It’s officially April folks! That means there is less than a month left before the Ducks take the field to embark on their 19th season of play in the Atlantic League. The roster has been taking shape since the calendar flipped to 2018, and there are a lot of key pieces to the puzzle already complete. However, there is surely more work to be done before the first pitch is thrown on April 27th down in Southern Maryland.
One of those important figures added to the roster is none other than former Major Leaguer Jair Jurrjens. The pitcher first entered the big league radar in 2007 when he was called up by the Detroit Tigers. After making seven starts with the club, he switched leagues in the offseason when he was traded along with Gorkys Hernandez to the Atlanta Braves for 1997 World Series hero Edgar Renteria.
After a solid first full season at the game’s highest level in 2008, a year in which he finished third in National League Rookie of the Year voting, he fully stepped into the spotlight with a memorable 2009 campaign. Jurrjens led the NL in games started (34) and posted the league’s third-best earned run average (2.60). His 215 innings pitched ranked ninth in the league as well. The Curaçao native struggled in 2010 but bounced back with an All-Star season in 2011. Jurrjens went 13-6 that year with a sparkling 2.96 ERA and a pair of complete games.
Though he would spend time in MLB over the following three years, injuries and struggles prevented him from maintaining that All-Star status. The 32-year-old would go on to pitch in the Baltimore Orioles, Cincinnati Reds and Colorado Rockies organizations before spending the 2017 season with the Los Angeles Dodgers organization at Triple-A. Now, after posting strong numbers in the Dominican Winter League with Tigres del Licey this offseason, Jurrjens finds himself with another new home: Central Islip, N.Y.
The Ducks signed the eight-year Major League veteran at the beginning of March, and he is now gearing up for his first season in the Atlantic League. Like many before him, this season presents an opportunity for the righty to prove that he deserves a spot with a Major League organization and that he could once again pitch in the big leagues. Jurrjens seems determined and ready for the challenge ahead.
We caught up with the starter to get his take on joining the Flock and reflect back on his memorable time in the Major Leagues:
How do you view this new chapter of your baseball career with the Ducks and the Atlantic League?
“I’m going to look at it like a new challenge and take it as I would in any game or any league. I’m going to try to do my part to help the team win and be the best teammate and role model I can be.”
As an eight-year Major League veteran, are you looking to use this opportunity to mentor some younger teammates while also learning from them?
“I’m always open to share my knowledge. Just because a kid hasn’t played in the big leagues, that doesn’t mean he can’t teach me something. I’m always open to teach and learn from a teammate, and if they ever have a question for me, I’m willing to answer and be the best role model possible.”
Will you lean on the guidance of Atlantic League veterans regarding how to pitch to certain players?
“Yes, but it will come down to making my own adjustments when I’m on the mound and trying to see what will work for me. I’m always open to hear suggestions and go over scouting reports, but at the end of the day, I need to make my own adjustments during the game.”
Being that you pitched in the same organization as former Duck Rich Hill in 2017, did his experience with the Ducks have any influence on your decision to come play on Long Island?
“Yeah, definitely! When you’re in my situation, you want to play for the team that has more recognition. You want to put yourself in the best situation possible to get seen. Knowing the history of the team and the players coming out of there, it made it easy for me to choose the Ducks.”
What does it mean to you to be the first pitcher from Curaçao to reach the Major Leagues?
“It was a fantasy, a dream come true. When I got the call, I thought I was going to get traded because there were rumors at the time. When the minor league director asked me if I was ready to pitch on Tuesday for the big team, I was like, ‘Stop playing with me!’ I was walking through a Circuit City store, which was still open at the time, and when I got the news I just sat down in the middle of the store. I had some problems calling my dad and telling him that I was going up. It was a memory that I’m never going to forget. I still think about it sometimes.”
How special was it facing fellow-countryman Andruw Jones for the first time in 2008?
“It was an honor because Andruw and my older brother played on the same team back home, and I used to be the bat boy for them. It was surreal to see him do everything he did in the big leagues before I got there, then to share a field with him and be the first pitcher to face a position player from Curaçao. He’s a legend back home, and to be able to strike him out, I think I’ll cherish that forever. We joke about it still today. We have a great respect for each other.”
You flourished in your second full season in the Majors (2009). What enabled you to be so successful?
“Everybody talks about the ‘sophomore slump,’ and I just prepared myself mentally to not go through that and not be another name. I like to prove to everybody that I’m better than a lot of people think I am. I trusted myself and tried not to do too much. I just tried to attack the hitters and let them hit the ball. When I needed a strikeout, I would step up my game to get that.”
Is there one memory that stands out most from playing in the 2011 MLB All-Star Game?
“Just sharing it with my family. That is one of the things I’m never going to forget. It was one of my dad’s dreams, and I was able to accomplish that. I’m always going to cherish that. It’s an honor to have the words ‘All-Star’ next to your name, but when you go to the game, it’s all about sharing the time with your family and appreciating the support they give you off the field.”
Does it give you added motivation this year to play in the Atlantic League All-Star Game because it’s being held in your home ballpark?
“The main thing is going out there and giving 100% to my team. I don’t have control over the All-Star situation. As a starting pitcher, your job is to keep the team in the game and give them a chance to win. To be an All-Star, it’s about winning and ERA and personal level numbers like that. If I keep the team in the game and give them a chance to win, there’s a good chance that I can be an All-Star too.”
How much of an honor was it to represent the Netherlands twice in the World Baseball Classic (2006, 2017)?
“A lot of people might not believe me, but I think playing for your country is more challenging and nerve-wracking than playing in the big leagues. In a way, you’re representing your family, your friends and your whole country. It’s really an honor to be able to put that flag and that name on my chest.”
Injuries derailed your 2011 season toward the end. Do you think that contributed to your subsequent struggles in the Majors?
“I was actually pitching on one leg that whole year. After the surgery I had the year before, I started to lose strength in my leg and my knee started swelling up. I wasn’t able to push off the mound and had no velocity. I think I had some personal health issues too that didn’t help me recover from a game or a workout. By changing my diet and seeing a doctor, that helped me get back to where I wanted to be.”
Do you have any personal or team expectations going into the 2018 season?
“On a team level, everyone wants to win. I’m not going to come there just to play baseball. I’m trying to come there to win. On a personal level, you are always trying to impress somebody to get an opportunity to go back to the Major Leagues or go overseas. That’s the goal, but it begins by being a good teammate, playing for your team and trying to win. If the team is winning, scouts are going to come to see you.”
What are you looking forward to most about coming to Long Island?
“Just to have fun! I want to be the best pitcher I can be, have fun with the game, be a good teammate and give 100% percent every time I go out there. I want to be a role model for the community and my teammates.”
Alex Burg had two goals upon joining the Ducks for the first time in 2017: to win an Atlantic League championship and to earn a contract from a Major League organization. While he came up just short of accomplishing the former, he can now celebrate achieving the latter.
The catcher, who had signed on for a second season with Long Island back on February 1, was inked to a minor league contract by the Los Angeles Dodgers this weekend. He will head to Glendale, Ariz. to join the team at its spring training facility, looking to prove his worth to the organization.
“I’m really excited for this opportunity,” Burg said via telephone. “I’m hoping it all works out and that I get the chance to show I can play every day.”
Getting to this point required a decision that Burg made back during the spring of 2017. Prior to beginning his first experience in the Atlantic League, he knew exactly what he hoped to gain from the opportunity. The Washington native was looking for some consistency after spending seven seasons as a utility player in three different Major League organizations.
“I told [Ducks President/GM] Mike [Pfaff] that I wanted to catch every day,” Burg recalled. “I felt like it was my best position but was something I hadn’t really done much of.”
During his time in the San Francisco Giants, Miami Marlins and Texas Rangers’ systems, the first place to look for Burg was not behind the plate. He spent most of his innings in right field (803.2) but was also frequently found at third base (649.0). He spent some time at first base, second base and in left field as well. Versatility is a tremendous asset for any ballplayer and a trait that field managers adore. However, Burg’s belief was that his best position was at catcher and that the key to returning to an MLB organization would be to spend a full season there.
“I felt like that was the best way to get back into affiliated baseball,” he opined. “If I could show that I could catch and still carry an offensive stick, I would obviously be more valued. Throughout my time in minor league baseball, everyone knows that I could go play any position with no issues. However, proving that I could catch would make me more appealing.”
Burg had never caught more than 25 games in a single regular season entering his inaugural year with the Flock in 2017. By year’s end, he would catch 98 games during the season and seven more in the playoffs. While the result was not, at least immediately, a contract with an MLB club, the outcome was what Burg called “the most fun [he’s] ever had playing baseball in [his] entire life.”
2017 represented a little bit of everything for the 30-year-old. While taking to a specific position for the duration of the season, the experience required a great deal of work to prove his worth behind the plate. As the season progressed, Burg received a great deal of help from his teammates and coaches and put in extensive work to refine his craft. The results on the field, in his opinion, were certainly a positive development.
“I was really happy with my defense,” Burg exclaimed. “That was something that was a definite question mark of mine. It was my first year of catching every day and was something I had to prove to myself that I could do. I felt like I made a lot of strides catching-wise. I still have a ways to go in that aspect, but I was really happy with the way I was able to play defense.”
A major reason why the Washington State University alum was able to develop defensively was the work he did with teammate Jordan Pacheco. The former big leaguer, who, like Burg, was signed by an MLB organization this offseason (Twins), was also fine-tuning his craft behind the plate. After suffering a shoulder injury the previous year, Pacheco needed to build back up the strength in his arm while also reacclimating to the role. This dynamic offered the forum for an exchange of tutelage between the two backstops.
“It was never a competition between us, which was really cool,” Burg reminisced. “Baseball can be kind of a dog-eat-dog world, but it never felt like that. He told me that I threw really well and would ask me what I would do to get those results. Hitting-wise, I would tell him that I loved the way he swung and would ask what he did there. It became almost like an offseason friendship where every day we would show up, go over what we wanted to work on and then get out there to get better.”
Though he was happy with the improvements made in his defensive game, his offensive performance was a bit of a bumpy road. Burg got out to a strong start to his season, driving in seven runs over the season’s first eight games and bringing a .278 batting average into the month of June. After securing a spot in the Atlantic League All-Star Game, the wear and tear from catching so frequently began to take its toll. Burg struggled in the second half despite the Ducks earning a postseason berth, and he ended the year with a .225 batting average, well below the .260 average over his previous seven seasons.
“I was extremely disappointed in how I broke down at the end of the season, in terms of my offense,” Burg noted. “I had a huge first half and made the All-Star Game. Being that it was the first time catching full-time, my body wasn’t used to the rigors of that second half. I was really disappointed in the way that I finished.”
Fortunately for the former Giants draft pick, a playoff spot gave him the opportunity to wipe the slate clean and show that he could still be dangerous offensively. In Long Island’s seven postseason games, no other Duck had a batting average within 50 points of him. Burg hit .348 (8-for-23), with the next closest teammate being Marc Krauss at .296. In addition, Burg clubbed two of the team’s three postseason homers, scored five runs and drew four walks.
Because of his tremendous turnaround, the Ducks were able to claim their second consecutive Liberty Division Championship over the rival Somerset Patriots. Looking back now on what allowed Burg to flip the proverbial switch, he was able to attribute the success to a conversation with a close friend and fellow ballplayer whom he works out with in the offseason.
“[Arizona Diamondbacks third baseman] Jake Lamb is a really good friend of mine,” he noted. “He had a second half struggle as well. We were talking, and I asked him, ‘what are you trying to do?’ He said that he just tried to back up on the ball a little more and simplify everything. Being in the playoffs and knowing that you’re 0-for-0 and get to start over helps a ton. Your numbers in the playoffs don’t matter. It’s just about trying to win as many games as possible and trying to bring home a championship. That mindset helped me and reenergized me offensively for sure.”
While his goal of bringing home a championship came up short against the York Revolution, his first experience in the Atlantic League was an overwhelming success. He was able to enjoy a high level of play, focus on winning and develop a consistent presence at one position. All of that has now culminated in a second chance at achieving his Major League dream, a chance that might not have happened otherwise.
“I feel like it exceeded all my expectations,” Burg asserted about his year with the Flock. “I really had no clue what I was walking into, and I had no idea that the baseball would be that good. The star power that you see in the league and the guys that can still play, it was truly awesome. I had more fun playing baseball last year than I probably had in my entire life. That was the main reason I was ready to come back [before the Dodgers offered a contract].”
Now that he has a full year of catching under his belt, Burg knows what to expect from the position. The mental and physical grind is tougher than just about any other position on the field. It has a significant effect over the course of time. Knowing this, and his desire to avoid a downturn as the season progresses, Burg has focused his offseason workouts on keeping his endurance high.
“I’ve just done a little bit more leg work and endurance-type activities,” he claimed. “You’re trying to feel stronger for a longer period of time. I’ve just developed a routine of doing similar things to what I had been but focusing more on my legs or increasing the number of reps. I also created a better maintenance program for the season. I think that will be a big help too. My lifts weren’t as good during the season as I would have liked them to be. I’m just trying to figure out a way to keep my body in better shape.”
It remains unclear where Burg will begin his 2018 season. He split time at Double-A and Triple-A in 2016 prior to joining the Flock, leaving either of those as his likely destination. However, the sky is the limit for him with the Dodgers. With a new workout regimen to keep up his strength, a full year of catching experience in his arsenal and a second chance at living out his dream, Burg could one day be wearing Dodger blue in a big league ballpark.
The 2018 Atlantic League schedule has officially been released, and the Long Island Ducks now know who and when they are playing during the upcoming All-Star Summer. There were many important notes that came out of this year’s schedule release, and if you happened to miss the announcement, let’s summarize some of the key things to know:
- The 2018 season will feature a 126-game schedule with two 63-game halves.
- With the addition of the Road Warriors, a league-operated travel team, the Ducks will play 72 home games and 54 road games to make up the 126-game slate (normally 70 home, 70 road, 140 total).
- The Ducks’ regular season begins on the road against the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs (for the second year in a row) on Friday, April 27.
- The 2018 Home Opener for Long Island will be on Friday, May 4 against the Blue Crabs at 6:35 pm.
- Bethpage Ballpark will host the Atlantic League All-Star Game on Wednesday, July 11 at 6:35 pm.
- First Liberty Division Championship Series rematch vs. Somerset Patriots: May 1-3 in New Jersey (Home: May 25-27).
- First Atlantic League Championship Series rematch vs. York Revolution: June 7-10 in Pennsylvania (Home: June 25-28).
The following is the complete 2018 Long Island Ducks Schedule (click to enlarge):
There is so much to look forward to during the Ducks’ 19th season of play, between the increased amount of games played on Long Island, the All-Star Game coming to Central Islip for a third time in franchise history and so much more. Fans can secure their seats for every game now with season ticket packages currently on sale. Here is a timeline of when other ticket options will become available for fans:
Group Ticket Packages & Experiences: Wednesday, November 8 at 10:00 am
10-Game Mini Plans: Monday, November 13 at 10:00 am
Birthday Party Packages: January 2018 (Date TBD)
Promotional Schedule Release & Individual Game Tickets: March 2018 (Dates TBD)
In other league news, the seven clubs returning from the 2017 season all took part in a Dispersal Draft on Wednesday morning. This draft was held to allow teams the opportunity to obtain the 2018 negotiating rights of players whose rights had been controlled by the Bridgeport Bluefish. This included players who were on Bridgeport’s active roster, inactive list, disabled list or had their contracts purchased from the Bluefish during the course of this past season. Those not included were players who had been released or traded by Bridgeport. Rather than having all Bluefish players become free agents and all seven teams battling for their services, teams drafted in order (based on 2017 overall regular season win-loss record) to obtain the rights to desired players they hope to sign for 2018.
The Ducks, with a record of 73-67 in 2017, had the fifth pick in the draft. Three rounds were held for teams to make selections, with additional rounds all optional. Four teams made selections in the fourth round (New Britain, Sugar Land, York and Long Island). The Ducks would make two more selections after the fourth round, while the Bees made four additional selections. Let’s take a look at the six players whose negotiating rights Long Island obtained during the Bluefish Player Dispersal Draft:
FIRST ROUND: DANIEL FIELDS (OF)
Fields brings a little bit of everything to the table should the Ducks eventually sign him. The outfielder played in 85 games for Bridgeport in 2017 and showcased an ability to get on base as well as some power. He compiled a .297 batting average and 88 hits to go along with a .387 on-base percentage and an .873 OPS. The 26-year-old finished the season with 12 home runs, 51 RBI, 54 runs scored, 18 doubles and 37 walks. Although Fields did not possess tremendous speed (one triple, one stolen base) and was a bit strikeout-prone (90 K’s) in 2017, he has 36 triples and 93 stolen bases in 787 career games. Defensively, Fields made just three errors in 63 games played in the outfield last year and posted a .990 fielding percentage in his seven seasons of affiliated baseball before joining the Atlantic League. The Detroit native reached the Major Leagues with his hometown Tigers in 2015, picking up a double and a run scored in his lone big league game. He spent six seasons in the Tigers organization before splitting 2016 in the White Sox and Dodgers’ systems, reaching Triple-A with both.
SECOND ROUND: VINNIE PESTANO (RHP)
Like Fields, Pestano is also a former Major Leaguer. The right-handed reliever has six seasons of MLB time with the Cleveland Indians (2010-14) and Los Angeles Angels (2014-15). In 223 career appearances, he accrued an impressive 2.98 ERA, 11 saves and 244 strikeouts in 202 and two-thirds innings, good for a 10.8 K/9 ratio. The 32-year-old impressed out of Bridgeport’s bullpen in 2017, pitching in 26 games and going 1-1 with a 3.25 ERA, one save and 30 strikeouts to just five walks in 27 and two-thirds innings. With the Bluefish bidding for a playoff berth, he tossed 10 consecutive scoreless appearances from August 16 to September 7 spanning a total of 11 and one-third innings. The California native also threw two scoreless innings at Bethpage Ballpark, striking out three. Prior to joining Bridgeport, Pestano made eight appearances with the Yankees’ Triple-A affiliate in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, Pa. in 2016, yielding four runs in 10 and two-thirds innings while striking out 16 and walking one. Not to mention, he was once referenced in an episode of “How I Met Your Mother” by Ted Mosby (Season 8, Episode 4)!
THIRD ROUND: WANDER PEREZ (LHP)
Dominant left-handed relief pitchers are not easy to come by, but the Ducks got the rights to one in the third round on Wednesday. Perez compiled a miniscule 1.71 ERA in 22 games for the Bluefish this past year, surrendering just four earned runs in 21 innings of work. He also struck out 25 batters while yielding only five walks and picked up a save along the way. After joining the team at the end of July, the 32-year-old made 15 consecutive appearances without allowing an earned run to encompass the month of August. He also pitched three and one-third scoreless innings on Long Island, striking out six. The Dominican Republic native also was a member of the Bluefish in 2015, tossing five and two-thirds scoreless innings over six games. Perez has previous experience in the Chicago White Sox organization and began 2017 with Lehigh Valley (AAA, Phillies).
FOURTH ROUND: ELVIN RAMIREZ (RHP)
The Ducks inked the rights to a third consecutive relief pitcher in the fourth round with Ramirez. The right-hander had tremendous success for Bridgeport last year just like Pestano and Perez, going 5-2 with a 2.16 ERA and two saves in 31 games for the Bluefish. He struck out 30 batters in 33 and one-third innings while walking just six, including none in his final nine outings of the season. The 30-year-old joined Bridgeport at the end of June and began his tenure by not allowing an earned run in 11 straight outings, spanning 11 and two-thirds innings. He then went 13 consecutive outings with no earned runs from August 4 to September 12. The Dominican Republic native also pitched four and two-thirds scoreless innings on Long Island in 2017. Ramirez reached the big leagues with the Mets in 2012, striking out 22 batters in 21 and one-third innings. Control can sometimes be an issue, as he walked 20 batters with the Mets and 260 in affiliated ball experience over 463 and one-third innings, but he averages over seven strikeouts per nine innings. In addition to spending six seasons in the Mets organization, Ramirez has also pitched in the Angels and Reds’ systems.
FIFTH ROUND: MANNY PARRA (LHP)
Parra marked the fourth pitcher and second lefty whose rights the Ducks acquired. The southpaw joined the Bluefish late in the 2017 season and made nine starts with mixed results. He was 3-4 overall with a 5.87 ERA and 43 strikeouts in 46 innings. He allowed 19 walks but surrendered 60 hits. The 35-year-old began his Bluefish career with a strong performance against the Ducks, pitching five and two-thirds innings of two-run ball while striking out seven at Bethpage Ballpark. He then bounced back after a couple of tough outings to allow three earned runs or less in five of his final six starts. The California native carries eight seasons of MLB experience, including five with the Brewers (2007-10, ’12) and three with the Reds (2013-15). He was 29-41 with a 4.90 ERA and 592 strikeouts in 322 games (74 starts) at the game’s highest level. Parra began 2017 with Triple-A Iowa in the Cubs organization and has split time throughout his career as a starter and a reliever.
SIXTH ROUND: SEAN BURROUGHS (INF)
Ducks fans are surely familiar with Burroughs. The former big league infielder spent parts of the 2015 and 2016 seasons in a Ducks uniform and also donned a Bluefish jersey for parts of four years (2014-17). He has showcased a tremendous hitting ability since entering the Atlantic League, compiling a .334 batting average, 144 RBI, 145 runs, 67 doubles, 115 walks and a .394 on-base percentage in 336 games. In his two seasons with Long Island, the California native combined for a .321 batting average and 33 RBI in 79 games. He also brought a very likable personality to the clubhouse, always sporting a big smile and sharing laughs around the batting cage and dugout. Last year with Bridgeport, the seven-year MLB veteran ranked second in the Atlantic League with a .328 batting average. However, fans wondering why he was not drafted earlier on Wednesday must remember that he played in just 92 games last year after twice leaving the team (6/27-7/19 and 9/5-end of season) for the birth and care of his son, Knox. Though he has not announced his official retirement, it certainly remains possible.
Stay tuned for more news and notes as the offseason progresses. Over the next couple of months leading into the holidays, we will be highlighting which Ducks alumni are playing winter baseball in the Caribbean or overseas. In addition, we will also have feature articles on members of the 2017 Ducks and eventually will count down some of the top moments from this past season.
“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.
Since missing the postseason in 2010, the Ducks have made a commitment to developing and maintaining a core group of players in hopes of bringing championships to Long Island. John Brownell, Lew Ford and Bobby Blevins have been among the key contributors to this group. However, the first member of that core was Dan Lyons. Since arriving in 2011, he has brought the Ducks to four playoff appearances in five seasons, two championship victories and another Championship Series appearance. And like Brownell, his return to the Ducks has become more a question of “when” rather than “will.”
“It has become sort of a formality,” Lyons said via telephone after re-signing with the Ducks this week, “But each season, you still get that excitement every time you turn the papers in. Obviously, I’m very excited and thankful for the opportunity to come back and play ball. Long Island’s become my second home, and it’s really a place where I feel comfortable. As long as I’m still able to play, I think I’ll be a Duck.”
Lyons has never been shy to discuss his affinity for the Ducks, an organization that gave him the opportunity to continue his career after being released by the Washington Nationals in March of 2011. He used his first year on Long Island to prove that he was worthy of a starting role, and since that point, he’s been the most consistent presence in the Ducks lineup. Having the starting role and being around those familiar faces in the clubhouse has afforded him a comfort level that keeps him coming back for more.
“I’ve just been real comfortable there,” he noted. “I’ve built a lot of good friendships through baseball, and we’ve been able to keep a lot of the core guys around for a while. It’s just something that you look forward to every year, coming back to see all the guys.”
The Minnesota native has collected memorable hits (see: 2012 Atlantic League Championship Series), made dazzling plays and developed into a quiet leader among the Ducks. However, despite winning a pair of titles in 2012 and 2013, his production was tailing off. Lyons’ batting average dropped 35 points from 2011 to 2012, and the following year, it dipped another 31 points to .217. In addition, he was limited to just 107 games in 2013 due to injuries, a drop of 20 games from the previous season. He also went homerless and drove in just 27 runs during the regular season. The joy of winning championships had been partially overshadowed by a decline in statistics and health. Lyons knew that if he wanted to continue his career and stay on Long Island, he needed to make a change.
“I made my health a huge priority,” he recalled. “I felt a lot of that slipping away in 2013 and decided that if I was going to continue to play, I had to change something.”
He continued to say, “I started feeling like my age was playing a factor even though I really wasn’t all that old. My body just wasn’t recovering like it used to. It would take a lot more out of me to work out than what I was accustomed to. My body started to break down a little faster, and I had to make a change in my diet. I started taking some great supplements with Advocare, and I feel like that’s really made me a lot stronger and get a lot more out of my workouts. Doing my best to try and eat healthy has also really helped.”
The change has paid dividends for the 31-year-old, none more evident than the season he put together in 2015. After increases across the board statistically in 2014, Lyons erupted and became one of the Atlantic League’s best a year ago. He began the year in his usual spot at the bottom of the lineup and hit .302 during the season’s first full month of May. Things only improved during the team’s unconscious 23-6 month of June, as he batted .360 during the month, second on the team only to Ford and his .369 average, and he hit four home runs that month alone. To put that in perspective, Lyons had never hit more than four home runs IN A SEASON while with the Ducks and not since he hit seven for the year in 2008. He had become one of the most reliable hitters in Long Island’s lineup, and the Atlantic League rewarded him with his second All-Star Game selection and first since 2012.
“It’s always a lot of fun to be recognized and be honored by the league,” Lyons said. “A big thing that I really enjoy in the All-Star Game is that you get to compete with a lot of the guys you’re competing against. You get to start building relationships with some of the other guys that you normally wouldn’t because for the entire season, you’re going to battle against those guys. They bring the top players in the league together, and you really get to see what you’re all about when you’re playing with and against the top competition.”
In the second half, Lyons continued his monster season. The month of August saw him bat .345 while posting team-highs in homers (5), RBI (21), runs (30) and doubles (9). In addition, the second half saw Lyons get bumped up in the batting order, especially after Ford was signed by Tijuana in the Mexican League. Manager Kevin Baez noted how consistent he had become at getting hits and driving in runs that he moved his shortstop into the heart of the order. By season’s end, Lyons had started 52 games between the top six spots in the order, including 37 in the three-hole. Even with the move, he continued to produce.
“I went about my approach the same way as I would in the nine-hole,” Lyons remembered. “I had [Fehlandt] Lentini and Delta [Cleary, Jr.] on base for most of that second half which was nice to get some of those speedsters on there so you could drive in some runs. As far as approach goes, I try to keep my approach the same all the time no matter where I am in the lineup. You can’t change who you are based on where you hit in the lineup, but I was happy to have that opportunity to hit third. It shows that Kevin had faith in me to be one of the top offensive guys, and I think I was able to do that.”
As the season came to a close, Lyons had put together a magnificent offensive year. He finished among the Atlantic League’s Top 5 in several categories, including batting average (.301), RBI, (73), runs (74), total bases (215), triples (7), extra-base hits (46), on-base percentage (.375) and slugging percentage (.462). His 11 homers were four more than he ever hit in a single season, and his 140 hits were a career-best by 11. Referring back to his new lifestyle, he noted, “I felt a lot healthier on the field and was a lot stronger. With all of that, I was able to put myself in a good position to compete at the highest level. I felt like last year that really came to fruition.”
But offense is not all Lyons was impressive at. Defensively, he was excellent as well. Among all shortstops that played at least 100 games in the Atlantic League last year, the University of Minnesota alum had the highest fielding percentage (.976) and the second-most assists (355) and putouts (183). His 13 errors were 10 fewer than his 2013 total and just two more than his lowest amount as a Duck, 11, which he committed in 45 fewer games back in 2011. The league recognized his defensive prowess as well, selecting him for the first-ever Red, White and Blue All-Defensive team and naming him the inaugural Rawlings Gold Glove Defensive Player of the Year.
“I’ve got to tip my hat to the Atlantic League and Rawlings for finally rewarding and recognizing defense,” Lyons exclaimed. “A lot of times when you talk about great baseball players, you get caught up in all of the offensive stats. All the stuff that doesn’t go on the scorecard kind of gets thrown by the wayside and nobody really thinks about it. To be recognized as the top defensive player, it’s outstanding. I’ve always prided myself on my defense, and I feel like that’s really helped me stay in the game as long as I have. It really is a big honor, especially in the first year of the league having this award, to be named the Defensive Player of the Year.”
Despite all of the accolades, Lyons’ season did not end with a third championship as planned. His bat, like those of many of his fellow teammates, went cold in the final two games against the Somerset Patriots in the first round of the postseason. After pushing the Pats to the brink of elimination, the Ducks were unable to finish off their rivals and watched them go on to win a sixth championship. For Lyons, the feeling was eerily similar to what was endured after losing the 2011 Championship Series at York.
“We had a great group of guys, a great team,” he recalled. “I feel like if we would have taken that series [against Somerset], I think we would have won the championship. It was disappointing the way it ended, but you can’t dwell on that too much. You just have to regroup and come back the next year stronger.”
As “next year” approaches, Lyons joins Brownell as the first two Ducks of many who could potentially return from last year’s group. After winning 80 games during the regular season, the second-most in team history, it makes sense to bring back many of the key contributors. While there will certainly be new faces mixed in, those who experienced last year’s disappointment will have even more incentive to win it all, just like that 2012 squad did.
“We always go into it highly motivated to win,” Lyons affirmed. “I think last year…left a sour taste in everybody’s mouth. We didn’t play like we had hoped to. I know for the guys that are coming back, that’s going to help fuel the fire and help motivate us to reach that next level, get to the championship and win it.”
As for Lyons on an individual level, it will not be easy to replicate the season he had a year ago. Performing so well in every facet of the game requires a lot of different things to go right at the same time. However, the Ducks veteran remains confident in his ability. In fact, he thinks he can be that much better, even if he’s not setting specifics for himself.
“I really don’t set too many goals going into a season,” Lyons stated. “I just want to improve every year. I don’t want to get comfortable with how I played last year because the minute I start to get comfortable about the year I had, that’s when everything is going to slip away. I’ve just got to try to keep the drive to get better every day, and as long as I do that, I’m putting myself in the right position.”
The Ducks have put themselves in the best position to win by having a player like Lyons on the roster. He has put himself in the best position to enjoy the game he loves by playing somewhere that feels like a home away from home. Now, the remaining stars must align to lift Long Island back on top of the heap.