.m. EST at Caguas
Game Five: Thursday, January 19 – 6:15 p.m. EST at Santurce
Game Six: Saturday, January 21 – 6:15 p.m. EST at Caguas
Game Seven: Sunday, January 22 – 3:15 p.m. EST at Santurce (if necessary)
Game Eight: Wednesday, January 25 – 6:15 p.m. EST at Caguas (if necessary)
Game Nine: Thursday, January 26 – 6:15 p.m. EST at Santurce (if necessary)
Brownell is currently scheduled to pitch on Wednesday in Game Four, while Barbosa and Downs are slated to start again in Game Six on Saturday. Fans wishing to follow along can do so via MLB’s Gameday by CLICKING HERE. Best of luck to both teams as they bid for the Puerto Rican League championship!