What seemed impossible a few months ago and unlikely at best just a few weeks ago became a reality Monday for the Wood Ducks.
Josh Morgan went 3-for-4 with three runs scored and LeDarious Clark homered as Down East struck early to wrap up the Carolina League Southern Division's second-half title with a 10-3 win at Buies Creek. The victory -- propelling Down East into the playoffs in its first year of existence -- capped an August surge after the Wood Ducks found themselves 8 1/2 games out of first place just three weeks ago.
"It feels great, especially with how far we've come," Morgan said. "We won 24 games in the first half, and coming from that and now winning the second half? It's unbelievable. It's a blessing. We're all blessed to be here. Hopefully we can get a ring and take care of business."
Down East (62-77) will take on Myrtle Beach, the first-half division winner, in the opening round of the playoffs later this week, while Lynchburg and Frederick kick off their Northern Division semifinal series on Sept. 6.
Morgan, who had four hits a day earlier, collected three of the Wood Ducks' 13 knocks Monday. Clark's three-run homer highlighted a four-run second inning and Buies Creek (74-65) never recovered. Ducks starter Wes Benjamin (10-7) allowed three runs -- two earned -- on four hits and two walks over 5 2/3 innings for the win. The lefty, working on four days rest, struck out five.
"He's a fighter," Morgan said. "Having him pitch this game was unreal, and his mental side is unreal. He's going to be a dog out there. He's going to battle back, and that's what he did today. He pitched a hell of game and we're excited the bats came alive as they have been the last couple games. But he's a dog out there, and I'm happy we had him on the mound."
Jeffrey Springs and Adam Choplick worked the final 3 1/3 frames, holding the Astros to just three more hits to seal the win.
Gameday box score: Down East 10, Buies Creek 4
Down East went 38-32 in the second half of the season and overcame a gigantic hurdle in the standings to edge division-rival Buies Creek and reach the playoffs. The Rangers affiliate was 9 1/2 games out of first on July 26 and were behind by 7 1/2 games as recently as Aug. 17 before making a late push to secure the Southern Division. The Wood Ducks finished the first-half of their schedule 24-45, 18 1/2 games behind the Pelicans.
"We've all had that mentality that we're going to win no matter what," Morgan said. "I don't think we ever felt like we were out of it. We've been playing well for a while now -- we always felt like we were in it. We always put together a good game. Obviously we're happy with the outcome, and we're excited with what we've got. The team we have now is great and the camaraderie is great. I'm excited for our chances."
The Wood Ducks have lost just four times since Aug. 17. Morgan said it just took a while for the roster to come together and play as a team after a rocky first half.
"Honestly it was just team camaraderie," he said. "Us just forming into a family. That's what you need to win. You need to become brothers, and that's what we've done. We all got along, and we've done stuff together on and off the field and become close. It's been a great year from where we've come from. We put together great at-bats, our pitching staff is unreal right now and we really like our chances in the playoffs."
Abdiel Saldana, a 21-year-old righty from Panama, started for Buies Creek and was charged with four runs on three hits and three walks in 1 2/3 innings to suffer his first loss. The Astros scored on wild pitches in the fifth and sixth before Rodrigo Ayarza added an RBI single.
Morgan was the Rangers' third-round pick in the 2014 Draft and was an All-Star in 2015 for Class A Hickory, where he won a South Atlantic League title. Standing among teammates celebrating in the visiting clubhouse on Monday, he said he's ready to win another ring in the Texas system.
"It feels amazing," he said. "I had a chance to celebrate with Hickory and with High Desert, so this stuff never gets old. It's awesome, we're happy to be in the position we're in. We have a whole lot of big players with big games. I think it really shows what we have on this team -- the bigger the situation, the better we perform. We're excited about our chances and it should be fun to keep this momentum going."
Altoona 7, Harrisburg 4
The Altoona Curve clinched the Eastern League's Western Division on Monday when Bowie lost to Richmond, 4-3. Altoona, who won its game shortly following the Baysox's defeat, will meet Bowie in the first round of the playoffs, with the Pirates affiliate claiming home-field advantage and the Orioles affiliate playing as a Wild Card. Box score
Stockton 7, San Jose 3
The duo of Boomer Biegalski and Joey Wagman carried a no-hitter into the seventh with Biegalski fanning five over three perfect innings and Wagman (4-2) earning the win with 3 2/3 shutout frames. He allowed a double and two walks while striking out four. The victory gave the Ports the second-half North Division title after also scoring the crown in the first half. They'll take on Wild Card winner Modesto in the best-of-5 semifinals beginning Wednesday. Box score
South Atlantic League
Greensboro 2, Hickory 1
Eric Gutierrez belted a go-ahead solo homer in the top of the sixth inning and right-hander Dustin Beggs (10-6) tossed five solid innings to lead the Grasshoppers to a Southern Division second-half title. Greensboro will face Kannapolis, the first-half Southern champion, in a best-of-3 semifinal series starting Wednesday. Box score