While responsibility for coverage of the Australian Baseball League quite properly will be taken up by the league itself, by Baseball Australia and its state associations, Australian Baseball Alumni will strive to offer another layer of reporting to help deliver the baseball message to the widest possible audience and in a variety of formats. For full schedule, rosters, box scores and news, visit the ABL website.
The week in ABL: Championship Series Preview
EDITOR: In presenting a final edition of what we are confident has been the most informed, detailed and readable column written by Australian baseball interests about Australian baseball during the 2014/15 ABL season, we extend our sincere appreciation to Stuart Capel for the unpaid, insightful and totally dependable service that he has provided for Australian Baseball Alumni. Thank you - and well done!
5 February 2015
AUSTRALIAN BASEBALL LEAGUE CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES: ADELAIDE BITE vs PERTH HEAT
Following Perth’s third sweep of a playoff series against the Sydney Blue Sox, we’re left with two teams to play for it all, with the Heat travelling to Adelaide to take on the Bite in the ABL Championship Series.
The Bite served notice to the rest of the ABL in just the second game of the season, scoring a staggering twenty-three runs in a game against the Brisbane Bandits and while they had wrestle with the Bandits for much of the season at the pinnacle of the ABL ladder, they were able to eventually wrest control from the Bandits and finish four games clear atop the ladder with a 32-16 record, losing just one series for the season.
Recruitment of local talent such as Matt Williams and Mitch Dening (.249-9-27-11) from the Blue Sox over the past two seasons has certainly helped on both offence and defence, while the little things that GM Nathan Davison and Manager Brooke Knight were able to piece together helped the Bite become an offensive force.
The only team aside from the Canberra Cavalry to enter the ABL Draft, Adelaide chose Queenslander Corey Lyon, who quietly put together a .294-1-8-5 season and was an important piece in the puzzle for the Bite. Davison and Knight were able to lure Tom Brice out of retirement, and the popular veteran hit .300 with solid secondary numbers. It certainly didn’t hurt that Stefan Welch (.307-7-31-1) put together his best season for the club either.
Guided by experienced veteran Darren Fidge, the local contingent provided some excellent results for the club, especially important given the league rule requiring local pitchers to start a minimum of two games per series.
Williams (3-2 2 SV 3.72 ERA 1.40 WHIP 64K) had another excellent season despite once again pulling double duty between the rotation and the bullpen, while Wilson Lee (3-3 4.39 ERA 1.48 WHIP) started the season slowly, posting a 0-2 7.88 ERA in his first four starts of the season before kickstarting his season with a scoreless outing in Sydney and ending the season going 3-1 2.86 ERA over his final seven starts.
The local pitching standout, however, was diminutive left-hander Josh Tols, who entered the season on the back of a fine season in the pitching-bereft Pecos League, and he compiled a 9-2 2.38 ERA record with forty-six strike-outs in thirty-four innings. Tols also earned his first appearance for the national team along the way, representing the Southern Thunder in the All-Star Game during the season.
Where the Bite excelled, however, was their import selection - which has moved them from being a chaser in the pack to being the team that was being chased at the end of the season.
Aaron Miller (.389-12-33-11) had a season that would put him in the running for the Helms Award, a stunning effort considering he went home with a quarter of the season and two series against bottom-club Melbourne still to play.
Miller’s teammate from the Dodgers, Brandon Dixon, started the season slowly, and come the end of the month of November he was hitting just .194. Once the Advent calendars were broken out, however, Dixon’s bat came to life and the Dodgers third-round selection out of Arizona in 2013 hit .335 the rest of the way to finish with numbers of .289-9-30-21, with the twenty-one stolen bases a figure that led the ABL.
Dixon’s middle infield partner Chan Moon (.246-5-21-20) didn’t hit as well as he was perhaps ballyhooed, although he led the team in walks (26) and he was right behind Dixon in the stolen base count, while Rocky Gale was an outstanding defensive catcher and hit .267-0-9-1, with the preseason prediction of his being Cody Clark but without the power proving to be close to the mark.
Two players from independent team Gary-Southshore RailCats helped cement the Bite as a contender, with Davison and Knight taking somewhat of a gamble given the salary cap penalty independent ballers brought with them.
Craig Maddox split time between the infield, outfield and even he enjoyed some time behind the plate early in the season to card a record of .270-5-17-1, while right-hander Morgan Coombs, whose record in the American Association was 19-21 with a 5.30 ERA, surprised everybody by leading the Bite with a 7-1 1 SV 1.95 ERA 1.17 WHIP 65K in 69.1 IP record. Like Williams, Coombs ended the season pulling double-duty between the rotation and the bullpen, but he was brilliant throughout the season.
Tyler Brunnemann (2-2 3.12) was one of three league-leaders with eight saves, though he did lead the league in ‘double n’s’ in his surname. He was complemented by Kyle Hooper (2-0 2 SV 4.74) and Will Mathis (1-3 1 SV 6.67), who improved as the season wore on.
Craig Stem (3-1 3.86 ERA) was traded from the Dodgers to the Marlins during the season, leaving the Bite looking for a late-season filler to the hole Stem left once the Marlins recalled him. Enter Virgil Vasquez, the former Perth Heat gun-for-hire, who made just one appearance during the regular season, however appeared on the roster often enough (despite not being in the country on two occasions) to qualify for the Championship Series. While the Bite will require one ‘local’ starter in the playoffs (the rules require an “Australian Native” to start at least one of the first two games, with three innings across the first two games to be completed by “Australian native pitchers), adding Vasquez has provided coach Knight with a nice headache to have with Coombs deserving the start given his season to date, while Vasquez’s record in the ABL is well known throughout the league.
Projected Bite line-up:
Brandon Dixon (.289-9-30-21)
Chan Moon (.248-5-21-20)
Stefan Welch (.307-7-31-1)
Tom Brice (.300-2-18-5)
Mitch Dening (.249-9-27-11)
Craig Maddox (.270-5-17-1)
Ben Lodge (.247-6-26-3)
Tony Vocca (.162-1-4-0)
Chris Adamson (.196-1-6-0)
Projected Bite rotation:
Game One: Virgil Vasquez
Game Two: Matt Williams
Game Three: Morgan Coombs
While the Perth Heat will compete in the Championship Series for the fifth successive season, they will represent as the road team for just the second time, having come up short against the Canberra Cavalry at Narrabundah BallPark in their only other title decider on the road.
Splitting the Preliminary Final series between Blue Sox Stadium and Barbagallo BallPark caused few problems for the Heat, although they were staggered slightly in Game One when the Blue Sox took the lead following a four-run innings against Heat Ace Mike McClendon before steadying for a 5-4 victory. Having taken the opening game, the Heat held all the aces, and coasted to a 9-2 victory in the second game, securing their third sweep of a playoff series against the Blue Sox in five seasons.
Continuing their hot form with the bats, the Perth offence hit .306 for the series, with only one starter, Luke Hughes, failing to record a hit over the two games. Six players enjoyed at least one multi-hit game, as the Heat scored in eight of seventeen innings, and scored two-runs or more in five of them.
Rene Tosoni, a mid-season acquisition, went 5-10 1 HR 3 RBI 2 R to lead the Heat for the series, while also enjoying a solid defensive series - turning two double plays and making no errors, while the Sydney glovework was somewhat poor, making five errors in the two games.
While McClendon and Game Two starter Warwick Saupold were both solid, McClendon ran into trouble in his sixth innings, allowing five consecutive batters to reach before being replaced, while Saupold only managed to get through 4.1 innings through his ninety-seven pitches.
Once again, it was the Heat bullpen that came to the rescue, with McKenzie Acker, Chad Robinson and Jorge Marban combining for four excellent innings in Game One, while it was Scott Mitchinson, Daniel Schmidt, Ben Shorto and Mike McCarthy who kept the ship steady. Acker and Mitchinson recorded the two wins for the series, once again showing the Heat’s depth and talent in the bullpen.
With the pitching rotation and bullpen both stable, the Heat will also take a settled line-up into the Championship Series, having used the same line-up against a left-handed and right-handed starter against Sydney.
Projected Heat line-up:
Joey Wong (.301-2-21-9)
Tim Kennelly (.255-8-28-9)
Tim Smith (.300-4-27-9)
Luke Hughes (.352-6-29-6)
Rene Tosoni (.290-1-12-4)
Allan de San Miguel (.260-3-31-2)
Jordan McDonald (307-3-30-2)
Matt Kennelly (.287-3-26-1)
Brian Pointer (.222-4-14-3)
Projected Heat Rotation:
Game One: Mike McClendon
Game Two: Warwick Saupold
Game Three: Mike McCarthy
The fifth Championship Series in the new ABL sees a repeat of the first Championship Series in 2010-2011, with the Bite and Heat meeting up again, though this time the venue being Adelaide’s stomping ground at Norwood Oval.
There can be little doubt that the two teams have been the best two throughout the season, as the two clubs were the only teams that finished the season over .500, while the Bite possessed the best home (16-8) and road (14-10) records, with the Heat being second best (15-9 and 13-11) in both categories.
Adelaide’s home advantage has been substantial this season, especially when you consider the timing of their matches. In games played in the evening, the Bite were 16-4 under the dim Norwood Oval lights, while oppositions tended to rediscover their line of sight come the Sunday afternoon fixtures, winning four of the six Sunday matches played at Norwood Oval.
While the Heat have proven to be one of the best late innings teams this season, once the natural daylight disappears and the artificial light takes over, conditions become very difficult for the hitters, especially those from the visiting side, who are not used to the (lack of) light.
The mound, rated by several visiting pitchers somewhere between “awful” and “terrible” may also provide an advantage to the home side. Perth’s visit to Adelaide came early in the season, and only one of Perth’s three projected starters for the series - Warwick Saupold - has even played on Norwood Oval. For Mike McClendon and Mike McCarthy, the mound will be a new experience for them, and perhaps not one they wish to endure for the first time in such an important series.
That said, the Heat were able to square the series in Adelaide earlier in the season, and indeed were the only team to best the Bite head-to-head this season, winning five of the eight fixtures played.
On a positive for the series, opinion in regards who will win the series is divided, even among players who have come up against both sides this season:
Hayden Godbold (Melbourne Aces) – Perth Heat. "The Bite are a dynamic and talented team who on their day are unbeatable but the Heat's veterans will get the job done again, they have been there before and know how to produce in clutch situations."
Justin Erasmus (Brisbane Bandits) - Adelaide Bite. "I think it's going to come down to the bullpens and pitching staff. Both teams can hit and both have good team chemistry which is huge, but the pitching staff that executed pitches better will win and I think that will be Adelaide. Another huge factor is the home field advantage. It's tough to play in Adelaide if you haven't played there much."
C.J. Beatty (Brisbane Bandits) - Perth Heat. "I feel like Perth is going to take it. Usually the hottest team takes it and Perth is Hot! It won’t be a cakewalk but Perth has the experience to go the distance."
Kieran Bradford (Canberra Cavalry) – Adelaide Bite. "The only way to cool down the heat bats and the experienced pitching staff is put them under the lights of Norwood Oval. Despite losing their experienced catcher (Gale) and arguably the league’s best hitter (Miller) I believe the home field advantage will get the Bite over the line in three."
Aaron Thompson (Canberra Cavalry) – Perth Heat. "Perth, but they will lose the first game then win the rest. They are riding a hot streak, the pitchers are dialed in and their offence is on fire."
So Perth gets the players’ vote, but only just, and it’s understandable why. They have been to the Big Dance on four previous occasions, they possess a solid core of veteran players throughout the line-up that are complemented by a solid group of import players. Pitching wise, McClendon has come up big when required and the bullpen has become better as the season progressed.
Adelaide’s home field advantage, though, counts for plenty. Of the previous four Championship Series that have been played, the home side has won all four series, and under the dim lights and on a field they are attuned to, the Bite will have no excuses should they come up short.
With a short 267 feet porch in right field, the quartet of Bite left-handers in the middle of the order have the potential to light up Norwood Oval. Against a starting trio of McClendon, who left-handers hit .364 against this season, Saupold, who has gone no further than five innings in a game thus far this season and McCarthy, who has not won a game in four starts, the Bite will certainly fancy their chances of posting a winning score, especially with the likes of Vasquez, Williams, Coombs, Tols and Brunnemann available to shut-down the Perth bats.
South Australian baseball has not tasted success since 1980, when the state team clinched its fifteenth Claxton Shield title, but they will not have a better chance than what they will have over the weekend to break a thirty-plus year drought. It may take them the full compliment of games to secure the title, but look for the Bite to win in three.
Alumni Prediction – Adelaide Bite to win 2-1
Australian Baseball League archived stories 2014/15
Season Preview (October 2014)
The week in ABL 1 (6 November 2014)
The week in ABL 2 (12 November 2014)
The week in ABL 3 (19 November 2014)
The week in ABL 4 (26 November 2014)
The week in ABL 5 (3 December 2014)
The week in ABL 6 (10 December 2014)
The week in ABL 7 (17 December 2014)
The week in ABL 8 (25 December 2014)