CENTRAL ISLIP, NY— All it took was three days for the Liberty Division race to alter course.
Troy Cate looked completely healthy is his second start since returning from a groin injury. The southpaw limited a potent Newark lineup featuring six ex-major leaguers to two hits and one run in five innings to propel the Ducks to a 7-3 win over the Bears Saturday night at Citibank Park.
Cate, who was limited to just three innings while on a strict pitch count in his June 9 start, lasted long enough to get the win this time. The southpaw struck out four and walked just one, retiring the first eight hitters to improve to 3-1. His only mistake was a third-inning solo home run.
“It seems as if he’s almost back to full strength,” manager Gary Carter said after Cate’s 66-pitch outing.
The Ducks enjoyed another positive outing from a left-hander. Randy Leek, the club’s 2008 wins leader, was taken off the inactive list prior to first pitch and hurled two innings in relief. Leek was out since May 30 with an oblique injury and escaped a bases-loaded situation in the sixth by forcing Jay Gibbons to ground out to second.
The Levittown native came back and threw a1-2-3 seventh, sandwiching strikeouts between a groundout to short in the perfect inning to complete his night. Leek was 1-5 with a 7.78 ERA before coming off the inactive list and is slated to start Friday.
“He went out there for a couple of outings not at 100 percent but was trying to gut it out and paid the price for it,” Carter said. “We just knew that it was best for him and us to get him healthy for the tail end of the first half and for the second half.”
From the ninth spot, Juan Francia finished a home run short of the cycle, scoring three runs while driving in two. A pair of former Minnesota Twins also spurred a Ducks offense that is breaking out of a collective cold spell.
One night after a big seventh inning contributed to an eight-run output, Alex Prieto hit his fourth home run and Lew Ford singled twice and drove in a run. Prieto and Francia, the last two hitters in the Ducks lineup, combined for three extra-base hits, three RBIs and three RBIs.
“Right now, we’re playing like a team,” Francia said. “We have a great
team and if we keep playing like this, we have a great chance to make it to the playoffs.”
The Ducks posted a three-game winning streak for the first time since the second of the month and moved three games behind first-place Southern Maryland. It only took 2:22 in front of a sold-out crowd of 6,187.
The Blue Crabs suffered a double-blow to the roster, first watching closer Jim Ed Warden sign with the Mets organization Friday.
One day later, staff ace and Atlantic League wins leader John Halama (8-1, 2.05 ERA) signed with the Atlanta Braves, weakening the Ducks key rival in the first-half race. Ducks pitchers Ken Ray and Ed Buzachero were signed away earlier in the season.
“That’s the way this league is,” Carter said. “I think we were hit the hardest out of anybody but we held our heads up.”
Estee Harris continued to make a case for All-Star consideration, lifting a pitch high to right that barely cleared the wall to start the second. The Central Islip native is second on the Ducks with four home runs and continued to compensate for the injured Preston Wilson’s absence.
Cate retired five former major leaguers before eighth-hitting Andres Perez hit a one-out homer to left in the third to tie it at 1. Perez never played above Single-A yet was Newark’s first batter to reach base safely while rounding the diamond.
The Ducks tagged Martinez for a two-run third. Prieto turned on a fastball for a leadoff line-drive homer down the leftfield line and consecutive singles and a sacrifice bunt brought up Ducks leading RBI-producer Ray Navarrete.
Navarrete didn’t get a good swing but Perez couldn’t field the ball at third, allowing Juan Francia to score before Martinez induced a double play to escape further trouble. Prieto ensured the Ducks of another productive inning in the fourth, ripping a clutch two-out triple to the right-centerfield gap to plate Victor Rodriguez and Rob Sandora. Ford followed with a RBI single to stake Cate to a 6-1 lead.
“We’re just starting to swing the bats well and now we need to take advantage of it to get some wins,” Ford said. “We’ve gotten good starting pitching to go along with it.”
Bill Simas entered in the ninth in a non-save situation and allowed two runs before getting the last out.