ABL Championship Series 2017/18: history beckons
9 February 2018
And so shall it end… It’s time to find out who will be taking home the Claxton Shield for the Australian Baseball League’s 2017/18 season. It’s a contest fitting the occasion - the Brisbane Bandits fight for an historic third straight title against a Canberra Cavalry side looking to break a five-year title drought.
It’s the ABL’s showpiece event, so your Australian Baseball Alumni preview deserves more than just my usual guessing while trying to recreate incomplete stats sets - It deserves the insight of people who actually know what they’re talking about.
To help with this, I spoke with Perth Manager Andy Kyle and Sydney Manager Tony Harris to get their thoughts on what’s in store for us on Championship weekend.
BRISBANE BANDITS versus CANBERRA CAVALRY (Narrabundah and Holloway Field)
Game One (Narrabundah): Friday, 7.00 pm AEDST WATCH LIVE on ABLTV
Game Two (Holloway): Saturday, 6.00 pm AET WATCH LIVE on ABLTV
Game Three (Holloway, if required): Sunday, 4.00 pm AET WATCH LIVE on ABLTV
How they got here
Canberra outlasted a spirited Perth out west, working back from 0-1 with two wins driven by top-shelf pitching performances. It was the first time a visiting team had won a playoff series in Perth.
Brisbane, on the other hand, found themselves in a ‘win-or-go-home’ one-off game against the Melbourne Aces after the Friday and Saturday games were rained out.
Whatever your thoughts on the decision to play one game, history will show it was all that is great about baseball - a see-sawing, roller-coasting, incredibly gripping nine inning battle which was well and truly in the balance until David Sutherland finished things with a no doubt walkoff home run.
For what it’s worth, Brisbane owned the regular season head-to-head against Canberra 5-2. The Bandits took a 3-0 sweep at home in a highly competitive week one, then the teams split week ten when the standings were decided and there was very little on the line.
The History Chasers
Brisbane’s roster might be the strongest the ABL has seen, with few if any holes and power hitting everywhere.
TJ Bennett and Donald Lutz lead the ABL in home runs but there’s also Logan Wade knocking runners in, Ngayaw Ake getting hits, Sutherland in hot form… I really could just copy and paste the Bandits roster here and every one of them will have played some part in keeping the Bandits at the top of the standings.
So how do you handle them, particularly with two possible home games at Holloway Field, where a pop up easily becomes a home run? Kyle says it’s all about limiting the damage.
“You can give up a solo home run which isn’t going to do too much damage, especially in Brisbane,” he says. “But if you give some free passes or don’t catch the ball well, innings can blow out pretty quickly.”
“I think first and foremost, keep the ball in the zone and keep the guys in the middle of their lineup away from the damage.”
Pitching in Brisbane is a test of character and resilience. Good pitches are a chance to leave the park and you’re facing a line up that wants to hit you as hard as they can.
“It’s definitely a mindset,” Kyle says. “We spoke to our guys about it, that the likely thing will be you giving up a homer or two but you can’t get flustered or lose focus then give a walk or a loose pitch to the next batter.”
“It’s about resetting quickly and having that mindset that at the end of the day, you’re probably going to give up a long ball but you need to attack the next hitter.”
For Harris, Brisbane’s consistency across their roster and on the field makes them a force to be reckoned with.
“They’ve got great starting pitching, they’ve got a solid bullpen, particularly on the back end with the late guys, and defensively they don’t make mistakes.”
“Often clubs are good in one area but have deficiencies in others, but I don’t really see where Brisbane have any deficiencies at this stage.”
“You’ve got to be at your absolute best in every area of the game to beat them, and they’ve gotta have a day off because they’ve got all the right elements to come at you.”
A feature of Canberra’s season has been the effectiveness of the starting rotation. Brian Grening, Lake Bachar and Frank Gailey have been particularly high quality, especially last week in Perth when faced with elimination and no room for error.
But it’s the bullpen where the Cavs need their biggest contribution. Aside from proven performers Steve Kent and Michael Click, Tyler Herr has been good but Canberra’s stand in Manager Keith Ward will have some tough decisions to make if things get away early.
As we saw in the semi-finals, a three game series gives Ward and Brisbane’s David Nilsson a little more flexibility in how to work the pitching staff over a weekend.
“I think you can play matchups a lot easier,” Andy Kyle says of the three game setup. “You’ve got guys more readily available, which definitely helps.”
“In general, your pitchers are probably going to be on a shorter leash depending on whether you won game one or two, but if you’ve got a chance to win you can go straight to the pen, get guys in for an out or an inning, and continue on with the next guy.”
“It becomes a bit more strategic than it would in a four game series,” Kyle says.
Canberra’s hitting certainly has power in David Kandilas and league MVP candidate Jay Baum. Cam Warner has flourished after taking some time to acclimatise to the league and there’s undeniable threat of the Moanaroas, Boss and Moko.
Kyle and Robbie Perkins can get key hits and Casey McElroy is coming off a productive semi-final weekend, giving the Cavalry offence some good depth.
“Both clubs match up pretty well to be honest,” Kyle says. “I think Canberra probably in the last month are potentially the most in-form team with their pitching.”
“They’ve got three great starters with Steve Kent going to the bullpen and he threw the ball really well, there’s no easy one to get through there.”
Harris also sings the praises of Canberra’s arms. “It starts with the guys on the mound and both clubs have got really, really solid starters. That’s where Canberra have had their success this year.”
Will a tough semi-final weekend in Perth affect the Cavs? Andy Kyle sees positive and negatives.
“For me, Brisbane are probably a bit more refreshed with their pitchers, we stretched Canberra to three games so they had to use their guys,” Kyle says.
“So Canberra may not be fully rested, but they’re coming from three quality games and their mindset could be that they’re rolling. It will be interesting to see how they adapt.”
One of the main influences on the series is someone who isn’t there - Canberra Manager Michael Collins. He flew straight from Perth to Houston to take up a position as bullpen catcher with Major League Baseball’s World Series champions, the Houston Astros.
The Cavalry will be managed over the weekend by Canberra baseball stalwart Keith Ward, who has been coaching at the club since the ABL rebooted in 2010.
“It’s less than ideal, isn’t it,” says Harris. “But he (Collins) has got a great opportunity. I’ve got a lot of time for Mike, he’s a great baseball mind with a great future.”
“It’s great for Keith, he gets the chance to step up and run it and what will be will be. From a management standpoint it’s less than ideal having your skipper leave for the Championship series, but that’s what had to be done and Mike didn’t know that was going to happen coming into the year.”
“That’s a priority job, those jobs are very hard to come by and Mike’s understandably not going to do anything to jeopardise that. When you get a chance to go to the big leagues you’re going to do it, and we all respect that.”
Kyle agrees. “They’re a professional outfit. They’ve got guys there who know what they’re doing. It’s a tough ask and it wouldn’t be an easy feeling for Michael to do that,” he says.
“I’m sure they’ll sit down and go through their gameplan and what they want with certain things but in a three-game playoff things change quickly, so that will be the tough one for them - trying to get matchups right with their bullpen, when to go, when not to go and who they want to throw to. It’s going to be a tough ask for them from that point of view.”
Championship weekend is a great time. ERA, batting average or any other statistic are completely meaningless and a player’s ability to execute their role is all that matters.
Both Harris and Kyle tip a close series, but lean toward Brisbane.
“It’s really evenly matched,” Harris says. “The favourite for me would be Brisbane, just because of their depth and the strength of their offence. Canberra losing a couple of guys like we did hurt them a little bit, (Buddy) Reed and (Gabriel) Arias were two really good guys for them.”
“It gives other guys opportunities, which we love, but you’re talking about two pretty good prospects right there. It’ll be an even series, Brisbane are hard to beat in Brisbane and if they drop game one they get their two most important games at home. They’ve got a good vibe about them.”
For Kyle, it’s a question of hitting depth and the possible benefits of Brisbane’s quirky semi-final weekend.
“Potentially Canberra are the in form team, but Brisbane with a bit of rest over a three game set should just have the advantage,” he says.
“I think their lineup is too deep to keep down for three games, especially playing two in Brisbane. They’re a quality ball club, they’ve played a lot with each other and they know how to win and I think that will be a big part of it.”
“It will be an interesting series - I think it will go three games for sure.”
For my two cents, it’s impossible to doubt Brisbane’s consistency from the leadoff man to the number nine. The Cavalry have the starting pitchers and strong late innings men, but their lineup will need to perform to the maximum for three straight games and I’m not sure it can happen against the Bandits quality pitching staff.
The Bandits have been on a mission this season. They’ve been the form team from night one way back in November and they should get the job done for the historic three-peat.
No matter the outcome, we are in for some fantastic baseball this weekend. Make sure you tune in! Who do you think will hold the Claxton Shield aloft? For your input on the Championship Series, you can comment on the Alumni FACEBOOK page or tweet @AJMithen.