MLB has packed a real punch this year.
The Brisbane Bandits have beaten the highly fancied Melbourne Aces to win the 2016/17 Australian Baseball League Championship Series and retain the Claxton Shield.
Brisbane took the series 2-0, completing a remarkable turnaround in a season that for a long time seemed lost.
How the Bandits did it
Brisbane’s championship win (6-2 in game one and 3-1 in game two) was an emphatic exclamation mark on a season that at one stage looked like it was wasted.
With only eight games left, Brisbane were 14-17 and facing two sudden-death series against Perth, then Canberra.
They came to life, winning seven of those eight games to storm into third place and the last playoff spot.
They then beat the second placed Adelaide Bite 2-1 in the best-of-three preliminary series.
After some hairy moments during the season, Brisbane’s much-maligned bullpen found its feet, peaking in game one of the ABLCS as Manager Dave Nilsson shuffled five relievers to and from the mound.
While most were debating how wise these constant pitching changes were, the tactic worked – the bullpen allowed only two hits for no score in 6.2 innings.
The pitching went to another level in game two, with starter Kramer Champlin giving up only one hit with no walks in seven innings of work.
With Champlin laying the platform, the league’s best finisher Ryan Searle delivered the coup de grace with his second two-inning close of the series.
“I was just glad they gave me the ball, gave me an opportunity to come out and I gave it my best game today,” Champlin said after his game two heroics.
“It’s all hands on deck going into the championship series. I know we used a lot of guys last night, and as a starting pitcher your individual goal is just to go deep into the game, keep us in the ballgame, keep a down score and give ourselves a chance to win going into the late innings.”
Speaking about the club’s stuttering season, Champlin said that the Bandits came together to push for a back-to-back title.
“We buckled down – you never really know how strong you are until your back’s against the wall and that’s where we were about 4-5 weeks ago.”
“We were able to come through with clutch hitting, the pitchers really stepped it up all across the roster.”
“It’s been a great experience and this is the best way to top it off.”
Brisbane native Logan Wade was awarded MVP of the Championship Series after some fantastic displays with the bat and the glove. Wade’s effort in game one set the tone for the series, showing Melbourne that they would need something from the top shelf to take the title from Brisbane’s hands.
Brisbane’s already league-best hitting went to another level and their defence was almost impenetrable in both games of the Championship Series.
One of the pitchers from that game one rotation, Arizonan Zac Treece, was ecstatic after the Bandits sealed the win.
“This is a great experience – I’m out here with my brothers, in a different country, you can’t beat it. A national title – nothing compares to this right here.”
Treece was indicative of the Bandits’ bullpen struggles during the year, having a rough patch but righting himself as the club went on the end-of-season run.
“I got hit and miss with those spots, I was leaving balls in the middle and getting hit and falling behind in counts,” said Treece. “But I locked in for the second half of the season, really geared down and got the job done.”
“Everybody was locked in everyone was clicking, everyone was loose, and just really confident in each other.”
Coming over from the USA, Treece was full of praise for the Brisbane organisation and their culture.
“It’s definitely comfortable, it feels like a family. Being out of the states, this is the next best thing right here.”
With the depth they have in offence, the standard of their defence and the age profile of the squad, there’s no reason to suggest that Brisbane won’t be up among the contenders next season, and for years beyond that.
What went wrong for the Aces?
For a team that finished top with a regular season record of 26-14, hopes were high that Melbourne would get their hands on the Claxton Shield for the first time in the rebooted ABL.
But there were warning signs towards the end of the season as roster attrition and a cooling offence started to bite.
The 2-0 ABLCS loss to the Bandits meant the Aces had lost eight of their last ten games, scoring only 27 runs into the bargain.
It would be wrong to sell Melbourne’s season short, though. Aces pitcher and former major Leaguer Virgil Vasquez has seen the positive changes in the clubhouse this year.
“The culture changed, a lot of togetherness, a lot of ‘we’s’”, Vasquez said in the aftermath of the loss. “We learn where we fell short, we learn when we fell short, we look back on it and contemplate,”
“I can’t put my finger on it, why we lost. There’s always a feeling that championships are won in the clubhouse, when people come together and maybe the vibe changed a bit, maybe we put too much pressure on ourselves, thinking ‘now we have to win’ and when you HAVE to do something, you usually don’t do it.”
Melbourne’s defence and pitching was among some of the best seen in the ABL. Their team ERA of 3.23 was a league best, they struck out the most batsmen and allowed the fewest runs and fewest hits.
But things started to turn pear-shaped when they lost the services of the Atlanta Braves number six prospect Ronald Acuna, who returned to Venezuela to deal with some visa issues. At the time, the 18-year old was tearing the league apart.
Keisuke Honda had a huge early impact but the right-handed starter was only on the books for half the season before returning to Japan. Backup catcher Wigberto Nevarez was also called home by Atlanta and Darryl George left to play in Japan.
The icing on this particularly bad cake was the last-minute unavailability of 2015 World Series winning pitcher Jeremy Guthrie, who was expected to return for the ABLCS but was unable to after signing a deal with the MLB’s Washington Nationals.
After providing power and run support for most of the season, catcher Allan De San Miguel could only muster two hits in his last ten games and had some late season injury trouble. Aside from De San Miguel and Mike Walker, Melbourne had no other power hitters raise their hand.
Walker, Cody Jones, Liam Bedford and Roman Collins were consistent hitters, but the cold hard reality is that the Aces will need to find ways to boost their offence – while the Aces relied heavily on their pitching and defence, their offence was never among the ABL leaders across the season.
When gun starter Mark Hamburger struggled to contain Brisbane’s big hitters in game one of the Championship Series, the Aces just didn’t have the ammunition to reply.
In the face of all this adversity, it should be said that Melbourne were well and truly in touch until the sixth inning of game one and in the eighth inning of game two, had the bases loaded with one out, trailing 3-1.
Early in the season the Aces would have taken those chances, but as their year petered out they just couldn’t make the moment count.
While Vasquez was obviously deflated that Melbourne couldn’t finish the job, he knows the club will be ready to go again.
“The great thing about a season is that you can stop, start over and look at where you can improve. When I’ve done other things that are normal jobs every year kind of rolls into the next – you never stop and contemplate.”
“We’ll keep building the culture, keep building the tradition here.”