Pat Boyle 12:00 PM ET
Broadcast/Media Relations Asst
BRIDGEWATER, N.J. – It was just before 5:00 PM on the Fourth of July. The visitor’s clubhouse at Regency Furniture Stadium in Waldorf, Maryland was full of anxious faces huddled around a phone.
The live game cast of the Long Island Ducks vs. the New Britain Bees was the focal point for more than 30 pairs of eyes.
Then, at 4:58 PM, the banner that displayed the current inning flashed from “Bottom 9th” to “Final.” The New Britain Bees lost, and could no longer catch the team ahead of them in the Liberty Division standings.
The same team that has stood atop the Liberty Division since Opening Day.
The same team that has endured rough patches, injuries, and players being signed by MLB organizations.
The same team that has now won an Atlantic League record-19 half season titles in franchise history.
The players, coaches, and staff of the Somerset Patriots rejoiced. They are the first half Liberty Division Champions.
It is the second consecutive year that the Patriots have won the first half division title, and fifth straight year that the team has won either the first or second half division title. It also marks the sixth consecutive campaign that sees the Patriots heading to the Atlantic League Playoffs (they captured the wild card in 2013).
However, the Patriots could not partake in any extravagant celebrations just yet. They wanted to be covered in champagne at that very moment, but their clothes remained dry. Half of them donned their jerseys, while the other half still had their batting practice attire on. Somerset was only 90 minutes away from first pitch with the Blue Crabs. They decided they would bring their good spirits into the game.
The Patriots defeated Southern Maryland that night by a score of 6-4. Just a week before, Somerset had lost their fourth straight game of the year, the first time that had happened this season. Their lead over the New Britain Bees shrunk to just two games, and—with five games still remaining—a collapse of epic proportions did not seem too far away. To state that the team had begun to look over their proverbial shoulders is an understatement. Tensions were beginning to rise, and the team needed somebody to step up. Manager Brett Jodie received quite a few solicitations in the form of excellent performances.
“Winning tough ball games and maintaining our lead was what we had to do. We have enough veteran presence. We came out with a great positive attitude that last day in York [after losing four straight games] and it carried over for the rest of the first half” Jodie said.
Starting pitcher Cory Riordan, an All-Star through the first half of the season, also spoke about the veteran presence of this team being a big reason for their mental strength. “Guys took it upon themselves. We’re at a point in our careers where guys are veterans of the game, and need to know how to go about their business. I think we do an excellent job of that and it showed again.”
Duane Below provided the role of stopper in the series finale at York on July 1st. He delivered six strong innings with eight strikeouts to quell a York lineup that had mashed double-digit hits off of Somerset pitching the previous three nights. Kyle Roller continued his impressive return of power displays, hitting another home run and driving in two runs. However, possibly the most impressive performance on that night came from Alfredo Rodriguez. He hit his first home run of the season in the very first inning to stake the Patriots to a 1-0 lead. His lone long ball of the year so far proved to be the monumental jumpstart the Patriots desperately needed.
“I was just trying to get some runs to help our pitchers and get the team going. After some long days and some tough losses, it was like ‘hey, let’s get it going.’ Rounding the bases was fun though,” Rodriguez said.
Somerset would score the game’s first seven runs en route to a 9-4 win. That win ended a season-low four game losing streak and commenced a season-high four game winning streak. Nearly everything that the Patriots have done well this year had been exemplified during the winning streak.
Somerset scored four runs or more in every game of the win streak. They are 29-9 this year when doing so. They also led after the seventh inning in all four games. They are 24-2 this season when leading with two innings left to play. Solid starting pitching was evident, runs were manufactured with small ball and timely hitting, and not a single error was committed. For versatile utility man Mike Fransoso, getting back to the basics was what the team needed to secure a playoff spot.
“We focused on just playing our game, and tried not to put any extra pressure on ourselves. We just wanted to take it one game at a time.”
Pitching coach Jon Hunton also noted how the team kept an upbeat attitude, even in the face of adversity, especially in the series finale at York last Sunday.
“There was a noticeably positive vibe in the dugout. Guys all came together and the first inning [home run from Alfredo Rodriguez] helped. It was nice to see.”
Three days later, it was extremely fitting that the Patriots clinched the first half division title. On Independence Day, the day that the United States celebrates the independence declared 242 years ago. The day that symbolizes freedom, liberty, justice, and patriotism. On July 4th, 2018, the Patriots defeated a Freedom Division opponent to clinch the first half Liberty Division championship, and they will feel that justice has been done.
Somerset enjoyed the fireworks show that capped off their 6-4 win and first half division championship.
Finally, it was just after 10:00 PM on the Fourth of July. The visitor’s clubhouse at Regency Furniture Stadium in Waldorf, Maryland was full of jubilant faces huddled around a camera. The team that has stood atop the Liberty Division standings since Opening Day strapped on goggles that would normally be used on the ski slopes. Bottles were popped, and the champagne shower began. Jerseys and clothing were doused in celebratory fashion, and screams of pure elation were bellowed out for any and all to hear.
Although any member of the organization will tell you that the mission is not accomplished until an Atlantic League Title is secured, this is surely a moment that many of these Patriots will never forget. With sights already set on September, the team now turns their attention to the second half of the season.