Part 3: Woodies won 2019 first half in historic fashion
Down East Wood Ducks players dump water on the head of manager Corey Ragsdale following the win that clinched the first half title for the team at Historic Grainger Stadium. Photo by William ‘Bud’ Hardy / Neuse News
Editor’s note: This story is the third of a five-part series on the historic run by the 2019 Down East Wood Ducks. The next parts of the series will publish in the afternoon the next two days.
The 2019 Down East Wood Ducks season started inconspicuously enough on April 4 as they opened the season with an 11-game homestand in which they split four-game sets with the Carolina Mudcats and Lynchburg Hillcats and swept the Myrtle Beach Pelicans in a three-game series.
Following a three-game home sweep at the hands of Lynchburg on April 25, the Wood Ducks had a pedestrian 13-8 record.
A day later, a 1-0 win vs. Fayetteville at Historic Grainger Stadium started a 10-game winning streak and the Woodies didn’t look back as they streaked to a 50-20 mark to win the Carolina League’s Southern Division first-half title by nine games over the Winston-Salem Dash. The 50 wins are the second-most in a half in the Carolina League’s 75-year history, only trailing the 1980 Peninsula Pilots, who were 51-19 en route to that year’s league title.
Winning the first half also assured the Woodies of home field advantage throughout the playoffs, which begin Sept. 4.
“It’s been like Christmas every day — you don’t know what you’re going to get,” Wood Ducks Manager Corey Ragsdale said. “It’s exciting for me to be able to go out there every night at 7 o’clock and know these guys have worked hard and to watch what’s going to happen today.
“That’s the fun part for me.”
Ragsdale said this team, simply put, refuses to lose.
“The willingness to want to be the best you can be and to be the best team you can be takes you being the best you can be every day,” Ragsdale said. “That means being that way in practice and that’s being ready to play the game.”
As Ragsdale was giving that response to a reporter in the Wood Ducks offices, a loud, extended and very primal scream came from the clubhouse, which drew a smile from the manager.
“As you can tell, they’re a different group,” Ragsdale said with a laugh.
He continued, “It’s not necessarily the win or the loss, it’s the desire to go out to win and the ability to know how to win.”
Ragsdale said this team’s work ethic has impressed him.
“They play hard every day,” he said. “I’ll be honest, they’re probably not the most talented team — we do have some very, very talented guys — but it’s not the talent that’s helped them stand out from other clubs. It’s the fact that whether it’s an 11 a.m. game or a long road trip into that morning to play that night, no matter the scenario, these guys have answered the bell, every single time.”
The team’s confidence also sets them apart, too, he said.
“They think they’re good,” Ragsdale said. “They show up every day ready to go. They push each other every day.”
Confidence is certainly not lacking for this team.
“One through nine, we feel we have the best lineup in this league,” outfielder Josh Altmann said. “When you turn it over to our pitchers — whether it’s our starters or our bullpen — when every single one of those are handed the ball, we know they are going to throw strikes and do what they need to do on the mound for us to win.”
No drop-off in second half
There hasn’t been much of a drop-off in the second half, although the team had lost six of nine game contests before back-to-back victories against the Wilmington Blue Rocks on Saturday and Sunday. Entering Thursday night’s game, the Woodies are currently 34-23 in the second half, two-and-a-half games ahead of second-place Fayetteville, whom they’re playing 11 times over the final 14 games, including seven times at home.
The fact the team has played so well in the second half — after losing everyday players Leody Taveras, Ryan Dorow and Yonny Hernandez, along with pitchers Emmanuel Clase, Peter Fairbanks, Demarcus Evans, Joe Barlow and Jason Bahr to call-ups to Double-A Frisco — is impressive.
In fact, Clase and Fairbanks have already made appearances for the Texas Rangers this season after being in Kinston this year.
But all those uber-talented players have been replaced with similar incredible talents in the Rangers system from Low-A Hickory or extended spring training, including everyday players such as Sam Huff, Curtis Terry, J.P. Martinez and Sherten Apostel and pitchers Cole Uvila, Wes Robertson, Joe Kuzia, John King and Tim Brennan.
The everyday players who’ve been in the lineup all season — including fan favorite Yanio Perez, Bubba Thompson, Diosbel Arias and Yohel Pozo — have added to the success of the Woodies in 2019.
There’s been a secret to the second-half success, according to Huff.
“We’ve just kept every day the same,” he said. “I feel a lot of teams try to do too much or they even try to do more. But as a team, we feel that if we come and play our hardest every day, you’re going to get the most out of us.”
Wood Ducks Director of Broadcasting and Media Director Matt Present said the reason there hasn’t been much of a drop-off from the first half is also due to Ragsdale’s leadership.
“It’s the culture (Ragsdale) has established,” Present said. “I don’t think he was willing to accept fewer wins because of less talent. There’s a certain standard, certain expectations he has set and that wasn’t going to change because of who was here and who wasn’t here.”
DEWD Assistant General Manager Janell Bullock, who was also an assistant general manager during the final years for the Indians tenure in Kinston, has enjoyed watching this year’s team.
“I think they have fun and seem to really like each so they play well together,” she said. “That’s important because they all root for each other.”
Part 4 of this five-part series — a look at 2019 Carolina League Manager of the Year Corey Ragsdale and his significant impact on this squad — will publish Friday on Neuse News.
Notes: Sources for this series include Baseball-Reference.com, The Free Press archives, Statscrew.com, Neuse News archives, Distributed Wikipedia and Down East Wood Ducks Director of Broadcasting Matt Present. … The author of this story has been the public address announcer for the Down East Wood Ducks since the team’s inception in 2017.