MLB has packed a real punch this year.
Melbourne will host the Australian Baseball League’s 2016-17 season Championship Series after securing their place at the top of the ABL standings.
The Championship Series is a three-game run held between 10-12 February.
Headed in to the season’s final round, the Aces were 24-12 and four games clear of second place. A loss by the Adelaide Bite on Thursday night made Melbourne’s number one finish official.
It’s the first time the Aces will host the Championship series and their second shot at a title, going down 2-1 to the Perth Heat in 2011-12.
It’s also a huge turnaround for the ABL’s perennial whipping boys – the Aces’ last three seasons have yielded a lamentable record of 57-90.
Melbourne’s roster is stacked with talent. Outfielder Roman Collins is hitting .328 with 20 RBI, among the best in the league. The Kansas City Royals prospect is one of the club’s most consistent hitters.
The Aces boast reliable hitting all through the line-up. Aside from Collins, there’s Cody Jones, Liam Bedford and local boys Jared Cruz and Minnesota Twins major Leaguer James Beresford.
While touch and hitting is great, you need power too. The Aces have two of the most potent bats in the league in Aussie veteran Alan De San Miguel, who moved to Melbourne from Perth this year, and third baseman Mike Walker. They sit on six and seven home runs respectively, two of the league’s top three.
So it’s obvious that opposing pitchers have plenty to worry about. But it’s opposing batters who are in the most trouble, because the Aces have by far and away the ABL’s best defence, led by the ABL’s best pitcher in Mark Hamburger (5-1, ERA 1.90).
Hamburger is being spoken about as one of the best pitchers the ABL has ever seen and if he can cap his season with a Championship, it would make it tough to argue against.
He’s supported by Dushan Ruzic, Virgil Vasquez and Josh Tols, who is in incredible form this season coming out of the bullpen. Tols has given up just 13 hits in 23 innings and batters are hitting a rather pathetic .157 against him.
World Series winner Jeremy Guthrie is a chance to return for the Championship series as well, giving Manager Jon Deeble a huge headache as he tries to work up the best combination for a three-game series.
While the Aces have been clearly the dominant side this season, there has been a few dings in their armour. For instance – their record this season against the Adelaide Bite is 1-7, including being swept at home.
Their bullpen has also been got at a few times, most notably in a 19-4 belting at home by Brisbane.
After the Bite sweep, the Aces are now on a five game losing streak and there’s rumblings around the league that they may be eminently ‘gettable’.
Does any of that mean anything though? Not likely. It’s common in most sports for teams with such a big lead to maybe slide a little as they wait for the real stuff to start.
Melbourne’s opponent for the Championship are still to be finalised – the final round of the season sees the Adelaide Bite (second), Canberra Cavalry (3rd) and Brisbane Bandits (4th) in a battle for the two remaining postseason spots.
Melbourne will have next week off while second and third play their own three-game series from February 3-5.
Whether anyone can cause the postseason upset remains to be seen, but there’s no doubt that the Aces have set a high benchmark.