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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.

Debate: Who is the Ducks’ Biggest Rival?

Bluefish-Patriots-Matchup
We hope that everybody enjoyed this past week in the New York area. It featured something that had not taken place in 27 years. Six of the nine major professional sports teams were in action against each other in three games during a span of five days. On Wednesday, the Islanders came away with a 2-1 shootout win over the Rangers in their first-ever meeting at Barclays Center. Friday night saw the Knicks blow out the rival Nets 108-91 in a matchup of the Lopez brothers (Robin and Brook). The week culminated with a dramatic 23-20 overtime win for the Jets over the Giants in a battle between two teams in the thick of playoff chases. It was the first time that these three local rivalry games all occurred in the same week since December of 1988. That year, the Rangers, Knicks and Jets were all winners over their area rivals.

With all of the local flair dominating the headlines this past week, it got us thinking here at Bethpage Ballpark. Who would you consider as the Ducks’ biggest rival? For the first 13 seasons of Ducks baseball, nearly everyone would likely answer that question with the Bridgeport Bluefish. However, recent history has certainly seemed to shift some of the focus toward the Somerset Patriots. It is an interesting debate in which a strong case can be made for both teams. Let’s take a look at the arguments for both sides:

Bridgeport Bluefish
Ferry-Cup-Battle

The Bluefish were one of the original Atlantic League teams, and the Ducks entered the fray in the league’s third season. From the moment the Ducks entered, the two have been natural rivals. Separated by a small expanse on the Long Island Sound, the teams quickly developed a cross-sound rivalry in which both teams would take the Port Jeff Ferry when visiting their foe for a series. In addition, no other teams were playing in the New York Metro area at the time, so those two were the closest to each other.

As for the actual matchups, both teams have played some intensely fierce battles to this point. All-time, the head-to-head series stands at a very tight 158-154 in favor of the Bluefish. In addition, arguably the greatest game in Ducks franchise history came against the Bluefish on August 9, 2004. That, of course, was when the Ducks rallied for a 5-4 win to clinch their first-ever playoff berth. On that evening, hundreds of the “Faithful Flock” traveled across the sound to cheer on their team at The Ballpark at Harbor Yard. Both teams also met in the 2006 North Division Championship Series, and the Bluefish, managed by former Ducks coach Dave LaPoint, got some revenge with a 2-0 series sweep of the Ducks. Since 2009, Long Island and Bridgeport have played for the Ferry Cup, with the Ducks holding a 4-3 advantage in Cups won (2009, ’11, ’13, ’14).

On the other side of the argument, the Ducks and Bluefish have met just that one time in the postseason, where rivalries tend to heat up the most. Comparatively, Long Island has faced Southern Maryland four different times in the postseason, all coming in a span of five years (2009-’13). In addition, they’ve faced Somerset twice, the Camden Riversharks twice and the Nashua Pride twice. Since their 2010 Championship Series appearance, Bridgeport has also failed to qualify for the playoffs as a whole. Their struggles in the regular season have lessened the feeling of desperation by fans to achieve divisional and league supremacy.  Another good point comes in the fact that Bridgeport will now have a new in-state foe to match up against in the New Britain Bees. One would think the two, who are separated by about 50 miles, would develop an early rivalry beginning in 2016. Somerset correspondingly lost their in-state rivals, the Camden Riversharks, after this past season once the team ceased operations. They will no longer play for the Turnpike Cup, so the Patriots will be shifting their rivalry focus elsewhere. Could it be to the Ducks?

Somerset Patriots
Ducks-Patriots-Lined-Up

Long Island and Somerset did not share the same divisional rivalry that the Ducks and Bluefish did for 14 seasons. The Patriots were members of the South Division, and eventually the Freedom Division, while the Ducks were a part of the North/Liberty Division through the 2013 season. They did not have those intense divisional matchups that the Ducks and Bluefish frequently shared, and they never met in the postseason until the 2013 campaign. The closest they came was in 2003 when the Flock needed a win over the Pats in one of three games to earn a trip to the playoffs for the first time. Long Island ended up losing all three games and missed the postseason for a fourth straight year while Somerset went on to win the championship.

Despite the lack of postseason affairs, the fact remained that Bethpage Ballpark and TD Bank Ballpark were separated by just 90 miles. It also remained true that both teams did have a long history of regular season matchups and season series that were incredibly close. Through the 2012 season, the Ducks held a 123-122 advantage in the all-time series. As the years progressed, Long Island and Somerset were viewed by many as the top two teams in the Atlantic League, and that feeling of supremacy was desired most by the fan bases of both teams. The emotions finally came to a head in 2013 when the teams met in the Atlantic League Championship Series.

The first-ever playoff meeting between the Ducks and Patriots was arguably the greatest postseason series in league history. Somerset entered as the favorites after a 90-win season, and yet the Ducks jumped out to a 2-0 series lead at home. The Patriots rebounded to tie the series with back-to-back walk-off wins at home, setting up a winner-take-all Game Five in New Jersey. A Ray Navarrete three-run homer and a splendid pitching performance by John Brownell ended Somerset’s magical season and provided the icing on top of Long Island’s incredible playoff run to the title.

The rivalry was truly born in that series, and the following season, the Atlantic League featured some realignment. Somerset swapped divisions, joining the Ducks on the Liberty Division side, while Southern Maryland moved to the Freedom Division. Now, the Ducks and Patriots would be battling for division supremacy each year. Both teams went on to play to a 10-10 draw in a regular season battle that saw 13 games decided by three runs or less. Ultimately, the Patriots made the postseason by winning both halves in the Liberty Division, and the Ducks missed out on the postseason despite having a 73-67 record. Had the division remained the same, the Ducks would have won the first half at 41-29 while Southern Maryland would have been just 29-41.

2015 also saw an intense season series which the Ducks won 11-9 and had 16 games decided by three runs or less. All of that was just build-up to a Liberty Division Championship Series meeting between the two. Long Island once again went up in the series, taking a two games to one lead. However, back-to-back complete game shutouts for Somerset in Games Four and Five earned them the series win en route to their sixth Atlantic League championship.

So, that brings us to the original question. Who do you consider as the Ducks’ biggest rival? Should the original history and longer-standing divisional matchups take precedent in this decision? Or do recent clashes in the playoffs along with the addition of New Britain/subtraction of Camden outweigh the past? Let us know by voting in the poll below and leave your reasoning in the comments section of this post. We’d love to hear everybody’s opinion on this debate!

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