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There’s only two rounds left in the 2016-17 Australian Baseball League season and six teams are fighting for two spots.
The Melbourne Aces need only one win from four games this weekend to host the ABL Championship Series but the interest is in who will get second and third – and there’s plenty of opportunity for a team who heats up at the right time.
Perth Heat (12-20) at Brisbane Bandits (14-17)
Anchored at the bottom of the table and 4.5 games from third, Perth’s playoff hopes need a fairly hefty mix of luck, results and mathematics.
They travel to Brisbane to face a Bandits team that is within range of third place, but can’t decide if it wants to play finals or not.
Brisbane have arguably the ABL’s most potent attack, hitting .290 and leading the league in runs (181), RBI (167) and homers (30).
Minnesota Twins prospect and Aussie under 23 rep Aaron Whitefield has been in red hot form for the hosts, leading all hitters with 44 hits and 67 total bases. He’s been fantastic this year and he’s only 20 years old. There’s plenty more to watch out for from the Brisbane native.
The Bandits attack suffered a massive setback during the week, with major leaguer Donald Lutz finishing up at the club.
He’s heading back to the USA for his wedding, taking with him a season line of .323 with four homers and 17 RBI in just 19 games.
Brisbane will be looking to Whitefield, shortstop Logan Wade, catcher David Rodriguez and veteran major leaguer Trent Oeltjen to keep the hits coming.
The Heat are on their second straight road trip after going down 3-1 in Adelaide last week.
Their inability to close out leads and turn over one-run losses has been their achilles heel all season, along with starting pitching that all too often leaks early runs and throws the gameplay out the window.
So after all that, Perth fans – to paraphrase Lloyd Christmas… ‘I’m saying there’s a chance’.
Brisbane are still one of the ABL’s best teams but are maddeningly inconsistent, with a bullpen that has repeatedly let them down.
Perth have also been hot and cold but are still unable to close out tight games, something which has cost them several places in the standings this year.
There’s too much on the line for the Bandits and they’re at home. That should be enough.
Adelaide Bite (16-16) at Melbourne Aces (24-8)
Adelaide travel to Melbourne hoping to catch the Aces with one eye on the minor premiership and hosting rights for the ABLCS.
The Bite sit third, a game back from Canberra and 1.5 games ahead of Brisbane (who have a potential makeup game in hand).
It’s plain for all to see what Bite Manager Steve Mintz needs his team need to do.
“We understand that we need to go over there and try to win games, and that’s what we’re going to try to do,” says Mintz.
“We don’t have to depend on anybody – every time we win, nobody can catch us. That’s how we’re looking at it.”
Aussie 16-year old pitching sensation and Detroit Tigers signee Jack O’Loughlin is unavailable for the Bite this week while he represents Australia at the Under 18 Baseball World Cup qualifiers in Sydney.
“They need to win that tournament this weekend to get those points,” says Mintz. “We were happy to let Jack go and do that – we’re all here supporting Australia so we’ve got to let the best guys go, especially in situations a like that”.
Asked about the health of his squad, Mintz is pretty straightforward:
“Everybody’s good to go – our imports have been playing since February so I’m sure they’re starting to be a little tired, but health wise it’s all good.”
“There may be an ache or a nag here, but I really don’t want to hear about it – you go play”.
Melbourne are a solitary win from being ‘officially’ confirmed in top spot, 6.5 games ahead of second-placed Canberra.
They’ve been dominant throughout the year and only have one series loss – funnily enough, to Adelaide.
While the Aces have led the competition for weeks, their effort and intensity has not let up, hardly a surprise when you consider the roster is stacked with local talent desperate to land a spot on the Aussie roster at the World Baseball Classic in March.
The best way to do that is to impress national team Manager Jon Deeble, who just also happens to Manage the Aces.
Deeble has put together one of the most formidable defences the ABL has seen, behind one of the best pitching staff you’re likely to see down under.
Melbourne at home is the toughest assignment in 2016-17. They’ve only lost three games in eight rounds.
Adelaide have been consistent throughout the year but they’ll need a huge effort to make this series count and keep the Bandits and BlueSox off their tails.
I think the Bite have the talent, and I dare say Melbourne might be happy enough to sit on their mammoth lead at the top of the ladder until the real games start.
Canberra Cavalry (17-13) at Sydney Blue Sox (12-19)
The second placed Cavalry head to Sydney for the latest instalment of the Hume Highway cup.
Canberra were beaten 3-1 at home by the dominant Aces last week, while Sydney had a frustrating weekend in Brisbane, battling a close series to 2-1 before the Sunday decider was washed out.
The Blue Sox may get a makeup game, we wait on ABL head office to make an announcement. That missed game may prove critical to the fate of Jason Pospishil’s side.
When these teams met in round two it was run-scoring madness – 59 runs scored in four games, with Canberra taking the series 3-1 after the hectic game four in Wollongong which was decided by the incredible score of 21-11.
Should we expect the same again? Probably not.
Canberra’s bats have settled down somewhat from their free-swinging start to the year, but that’s not to say the Cavalry have gone cold. The club has struck a nice balance between reliable pitching and consistent hitting that would make Manager Michael Collins very pleased with where his team sits.
The Cavalry have six of the league’s top eleven hitters by batting average and three of the league’s top ten pitchers by ERA, highlighting a roster that is coming together nicely at the right time of the year.
Sydney have never really been able to recover from their back-to-back beatings from the Aces, the impact of a 1-7 scoreline still being felt in the standings.
On top of that, they lost their away series in Perth and fell further behind.
The Blue Sox have undeniable quality but three bad weeks has left them with too much ground to cover for a playoff berth.
Sydney’s pitching is high quality. Starters Luke Wilkins, Craig Anderson and Trevor Foss are backed up by a bullpen that features by Sven Schuller, Josh Guyer and Todd Van Steensel
Their offence is also quality – with Milwaukee Brewers prospects Tucker Nehaus (who had 7 RBI in game two v Brisbane) and Malik Collymore, Miami Marlins prospect Stone Garrett and Aussie hitters Jacob Younis and Trent D’Antonio, there’s potency in the lineup for sure.
So where has it gone wrong for Sydney? Errors.
In their eight January games, Sydney have made 20 errors. This includes a calamitous five-error game against Brisbane and unforgivable outfield and throwing errors in Perth which gifted the home side two walkoff wins.
These were straightforward plays that should never have resulted in the dreaded ‘E’.
With more on-field cleanliness, things could have been so much different for the Blue Sox in 2016-17.
Although they lost last week, Canberra will fancy that they have what it takes to challenge Melbourne.
Sydney can still get good results, but they have left too great a gap to make the postseason a reality.
What do you think, Roarers? Who ya got in this week’s ABL?