A 12-game winning streak in July propelled the defending champion Long Island Ducks to the First Half North Division title and a berth in the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball playoffs, set to begin in early October.
The Ducks sealed up the division top spot with almost a week to spare by defeating the Southern Maryland Blue Claws, 8-2, on July 28 for their 13th victory in 14 games. Starting pitcher Brendan Feldmann went the distance to earn his fourth win in five decisions. He allowed just two runs on seven hits and one walk over nine innings while striking out two batters.
Vladimir Frias led the offense with three hits, two runs scored and one RBI. Deibinson Romero added two hits, three RBIs and two runs, and L.J. Mazzili blasted a two-run homer as the Ducks upped their record to 34-20.
“A lot of the guys were here in 2019, but I think we finally got comfortable with each other again and we’ve made some nice additions to the lineup with Romero and Frias,” manager Wally Backman said. “We’ve come a long way offensively. We were hitting around .230 after the first six weeks and now we’re close to .280.”
With the victory, the Ducks earned their sixth consecutive playoff berth and 15th in franchise history, all coming in the past 17 seasons. It is also the seventh first half championship in team history and second in a row (2004, 2006, 2011, 2012, 2016, 2019.) There wasn’t a 2020 season due to the pandemic.
During their 12-game win streak between July 13-25, the Ducks posted double digits in runs six times including a 17-6 victory in Kentucky over the South Division champion Lexington Legends to set the tone for a three-game sweep. Long Island also posted back-to-back shutouts over the West Virgina Power (6-0 on July 15) and York Revolution (1-0) behind the pitching of Darrin Downs and Feldmann, respectively.
Scoring is up across the Atlantic League, which announced in July the addition of a Staten Island franchise starting in 2022. The Ducks were the only team to conclude the first half with an ERA below 5 runs per game.
Feldmann, Joe Iorio, Mike Bolsinger and Downs all started at least seven games over the first half and helped Long Island post a league-best 4.65 ERA heading into August. In addition, since-departed Michael Tonkin (0.53 ERA, 9 saves), Brady Dragmire (4-1, 2.84 ERA) and new closer Danny Barnes (3 saves) spearheaded a solid bullpen.
Iorio was instrumental in the 2019 championship run after moving into the starting rotation following 10 relief appearances. He was named to the All-Star team. The 36-year-old Downs, who serves as the Ducks pitching coach, was also a key part of the staff in 2019 and pressed into action this season due to pitching shortage.
Offensively, second baseman Steve Lombardozzi (.322 avg.), who has six seasons of Major League experience, led the Ducks heading into August with 10 homers and 42 RBIs while tying outfielder L.J. Mazzilli (team-leading .325 avg., 35 RBIs, 11 steals) with 45 runs scored. Shortstop Ryan Jackson (37), outfielder Daniel Fields (30) and catcher Hector Sanchez combined for 94 RBIs. Romero, who joined the Flock at the end of June, knocked in 23 runs in his first 25 games.
“Everything came together,” Lombardozzi said. “We were never not playing good baseball. We had weeks where just our pitching was on and other weeks where just our hitting was on. Lately, everything has been clicking at the same time.”