CENTRAL ISLIP, NY— Troy Cate ran to the cooler, grabbed a beer with each hand and sprinted down the hallway to the door leading to the Citibank Park home dugout.
Ducks manager Gary Carter didn’t have a chance to avoid him.
Cate doused the Hall of Famer as soon as he opened the door as the rest of the clubhouse roared in delight. The celebration capped a whirlwind day in which the Ducks posted a 12-10 win over Camden in the regular season finale and Southern Maryland lost its game, allowing the Ducks to claim the second-half Liberty Division championship.
“It’s gratifying when you work so hard and win it in that way,” said Carter, who kept on his drenched alternate green No. 8 uniform. “It gives us
a good feeling going into the playoffs.”
Hoisting a division championship banner is usually the ultimate regular season goal for a contending team. But the Atlantic League’s playoff scenario complexities made for an unusual regular season finale for the Ducks Sunday afternoon.
The Ducks entered the day having already clinched a sixth consecutive postseason berth and a meeting with Southern Maryland in the best-of-five Liberty Division Championship series. But a Ducks victory and a Southern Maryland loss would make the Ducks second-half Liberty Division champions.
Juan Francia’s four RBIs and six Ducks pitchers ensured the club took care of business on its end. Minutes earlier, the club got the help it needed when the Blue Crabs fell to Lancaster, handing the Ducks the division crown and momentum heading into Thursday’s Game 1.
The Ducks finished the first and second halves with identical 37-33 records. The team trailed Southern Maryland by seven games as late as Sept. 2 before winning seven of its last nine.
“For us to keep battling and come back and end up winning the division, it’s a momentum-builder going into the playoffs,” Carter said.
The Ducks were 7-13 against the Blue Crabs this season, marking the team’s worst
record in head-to-head matchups in the eight-team league.
“Southern Maryland’s going to be tough,” Carter said. “They were the club that played the toughest against us all
Raul Gonzalez drove in three runs, including a two-run fifth inning single, while George Lombard added a two-run home run. The Riversharks provided some anxious moments for the home team thanks to a six-run eighth inning that turned an 11-4 lead into one-run game.
With three consecutive off days looming, Carter called on All-Star closer Bill Simas for a five-out save. Simas maintained the 11-10 lead and logged a scoreless ninth inning after the Ducks tacked on an insurance run in the bottom of the eighth.
“It’s gratifying just for the scrap we put up with all year,” Simas said. “We had a lot of injuries, we had guys leaving us and we played bad baseball for awhile. So I think for us to actually win the division in the second half is huge.”
Torn between going for the division crown and the reality that the outcome would not affect seeding, Carter chose to limit starter Ken Ray and set up his rotation for the playoffs.
Ray, who is slated to start Game 2 in Southern Maryland Friday night, pitched just three innings in his final start before the first round. The ex-Atlanta Brave allowed just one hit and walked four before giving way to Ron Flores to start the fourth. Ray’s effort puts him on track to make his next start on regular four-days rest.
Ray Navarrete received a watch in a pregame ceremony for winning the team’s MVP award. The former Mets farmhand finished with a league-best 96 RBIs and a Ducks-leading 25 home runs. But Navarrete gave Carter and the rest of his teammates a scare when he landed hard on the leftfield grass trying to make a diving catch on Kevin Kotch’s second-inning line drive triple.
Carter jogged from the dugout to the field to check on Navarrete before the outfielder waved his manager back to the bench. Navarrete played the rest of the game and scored two runs.
Carter will send out Troy Cate to start Game 1 against former Ducks lefthander John Halama, who went 8-1 with a 1.96 ERA. Southern Maryland, who won the first half title, chose to have the first two games (Thursday and Friday) at home.
The series will then shift to Citibank Park where Levittown native Randy Leek will start Game 3 for the Ducks Saturday. If the necessary, the Ducks will host the final two games as the club tries to win its first playoff series since the 2004 championship season.
Nic Jackson joined the Ducks from the Northern League, where he led Fargo-Moorhead to a championship. Jackson is looking to add a second title in the same month and went 3-4 with one RBI and two runs scored in his Ducks debut.
“I was just lucky enough to get some pitches to hit,” said Jackson, who said it took him three days to drive to Long Island. “I’m in a fortunate situation.
“You can’t ask for anything more. If you’re in a championship situation twice in one season; that’s what you play for. The playoffs are a different environment. Hopefully I can help out here.”
Carter wrapped up his first season as Ducks manager with a 74-66 overall record. The Ducks have qualified for the playoffs every season since 2004 but have lost in the first round the previous four seasons when the league used a best-of-three format. This is the first season the league made both the opening and championship rounds a best-of-five set, which both the Ducks players and Carter said they favored.
“The best team doesn’t always win in a best-of-three,” Simas said. “In five, you have a chance to battle back a little bit and the best team has a chance to win.”