CENTRAL ISLIP, NY – Juan Francia waited for a particular pitch to simultaneously end his hitless streak and stop the Ducks’ postseason malaise.
Francia smacked Southern Maryland’s Mac Suzuki’s eight-inning fastball into centerfield for a two-out, two-run single. Ray Navarrete followed with RBI single to left to help the Ducks avoid elimination with a 7-4 victory in Game 3 of the Liberty Division Championship Series. The Ducks still trail the best-of-five set, 2-1, but will look to pull even against the Blue Crabs Sunday.
Francia had been 0-13 in the series before pouncing on Suzuki’s offering. His single scored George Lombard and Johnny Hernandez to break a 4-all tie and send most of the 4,739 at Citibank Park into a frenzy. The Ducks will also play Game 4 at home and again in the elimination game Tuesday if necessary.
“I was looking fastball,” Francia said. “He finally threw it. I was looking for a fastball inside and [looking] to keep my hands inside the ball. I did that and I got the hit.”
Francia’s single keyed the Ducks’ four-run eighth inning that erased Southern Maryland’s one-run lead. It also snapped a 10-game postseason losing streak as the Ducks won a playoff game for the first time since 2005. The base hit allowed Francia a chance at redemption.
“I was trying to do too much the last few games,” Francia said. “I wasn’t seeing the ball very good.”
Francia said he changed his approach against Suzuki, who closed out the Blue Crabs’ two wins in Southern Maryland to start the series.
“I was relaxed and I said to
myself, ‘this is it right here. This is going to be a big at-bat for me,’” he said.
The Ducks were
four outs away from getting knocked out of the Atlantic League playoff’s first-round for the fifth consecutive season. Southern Maryland entrusted former major leaguer Franklyn Gracesqui to bridge the gap to Suzuki. But the ex-Marlins’ lefthander walked Gonzalez to lead off the inning before allowing a base hit. Johnny Hernandez smacked another single to left to plate Raul Gonzalez with the tying run.
Alex Prieto tried to sacrifice the runners with a bunt yet reached on a single when the Blue Crabs couldn’t make the play. That ended Gracesqui’s evening after he failed to retire all four batters he faced. The southpaw took the loss in giving up four runs.
Suzuki nearly escaped the bases-loaded, no-out jam with the tie intact. The right-hander struck out Rob Sandora and forced ninth-hitting Matt Cavagnaro to pop out before Francia came through.
“It’s going to give him a huge boost,” manager Gary Carter said about Francia’s confidence.
Levittown native Randy Leek struggled at the start, allowing Southern Maryland to score twice in the first inning. Travis Garcia lined the left-hander’s pitch into left for a RBI single to open the scoring before Jeremy Owens added a sacrifice fly.
The Ducks battled back thanks to Cavagnaro’s contributions. The Bay Shore native hit a home run in Game 2 and added a RBI single in the second and a sacrifice fly in the fourth to help the Ducks tie the game and ignite a struggling lineup from the bottom of the order.
Navarrete, the Ducks MVP who set seven offensive franchise record this season, drilled his first postseason home run this year to put the home team ahead, 3-2, in the fifth.
Carter left Leek, who pitched 6 2/3 innings of five-hit ball, in the game to start the seventh and John Ramistella pulled a one-out solo home run to left to tie it. Southern Maryland took the 4-3 lead when Cesar Nicolas drove in Garcia with a RBI single through the left side off Ducks’ reliever Jim Brower. Garcia had reached on an error at third with two outs, ending Leek’s outing one batter before Garcia scored the unearned run.
“There’s no question Randy has been outstanding at home,” Carter said regarding Leek. “We knew coming back to our home ballpark and having the ball in his hands would be a plus for us.”
The Ducks completed the comeback, something it failed to do in one-run losses in the first two games. Carter said the Ducks could benefit from the momentum swing and even mentioned his role on another champion club New Yorkers remember fondly.
“We know we can’t give in,” Carter said. “If we’re going to be the cardiac kids, like a reminder [of] 1986, then that’s what it’s going to have to take.”