It’s business time in the Australian Baseball League – Major Leaguers are pouring onto rosters around the country, local players are all trying to get a spot on the Team Australia roster for the World Baseball Classic in March and the standard of play is as high as it has ever been.
Melbourne are a lock for top spot but all five remaining teams have a shot at the playoffs – some more so than others – and the time to make a move is running out and running out fast.
Sydney Blue Sox (10-14) at at Perth Heat (8-16)
Sydney will be ecstatic to play someone other than Melbourne, with the Blue Sox taking a solitary win from the eight game, back-to-back series.
Unfortunately for the Blue Sox, things don’t get much easier as they head west to take on a rising Perth Heat.
Perth are looking better and better with each outing. Their defence has tightened up, their pitching (while still a bit shaky at times) is miles ahead compared to the start of the year and there’s also confidence in the clubhouse that the traditional ‘post-Christmas’ surge is coming.
It’s not impossible for the Heat to make the top three, but many, many stars need to align – starting with a series win against the Blue Sox.
Despite their troubles against Melbourne, Sydney are still one of the ABL’s better pitching staff and they do have the offence to get the job done.
Their back to back struggles against the Aces skewed the stats a bit but the Blue Sox definitely have the weapons to score, particularly with local young gun Jacob Younis hitting form.
Younis had a good back-to-back against the ABL’s best defence, hitting 11-29 with six RBI across the eight-game stretch.
If Sydney are to get back on their feet, they’ll need more production from Aussie veterans Trent D’Antonio and Josh Dean. They’ll also need Sydney native and Detroit Tigers prospect Guy Edmonds to show a bit more discipline – they need him playing well, not getting ejected for brain explosions like he was in the recent home series.
This is an absolutely vital series for both clubs if they want to have any chance of extending their season.
The Heat are still struggling to take the close games. They’re 2-5 in games decided by one run and in a short season, those sort of results can be deadly.
It seems an age ago that Sydney were in second place and looking to consolidate – now they find themselves back in the pack and needing to fight harder than ever.
I think Perth will be able to cause the upset.
Brisbane Bandits (11-13) at Melbourne Aces (18-6)
Melbourne return home after their second ever away series win and face a Brisbane side that split their home series against Adelaide.
This series will see possibly the biggest collection of current and former Major League talent seen at once in the ABL – there will be nine players out there who are either currently on an MLB roster or have played in the big show before.
The most expectation is on three of those players – Aces starter Jeremy Guthrie, Bandits starter Ryan Rowland-Smith and Bandits outfielder Trent Oeltjen.
Guthrie’s first start was not what the fans expected – he hit two batters, was attacked by the Blue Sox and wasn’t helped by some errors early on.
As they say in the classics, he’ll be better for the run.
Rowland-Smith and Oeltjen have joined Brisbane for the rest of the season aheads of the World Baseball Classic in March and Spring training ahead of the MLB season. Bandits fans will be hoping they can give their side a boost into the postseason.
Brisbane scored a massive 39 runs in their home series against Adelaide but unbelievably couldn’t get the series win, due mostly to the 36 runs they conceded.
Their pitching has been a real issue throughout the season and they will have a lot of work to do to keep the Aces off the bases.
There’s not much you can say about the Aces that hasn’t been said before – they have the ABL’s best roster, best defence, best pitching, high quality batting and the club is posting a regular season that will be right up there in the best of all time.
But Melbourne do give their opposition a glimmer of a chance in games. Sydney couldn’t make it count when they saw an opportunity, neither could Canberra.
Brisbane have the championship pedigree to recognise these moments and they know how to take those chances.
The Bandits will outhit teams like they did last week, but the big question is whether or not their pitching can stop their opponents from knocking out runs.
On paper, all signs point to another Aces domination but there are some x-factors at play this week.
Brisbane are playing for their season, have brought in some big time talent, are still burning from getting swept by the Aces in week three and will take it right to Melbourne.
It will be closely run, but the home team will do it again and Brisbane are going to be in big, big trouble.
Canberra Cavalry (13-11) at Adelaide Bite (12-12)
Second place is up for grabs when the Cavalry head to Adelaide Shores.
Canberra have a second straight road trip after splitting 2-2 in Perth, while the Bite split a crazy series in Brisbane which saw the teams score 75 runs on 103 hits (yes, you read that correctly).
The Cavalry’s ABL-best offence was quieter in Perth, but Adelaide’s normally reliable pitching has started to leak some serious runs. If it wasn’t for the hitting of Marcus Greene Junior, Josh Altmann, LeDarious Clark and Mitch Dening, the Bite would be in all sorts of trouble.
Speaking of Dening, the Australian went bananas for the Bite last weekend, going 9-19, hitting four homers and bringing in eight runs.
Dening went 5-5 and hit three no-doubt home runs in the Friday game, a display of hitting that had to be seen to be believed.
But the fact remains that Adelaide have slipped defensively. Despite their quality pitching staff, they have now conceded the most runs in the ABL (135), given up the most hits (236) and have the fewest strikeouts (151).
A porous defence is not what you want when you’re facing up to the Cavalry.
While the visitors can be relied on for offence, Canberra’s pitching has improved as the season wears on. Starters Sean Guinard, Lois Cohen and a bullpen including Tim Atherton, Steve Kent and Jackson Lowery are starting to keep opponents on a shorter leash than before.
Both teams can hit and both teams have defensive potential. It would have been a week of serious planning for Managers Michael Collins and Steve Mintz as they try and work out how to tie their opponents down.
Canberra are 4-8 on the road this season and will be seeing the Adelaide Shores ballpark for the first time. They are balancing out nicely but will need to keep up with the Bite’s output.
Adelaide have quietly rolled to a .500 record and will be looking to put their foot down and consolidate their place in the playoffs.
This series could be even more mad than Adelaide’s last one – there will be hits, there will be home runs and there will be a bit of spice – last time there two met in Canberra, there was quite a bit of tension and aggression sprinkled throughout the series. Both sides are unlikely to have forgotten that…
What do you think, Roarers? Who ya got in this week’s ABL?