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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.

King of the Hill

Hill-Pitching-Red-Sox-at-Yankees How one Major League veteran conquered his quest to get back to “The Show”
By: Michael Polak

The best thing about sports is that it provides the forum for great athletes, and even better people, to provide stories that just make you say, ‘Wow.’ Baseball especially has seen outstanding players have circumstances, often beyond their control, derail their career and force them to find a way to get back on track. In 2015 no story has been a better one than that of Rich Hill. It has been fun to watch from the stands or read about in the newspapers and online, but to see it from the field and be a part of it in the clubhouse has been something even better.

“His story has been very inspirational for all of us,” said Boston Red Sox interim manager Torey Lovullo prior to his start against the New York Yankees on Thursday at Yankee Stadium. “For those of us that know him only as a baseball person, it’s a great story because of where he went to. For those of us that know him personally, this is a tough, but also great, story. He’s had to walk through a lot of tragedy. All of that rolled up together makes him an incredible person that’s easy to root for.”

Hill has been through a lot in his professional baseball career that has spanned 14 seasons. He’s played with six different teams at the Major League level and countless more in the minor leagues. The left-hander has suffered several injuries, including a back injury with the Cubs in 2009 and a torn UCL that required Tommy John surgery in June of 2011. He also dealt with the heartbreak of losing his newborn son, Brooks, in early 2014 after he was born with “multiple health issues,” according to Hill. Throw all of that on top of him being transitioned from a starter to a reliever after 2009 and being released by the Washington Nationals despite posting strong numbers (2-2, 2.95 ERA) at Triple-A Syracuse, and it was clear Hill was looking for a way to turn his career around. That’s when the Ducks came calling.

Long Island was looking for a starting pitcher to join their rotation, and Hill had previous success in that role across multiple levels, including the Major Leagues. He took advantage of the opportunity presented, even if it was not with an affiliated ballclub, to try and reinvent himself and showcase his talent to the 30 big league teams. That opportunity ended up changing his career.

“That first start that I had with Long Island, things went well obviously, but I could feel that my mechanics were coming together,” noted Hill in an exclusive interview with the Ducks on Thursday. “I felt that I was able to repeat everything, and the more times that you can repeat and have good direction with your release point, the more times you’re going to have success.”

His strong repetition skills resulted in two marvelous starts with the Ducks where he combined for 11 scoreless innings and 21 strikeouts. The Red Sox immediately took notice and signed him to add some pitching depth. Five starts later, after going 3-2 with a 2.78 ERA at Triple-A Pawtucket, Boston was looking to add a sixth starter to their rotation for September. No one’s name came up in the discussion more than Hill’s, and he was promoted to the big league club on September 8.

“The talk of a sixth starter worked out perfectly for him,” said Lovullo prior to Thursday’s game. “He comes in and has just plowed through three teams with 10 strikeouts each outing. That’s a habit. That isn’t luck. That isn’t somebody that’s not familiar with the pitcher or his stuff. Everybody knows him, and he’s done a great job.”

Since his promotion, Hill has made four quality starts. In his first three, he compiled a 2-0 record with a 1.17 ERA and struck out 30 batters in 23 innings. While he managed only six strikeouts in six innings in his fourth start on Thursday, he was still very effective. The southpaw’s only hiccup came in the second during a steady rainfall in the Bronx. He allowed a solo homer to Carlos Beltran on a fly ball that probably leaves no other ballpark but Yankee Stadium and then walked two hitters before allowing a two-out RBI single to fall into a 2-0 hole. However, from that point on Hill yielded only two more hits and a walk and finished his night by striking out the side of Alex Rodriguez, Carlos Beltran and Chris Young in the sixth inning.

“The ball came out of my hand the way that I wanted it to, and I continued to make pitches as the game went on,” Hill commented after the game. “I think the one pitch, Carlos put a good swing on it and a little bit of Yankee Stadium might have got me there.”

As for what enabled him to finish so strongly, his manager stated “He just got into a better rhythm. He wasn’t walking around the mound after every pitch. He got more into getting the ball back from the catcher, stepping right back up onto the mound and making his pitch…You could see that it played out very well for him because things really settled down after that second inning.

Unfortunately for the former Duck, his teammates were stifled by a combination of C.C. Sabathia, Adam Warren and Dellin Betances. The trio of Yankees held the Red Sox to just one run and seven hits in New York’s 4-1 win that was the 10,000th in franchise history and clinched a playoff berth. For Hill, it meant a hard luck loss, his first since joining Boston this season. Although he was understandably down after his team dropped the series finale, Hill was pleased with the results from Thursday and all four of his starts.

“I threw the ball the way I knew that I could throw it, and that’s all I can say really,” he reflected. “If you look at the overall body of work, there’s a lot to build off of from there, and I’m looking forward to next year.”

CLICK HERE to view photos taken by the Ducks during Hill’s start

Not only have Hill and his manager been pleased with the results, but his teammates and opponents have clearly taken notice. From everyone that you talk to, whether they are youngsters making their first mark in the Majors or veterans who have been there for years, his story has captivated the entire organization. Not only that, but it has given a team without a playoff berth a burst of energy to the tune of a 13-9 record since his call-up, including wins in six of their last seven games.

“Rich has been great,” said two-time World Series champion Dustin Pedroia. “I’ve played with him a few times before…and what he’s done since he’s come back here has been unbelievable. We’re all proud of him.”

Veteran pitcher Rick Porcello added “He’s been our best pitcher the past four starts. He’s been throwing the ball incredibly well, so it’s definitely helped us succeed as a group.”

Yankees manager Joe Girardi noticed one thing that has stood out most in his success. “His command has been tremendous. When you watch the video tape of the games that he has started, his command has been great. He’s been on the corners and used different angles with his pitches, so that’s what has impressed me.”

As for the younger players in the clubhouse, Hill provides a veteran presence that is full of knowledge and experience. While he tries to establish himself back in the big leagues, others seek out his advice to find ways to be successful at the game’s highest level.

23-year-old catcher Blake Swihart noted, “I’ve seen Wade Miley and a bunch of the guys go up to him and say, ‘Hey, how do you do this with your curveball? And how do you do that?’ He’s got such electric stuff, and everything is sneaky.”

Swihart went on to recall an everlasting memory from the 35-year-old. “The first time I ever caught Rich, I was 19 years old in Greenville at Low-A and he was rehabbing for the Red Sox at the time. When he came back here, he came up to me and told me, ‘Just so you know, when you caught me in your first year of catching ever, I knew you were going to be something special. You worked your butt off to get up here.’ That was pretty special coming from him.”

Mookie Betts, a 22-year-old outfielder who sealed Hill’s complete game shutout against the Orioles on September 25 with a marvelous home run-robbing catch, has appreciated everything he has seen from the lefty. “It’s definitely an inspirational story to say the least,” he said. “For him to be here now and doing as well as he is, he deserves it.”

Rich’s story is not one-of-a-kind though in the Red Sox clubhouse. Craig Breslow, a 35-year-old right-handed pitcher, joined the New Jersey Jackals of the independent Northeast League in 2004 after being released by the Milwaukee Brewers. After going 3-1 with a 4.10 ERA, he was signed by the San Diego Padres in March of 2005. He has gone on to spend 10 seasons in the Major Leagues, including five with Boston, and won a World Series ring in 2013. That opportunity might have never come around without independent baseball.

“It’s not the most traditional path, but it’s certainly one that can get you to where you want to go,” said Breslow on Thursday. “Obviously, someone like Rich or even myself having some success in independent ball and then going on to have success in the big leagues I think is indicative of the quality of baseball you can find in independent leagues.”

Many, including Lovullo, Pedroia and Porcello, noted the story of Daniel Nava. The 32-year-old outfielder went undrafted out of college and needed a place to continue playing baseball. He ultimately signed with the Chico Outlaws of the independent Golden Baseball League in 2007. After batting .371 there with 12 homers and 59 RBI in 72 games, the Red Sox signed Nava in January of 2008. Since then, he’s gone on to spend parts of five seasons in the big leagues, all with the Red Sox until the Tampa Bay Rays claimed him off of waivers from Boston this past August. While he may no longer be with the Red Sox, his story still radiates within their clubhouse.

“I know there are great stories of people that have come out of independent baseball and contributed in a big way to Major League Baseball” affirmed Lovullo. “There is a lot of value with independent baseball and a lot of value with finding the right guys who have reinvented themselves and are getting a chance to play every day. Independent baseball has a strong place in Major League Baseball.”

Pedroia added “Baseball has great players everywhere. We had Nava, and he came from independent ball. There are guys all around baseball that have stories which are similar, and it’s pretty cool.”

Porcello also was a supporter of the Atlantic League. “It’s a solid league for sure. You see a lot of guys go and play independent baseball and use that to show what they can do. There’s a lot of talent there.”

Hill’s story is vastly different though because of his journey to the Atlantic League coming at the age of 35 and after he spent a long time in the Major Leagues. When he joined the Ducks in late July, he was unsure of what to expect in terms of the talent and the fan base. What he ended up seeing blew him away completely.

“I think there’s a stigma with the Atlantic League and independent leagues that people don’t realize how good the talent is there,” he said. “Once you actually go to some of the games and sit there and look at the players that are out on the field, I think everyone would be pleasantly surprised.”

He went on to state “I’ll be forever grateful. I think that’s something that I’ll always look back on and think about how much fun that was with those guys. The atmosphere on Long Island and the fans there were unbelievable. I think as unexpected as it was, to go in there and see the talent that’s there and see the fan base that’s there was incredible. I’ll forever be a proponent of the Ducks.”

As for whether or not he will have a spot in the starting rotation for Boston or one of the other 29 Major League clubs in 2016, Hill believes he has earned that right. “I think that if anybody looks at those four games, four quality starts, that speaks for itself. With the body of work that’s been put together here, I don’t see why things wouldn’t go that way. That’s out of my control though. You just see which direction it goes in.”

His manager added, “I know that we have had a lot of very positive discussions internally about Rich. He has done everything, and then some, to put himself in a very good position.”

No matter how the remainder of his story is written, the most recent chapter has been one heck of a read. It has showcased why the Ducks, the Atlantic League and independent baseball as a whole are so beneficial to Major League Baseball. It has given an outstanding pitcher, and an even better man, the opportunity to resurrect his career and add special memories to his life. Rich Hill’s journey from the Major Leagues to the Ducks and back again is one that will go down in the history books as one of the most inspirational and meaningful that professional baseball has ever seen.

Rich Hill Continues Comeback Story in Bronx

Rich-Hill-Pitching-8-2-15
The story of Rich Hill’s 2015 season has been one of the most talked about among the professional baseball world of late. After being released by the Washington Nationals in June, he joined the Long Island Ducks for his first experience in independent baseball. Following two dominant starts, he was signed by the Boston Red Sox and pitched extremely well at Triple-A Pawtucket (3-2, 2.78 ERA in five starts). From there, the Red Sox promoted him to the Major Leagues on September 8, making him the 15th player in franchise history to make it to “The Show” after playing on Long Island.

That journey alone would be impressive enough. From pitching with the Ducks to pitching with the Red Sox in a month, the story has essentially written itself. However, what the southpaw has done since making it back to the big leagues has opened even more eyes. Let’s take a look at the pitching lines from his first three starts with Boston this September:

September 13 at Tampa Bay (Red Sox win 2-0):
ND, 7.0 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 10 K, 109 pitches, 68 strikes

September 20 at Toronto (Red Sox win 4-3):
W, 7.0 IP, 7 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 0 BB, 10 K, 107 pitches, 84 strikes

September 25 vs. Baltimore (Red Sox win 7-0):
W, 9.0 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 10 K, 116 pitches, 81 strikes

Put them all together and Hill is 2-0 with a 1.17 ERA. He has surrendered just 10 hits and two walks in 23 innings of work while striking out 30 batters. 70% of his 332 pitches thrown have been for strikes. Aside from teams clinching playoff berths and division titles, no other story has been more positive than that of Rich Hill’s.

Tonight, he’ll write the next chapter of his fabulous comeback story on one of the biggest stages in professional sports: Yankee Stadium. He’s the scheduled starter for the Red Sox and will look to pitch his team to a four-game sweep of their longtime rivals. Opposing him will be another left-hander in C.C. Sabathia, a former Cy Young Award winner and six-time All-Star in the midst of a difficult season. For the Yankees, a win means they clinch a spot in the playoffs. While the Red Sox will end their rough season on Sunday in Cleveland, tonight could be Hill’s final chance to make a lasting impression on the team this year and turn his success into a starting role with Boston in 2016.

Hill is no stranger to pitching at Yankee Stadium. He was a member of the Yankees’ bullpen a year ago, compiling a 1.69 ERA in 14 games, 11 of which were in the Bronx. In fact, he combined for one scoreless inning over two games against the Red Sox in September. Hill’s second-ever big league appearance came at the current stadium’s predecessor on June 18, 2005, a game in which he struck out Tino Martinez and walked Robinson Cano before being lifted for Joe Borowski, who famously served up the only grand slam of Derek Jeter’s career. That was his only appearance in “The House that [Babe] Ruth Built.” In “The House that George [Steinbrenner] Built,” he has a career record of 0-1 with a 4.35 ERA in 15 games (one start).

For those hoping to see Hill pitch, we strongly urge you to make your way out to Yankee Stadium tonight. While it may be cool, cloudy and a little rainy, this is a unique opportunity for Ducks fans to watch him take the mound in the area once again after his incredible two-game stint on Long Island. In fact, tickets can be had for as little as $9 on StubHub! If you cannot make it out, we’ve got you covered! The Ducks have been graciously given the opportunity to be at Yankee Stadium tonight to report on this outstanding story. We plan to provide live, in-game updates right here on “Quack of the Bat” and via the team’s official Twitter feed (@LIDucks). In addition, we hope to get some great photos and video of Hill’s outing on Thursday and will be speaking with him following his start to discuss the outing, his journey back to the Majors and his time spent with the Ducks. On Friday, we’ll have a full article complete with quotes from Hill, and hopefully some of his teammates and opponents, on the blog.

Stay tuned for more throughout the day here and on Twitter. We’ll be live from Yankee Stadium this afternoon, and you won’t want to miss out on this exciting day!

UPDATE (3:21): We have arrived at Yankee Stadium and are getting situated in the press box. It is cloudy and chilly outside, but any heavy rain seems to be avoiding the area right now. Both managers are scheduled to speak prior to the game, and we hope to get both Joe Girardi’s and Torey Lovullo’s takes on what Rich Hill has done thus far since getting back to the Major Leagues. In addition, we’ll try to get some thoughts from some of Rich’s current and former teammates with both teams.

UPDATE (5:31): We are back in the press box after pre-game media availability. Below are some quotes about Rich from both managers and a few of his Red Sox teammates. In other news, rain has begun to fall at the Stadium, and the tarp is on the field. We’ll keep you updated on the status of the game here and on Twitter as soon as we find out more information.

Yankees manager Joe Girardi: “His command has been tremendous. When you watch the video tape from the games that he has started, his command has been great. He’s used different angles with his pitches. That’s what has impressed me.”

Red Sox interim manager Torey Lovullo: “We’re not looking for Rich Hill to change. We’re looking for him to stay exactly the same. He’s got a great game plan. He’s throwing strikes with two, and sometimes three, pitches. He’s developed a nice little change-up.”

Red Sox infielder Dustin Pedroia: “I’ve got a pretty good view of when he throws the ball, and his curveball has been unbelievable. He’s been locating his fastball and throwing strikes. He’s been all over the zone, and when you’re throwing strikes and getting swings and misses, that’s a sign that your stuff is pretty darn good.”

Red Sox catcher Blake Swihart: “He’s been impressive, and he’s fun to watch. Every time he steps on the mound, he’s going to compete and give us all that he’s got.”

Red Sox pitcher Craig Breslow: “He’s been throwing the ball so well that I think for us, we’ve kind of moved past the ‘Rich Hill great story’ and into the ‘Rich Hill reliable starting pitcher’ mentality.”

UPDATE (6:40): Good news! The grounds crew is taking the tarp off! It is still raining, but hopefully the game begins on time! We’ll keep you updated as soon as we find anything out. we also plan to take some photos from the field level when Hill takes the mound!

UPDATE (7:33): Great start for Rich Hill! He threw a 1-2-3 bottom of the first inning, getting Brett Gardner to ground out to second (play was called safe, challenged and overturned), Rob Refsnyder to ground out to short, and Alex Rodriguez to strike out looking. He threw just nine pitches, six for strikes.

UPDATE (7:41): Carlos Beltran just hit a 3-2 pitch narrowly over the wall in right field for a leadoff homer in the second. 1-0 Yankees.

UPDATE (7:54): Following a walk to Didi Gregorius with two outs, Brendan Ryan grounds a RBI single to left. He bounces back though to strike out Gardner with a nasty curve to end the inning. Threw 37 pitches in the second and is now at 46 for the game, 26 for strikes.

Here are a few photos we took from field level:

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UPDATE (8:23): After a one-out walk to A-Rod, Hill gets revenge on Beltran and induces a double play. Still 2-0. 11 pitches in 3rd for Hill. 9 strikes.

UPDATE (8:45): Hill works around a leadoff double in the fourth and strands Chris Young at third! Now at 82 pitches, 50 for strikes. He’s got three K’s.

UPDATE (8:58): A RBI single by Mookie Betts in the fifth has brought Boston to within 2-1. Hill back out for his fifth inning of work.

UPDATE (9:05): Hill allows a one-out single to Gardner but gets Refsnyder to hit into a 5-4-3 double play! Five innings of 2-run ball and at 90 pitches, 57 strikes.

UPDATE (9:17): Nifty behind-the-back play by Adam Warren to retire Sandy Leon and end the top of the sixth. Meanwhile, Hill is returning to the mound!

Here are some more photos taken down on the field level:

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UPDATE (9:24): WHAT A SIXTH INNING! Hill strikes out the side of A-Rod, Beltran and Young! 12 pitches in the inning, 10 for strikes! He’s got six K’s!

UPDATE (9:31): Mookie Betts came oh-so-close to giving the Red Sox a 3-2 lead in the seventh, but Chris Young caught the ball at the wall in left.

UPDATE (9:38): Hill’s night is complete after six innings. Fourth quality start in four outings since returning to the Major Leagues! Final line: 6.0 IP, 4 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 3 BB, 6 K, 102 pitches, 67 strikes

UPDATE (10:02): The Yankees have increased their lead to 4-1 on solo homers by Greg Bird in the seventh and Rob Refsnyder in the eighth.

UPDATE (10:16): Dellin Betances comes in for the ninth, trying to clinch a playoff berth. We’ll head down after the game to speak with Hill and others.

UPDATE (10:22): Yankees win the game 4-1. Congratulations to them on their 10,000th win and clinching a playoff berth. Tough first loss for Hill.

UPDATE (11:09): Back up from the Red Sox clubhouse, where we spoke with Hill, pitcher Rick Porcello and outfielder Mookie Betts. We’ll have a story full of quotes tomorrow, but here’s the quote of the night from Rich:
“I’ll be forever grateful to the Ducks and the Atlantic League. The atmosphere on Long Island and the fans there are unbelievable.” What a wonderful way to end the night. Thank you everyone for following along and be sure to check back here tomorrow for our full story on the night.

Janzen’s Journey Comes To Long Island

Marty Janzen
Since Kevin Baez took over as manager of the Ducks in 2011, there has been a consistency among the team’s coaching staff. Baez has served as the skipper for each of the past four seasons, Bud Harrelson has handled the bench coach duties and Steve Foucault was in charge of the pitching staff. The only changes came after 2012 when hitting coach Jay Loviglio left the staff and prior to 2014 when Lew Ford became the hitting coach. In that four-year span, the Ducks won three Liberty Division championships and two Atlantic League titles, missing the postseason just once.

However, the news of Foucault electing to retire after this past season vacated a position that had been handled with a steadiness over the previous four seasons. Many wondered who would fill his cleats throughout the offseason. On Wednesday, that question was answered when the Ducks announced their coaching staff for 2015. While Baez, Harrelson and Ford would all return in their same roles, veteran pitcher and pitching coach Marty Janzen would be taking over the role of pitching coach.

“It’s an honor to be part of a first class organization,” said Janzen via telephone. “The way everyone has handled themselves on the field, both the coaching staff and players, everybody is first class. I think that stems from the top as far as finding people who are ‘character’ guys.”

Believe it or not, a career in professional baseball and hopes of reaching the Major Leagues seemed like a pipe dream to Janzen following high school. The right-hander had enjoyed playing baseball at Gainesville High School (Fla.), but when his time there was done, it did not seem that baseball would be at the forefront of his future plans.

“I pretty much was giving up on baseball after high school,” he recalled. “Someone convinced me to play legion ball, so I tried it out for a couple of months. Things started getting better for me, and fortunately we were at a legion tournament and I got seen by a scout. They did a tryout for me, I signed and I tried to be the first guy to the field and the last guy to leave from that point on. I tried to outwork everyone, and for me, it worked out.”

After getting that opportunity from the New York Yankees in 1991, Janzen spent parts of four seasons in the organization, reaching as high as Double-A. His ERA was below 4.00 in each of his first three seasons, and he posted outstanding numbers at Single-A Tampa in 1995. However, with the big league club putting together a strong start to their season, they decided to pull the trigger on a trade that would bolster their starting rotation. The Yankees traded Janzen, along with Jason Jarvis and Mike Gordon to the Toronto Blue Jays for a pitcher by the name of David Cone. New York’s newest acquisition would go on to help the Yankees to the playoffs in each of the next six seasons and earned four World Series rings.

“At the time, it was kind of bittersweet for me,” Janzen said. “Being with the Yankees and being somewhat close to the big leagues, I always wanted to play in the big leagues for them. It was an honor to get traded for a guy like that and it did help my career, but in the same breath, it was bittersweet because the Yankees were the team I always watched. I wore a Yankees hat by the time I was 12 years old to school the majority of the time, and ironically it had worked out for me.”

While Cone’s career flourished, Janzen too was benefitted by the trade. After going 5-1 with a 2.63 ERA in seven starts with Double-A Knoxville after the trade, he found himself at the Major League level with the Blue Jays in 1996. Although he struggled in the big leagues his first year, he was moved to the bullpen in 1997 and pitched well, going 2-1 with a 3.60 ERA and 17 strikeouts in 12 relief appearances. Although ’97 was his last appearance in “The Show,” Janzen was chosen in the expansion draft by the Arizona Diamondbacks after the season and then returned back to his original home, the Yankees, prior to 1998. In the trade that sent him back to New York, he was joined by Todd Erdos, who would go on to serve as the Ducks closer seven years later.

Janzen’s career would eventually take him to the Atlantic League in 2000 when he joined the Nashua Pride. He would pitch for the Pride that season, in 2001 and in 2004 before winding up with the Camden Riversharks at the end of ’04. He pitched well, compiling a 2.35 ERA in nine games (one start), but his championship dreams with Camden came to a halt when they ran into a foe from the North Division. That team? The Long Island Ducks.

“I honestly felt the Ducks had the better team than we did at that point,” Janzen stated. “We got to the playoffs because we were a hot team, but they were a better team, hands down.”

The righty would spend one more season on the mound before deciding to hang up his cleats following 2005. He eventually found himself in the Atlantic League once again, this time as a pitching coach. Janzen served in that role with the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs in 2010, working under manager Butch Hobson, who also served as his skipper with the Pride. He would move with Hobson to the Lancaster Barnstormers in 2011, and both would serve on the coaching staff for the next three seasons. In the middle of those three, Janzen found himself in the Championship Series against the Ducks once again. Just like in 2004, Long Island would emerge victorious despite an outstanding regular season by Lancaster. When Dan Lyons’ bunt proved to be the series-ending hit, Janzen was left in a state of shock.

“The end of the 2012 season was pretty tough,” he reminisced. “Between the team unity and everything that took place, we had a good team all year long. Doing what Lyons did to lay the bunt down, you tip your hat. It was an ingenious play. You were just in shock and disbelief because it happened so quickly. You had two good teams going against each other, and one’s got to lose. I tip my hat to them. They had a great team. There’s no bitterness, though. You just had to move forward.”

After spending this past season working in Taiwan and handling their major and minor league system, Janzen heard about a couple of potential opportunities back in the Atlantic League. Foucault’s retirement and Chris Widger’s promotion to manager in Camden opened up two positions as a pitching coach. He immediately expressed interest in the vacancies, and he now finds himself guiding the pitching staff of the same team that has twice defeated his team for the title.

“I reached out to [Ducks founder and CEO] Frank [Boulton], sent my resume and told him a little bit about myself,” Janzen recalled. “I’ve seen him from across the way over the years but never really had a chance to speak to him. [President and General Manager] Michael [Pfaff] then reached out to me, I went through the interview process and then they announced to me that I had gotten the job.”

As mentioned earlier, Foucault provided a steady calm as the pitching coach for the Ducks. Originally from Minnesota and now residing in Florida, he brought a laid back approach to the game and offered his experience and knowledge as guiding points, rather than trying to craft each pitcher. In his own words, Janzen brings a very similar mindset to his role as pitching coach.

“He was actually my pitching coach when I was in Camden,” Janzen noted. “He’s a great guy and extremely knowledgeable. I’m not there to instill my way and say that’s the way it has to be. You let these guys do what they do, and if they need anything from you, in terms of what they may do wrong mechanically or if there’s anything they see, you take the opportunity to mention it to them. “

While in the new role, he will be working on a staff with a man he’s very familiar with. Janzen and Baez have played against each other in the Championship Series and were part of opposing coaching staffs in the Championship Series. Now, they’ll join forces for the first time, and both have a tremendous amount of respect for the other.

“There is definitely a mutual respect,” said Janzen. “He’s a great player’s manager and knows the game. He’s obviously got an idea of what he’s doing bringing two championships to Long Island out of four years. You don’t win those championships if you don’t have team unity and guys in the clubhouse who are ‘character’ guys. It says a lot about your skipper.”

With the Ducks looking to rebound following a season that left them outside of the playoff picture, everyone’s focus appears to be on a championship. From players to coaches to front office staff, the organization as a whole is eager to taste the sweetness of victory champagne over the bitterness of defeat when the 2015 season ends. For Janzen, there is no question that winning a championship is at the forefront of his desires for this year. This time though, he won’t need to go up against those pesky Ducks. He’ll help lead them.

Baseball Loses One of the Nice Guys

Brad-Halsey-Instagram
As Billy Joel famously wrote back in 1977: “Only the Good Die Young.” The baseball world was stunned this week upon hearing about the passing of former Major League pitcher Brad Halsey. His agency, O’Connell Sports Management, broke the news just after 9:30 p.m. on Tuesday night via their social media accounts.

Halsey was just 33 years old at the time of his death. No immediate cause had been announced, but according to a report in USA Today, a person close to Halsey’s family said that he died in a recreational climbing accident last Friday. The news comes as a tremendous shock not only because of his age, but because of the impact he had on several of his teammates.

The Houston native reached the Major League level in 2004 as a 23-year-old with the New York Yankees. He ended up spending three seasons (2004-06) in the big leagues, pitching for the Arizona Diamondbacks and Oakland Athletics as well. Halsey last pitched in 2011 with Double-A Trenton in the Yankees organization. He is remembered by most in the New York area for being the Yankees starting pitcher on July 1, 2004. That day, Derek Jeter made his famous running catch and fall into the stands at Yankee Stadium in New York’s walk-off win against the Boston Red Sox.

However, on Long Island, many will remember his as the player that donned the green and orange during the 2009 season. Halsey was signed by the Ducks in April of that year, and he went on to make 11 starts with the Flock, led by manager Gary Carter. Although he faced some struggles that season, going 3-5 with a 5.86 ERA, he quickly became a respected and well-liked member of the Ducks clubhouse.

We had the chance to catch up with several of his former teammates and Ducks front office to get their thoughts after hearing of the terrible news:

Ray Navarrete (2009 Ducks Teammate)
“I remember those all white cleats he wore from his time in the Oakland A’s organization. He looked like a big leaguer. He was a big leaguer. He had this smooth delivery to the plate. It was fun playing behind him. He was a cool guy with a sharp sense of humor. It was great having him as part of that 2009 squad, and he really embraced his time on Long Island. I’m grateful to have played with him. My thoughts and prayers are with his friends and family at this time.”

Lew Ford (2009 Ducks Teammate)
“It’s so shocking that Brad has passed away. He was one of the nicest guys in the clubhouse and always laid back. It’s just so sad.”

Jamie Quinn (2009 Ducks Teammate)
“So sad to hear of the passing of former Yankees and Ducks pitcher Brad Halsey. A good teammate and a good guy. Prayers to his family.”

Lenny DiNardo (Former Duck and 2007 Spring Training Teammate):
“Pitchers do a ton of shagging balls in the outfield during Spring Training and the season. Brad was the guy we all drifted to during those monotonous times. We’d all end up in left field around him while the balls piled up in right. After a few minutes, we’d here the obligatory, “break up that rock pile!” and have to scatter. He always had a funny story to tell and was just an all around pleasant guy to be around. He’ll be missed for sure by all his former teammates.”

Michael Pfaff (Ducks President/General Manager):
“Brad will be remembered fondly – he had a great, laid back personality and was a real pro during his time with the Ducks. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and loved ones.”

From all of us at “Quack of the Bat” and the Long Island Ducks, we send our deepest condolences to Brad’s friends and family at this time. Our thoughts and prayers are with them on this sad day.

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