Post-season berths remain for the taking

Kingsley Collins

8 January 2017

 

Holding a comfortable lead atop Australian Baseball League standings, Melbourne Aces (21-7) copped one fearful battering at the hands of a powerful Brisbane Bandits (12-16) but were still able to win a challenging and intriguing series at Melbourne Ballpark, while Canberra Cavalry (16-12) strengthened its hold on second with an away series success against Adelaide Bite (13-15).

 

Across the Nullarbor, an emotionally-charged and grieving Perth Heat (11-17) kept its slim playoff hopes alive with a series win - its first in more than a year - over Sydney Blue Sox (11-17), which faces a tough schedule with two of its remaining series away from Blacktown.

 

With a range of possible scenarios still in play, the only certainty appears to be that Melbourne will be making a post-season appearance. 

 

One of the unique features of Australian Baseball League (and there are many) has been the fluidity of its playing personnel, whereby rosters can change – sometimes significantly – from week to week, as players become available, or become not available, are subject to organisational restrictions or are simply not able to play because of other commitments that need to take priority.

 

On the matter of fluidity, we need to factor in the motivation of some of the league’s players, on all club rosters, when there may be individual, quite reasonable purposes that have drawn them to this national competition – for example, in preparation for other baseball events such as World Baseball Classic, to extend or to re-boot careers by attracting attention in what is now an internationally pretty well-regarded league. For team management, there is a balance to be struck between maximising team success and honouring an overarching league purpose of being significantly about development of young players.

 

Whatever their individual circumstances, we can be sure that the overwhelming majority of players have been, and will be giving their all for their Australian Baseball League team – evidenced by the steadily improving standard of the league and the increased intensity of the competition.

 

In recognising all that, we need also to acknowledge that there is no certainty about anything, as there will not necessarily be the continuity that clubs might like for them to always perform at their very best. This is precisely why it is so difficult for anyone to draw a line through form and make any reasonably definite projection of who might be contesting the Championship Series.

 

Some clubs will be affected more by player turnover than others, and some may never be fully able to suit up their very best combination from the pool of players available back in Round One through to those on rosters in Round Ten.

 

A number of the league’s outstanding imports returned home over Christmas, while many others have joined or re-joined the league after the break – potentially creating a whole new dynamic between clubs in the competition. For this round alone, three more Major Leaguers suited up for teams - along with a number of contracted professionals – generating even greater credibility and piquing the interest of supporters.

 

Even now, while its winning record says that Melbourne will finish in the top three – likely first or second, whatever happens – at least three other clubs are in serious contention for the post-season. For Sydney and for Perth Heat the assignment will be considerably more difficult, although neither is mathematically out of contention with twelve games yet to play – especially if series sweeps come into play over the next three weeks.

 

Of highlights there again were many in Round Seven.

 

James Beresford, Ryan Rowland-Smith and Trent Oeltjen played crucial roles in the series at Melbourne Ballpark, where fan favourite Mark Hamburger was superb and where Major Leaguer Jeremy Guthrie was again impressive – along with Bandits southpaw Rick Teasley. Red Sox prospect Dan McGrath treated us to a two-innings cameo and Logan Wade belted a rare grand slam in a Game Three aberration where the Bandits – who boast power throughout the order - went ballistic despite dropping the series.

 

A hard-fought series at West Beach ended with Canberra Cavalry coming away with an overall win that owed plenty to another terrific outing by Sean Guinard and some outstanding bullpen work in the series finale. Backed by a supportive bullpen, teenager Jack O’Loughlin spun another terrific start for the Bite, who enjoyed great offensive contributions from other young players in Karl Hoschke (with a massive home run) and Jordan McArdle. But while Adelaide again demonstrated its hitting power, Canberra was ever-dangerous – just what we would expect from the club that leads the league in hits and dingers.

 

Having a great season for Sydney Blue Sox, Trevor Foss threw a pearler against Perth Heat at Barbagallo in Game One, although the tenor of the series out west was subsequently overshadowed by the shock and great sadness expressed by the entire baseball community on the untimely passing of Greg Jelks, a magnificent baseball person and a wonderful contributor to the sport in two countries who had for many years called Western Australia his home. Led by former Major Leaguer Luke Hughes and the Kennelly brothers – all of whom are having outstanding seasons – the Heat pinched an emotion-charged Friday night game and then overcame an early deficit to get past the Sox on Saturday before a walkoff victory in an extra-innings Sunday evening victory.

 

AUSTRALIAN BASEBALL LEAGUE ROUND SEVEN 2016/17

 

MELBOURNE ACES versus BRISBANE BANDITS (Melbourne Ballpark)

 

Melbourne won this series 3-1.

 

With both clubs buoyed by the inclusion of high-profile players for GAME ONE, it was the Bandits who struck early, plating two in the first off Melbourne Ace Mark Hamburger – including an RBI sacrifice fly by former Major Leaguer Trent Oeltjen. Hits to Cody Jones and Roman Collins combined with a wild pitch by Brisbane starter Jake Ezell to score a first for the Aces, who kept pressing in the second against a wayward Ezell as Liam Bedford doubled and Kelii Zablan drew a pass with none out. Ryan Dale laid down a sacrifice bunt and James Beresford walked, though Ezell was able to escape the jam despite already throwing a truckload of pitches. Kevin Padlo doubled in the top of three and scored on a defensive error for Brisbane, with reliever Zac Treece mowing down the Aces hitters while Hamburger also held sway through the fourth and fifth. Allan de San Miguel and Brad Harman both hit safely on the bottom of six and advanced on a bunt before Zablan drove a two-RBI single into centre to level the scores before the Aces passed up scoring opportunities in the seventh and the eighth. Spinning another outstanding game against a powerful offence, Hamburger (eight innings for thirteen strikeouts and the three earned runs) handed the ball to Peter Moylan, who conceded singles to Wade Dutton and Aaron Whitefield – his third knock of the night – before retiring the heart of the Bandits order with no damage done. Heading the hill in the bottom of nine for Brisbane, Ryan Searle conceded a one-out single to Beresford, who scooted to second on a wild pitch before Roman Collins was intentionally walked – a double play strategy that came unstuck when Mike Walker (who had fanned four times) smacked an RBI-single to nail a 4-3 win in favour of the Melbourne Aces. Just a wonderful contest featuring superb pitching – by Hamburger, winning pitcher Moylan and Treece especially – along with some timely hitting by the likes of Whitefield, Oeltjen, Padlo, Zablan and Collins. 

 

Super-efficient early on, Melbourne starter Jeremy Guthrie breezed through the first two innings of GAME TWO – throwing a minimum of pitches – while southpaw Rick Teasley was well in charge for the Bandits in also retiring the first six hitters he saw. Taking Guthrie to a full count, David Sutherland doubled to the wall in the top of three and Andrew Campbell drew a walk before the Melbourne righty produced the pitches to thwart any challenge. Jared Cruz doubled with two out to give the Aces their first runner of the evening and James Beresford smacked a lead-off double in the bottom of four, advanced on a grounder and scored on Mike Walker’s ground ball to the right side. The Bandits tied the game up in the top of six, when Aaron Whitefield reached on a safety bunt, stole second and scored on a throwing error. Relieving Guthrie after a superb six innings for four hits, six strikeouts and no earned runs, Sam Street survived a lights outage – the third in four home series – before conceding the go-ahead run on a tricky infield play that forced a handling and throwing error. Relieving Street, Josh Tols whiffed Logan Wade to escape the top of seven while Sam Holland – who was summoned from the pen for Brisbane – conceded a single to Allan de San Miguel and a walk to Brad Harman before Kelii Zablan singled to rightfield to load the bases. Jared Cruz smacked an RBI-single and a wild pitch plated a third run for Melbourne, which resisted an eighth innings challenge before Walker belted a massive two-run bomb and the Aces held on strongly for a 5-3 win. While Teasley was outstanding for the Bandits, the Aces were too accomplished.

 

Taking the GAME THREE start for Melbourne, Jon Kennedy retired the Bandits in order in the first before Ryan Rowland-Smith headed to the hill in his much-anticipated debut for Brisbane. While RRS went untouched through the early innings, Kennedy ran into strife in the second – when the Bandits plated two on doubles to Thomas Milone and Connor Macdonald and a run-scoring single to Wade Dutton – and again in the third, when Donald Lutz whacked a two-run bomb over the rightfield wall. Roman Collins singled for Melbourne’s first hit - in the fourth – and Rowland-Smith (four innings, one hit and three strikeouts) was relieved by Ty’Relle Harris – while Kennedy escaped from a jam in the top of five. A Brad Harman walk, a passed ball and a Jared Cruz single scored a run for Melbourne, although the response was emphatic as Trent Oeljten took Aces reliever Brandon Stenhouse deep to restore the four-run lead in the top of six. When Wade Dutton stroked an RBI-single to score Milone, Stenhouse was relieved by Matt Wilson, who walked David Sutherland to load the bases with none out. Lutz singled to score a seventh for the Bandits before Logan Wade delivered the maximum damage with a booming grand slam over the centrefield wall as part of an astounding eleven-run eruption that put the contest way beyond reach of the league leader. With both sides wringing the changes, David Rodriguez and Oeltjen blasted homers off Jeremy Young in the seventh – followed by a second from Rodriguez in the top of nine as the Bandits rolled away to a remarkable 19-4 win despite the late hitting of Cruz (three hits and a walk, for two RBIs), who was a beacon in a sluggish Aces offence. Harris took the win for a Brisbane outfit that amassed twenty-one hits to six – thanks largely to the contributions of Connor Macdonald (five hits for two RBIs), Rodriguez (three and three, with two bombs), Oeltjen (two home runs), Wade (two hits, including the grand slam), Lutz (two and three – including a home run) and Dutton (three and three).

 

Riding a wave of confidence after their massive win on Saturday night, Brisbane Bandits were tested early in GAME FOUR by Red Sox prospect Dan McGrath - who was playing his first game for the Aces in four years and walked three (with no hits) before handing the ball to Sam Gibbons in the top of the third. The reliable Justin Erasmus was efficient early days for Brisbane, who had their chance in the top of four – with hits to Logan Wade and David Rodriguez – but were thwarted by some slick Aces defence. A James Beresford single and a Roman Collins double with none out presented a golden opportunity for the Aces in the bottom of four, but the home side came up empty as Mike Walker fanned and the Bandits turned a neat infield double play. With the game developing into a serious arm wrestle, Gibbons was replaced by big man Dushan Ruzic and the Aces opened scoring in the bottom of five, when Brad Harman doubled, Jared Cruz singled and Harman trotted home on a sacrifice flyball by Wigberto Nevarez that brought Zac Treece from the pen for Erasmus (4.1 innings, for five hits and two strikeouts for an earned run). When Beresford doubled to score Cruz it was two-zip to the Aces – a lead that was built upon when Walker doubled off Sam Holland and scored on another knock by Cruz, who has been superb in recent times. Taking the ball in the bottom of seven, Ryan Searle conceded – for him – rare runs when Liam Bedford singled, Cody Jones spanked an RBI-double and Collins singled to plate Jones. While the Bandits clawed a run back off Josh Tols in the eighth, closer Peter Moylan retired the Bandits for the Aces to win 5-1 – and take the series. Ruzic carded the win, which was engineered largely off the bats of Beresford, Collins, Walker and Cruz, while Brisbane was provided another terrific start by Erasmus but was unable to ignite the offence that had been so damaging during the Saturday blow-out.

 

BOX SCORES:          GAME ONE     GAME TWO     GAME THREE     GAME FOUR

ADELAIDE BITE versus CANBERRA CAVALRY (West Beach)

 

Canberra won this series 3-1.

 

Canberra scored in the first of GAME ONE, when Mike Reeves singled with runners at the corners against Bite tyro Jack O’Loughlin, while Josh DeGraaf came under fire in the equaliser when two walks, some sloppy defence, a two-RBI Stefan Welch double and a Marcus Greene grounder gleaned four for Adelaide. While both sides had their scoring opportunities through the second and third, there was nothing happening in the scoring department as O’Loughlin and DeGraaf exerted their authority after the first. AJ Holland relieved DeGraaf with the Bite holding a four-zip lead after four, a break which was shaved a little when River Stevens doubled and Mike Reeves stroked an RBI-single in the top of six. Relieving O’Loughlin after another solid start (six innings for seven hits and one earned run), Matt Williams cruised through the top of seven before his side posted massive insurance with a four-spot highlighted by run-scoring doubles to Mitch Dening and Angus Roeger – as the Bite exploded to a six-run lead against a shaky Canberra defence. While DJ Davis spanked a home run for Canberra in the top of the eighth – and David Kandilas was left high and dry after legging out a triple - the Bite remained well in control of this one as Hei Chun Lee closed out the game 8-3 in favour of Adelaide. O’Loughlin carded the win and Williams the hold in a contest that was dominated by the Adelaide arms and productive hitting by the likes of Roeger (two doubles for two RBIs), Greene (two hits and an RBI), Dening (two and one, with a walk) and Welch (one and two), while Reeves, Kandilas and Davis were best for a Cavalry side that was well below its best with the bat and in defence.

 

Starting in stifling heat at West Beach, GAME TWO produced early scoring by both sides, with Mitch Dening smacking a sacrifice flyball for the Bite after LeDarious Clark worked a leadoff pass from Sean Guinard and advanced to third on a Jordan Cowan double. Singles to Robbie Perkins, Aaron Sayers and DJ Davis off Bite starter Zach Cooper levelled the scores at one apiece before Karl Hoschke left the yard for Adelaide with a solo shot in the bottom of two. With both pitchers settling into their work, the Bite retained a narrow lead in the seven-innings contest – although both clubs had scoring opportunities. After Boss Moanaroa singled to lead off the sixth for Canberra, Cooper was relieved by Loek van Mil, who made a couple of comfortable outs – including a force at second - before an infield error allowed Josh Almonte to score, after the Designated Hitter had stolen second and third. Kyle Perkins drew a walk and Davis singled to leftfield for a one-run Cavalry lead. Relieving Guinard in the bottom of six, Zech Lemond landed runners at second and third – with two out – before escaping the innings with a smart pick-off move through third. Seemingly not about to be denied, the Cavalry scored two more in the top of the last – after doubles to River Stevens, Aaron Sloan and Almonte – in a flurry that secured a 5-2 win for Canberra and a share of the series thus far. Guinard was credited with his third win for the Cavalry, who produced a consistent offensive effort led by Stevens, Sayers and Davis – who posted two knocks apiece – while Stefan Welch and Jordan McArdle were multi-hitters for a relatively subdued Adelaide.

 

With a cool change wandering in for GAME THREE, Adelaide starter Steven Chambers stranded a couple of Canberra runners in the first before a productive equaliser that saw the Bite score early off Louis Cohen. The Cavalry were not to be denied, however, putting up a three-spot in the third on a walk and four singles for a lead that held up just momentarily as Jordan Cowan and Stefan Welch both hit safely to level scores in the equaliser. River Stevens legged out a triple for Canberra in the top of five and scored on a single to David Kandilas, who scooted to second on the play, drawing local hurler James Snelgrove from the pen in a tricky situation that produced another on a grounder and a passed ball for a two-run break. Delivering a solid relief stint, Snelgrove was replaced by Tyler Chappell, while Tim Atherton relieved Cohen after another quality start (six innings, four hits, three strikeouts and three earned runs). Mitch Dening hit safely and Josh Altmann drew a walk to give the Bite a chance in the bottom of eight, but Atherton fanned danger man Welch. With the Cavalry calling on class act Steven Kent in the bottom of nine, Adelaide was never really a chance of making a late challenge as the visitors emerged a 5-3 winner to take a lead in the series. Cohen earned his second win of the season for a Canberra outfit that played errorless defence and was shown the way offensively by River Stevens (two hits – including a triple - and a walk for an RBI), Kandilas (three hits and an RBI) and Scott Kelly (two hits), while Adelaide shared its modest offensive output between six players.

 

Needing a win to strengthen its hold on second placing, Canberra opened scoring in the top of three in GAME FOUR, when Scott Kelly singled off Bite starter Sean Calligari, advanced on a HPB, stole third and scooted home on a throwing error, while Scott Cone gave the visitors a solid start in scattering just two hits in his first four scoreless innings. While the Cavalry scored their second in the top of five after some effective short ball and an RBI sacrifice flyball by David Kandilas, Adelaide challenged Cone in the bottom of the frame – with Stefan Welch and Marcus Greene both hitting safely and advancing on a sacrifice bunt to draw Tyler Herr from the pen. A sacrifice fly allowed Welch to score, although the response was immediate as Canberra landed runners at the corners in the equaliser and the Bite called Matt Williams from the pen in a tricky situation that turned even more so as Robbie Perkins belted a two-RBI double into leftfield and River Stevens doubled to score two more as the Cavalry surged to a five-run lead. Relieving with Nathan VanDerLinden in the top of seven, the Bite retired nine hitters in order but were unable to make offensive inroads as Canberra cruised to a 6-1 win on the back of superb late work by winning pitcher Herr, Andrew Case and Jackson Lowery. Kelly, Stevens, Robbie Perkins, Kandilas and Josh Almonte were outstanding with the bat for Canberra, while Welch and Greene were best in offence for Adelaide, which remains in third.  

 

BOX SCORES:          GAME ONE     GAME TWO     GAME THREE     GAME FOUR

 

 

PERTH HEAT versus SYDNEY BLUE SOX (Barbagello)

 

Perth won this seeries 3-1.

 

Walking two with none out in GAME ONE, Perth starter Conor Lourey escaped the first with one run against his name, although the visitors put up another couple – in the second – when Josh Dean walked and scored from first on a Guy Edmonds double before Trent D’Antonio stroked an RBI-single into rightfield. Starting for Sydney, Trevor Foss breezed through the first three frames with the help of a couple of double plays and he gave the Heat very few scoring opportunities over an outstanding six-innings outing for five hits, a walk and seven strikeouts. With Jake Bowey (three hitless innings) and Will Dennis (two, for two hits) doing a great job in relief, Perth remained well in a contest that saw neither side score after the second innings. However, the damage had been done early and the Sydney bullpen of Josh Guyer, Sven Schuller and Todd van Steensel each spun a flawless innings of work to seal a 3-0 victory for the Blue Sox. Foss earned the win and van Steensel the save as both sides could amass just six hits – with D’Antonio (two, with two walks), Tucker Neuhaus (hit and an RBI) and Edmonds (one and one) providing the offence for the visitors, while Luke Hughes (two hits) and Sam Kennelly (a hit and a walk) were best for the Heat, whose already remote playoff prospects are rapidly dissipating.

 

It was a difficult time for officials, players, families and supporters at Perth Heat after the sudden death of the enormously popular and influential Greg Jelks earlier in the day, and the feeling would have been even more despondent when Sydney Blue Sox smacked seven in the second of GAME TWO off Heat starter Tom Bailey – on a string of walks, a throwing error and a three-run homer by Stone Garrett. While Sox starter Craig Anderson retired the Heat in the first two, the home side hit back with a four-run third highlighted by what would surely would be an inspiring three-run shot by Luke Hughes over leftfield. Regaining his composure, Bailey battled through until the sixth, when he was replaced by Benn Grice, while Sydney coughed up another two runs in the bottom of six on two-out hitting by Ulrich Bojarski, Sam Kennelly and Jordan Dyer off Sox reliever Yuki Katayama. Spinning a terrific stint for the home club, eventual winning pitcher Grice held Sydney hitless and scoreless through 3.2 until the Heat again came alive in the bottom of the last against quality closer Todd van Steensel. A walk, a sacrifice bunt and an error set the table for Tim Kennelly, who levelled scores with a single to leftfield before Manager Matt Kennelly delivered the coup de grace with a walkoff single that nailed the win 9-7 for Perth. It was a result that appeared unlikely after the second and it was one that owed plenty to Grice, Hughes and the irrepressible Kennelly brothers – while Garrett, Jacob Younis (three hits), Trent D’Antonio (two hits and a walk, with an RBI) and Malik Collymore were best for the Blue Sox.

 

With the series split after two – and with a wave of emotion propelling the Heat and its army of supporters – GAME THREE began with a blistering start for the visitors, who put up a three-spot in the first with a walk and four singles off Perth starter Michael Lee. When hits to Trent D’Antonio and Tucker Neuhaus produced two more in the second, it was looking bleak for the Heat – who hit back with a vengeance as five of its first six hitters all hit safely to generate a four-spot off Luke Wilkins. Drawing level in the bottom of three, Perth edged ahead off reliever Todd Grattan – on a passed ball – while Lee negotiated three scoreless innings. Loading the bases in the bottom of seven, Perth again produced the timely offence – aided by some sloppy Sydney defence – to plate four and chase Grattan from the hill while looking to Lex Rutledge to close out the game. A Guy Edmonds double, a throwing error and a grounder gleaned two for the Sox in the top of eight before Josh Dean slapped an RBI-single in the top of nine until Warwick Saupold – used in the closing role – iced the game 10-8 for Perth in the pressure cooker situation. Lee carded the win for Perth in a game that saw both teams slip up in defence at crucial moments, though in the end it was the offensive contributions of Sam Kennelly (three hits and three RBIs), John Riley (two and two), Matt Kennelly (three hits), Jordan Dyer (two hits and an RBI) and Derek Peterson (two hits and a walk) that helped the home club get over the line against a Blue Sox outfit that spread its hitting output across eight players, with Neuhaus (three and two), Dean (two and one) and Edmonds (two hits) the standouts.

 

An evenly-matched series reached its finale in GAME FOUR, with Nick Veale starting for Perth Heat and evergreen Chris Oxspring handed the ball for Sydney Blue Sox, who went scoreless in the first two while the home side plated a couple in the second – on a single to John Riley and an RBI-double to Ulrich Bojarski before a HPB forced a run across the plate. While a Trent D’Antonio double and a wild pitch levelled scores in the top of three, Perth again edged ahead on a Riley sacrifice flyball in the bottom of three, as both pitchers stayed in reasonable control. Luke Hughes doubled down the leftfield line in the bottom of five and Tim Kennelly followed suit into centrefield to plate another for the Heat before Oxspring produced the big pitches to escape the frame with minimal damage. Tucker Neuhaus doubled and Veale tattooed Jacob Younis in the sixth – with both advancing on a wild pitch before Josh Dean walked and Justin D’Alessandro was called from the pen with none out and bases juiced. Guy Edmonds singled to drive in two – and level the scores – before Vaughan Harris was summoned from the pen to relieve Oxspring. Sox outfielder Malik Collymore drew a walk in the seventh and stole second but was left high and dry, while the Heat passed up another opportunity when Tim Kennelly singled, advanced on a Matt Kennelly sacrifice bunt and was left out there. With both sides running out of chances, Matt Dixon singled for Perth and advanced on a Josh Diggins sacrifice bunt to draw Josh Guyer from the pen with one out. Delivering with a booming double to left centre, Joey Wong scored the go-ahead for the Heat and Hughes took out some ostensible insurance with a sacrifice flyball before Warwick Saupold was handed the pill to close out the game. The Blue Sox had other ideas, though, with Malik Collymore singling with two out and Stone Garrett driving a two-run bomb over the leftfield wall to again draw level and send the game into extras. With tie-breaker rules applied in the eleventh, Sydney was unable to capitalise and Perth scored the go-ahead for a 7-6 result and a first series win for Perth since November 2015.

 

BOX SCORES:          GAME ONE     GAME TWO     GAME THREE     GAME FOUR

 

Image:  Australian Baseball League

 

Image:  Australian Baseball League