End of an Era

After 20 years of incredible games and high-intensity drama, one of the Atlantic League’s fiercest rivalries is coming to an end. Last week, it was announced that the Somerset Patriots would become the Double-A affiliate of the New York Yankees beginning with the 2021 season. The change was one of several made in the Yankees organization, with Trenton (AA), Charleston (A) and Staten Island (A-) losing their affiliations. Tampa will transition from High-A to Low-A status, and Hudson Valley, previously of the now-defunct New York-Penn League, will become the Yankees’ new High-A affiliate.

Somerset’s departure means the loss of the Atlantic League’s last remaining founding franchise. While they played their first season on the road as construction was being completed on their home ballpark, the Patriots were one of six teams that began play in the league’s inaugural season in 1998. The others included the Newburgh Black Diamonds (Lehigh Valley, 1999-2001; Pennsylvania Road Warriors, 2002-04), Nashua Pride (moved to Can-Am League in 2006), Atlantic City Surf (moved to Can-Am League in 2007), Newark Bears (moved to Can-Am League in 2011) and Bridgeport Bluefish (ceased operations after 2017 season). Now, the Long Island Ducks, who began play in 2000, are the longest-running active Atlantic League franchise.

In addition, the change also marks the end of one of the top rivalries in ALPB history. While the Ducks always maintained their cross-sound feud with the Bridgeport Bluefish, highlighted by the annual battle for the Ferry Cup since 2009, the Ducks and Patriots grew to become true foes over the past decade. Each season featured closely-contested matchups that often included extra-inning marathons, walk-off thrillers, and edge-of-your-seat drama.

In 20 years of regular season matchups, the Ducks held a 194-188 advantage over the Patriots, having played more games against the Pats than any other team. However, prior to 2019 (a year in which the Ducks won a championship and Somerset missed the playoffs), the margin was just one game (182-181 in favor of the Ducks). Long Island held a 103-91 advantage in Central Islip, while Somerset had a 97-91 edge in New Jersey. From 2014-2018, the teams split their season series three times, with the Ducks earning an 11-9 series win in the other two.

Like any good rivalry though, it is the playoff meetings that truly make it special. Prior to 2013, Long Island had never faced Somerset in the postseason, and the two were in opposite divisions. The Patriots didn’t become a Liberty Division opponent until 2014. However, over the past seven years, the Ducks and Patriots did battle in five different postseason series, including four consecutive Liberty Division Championship Series matchups from 2015-18.

Four of those five playoff series needed all five games to determine a winner, with the other needing four games. One saw the Ducks come back from 2-0 down to win. Another saw the Patriots rally from a 2-1 deficit to win. Two others saw Long Island go ahead 2-0 before Somerset answered back to even it, only to see Long Island ultimately clinch the series on the road. Let’s look back at those epic playoff matchups:

2013 ATLANTIC LEAGUE CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES

The first-ever postseason meeting between the teams would decide the 2013 ALPB title. Long Island used some late drama to claim the first two games at home, as Josh Barfield’s eighth-inning three-run homer won Game One, and a three-run sixth-inning gave the Ducks a Game Two victory. Cory Aldridge’s three-homer Game Three kept the series going, and a 16-inning nail biter in Game Four forced a decisive Game Five. Ray Navarrete’s three-run homer in the fourth inning of Game Five, his final career game, put the Ducks on top for good. John Brownell pitched into the ninth inning to cap a Championship Series MVP performance, and the Ducks took the finale 6-4 to complete back-to-back championship runs.

2015 LIBERTY DIVISION CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES

This series would also begin on Long Island, but it was the Patriots who struck first blood, claiming a 5-3 win in Game One. The Ducks evened the series with a 5-4 win in Game Two, highlighted by Sean Burroughs’ eighth-inning RBI single. Long Island was riding high after their 9-4 triumph in Game Three, but Somerset’s pitching shut out the Ducks from that point on. Will Oliver’s complete game in Game Four evened the series, and Roy Merritt, who the Patriots acquired for a player to be named later from Sugar Land on August 31, also went the distance in Game Five to claim the series. Following the series, Merritt’s rights were returned to Sugar Land.

2016 LIBERTY DIVISION CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES

Long Island and Somerset again faced each other in the first round, though this series began in New Jersey. Scott Kelly’s walk-off homer in the 11th inning of Game One and a 14-strikeout night by Nik Turley gave the Patriots a 2-0 series lead. However, Long Island became a different team when they returned home. Nick Struck threw seven innings of one-run ball to win Game Three for the Flock, and Anthony Vega’s two-run homer in Game Four was all Long Island needed to even the series. The Ducks plated four runs in the first inning of Game Five and held that lead to complete the comeback from 0-2 down in the series and clinch the Liberty Division crown.

2017 LIBERTY DIVISION CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES

Somerset broke out the bats on Long Island to begin their third consecutive first-round matchup with the Ducks. A 7-1 victory in Game One put the Patriots in a good position, but the Ducks countered in Game Two behind Alex Burg’s three-hit night and a strong performance from the bullpen. Jake Fisher turned in one of the all-time great playoff performances before a sellout crowd at Somerset in Game Three. His complete game, nine-strikeout night gave the Ducks a 2-1 lead in the series. The next night, after seeing Somerset rally for two runs in the eighth to tie the game, the Ducks took the lead back in the ninth courtesy of a Giovanny Alfonzo RBI fielder’s choice to win the game, 4-3, and the series, 3-1.

2018 LIBERTY DIVISION CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES

The 2018 playoffs began in quite surprising fashion. Instead of the usual nail biters, the Ducks routed the Patriots in Games One and Two on Long Island, combining to outscore their rivals 20-3. However, anyone expecting a sweep would be disappointed. Somerset overcame 2-0 and 3-1 deficits to take Game Three and used three homers to claim a 5-3 win in Game Four. Another decisive Game Five was needed. Fernando Abad pitched three perfect innings of relief for the Ducks, and Francisco Rodriguez worked around a leadoff double in the ninth to force extra innings. Ramon Cabrera’s 10th-inning two-out RBI single broke a 2-2 tie, and Matt Larkins nailed down the save in the bottom half of the frame to clinch the division title.

In the end, the Ducks went 14-10 against the Patriots in their 24 postseason meetings, including a dominant 9-2 on Long Island (compared to 5-8 in New Jersey). Long Island went from no playoff meetings with Somerset for 13 years to now having faced Somerset more than any other team in the postseason.

Much remains to be seen regarding the landscape in Minor League Baseball prior to the start of the 2021 season. Despite losing Somerset, the Atlantic League has thus far added one franchise in Gastonia, North Carolina. There have been media reports and speculation regarding multiple markets that could bring new teams into the Atlantic League in 2021 and beyond. One thing is clear though: The Ducks will be looking for a new rival. Who will it be, and will it ever live up to the excitement of Ducks-Patriots? Let us know what you think in the comments section.

Posted on November 16, 2020, in Feature Articles and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. This post presents some fond memories of an excellent rivalry. Thanks for posting this. As usual, it was filled with quality clips and information.

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