The All-Star break is done, everyone’s rested up and it’s time to get into week six of the Australian Baseball League.
It’s another critical week in shaping the finals. Melbourne have a lock on first place and the margin for error is fast narrowing for Brisbane, Sydney and Adelaide – with only five weeks left, one bad series can mean it’s curtains for 16-17.
Canberra Cavalry (11-9) at Perth Heat (6-14)
Canberra travel to Perth after taking the ‘home leg’ 3-1. Don’t be fooled by that scoreline though, because Perth were well and truly up to their necks in the series.
As has been the case for the first half of the season, the Heat mixed some bad luck with some loose focus. They gave up a late, late three-run homer to DJ Davis (who is hitting .153) to lose a 2-1 game one lead and dropped a 4-1 lead late in game two.
There’s a lot of history between these teams, which stems from them playing off for the ABL 12-13 and 13-14 Championships.
Canberra versus Perth games are always tough – they match up well regardless of ladder position, something Michael Collins and co. will be aware of as they look to keep some space in second.
Canberra’s hitters will look to keep their form from the first half of the year going. They lead almost every major offensive category, by some distance.
Their defensive ability and their starting pitching will be tested again by the Heat over in the west, particularly from hitters like Australian baseball veteran and former major leaguer Luke Hughes, who’s batting .377, has 12 walks and will most definitely be turning pitcher’s heads at regular intervals over the weekend.
It’s also worth mentioning the form of Perth’s Manager Matt Kennelly at the plate. He may not have exactly been expecting (or wanting) to, but he is compiling a quality season with the bat.
Kennelly is showing great leadership in a tough year for the Heat, who are more used to being at the higher end of the table.
The Cavalry have big goals for the season. Not considered by many as a true contender in preseason, Canberra are crushing teams with sheer offensive force, mainly coming via Robbie and Kyle Perkins, Boss Moanaroa and Aaron and Jason Sloan.
If it seems like that’s a lot of names, it is – the Cavalry have EIGHT batsmen hitting over .300 at this point of the season.
That’s a nightmare for opposing pitchers, but it’s their own pitching and defence where Canberra need to get better. They need consistent starts that their high quality bullpen can manage, because they won’t be able to so easily knock out late runs to get out of trouble at the business end of the year.
The Cavalry must keep winning to stay above the fight for the finals and you cannot doubt their offensive capabilities.
But if Perth can maintain their effort of the last couple of weeks and iron out those concentration lapses, they are a chance to make something of this series.
Melbourne Aces (15-5) at Sydney Blue Sox (9-11)
What can you say about Melbourne? After being 4-4 after round 2, the Aces have only lost one game in December while winning eleven.
Brisbane, Canberra and Sydney have all tested themselves against Melbourne’s pitching and defence and they’ve only been able to take one win between them.
To show how dominant Jon Deeble’s club have been, let’s have some fun with numbers.
If Melbourne lost their next four series 3-1, they’d still be 19-17 and in playoff contention.
If you double the amount of runs Melbourne has conceded (49), it would still only be the third most overall.
They’ve got four complete games – the rest of the ABL has four, combined.
They’ve got five shutout wins – the rest of the ABL has five, combined.
Melbourne’s success has largely been on the back of Mark Hamburger, Keisuke Honda and Dushan Ruzic work on the mound.
Honda and reliever Shogo Noda have returned to Japan’s Seibu Lions but there’s a couple of reasonable replacements – former Kansas City Royals world series winning pitcher Jeremy Guthrie and another major league quality arm, Aussie veteran Peter Moylan.
Guthrie pitched one inning in the all star game and needed only six pitches to sit down team Australia 1-2-3.
If that is a taste of what’s to come, ABL hitters have a LOT to worry about.
While the Sydney Blue Sox were swept in Melbourne, there’s still plenty of talent on the roster. Miami Marlins number seven prospect Stone Garrett just keeps knocking out hits, Milwaukee prospect Malik Collymore is playing well and the Blue Sox pitching staff is among the ABL’s best.
Sydney will be incredibly frustrated with their away series against the Aces. They gave up a 4-1 lead on the Friday to get walked off 5-4 and then everything fell apart, losing the next three games by a combined score of 16-2.
The Blue Sox have the least hits in the ABL (151) so they need to make the most of their chances. In Melbourne they were a woeful 4-44 with runners in scoring position and left 41 batsmen stranded on base across the four games – numbers like that will make it difficult to stay in contention.
Manager Jason Pospishil will be looking to have his club ready for revenge and more importantly, to stay in touch with the leaders.
The sweep sent the Blue Sox from second to fifth and they face a tough task to re-establish themselves after the break.
One negative Melbourne does carry is an incredibly poor away record. Their sweep of the Bandits in round three was their first ever away series win.
Whether that means anything heading into this one, I doubt it.
The Blue Sox attack was dismantled in Melbourne and the home team will need to show discipline and convert every opportunity to take it up to the ABL leaders.
Adelaide Bite (10-10) at Brisbane Bandits (9-11)
Brisbane return home to face the Bite after they split their pre-christmas series.
Round five was one heck of a series and this one will be no different. The Bandits look more and more impressive with every game and Adelaide’s hitting ability and quality defence makes them an incredibly tough match-up.
The highlight of the weekend was the Saturday night duel between Australian pitchers Dan Nilsson and Jack O’Loughlin. Nilsson pitched five innings of no-hit baseball to set up the Bandit’s 3-0 win, with O’Loughlin the unlucky loser after five quality innings of his own which only conceded four hits and one run.
After a slow start and the sweep from the Aces, David Nilsson has righted the ship and his Bandits are moving up the table.
There’s more help on the way, in the shapes of two Australian former major leaguers, pitcher Ryan Rowland-Smith and outfielder Trent Oeltjen who will make their debuts in a fortnight in Melbourne.
Adelaide make the halfway turn at 10-10 and that suits them well. They’re a good balance of quality pitching and good hitting and are the only team so far to take a series against the rampant Melbourne.
Manager Steve Mintz will be looking for consistent performances from Marcus Greene Junior, Mitch Dening and Josh Altmann. These three are critical parts of the attack and with the competition so close, they’ll need to continue their good starts to push Adelaide into the playoffs.
Brisbane was having some issues with the bullpen throughout the first half of the year and while it’s early to say they’ve been completely resolved, Adelaide will be keen to bring them back into the light.
This series is made even more important by what lies ahead.
It’s going to be a hard road to the playoffs for the loser of this series – not only will they drop back in contention, but Brisbane travel to Melbourne and Adelaide welcome Canberra. Not exactly sides you’d like to face when you’re behind the eight ball.
Brisbane have been showing glimpses of their championship winning form recently but are still prone to being scored on. If they can organise their defence a little better there’s no reason why they can’t be finals bound.
Adelaide are a team that can rack up scores and their pitching is some of the best in the league, but I think the home team will take a very closely fought series and then start thinking a bit bigger.
This series will be a cracker – make sure you get it any way you can!
What do you think, Roarers? Who ya got in this week’s ABL?