L.I. Ducks thrive amid roster turnover

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The Long Island Ducks, in their 20th anniversary season and first under manager Wally Backman, overcame a myriad of roster defections to Major League Baseball or foreign organizations in the first half of the Atlantic League campaign to win 42 of 69 games to finish atop the Liberty Division standings.

Ten of the 11 Ducks to sign with MLB, Mexican or Chinese clubs in April, May and June were pitchers, including last year’s Atlantic League All-Star Game starter Bennett Parry and Tim Melville, who in 2017 became the 16th player in franchise history to reach MLB after playing on Long Island.

“It feels good and this is only step one,” Backman said after the Ducks clinched their fifth straight playoff appearance and 14th all-time. “The success we’ve had doesn’t happen very often when you lose that many players.”

It was an intense race to the finish line in the first half. All four teams in the Liberty Division entered July with a better-than-.500 record and there was a chance first place, along with the guaranteed playoff spot that comes with it, wouldn’t be decided until a July 19 makeup game. But when High Point defeated Somerset on July 6, the Ducks’ ticket was punched.

“There were three quality teams battling it out,” said first-year outfielder Kirk Nieuwenhuis, who brought 414 games of MLB experience, including 263 with the New York Mets. “To come out on top is really cool,” he added. “It’s a good accomplishment, but obviously the end-of-season championship is the goal.”

Nieuwenhuis batted .259 in the first half with 11 home runs, 41 RBIs and 35 runs, ranking second on the club in all three categories behind first baseman David Washington. After batting only .226 a year ago, Washington, who had a cup of coffee (three games) with the Baltimore Orioles in 2017, is making better contact (.258 avg.) and ranking among the league leaders in homers (18), RBIs (47), runs (41), steals (13) and slugging percentage (.551.)

Steve Lombardozzi is another former major leaguer (271 games) on the roster and finished the first half batting .271. He was injured (foot) in the final June series and is expected to miss a month. L.J. Mazzilli has filled in nicely at second base, hitting .283 with 33 RBIs.

Backman, who replaced Kevin Baez, credited the catching tandem of Hector Sanchez and Ramon Cabrera for keeping the Ducks moving in the right director despite a revolving door in the pitching department. Sanchez, who played 347 MLB games and is the proud owner of two World Series rings (2012 and 2014 San Francisco Giants), batted .297 in the first half. Cabrera played 74 games in the majors with the Cincinnati Reds.

“A big part of our success is having Sanchez and Cabrera behind the plate,” Backman said. “They’re both Major League veteran catchers who know how to run a pitching staff.”

The Ducks used 15 different starting pitchers in the first half, including Seaford native Sean Nolin who led them in wins with six before signing June 6 with the Seattle Mariners, who assigned him to their AAA affiliate in Tacoma.

The first half closed with Jake Fisher (13 starts), Darin Downs (10), Joe Iorio (9) and Travis Banwart (6) comprising the heart of the rotation. Enrique Burgos, who replaced Josh Lueke (Mexican League) as the full-time closer, has 10 saves in 11 chances to go with an impressive 47-to-10 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 26-plus innings.

Ducks' departures

Player Pos. MLB/Foreign Team Assignment

Josh Lueke P Mexican League Leones de Yucatan

Alec Asher P Chinese PBL Uni-President Lions

Sean Nolin P Seattle Mariners Tacoma Rainers (AAA)

Darin Downs P Mexican League Acereros de Monclova

George Kontos P Washington Nationals Fresno Grizzlies (AAA)

Bennett Parry P Mexican League Pericos de Puebla

Jose Cuas P Arizona Diamondbacks Hillsboro Hops

Tim Adleman P Detroit Tigers Toldeo Mudhens (AAA)

Ivan DeJesus Jr. INF Chicago White Sox Charlotte Knights (AAA)

Tim Melville P Colorado Rockies Albuquerque Isotopes (AAA)

Jon Niese P Seattle Mariners Tacoma Rainers (AAA)