Some part of me was hoping that these upstarts from Tampa Bay would somehow win Game 5 of their division series against the Houston Astros.
What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? We’re about to find out.
Reigning ABL Champions the Brisbane Bandits head south to defend their Claxton Shield over three games against the season’s minor premiers, the Melbourne Aces.
I asked Sydney Blue Sox Manager Jason Pospishil and Perth Heat Manager Matt Kennelly for their thoughts on how the weekend will play out.
The unstoppable force
After seven straight high-pressure, high-intensity games, Brisbane’s league-best attack is firing on all cylinders.
The Bandits are in irresistible form, best demonstrated last week when they exploded for 16 runs in three innings to wipe Adelaide out of last week’s Preliminary Finals series.
“They’ve been doing it all year,” says Kennelly. “They’ve got a very potent lineup, one through nine. Any lineup that bats a guy like Goofy (David) Sutherland or Logan Wade down in the eight and nine spot, you’ve got a solid lineup.”
Brisbane have grown this championship squad from humble beginnings, giving younger players exposure to the ABL. Kennelly recognises this from his own experiences with the Perth Heat’s Championship winning sides.
“It’s a tip of the cap to a lot of those younger guys who have really stepped up over the last couple of years and a reason why they’re a championship calibre team – guys like Logan Wade and Mitch Nilsson, who are stepping up to the plate big time and knocking in these big runs for the boys,” Kennelly says.
At one point, Brisbane looked like they would miss the postseason. But Manager David Nilsson would no doubt be pleased with how they’ve turned things around.
They have hitters all over the place – to name but a few, there’s Mitch Nilsson, Trent Oeltjen, Aaron Whitefield and the mercurial David Rodriguez. There’s more than enough speed and power to destroy any pitching setup.
In among all the runs and hitting though, Brisbane’s defence can be overlooked. Very little makes it out of the infield and with improved performances from their relievers, the Bandits have taken on a formidable shape.
Brisbane’s relievers had all sorts of trouble early in the season, and Pospishil thinks the Aces should try to bring back some bad memories.
“I think Brisbane’s bullpen has been a cause of concern for them for most of the year,” he says. “I’m sure Melbourne will understand that and they’ll try to get into the bullpen as quick as possible.”
Kennelly knows that for all their troubles, Brisbane’s bullpen still has some depth and proven performers.
“That’s the reason why they’re at the back end of the playoffs, guys like Ryan Searle and Matt Timms and Zac Treeece and many more.”
The immovable object
Melbourne has the best pitching staff in the ABL. And with a week off, they are well rested and ready for action.
The three starters they’ll put out for the ABLCS – Mark Hamburger, Josh Tols and Virgil Vasquez – have a combined win-loss of 11-4 and an average ERA of 1.97.
Looking at this starting setup, Pospishil recognises that the Aces may be wary of how deep their bullpen could reach.
“I notice Melbourne have moved two of their primary relievers into starting roles for two games in Josh Tols and Virgil Vasquez, so Melbourne’s bullpen will be weakened slightly,” says the Blue Sox Manager.
For Kennelly, the durability of the Aces’ relievers depends on what happens in game one.
“I think they’re pretty well served over three games, with Hamburger going so deep into game one each week he limits the use of the bullpen. Most Thursday and Friday nights he’s gone seven, eight, even nine innings so the bullpen’s only had to cover one inning, sometimes none.”
“So the bullpen is pretty fresh and then going into game two and three they can run out their starters for as long as they want and go to guys like Dushan Ruzic, Sam Street and Peter Moylan.”
Melbourne have hardly set the world on fire with their hitting, but they’ve been able to generate runs when they’ve needed them, a priceless attribute in payoff baseball.
They’ve had reliable output from Roman Collins, Mike Walker, James Beresford and Liam Bedford, backed with power from Allan De San Miguel.
“They’re a solid pitching team and they’ve got some weapons in some bats as well,” says Kennelly.
“They’re probably not as potent as Brisbane, but I think for Melbourne to be successful they’ll go out there and do what they’ve done all season – and that’s win game one on the back of Hamburger hopefully going deep and taking them deep into the ballgame.”
Both rosters have plenty of playoff and Championship experience. The Bandits are reigning Claxton Shield holders and the Aces have two former ABLCS MVPs on the books.
One of those is catcher Allan De San Miguel, the 2014/15 MVP when he played for Perth. The other is the Aces’ starting pitcher for game three, former Major Leaguer Virgil Vasquez. He was MVP of the 2011/12 ABLCS, also for Perth and ironically, for his performance against Melbourne.
Vasquez is ready for action and knows his team is ready to work.
“There’s a lot of ‘we’ on this team, it’s about everyone playing for everyone else and that’s a big part. They say clubhouses win championships and we have a really strong clubhouse,” he says.
“I feel great, I feel great, confident. You’ve just gotta be yourself when the playoffs show up and be about not letting the game control who you are – I just gotta be me, I’m confident in my pitching and confident in our team.”
Melbourne’s roster has a few old hands and some young guns. Vasquez is more than happy to give his younger team mates some advice if it’s needed.
“A lot of the guys in the team have playoff experience, but the younger guys I might give a little here and there. I’ll help out here and there were I can, I’ve had a lot of playoff experiences.
“I look forward to being in the moment of it and being able to share my experiences – in the game, you can feel what’s happening and kind of nudge the team or a person a little bit.”
He’s not bothered that Melbourne have had the week off, either.
“Everyone’s just getting their work in, keeping the bodies fresh and getting some rest. Fine tuning everything, having some fun, playing a little music, enjoying each other.“
Vasquez is very keenly looking forward to matching it with the Bandits hitters and their red-hot bats.
“We feel we match up really well against them,” he said. “They’re a tough opponent who were in this same spot last year and have some experience in the unit of a team.”
“We’re not coming in looking at it as if ‘oh, we beat them all year, it’s going to be easy’. We’re expecting them to be at their best and I’m looking forward to the competition.”
The Hamburger challenge
The ABL’s best pitcher this year is without question Melbourne’s game one starter, Mark Hamburger. He’s a marvel – a pitcher who regularly goes deep, deep into games and has racked up 86 strikeouts in eleven games while only walking 14 batters.
Matt Kennelly’s Perth Heat are the only team to beat Hamburger this year (and even then, he went eight innings and only gave up two runs).
“We handed him his first loss of the season in the last series of the season and he still pitched really well, we felt like we got to him early, then we looked up and next thing it was the seventh inning and a 2-1 ballgame,” says Kennelly.
“It’s just about having good at bats against Hamburger – he pounds the zone with that sinker and changeup and breaking ball three pitch mix – you just have to capitalise on the mistakes that he does make because he doesn’t take many of them.”
“It’s all about trying to string good at-bats together against him and hopefully string together two, three or four runs and hopefully Brisbane’s pitching can hold up.”
Where the wind blows
Melbourne’s hometown advantage may well prove critical when it comes to facing a free-swinging side like Brisbane, as Pospishil explains.
“Brisbane were top for offence and a lot of that has to do with the ballpark that they play in (Holloway Park) – it’s a smaller ballpark where the wind tends to blow out a majority of the time, so it plays quite small.”
“I think playing in Melbourne will give them a huge advantage in regards to lessening the potency of Brisbane’s offence. Even though Melbourne is a small ballpark, the wind can blow in quite dramatically so it nullifies a lot of the power potential of both lineups.”
“I think that’s definitely in Melbourne’s favour that they’re playing at their own ballpark and not in Brisbane.”
Other X-factors and intangibles
Conventional wisdom across all sports says that it’s better to be a team playing and in form than a team having to stop, then start again ‘cold’.
Melbourne coming off a bye week at this stage of the season makes Pospishil wary.
“The advantages of having a week off, guys that have any niggling injuries are able to get over those and I think it’ll give Jon Deeble and his staff a chance to go over any areas of weakness that they see Melbourne might have had and be able to try and fix those heading into the series.
“On the negative side, if you do have any momentum it ceases that momentum. Me personally, I’d rather not have the week off, I’d rather be in Brisbane’s shoes and actually have to play.”
“I think over the past seven years we’ve seen that the team that’s in form really has the momentum in the championship series and it’s a really massive advantage.”
That said, there’s some lived experience Pospishil remembers that the Bandits may do well to heed.
“We played Melbourne the series after the Christmas break, they still played very good baseball… The level of baseball they played wasn’t any less after that ten day break than it was at any other time throughout the year.”
Pospishil: “It should be a tightly contested series, that’s for sure. Melbourne 2-1.”
Kennelly: “This is a really tough one – Brisbane 2-1.”
So you can see how hard the 2017 ABLCS is to pick. It’s the two best teams in the competition and they’re almost impossible to split, even though they employ such different approaches.
For me, this will be a very, very closely fought series that will ask the most of every player involved.
Like most observers, I’ve given the Aces game one because of Hamburger and although Melbourne are rolling out three of the highest quality pitchers this weekend, I can’t shake the feeling that Brisbane will defy the old baseball maxim, ’good pitching beats good hitting’.
GAME ONE: Friday 10 February, 7:30pm Melbourne time
GAME TWO: Saturday 11 February, 6:30pm Melbourne time
GAME THREE: Sunday 12 February, 2:30pm Melbourne time
All games are live streamed on ABLtv.com.
What do you think – who is going to hold aloft the Claxton Shield this weekend?