While other local sports shut down this summer due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Atlantic County Baseball League went ahead with a short, modified regular season.
Now it’s time for the playoffs, which will also be different than usual.
All eight teams would have been in the double-elimination playoffs, but Northfield opted out over the weekend.
Coach Joe Bunting said he made the decision to comply with Gov. Phil Murphy’s quarantine recommendations and with Bunting’s agreement with the city of Northfield. He then texted ACBL President Yogi Hiltner to inform him of the decision. Two league players recently returned to South Jersey from out of state and have not quarantined, Hiltner said.
Bunting said the players were not from his team.
With seven teams now in the playoffs, top-seeded Hammonton will not play an opening-round game and will play the winner of Margate Green Wave vs. Absecon.
There will be two playoff brackets with three teams in one and four in the other. The two bracket winners at the end of this week’s games will meet starting Aug. 10 in a three-game series for the ACBL championship. All games are at 7 p.m. Rainouts will move the schedule back a day.
Monday’s game in Bracket A is fourth-seeded Margate Green Wave (6-6) at fifth-seeded Absecon (6-6). Green Wave is the host team but will play in Absecon because the higher-seeded Margate Hurricanes, which use the same field as Green Wave, will be playing at home. Hammonton (9-3) is in Bracket A.
In Bracket B, the Hurricanes (8-3), seeded second, will host No. 8 Ventnor (0-11). Third-seeded Ocean City (8-4) will host No. 7 Egg Harbor City (5-7). Northfield (5-7) was seeded No. 6.
The ACBL, now in its 135th season, usually begins in May but was postponed due to COVID-19 and went with a 12-game regular season starting July 7. There were some great games and a few upsets.
“We’ve been lucky so far. I hope we can pull it off,” said Yogi Hiltner, the president of the ACBL and manager of the Hurricanes. “We surprised a lot of people. Our older players and coaches know what to do (to guard against the pandemic), but you’re also dealing with 20-year-olds, and you see some of the foolish things they’ve done throughout the country.
“Baseball is different (from other sports). They recently had a baseball tournament with 200 high school teams (the Last Dance World Series). You only have about 12 guys in a dugout, and they all distance. Of course, in the field they’re distanced too.”
The tiebreaker for teams with the same record goes to the team that gave up fewer runs in its games against the other team. The Hurricanes and Ventnor each only played 11 games. Their scheduled game Friday was postponed due to rain and then canceled Saturday because it didn’t impact seeding.
The Hurricanes won the ACBL title last year, beating Northfield in five games in a best-of-five series. Northfield won in 2018, the Hurricanes were the winners in 2017, and Hammonton took the title in 2015 and 20016. Only those three teams have won the ACBL championship since Ocean City won in 1994.
“Hammonton looks strong with a tremendous lineup and very good pitching,” HIltner said. “They lost some players but picked up some others. We got lucky against them once (Hammonton and the Hurricanes split 1-1). We lost two of our top players but ended up playing well. Ocean City has real good pitching, and they’ve had a good year.”
The winners of Monday’s games will play each other Tuesday, and the losers will play Tuesday. On Wednesday, the winner of the loser’s bracket game will face the loser of the winner’s bracket game. That winner will play Thursday against the unbeaten team from the winner’s bracket. The team in the winner’s bracket only has to win once in the final. The team from the loser’s bracket must win twice.
All games are at the home of the higher seed. In the three-game final series, the higher-seeded hosts the first game and the third game, if it’s necessary.
Hiltner said that Hammonton coach Sam Rodio designed the new playoff system.
“It’s designed after the College World Series, which also has eight teams,” Rodio said. “That way, we could have an extra week of the regular season (and a two-week playoffs instead of the usual three). It’s something fun and different. If they can do it in Omaha (Nebraska, the site of the College World Series), we can do it in Atlantic County.
“It was a fun year. All things considered, the league was a success this year.”