The 2016/17 Australian Baseball League season is shaping up as one of the closest and most unpredictable in recent memory.
In a ten-week season, every series has meaning and we’ve got more interesting matchups in week four – a much anticipated top of the table clash in Melbourne, and critical away trips for Brisbane and Adelaide.
Adelaide Bite (5-7) at Perth Heat (4-8)
Week four starts Thursday in the West when the Bite travel to face the Heat.
There’s no other way to describe what happened in Adelaide’s 3-1 series loss in Canberra – they took one heck of a beating.
Even an 8-2 win on Sunday couldn’t paper over the damage the Cavalry did to Adelaide’s pitching.
Perth went down 3-1 in Sydney after establishing a couple of early leads that they couldn’t consolidate, although they were in each loss right to the end.
A controversial bases loaded ‘walkoff walk’ cost them game two and in game three Perth had the winning run on base, but couldn’t bring it in.
Adelaide Manager Steve Mintz was understandably disappointed with his team’s showing in the capital.
“We kinda let some games get away from us in Canberra, games we should have won,” he said.
“All you can do is try to regroup, address the things we did incorrectly and try to get ready for the next series.”
Adelaide gave up 34 runs on 51 hits across the weekend and while they scored 21 runs themselves, the Bite’s usually reliable pitching just couldn’t pin the hosts down.
“We feel good about our offence that we’re going to get runs, but when we score nine runs we have to win – it’s that simple,” said Mintz.
“Starting pitching is the name of the game and our guys have to do better this weekend no doubt, or it’ll be a tough go again.”
Perth will be heartened by their improved showing in Sydney and keen to make the most of a home series.
While they got better efforts from their pitching and defence in Sydney, Perth need consistency from starters Mike Lee and Nick Veale, who stand first and eighth respectively in the ABL for walks allowed.
Lee and Veale are crucial to Perth’s chances in the first two games of the series. It’s critical that they keep Adelaide’s hitters in check, because the Heat need to make every run count.
Perth sit last for runs (42), hits (86) and batting average (.234). They need to find a way to score before the season is gone.
Keeping Adelaide quiet won’t be easy – Marcus Greene Junior is red hot after a monster series in Canberra and Josh Altmann is consistently getting on base.
Mintz has his side prepared and wary of the challenge ahead. “We understand we’ve got this series in Perth and then we’re halfway through the season,” he said.
“We can’t afford to continue to fall in the standings. We know we have to be in the top three if we want to win the Shield.”
This is an intriguing series. Adelaide will be keen to reassert themselves and Perth’s early inning troubles are finally starting to turn for the better.
All the signs point to Adelaide bouncing back, but I have a confession – I have a soft spot for Perth. It will be closely run, but the Heat will take their first series for the season.
Canberra Cavalry (7-5) at Melbourne Aces (8-4)
This weekend’s highlight series sees the top two teams square off at Melbourne Baseball Park.
Canberra continued on their merry way last week, hitting Adelaide all over the ballpark while Melbourne broke an amazing (and unwanted) record – winning their first ever away series in the ABL.
And they didn’t just win it, either – they took down the defending Claxton Shield holder Brisbane Bandits in a 4-0 sweep behind timely scoring and the highest quality pitching.
The difference between Canberra’s high-octane offence and Melbourne’s quality defence couldn’t be starker – the Cavalry lead every key hitting metric, score runs for fun and can chase down a three, four or even five-run deficit in a heartbeat.
But their attack faces its most significant challenge this weekend. Melbourne have only given up 38 runs in their 12 games and the team’s ERA is a phenomenal 3.20.
Don’t be fooled into thinking the Aces can’t get around the bases, either – they are second only to the Cavalry for homeruns (15 to 12) and lead the league in stolen bases with 20.
There’s a lot of quality hitting in the home side. Mike Walker, Roman Collins, Ronald Acuna (my early MVP candidate), Cody Jones… the list goes on.
Canberra manager Michael Collins says his side is looking forward to this weekend’s blockbuster series.
“It should be a really good matchup – top of the table and a chance for either team to separate themselves a bit.
“They’re pitching very very well, we’re hitting very very well, they’re not hitting as well and our pitching hasn’t been as strong as theirs, so it should be an interesting matchup, whichever team’s pitching can set the tone will probably come out on top at the end of this series.”
The Aces boosted their pitching even further this week, announcing that former Kansas City Royals pitcher Jeremy Guthrie will take the mound for the second half of the season.
Guthrie started two games of the 2014 World Series, including game seven against the San Francisco Giants. He is probably the highest credentialed signing in ABL history and brings a world of experience to Jon Deeble’s already impressive squad.
The Aces already have two of the ABL’s best starting pitchers in Mark Hamburger and Keisuke Honda and have also brought in former Major League starting pitcher Shane Lindsay for the weekend.
Deeble’s thinking is clear – pin the Cavalry bats down.
For Collins and the Cavalry, defence is the key. If Boss Moanaroa, Robbie and Kyle Perkins, Scott Kelly and the rest of the roster stay hot at the plate, anything could happen.
“I’ve always said that hitting is a contagious thing,” says Collins. “We got off to a really good start and it’s caught on throughout the lineup. It’s pleasing to see both Perkins and both Sloans contributing, local Canberrans.”
The ‘local Canberrans’ line Collins uses is quite deliberate – Canberra tend to cop a bit of flack from their opponents for their number of import players.
While the runs are flowing, Collins knows that his team needs to work on their defensive game.
“Our focus is definitely pitching and defence at this point – the offence is going great so I do think we need to get our starting pitching through a few more innings and definitely, defence needs to support them.”
The Aces are built to take down free-swinging run machines and they’ll do it again this weekend. They are the ABL favourites for a reason.
This will be a great series to watch. I’ll be getting to three games and two are being televised on ABL.TV.
Make sure you get your eyes on this one. The teams are pumped, the Managers are keyed up – let’s get it on!
Brisbane Bandits (5-7) at Sydney Blue Sox (7-5)
Brisbane head to Sydney stung and annoyed after being swept from their usually impregnable Mount Holloway fortress by a red-hot Melbourne.
Sydney sit equal second on the table after taking a closely fought series 3-1 over Perth.
This week the Blue Sox welcomed back former Major Leaguer and club legend Chris Oxspring, adding even more depth to a loaded pitching staff featuring Luke Wilkins, Craig Anderson and evergreen reliever Lim Gyoung-Wan.
Blue Sox Manager Jason Pospishil says Oxspring will start this weekend. He’s clearly pleased to have another quality pitcher.
“It’s nice – it’s something we’ve had in the pipeline for a few months now. He’d made some enquiries as to pitching in the league and trying to get himself ready to be available for selection in the WBC (World Baseball Classic).”
Behind their quality pitching, Sydney’s defence is second for runs conceded (57), balanced by an attack that sits second for runs scored (58).
“Our starting pitching has been fantastic – we’ve got three guys with sub-three ERAs and the bullpen has been quite good too when they’ve had a chance to come in,” says Pospishil.
“We’re going pretty well, offensively we didn’t score as many runs last week as we had in the previous two series, but I thought that Perth pitched us pretty well.”
The Bandits’ bad weekend saw them tumble from first to fifth, but Pospishil isn’t giving that much regard.
“I think Brisbane’s record is a little misleading, They’re a better team than 5-7… and being the current champions of the league, they’re not going to be a team that we’ll take lightly.”
“They’re a team we respect – they’ve got a bunch of good ballplayers on their team and they’re coached really well.”
“I don’t look too much into the standings of teams this early into the season so it’s going to be a really tough series, no matter whether we played it here or in Brisbane.”
Brisbane welcomes the return of hitter Donald Lutz (who hopefully shakes off jet lag after landing in Australia on Thursday) and ABL season saves record holder Ryan Searle returns to the bullpen.
The Bandits had more pitching trouble last weekend. Zac Treece struggled again while Dan Nilsson and Sam Holland had some problems, but these are problems that can be fixed.
Aaron Whitefield and Mitch Nilsson are hitting the ball well, Justin Erasmus has been good and Manager David Nilsson knows better than most how to get his team back on the right track.
It’s a bad idea to write Brisbane off after one bad weekend. They are a quality club and there’s not many things that will sharpen your focus quite like a 4-0 whipping. Pospishil and the Blue Sox are right to be wary, but they are also right to feel confident.
Series split 2-2
Week four player to watch – Jack O’Loughlin, Adelaide Bite
Jack O’Loughlin is Saturday’s starting pitcher for the Bite. He’s the only pitcher to harness the Cavalry in recent weeks, he’s signed to the Detroit Tigers, he’s in form and he’s 16 years old (yes, you read that right).
Adelaide manager Steve Mintz keeps the approach simple for his young tyro.
“Throw the ball across the plate. It sounds very trivial but at his age, I don’t need him picking out a zone – the ball moves enough.”
“He’s got enough weapons to be able to get people out at a young age.”
O’Loughlin is certainly delivering for Mintz and the Bite. He’s 2-0 from three starts, has an ERA of just 2.13 and has only given up three walks.
“The one thing I don’t want from him is walking people,” says Mintz. “I’ve actually told him when he throws a pitch, I want him to think about the batter making contact with the baseball.”
The Adelaide-born O’Loughlin has a bright future ahead of him and Mintz is clear about how the Bite will protect their asset.
“I’ll limit him because of the age – I’m not going to put him into situations to overwork him or anything like that. That’s how we’ve planned it.”
“I’ve told him, he knows exactly what we’re doing and seems to be happy to be on board with it and so we’ll continue trying to use that option as much as we can.”
“Jack’s done well – we’re gonna continue to send him out there, he’ll start again this weekend and we want him to throw strikes, put the ball in play and get through as much as he can.”
What do you think, Roarers? Who ya got in this week’s ABL?