We’re coming to the halfway point of the 2016/17 Australian Baseball League season and banking wins is becoming more and more critical.
The next two rounds could well be season-defining. Teams play each other home-and-away either side of the All-Star break, an eight-game stretch that will make or break some clubs in the race for the top three.
Week five has yet another top of the table battle in Melbourne, a championship rematch in Adelaide, and Perth land in Canberra desperately needing a series win.
Canberra were shut down by Melbourne’s pitching last week, going down 3-1. While their starting pitching couldn’t hold the Aces, the Cavalry’s win in a tight Sunday game gave a boost to their defence ahead of this weekend.
Canberra manager Michael Collins knows the value of squeezing out a win like Sunday’s.
“Give Melbourne their credit – they pitched exceptionally all weekend, really kept us in check after we’ve come off a couple of hot series. It’s definitely nice to sneak out with the final win on Sunday,” said Collins.
It’s shaping to be a tough season for the visitors. Perth went down 3-1 at home to Adelaide, dropping further behind in the standings and leaving a lot of ground to cover for an unlikely playoffs appearance.
There were some bright spots though, particularly starter Tom Bailey pitching a complete game for the win in game three – striking out a personal best 11 batters and only giving up four hits.
Perth manager Matt Kennelly knows the season will have its ups and downs, but he is staying positive.
“There’s a lot of good signs – young guys getting their work in and putting in good performances, which is good to see.”
It’s been a tough start to Kennelly’s managerial career with Perth. He has a young squad, results haven’t gone his way and on top of that, he’s found himself having to do ‘double duty’ as catcher after the Heat’s planned recruiting fell through.
Perth’s starting pitching has been an issue this season but the same can be said for the Cavalry, whose scoring ability helps paper over some defensive issues.
Somewhat surprisingly, Canberra have conceded more runs than Perth (86-82) and the Cavalry lead the ABL in walks given (79). Collins is well aware of the need to tighten things up on the mound.
“We’ll reassess some things – starting pitching has definitely been a bit of weak point for us. But on the flipside of that we’ll take the positives, guys like Louis Cohen and Tyler Hurst are stepping up in a very very big way in relief.”
The Heat face an offensive force that will be looking to get back on track after being quietened in Melbourne.
“Where we’ve had a bit of trouble ourselves is getting on the board early. Hopefully we can capitalise on these Canberra starting pitchers, because we know their bullpen is solid as well, there’s a lot of power arms at the back end of their bullpen,” says Kennelly.
“Getting that early lead and handing the ball over to our bullpen will be key this weekend.”
With the halfway point of the season approaching, Collins thinks his Cavalry are well-placed.
“As usual you expect a tight competition coming down to the end, just about every year, or at least the last handful I can remember, have always been a tight race for second and third, guys fighting for those last spots.“
“We’re still there where we need to be, and a couple of important weeks are coming up for us.”
While they were a bit quieter last weekend, Canberra are still a potent attack that can pile on runs in bunches.
Unfortunately for Perth, they have a habit of letting their opponents go on scoring runs and can struggle to get everything back under control. Canberra is the worst side to have this problem against.
If the Heat can’t nail their starts, this could turn ugly for the visitors and the sweep is a live option.
After seeing off Canberra in comprehensive fashion, the Aces welcome another second-placed challenger to Melbourne Ballpark.
Melbourne were almost flawless against the Cavalry and Manager Jon Deeble was pleased with what he saw.
“I thought our defence was really good for the weekend. Just our team play, moving runners over and getting guys in from third with less than two out, I thought we did a really good job for the weekend.”
“Any time you win a series is good – three wins is great, four would have been better but happy with three.”
Sydney come off a knock down, drag out fight against Brisbane that ended as a 2-2 split.
The highlight of that series was their game three 9-8 win, decided by a walk-off homer from Alex Howe. It was a crazy game – the Blue Sox led 5-0 but fell behind twice late before digging deep for the win.
Manager Jason Pospishil was also satisfied with his team’s weekend. “One of the best wins that I’ve been a part of in my time with the team,” he said of game three.
“Overall it was a really hard-fought series and I think we played pretty good baseball, even though we split the series.”
This week sees some of the ABL’s best pitching staff going head to head. Melbourne’s Mark Hamburger and Keisuke Honda are almost untouchable at the moment and are well supported by Dushan Ruzic, Shogo Noda and Virgil Vasquez.
Sydney have quality too. Luke Wilkins and Craig Anderson are rock solid, Trevor Foss is sixth in the league for strikeouts and Chris Oxspring got 80 pitches in last week and will be ready for action.
To put this series into context, here’s a snippet for the stats buffs among you. According to David Penrose of the wonderful ABL Stats website, there have only been ten pitchers in ABL history to finish a season with an ERA under 2.00.
At Round 5 of this season, we have FOUR pitchers under 2.00 (and one at 2.04). Three of those four – Hamburger, Honda and Wilkins – are on display in this series.
There’s no real difference when comparing either team’s offence – they are close to even in all the major categories.
Sydney lead the league in walks (77), but the Aces will be peppering the strike zone and free passes will be at a premium.
Pospishil is looking to get out in front early, but that might be easier said than done.
“They’re in first place on the back of their starting pitching which is really really solid, so we’ll have to formulate a plan of attack on how we’re going to attack their starting pitching,” says Pospishil.
“I think once you get into their bullpen it becomes a little easier.”
“Our starting pitching has been really good too, we’ve swung the bats well. I think it’s going to be another really tough series like the one against Brisbane.”
Melbourne will rely on their ABL-best defence to bank another home series and Deeble is keeping it simple.
“We go about our business the same. They’re going to be tough, they’ve played really well this year. We’ll be in the same situation we were in this week (against Canberra).”
This will be a great series. Sydney are the best defence Melbourne has faced this season.
Fans of the long ball should probably take a seat – this one’s for the old-school baseball fans who love a high-quality battle at the mound.
The Blue Sox have the game and the grit to grab a split.
Perhaps the most crucial series this week is the one at West Beach. Brisbane visit the Bite with full knowledge that they need to turn decent performances into series wins.
The Bandits played well in Sydney and were unlucky not to take the weekend.
Their Sunday game, a 5-1 shutdown behind Kramer Champlin, showed why they are still a team to fear.
Justin Erasmus keeps working beautifully, Ryan Searle pitched two six-out saves and last season’s Championship series MVP Donald Lutz is back and working into the season.
Throw in Logan Wade, Mitch Nilsson and Kevin Padlo and there’s most definitely championship level quality at Holloway Park.
The Bite are back at home after playing three of their first four series on the road. Manager Steve Mintz is looking forward to Brisbane’s challenge.
“It’s a big series, we finally get to come back home,” says Mintz.
“Expectations are up – we went to Perth with intentions of trying to get three games and we were able to secure that, so coming home we know we need to play good baseball at home.”
Adelaide have some of the hottest bats in the ABL. San Diego Padres prospect Marcus Greene Junior is top two for homers (4) and RBI (14), Josh Altmann is in form and LeDarious Clark had a monster series in Perth, knocking out seven hits for five RBI.
Angus Roeger returns this week after missing for family reasons and his bat adds even more potency to the Bite’s offence.
Mintz is happy with the effort he’s getting from his squad.
“It seems like each night we’ve got a different person that’s in the middle of it and that’s the way we want it – we’ve expressed that it’s going to take all the 22-26 man roster, it takes all of us to be able to get the good results we’re getting.”
Playing back-to-back series gives one of these sides the chance to all but bury their opponent for 2017. Mintz has stressed that to the Bite.
“Obviously those eight games are going to be huge in the standings for the season. After this weekend we’re halfway done – so that makes these games this weekend even more important.”
“When you look at it, we’ve got 20 games left and if you’re chasing, it’s going to be tough.”
Brisbane will be all out to win this series and stay in touch with the top three at the halfway mark.
Both teams have undeniable quality – they played off for last year’s championship for a reason – and we’ve got more great baseball coming at us.
Brisbane’s bullpen is the x-factor. It seems redundant to say this, but if they can hold the Bite and allow Searle chances to close games, it could be a season-changing outcome for the visitors.
The Bite are also turning it on for their fans off the field this weekend with promotions, ‘Bogan Christmas’ and $5 beers all weekend. Can their team match that excitement on the field?
Series split 2-2
Australian baseball has a real wealth of young talent these days. And I mean young. This week keep your eyes out for another 16-year-old with a big future in the game.
Jarryd Dale has played every game for the Aces, mainly covering the high-traffic position of shortstop. His performances are being lauded across the league and Aces manager Job Deeble can see why.
“Kids at that age, sometimes you think they’d be overawed,” says Deeble. “But he’s taken it in his stride, he thinks he belongs out there. He’s played fantastically, he’s done a really good job.”
Dale has been clean with the glove and effective with the bat, including a grand slam against the defending champions Brisbane Bandits which put the Aces on track for their first ever away series sweep.
None of this would have happened, though, if not for a string of events that took out Melbourne’s shortstop options. Deeble runs through what happened to give Dale his shot.
“(James) Beresford wasn’t available early on, Darryl George was over in Japan, Jacob Sheldon-Collins had a bad back, Kelii Zablan broke his finger – these are all our shortstops – so he got his chance and you know what? He’s deserved his spot in the lineup.”
Manager of the Canberra Cavalry Michael Collins saw Dale close up last week and was just as effusive.
“Very, very, very impressive,” says Collins. “Just watching him, at first I had no idea he was that young. The actions look great, he looks very comfortable at this level for such a young player, especially playing shortstop.”
“If he continues to develop, who knows where he might end up.”
Rising young talents like Dale and his contemporaries Jack O’Loughlin (Adelaide), Brodie Vassalakis (Canberra) and Liam Taylor (Brisbane) are a great sign for the ABL, the national team and Australian representation in the Major League in the years ahead.
But there’s one small step before Dale can think about any of that.
“He’s gotta go back to the under 18 national championships in January,” Deeble says with a grin.
What do you think, Roarers? Who ya got in this week’s ABL?