Category Archives: Player Signings
John Brownell has just about done it all in a Ducks uniform. He has broken the franchise’s all-time records for wins, strikeouts, innings pitched and games started. He has earned Atlantic League Pitcher of the Year honors. He was named the Championship Series’ Most Valuable Player in 2013 after helping the Flock win back-to-back titles. Yet despite all the accolades that have come his way, the right-handed starter refuses to think about his place as the greatest pitcher in team history.
“I don’t really look at the personal achievements,” he stated via telephone on Tuesday. “My goal is just to try and get better every year and try to do the best I can every day I get the ball for the team. I’m just trying to win championships. The personal stuff is great, but I don’t really think about that at all. What’s happened is behind me, and I just keep pressing forward to the next day and the next season.”
The 33-year-old will begin his sixth season at his “home away from home” in 2017. Since arriving in September of 2011, Brownell has fallen in love with Long Island and Ducks fans have reciprocated. The environment has enabled him to develop a comfort zone and achieve success, and Long Islanders have fed off of his consistency on the mound and ability to step up when it matters the most. It has become a match made in heaven.
“It’s like a second home to me with the way the organization and fans have treated me over the years,” Brownell noted. “The fans are there to support, day in and day out, and the team takes care of the players. It just seems like they are very invested in the team. I couldn’t be happier to be back with the Ducks. I just love it there and am thankful for the opportunity.”
If Long Island has become Brownell’s second home, Criollos de Caguas in Puerto Rico would be home number three for the Omaha, Nebraska resident. He has played for the team during the winter in three of the past four years, including this offseason, and has continued to find success down there. In 24 starts with Caguas, the righty has compiled an 8-8 record with a 2.77 ERA and 76 strikeouts in 120 and one-third innings of work. While nothing is ever guaranteed for Brownell following the Atlantic League season, he feels as though he has found somewhat of a nook in Puerto Rico.
“It’s similar as far as how the organization treats the players,” he explained. “Alex Cora has been the general manager every year that I’ve been there, and he makes you feel comfortable and welcome the same way that Mike Pfaff and everybody with the Ducks do. I love it there because they make it feel like you’re at home and help take care of you if you’re in need of something, not just on the field but away from it as well.”
After putting together another strong season with the Ducks in 2016, Brownell headed south for the winter looking for more of the same with Criollos de Caguas. He started seven games for them during the regular season and posted a miniscule 2.12 ERA. Despite his success, the team struggled to get the same results and finished the year at 19-21, third among the league’s five teams and nine games behind leaders Cangrejeros de Santurce.
When the playoffs began, it appeared as though the trend would continue. Caguas fell behind two games to none against Indios de Mayaguez, who had finished the year seven games better than them at 26-14. Staring at a potential 3-0 deficit in the best-of-seven series, Caguas turned to a proven postseason performer in Brownell to start a critical Game Three.
“In a seven-game series, when you’re down 2-0, Game Three is essentially a must-win,” Brownell acknowledged. “If you go down 3-0, you’re probably not coming back to win that series. Just being in situations like that throughout my career kind of gives you confidence to recall on those times. You can say, ‘Alright, you’ve been here before. It’s nothing different. Just go out there and do your job like every other day. Give the team a chance to win the game and hopefully hand the ball to the bullpen with a lead.’”
Sure enough, he took the mound and tossed five and two-thirds innings of two-run ball and left the game with his team in front 5-2. The bullpen would preserve the lead from there, giving Caguas a 5-4 win that would turn their postseason around. The team would go on to win each of the next three games, all in one-run fashion, to earn a place in the finals.
Caguas would face Santurce to determine the Puerto Rican champion, and sure enough, the series would feature a pair of former teammates battling to win the title. Across the diamond from Brownell was Darin Downs, Long Island’s number two starter to begin the 2015 playoffs and 2016 season behind the right-hander. It gave the two a chance to fiercely compete against one another on the field but also a chance to reconnect and cheer each other on as friends.
“Darin and I got together a couple of times during that series and got some coffee in the morning,” Brownell reminisced. “There was definitely a little trash talk there. We were just happy for each other though that we were able to be a part of that and compete for a championship, even though we were on opposite teams. Darin’s a good friend. Of course I wanted my team to win, but if his team had won, I would have been happy for him.”
The series began in see-saw fashion, but Downs seemed to have the upper hand early on. The southpaw started Game Two, a Santurce victory, despite him lasting just three and two-thirds innings. Brownell turned in a quality start in Game Four with six and one-third innings of three-run ball, but Santurce won again. Ultimately, Brownell and Caguas found themselves trailing three games to two in the best-of-nine series and on the brink of elimination. However, they stormed back with a 12-1 victory in Game Five, handing Downs the loss in a game that would change the series for good. Brownell started Game Six and pitched three innings of one-run ball before the bullpen tossed six scoreless frames to earn a 4-1 win and the edge in the series. Three days later, Caguas won the championship in a 12-inning thriller.
“I feel like it was similar to the 2013 Ducks championship because we were an underdog going into those playoffs,” Brownell claimed. “I don’t think many teams in the league that year thought we were going to win it. [This year,] we were one of the lower seeds getting into the playoffs and everybody was thinking Santurce or Mayaguez was going to win it. We were down 2-0 against Mayaguez and came back to win that series in six games, which I think shocked the league down there. Santurce had, by far, the best record during the regular season. We were down in that series and came back to win the final three games to take that series. I think that shocked the league again.”
Caguas would face adversity yet again when they took part in the Caribbean Series, hosted by Mexico. Over the first three days of the tournament, Puerto Rico lost round robin games to Mexico, Venezuela and Cuba. Without a victory over the Dominican Republic on the tournament’s fourth day, their season would be over. To win the entire series, Puerto Rico would need to win three straight games, much like the Ducks had to do against Somerset in the 2016 Liberty Division Championship Series. Brownell was handed the ball in a must-win game, and he would use this past year’s experience as fuel.
“It definitely helped as far as my confidence and taking the mound in those situations,” he affirmed. “I had a more recent experience to call upon to give me confidence going into those games. You’ve just got to focus a little bit more and press in a little bit harder to get the job done.”
Brownell was spotted an early 3-0 lead, and he began the night with four scoreless innings on the mound. He ran into trouble in the fifth though, surrendering a two-out, two-run single to close the gap to one. However, Puerto Rico’s bullpen avoided further trouble and the offense erupted for seven runs over the final four innings to clinch a spot in the semifinals. They would go on to avenge their earlier loss in the tournament with a 9-6 triumph over Venezuela to reach the Caribbean championship. Finally, Puerto Rico blanked the host country, 1-0, in a 10-inning pitcher’s duel to claim the title.
While Brownell certainly was a big factor in helping Caguas become not only the best in Puerto Rico but the best in all of the Caribbean, he was not alone. The team’s chemistry was built on having many native Puerto Ricans playing together as well as several Ducks and Atlantic League alumni playing together. Among Brownell’s teammates were former Ducks Ruben Gotay, Randy Ruiz, Ricardo Gomez and Andrew Barbosa. In addition, the veteran was joined on the roster by former rivals in David Vidal, Will Oliver and Jose De La Torre of the Somerset Patriots. Having so many familiar faces in the clubhouse was a major key to success for both Brownell and the team as a whole.
“It’s great whenever you go to a new setting for the season and you have guys that you played with,” he stated. “It’s good to see guys from the past, catch up with them and get back on the field competing with those guys. It’s also a lot of fun to play with guys that you competed against during the summer. It’s good to see how they go about their business and play the game because you don’t really see the whole dynamic of their personality and competitive drive when you’re on the opposite team.”
He went on to say, “It definitely helps when there are guys that know each other. It builds that chemistry in the clubhouse and there’s comfort to it.”
Now that the winter season is over, Brownell is focusing on what he believes is one of the most important aspects of his daily life: rest. He has logged a lot of miles over the past four seasons especially between full Atlantic League seasons and winter ball down south. Despite the workload, he has assured all who ask that fatigue has never been an issue. The reason for that has been his reliance on giving his body as much of a break as possible when not at the ballpark.
“Rest is very important,” Brownell asserted. “I’m a big believer in rest, getting to bed as soon as you can and not overworking yourself both physically and mentally. When you leave the field, you’ve got to leave whatever happened at the field that day behind and just give your mind a mental break.”
He added, “I’ve felt good. You have a little bit of time in between the seasons and then after the winter season before you report for the summer. I still get some throwing in, but I don’t overwork myself because you’re going to get plenty of work in while you’re in-season.”
With the 2017 season now just over a month away, Brownell is eager to head back to Long Island and begin a quest to add yet another trophy to his resume. With several key returners already signed, he knows many other teammates will share in his desire to achieve what they narrowly missed out on a year ago.
“Having a good core of guys returning from last year’s team,” he said, “I’m sure we all feel like we have a little unfinished business as far as bringing that championship back to Long Island.”
How he is defined on the baseball diamond is irrelevant to Brownell. The only thing that matters to him: winning the last game of the season.
Jim Fuller could see the summit. After seven seasons in the minor leagues with three different organizations, the Major Leagues were in sight. The left-handed pitcher joined the Pittsburgh Pirates in the offseason and was flat out dominant after receiving an invitation to Major League spring training. In 10 games, he allowed just one run over nine and two-thirds innings, walking none while striking out eight. It appeared as though his big league dream was finally going to be achieved. But then, in the blink of an eye, everything changed.
“Last year was, by far, one of the tougher years I had to go through,” Fuller recalled via telephone this week. “I got hurt right at the end of spring training. Numbers were great in spring, and everything was feeling real good. All of a sudden, injuries happened and kind of set me back. It was real frustrating just sitting there watching the games and not being able to play.”
Fuller suffered a forearm muscle strain that would keep him out of action until the end of May. After recovering from the injury, he appeared in three games for the Triple-A Indianapolis Indians and allowed two runs in three and one-third innings. Despite overcoming the initial injury, it had residual effects on his left shoulder which had been surgically repaired in 2011 after tearing his labrum. Fuller’s season was over in a flash, and that reality was difficult for him to bear.
“It’s one of the toughest things you have to do in sports,” he stated in reference to sitting out the remainder of the year. “You know you can go out there and compete at a high level, but you physically can’t because you’re injured. It’s really tough mentally. I have good family that love me, support me and give me good words of encouragement. It’s just going out there and knowing that everything is going to eventually be okay, and you just have to fight through this.”
The 29-year-old made the decision this winter to ensure that all would indeed be just fine. The positive support he received during the year, coupled with his strong performance last spring, gave him the confidence to get back up on the proverbial horse and begin his quest back towards the big leagues. Most importantly, Fuller dedicated his time to figuring out what might have been the reason for these injuries and how he could correct the problem.
“I took some time this offseason and really thought about what could possibly be causing me to have the same arm issue year after year,” he noted. “I looked at some video of myself and kind of narrowed it down to these little things that I was doing which were putting a lot of pressure on my shoulder. I really took some time and did a lot of things to help out my mechanics and take a lot of that pressure off.”
The results thus far seem to be exactly what he was hoping for. Although he has yet to pitch in a game, the Massachusetts native is feeling strong, both physically and mentally, and believes he has found his groove once again.
“I’m in a good spot right now,” Fuller said, his voice teeming with excitement. “The ball’s coming out great, and my velocity is really good. It’s probably among the best it has been in my career.”
2017 will present a new experience for the former New York Mets draft pick. After spending eight seasons in Major League organizations, Fuller will get his first taste of the Atlantic League. Even though he does not have a vast knowledge about the league as a whole, the reviews he has been presented with have made him eager to run head-on at this new opportunity.
“My agent had a couple of guys who played on the team last year,” Fuller noted. “He said it’s a really good place to play and that I’ll have a fun time. I know it’s good competition, and I’ve heard everyone who has played [in the league] has said it’s a blast to play there. Honestly, I love playing the game and competing and that’s probably the thing I’m looking forward to the most.”
Fuller has done a little bit of everything in his career. He spent most the first three seasons of his career in the starting rotation and did incredibly well, compiling a 16-11 record and a 2.29 ERA in that span. After missing the entire 2011 season and most of 2012 with his shoulder injury, the Mets organization moved him to the bullpen. Despite the switch, Fuller found success in a relief role too. He posted a 0.84 ERA in 2013 at Advanced-A St. Lucie, went 3-1 with a 2.84 ERA in 2014 with Double-A New Britain in the Twins organization and was 2-1 with a 2.78 ERA while at Nashville (AAA, Athletics) in 2015. The lefty has enjoyed both roles, and though the Ducks view him as a reliever, his versatility could be an asset.
“As a starter, I really liked going out there every five days and getting the ball to throw five or more innings,” Fuller stated. “I like to compete, and I like to have the ball as much as I can. I’ve really enjoyed relieving as well. It’s a little different than as a starter, but I like getting the ball and having a chance to pitch every day. I enjoy that mindset of going out there and just letting it go for an inning.”
With spring training underway among Major League organizations and the Atlantic League season approaching on the horizon, it is nearly time for Fuller to take the mound again. With the frustration of 2016 well in his rearview mirror, it will be important for him to make sure that those negative thoughts and memories remain in the past. One of the key factors in helping him do that will be the relationship he forges with new Ducks pitching coach Billy Horn. After focusing all offseason on altering his mechanics to avoid injury, Fuller will look to Horn to make sure that he is doing all the right things.
“I think it’s important to have a good relationship with your pitching coach,” he opined. “They see things that you can’t see yourself. Any kind of advice you can take from the pitching coach you have, every little thing helps. If he sees something I can’t pinpoint that I’m doing, we’ll work together to try and figure things out.”
In addition to developing that bond, Fuller knows that the onus will be on him to keep his good vibes in place. He took it upon himself to overcome the injuries, figure out the problem and correct it this winter. Now, his mental toughness and focus during the year will be the key in maintaining both health and success. When asked about what it will take to avoid thinking about his past, Fuller was confident in his reply.
“I’m just going to think about what I did this offseason. I put in a lot of hard work, looked at a lot of video and did a lot of work off the mound. I’ve done just about everything. I’ve figured things out, and I think I’m in a good place right now. I’m going to take that into this season and not think about the past couple of seasons.”
With a mindset like that, Fuller just might be able to soar back up the mountain and land at the top.
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.