ABL Semi-Finals: four into two doesn't work
24 January 2019
It’s the penultimate weekend of the 2018/19 Australian Baseball League season and it’s clear we’ve got the four best teams at the business end.
At stake is a place in the ABL Championship Series and the chance to play for the heftiest trophy in Australian sport, the Claxton Shield.
Reigning champs Brisbane were overjoyed to watch first Sydney, then Perth, lose critical games that handed the Bandits the number one seed and home field advantage by virtue of head to head and divisional records. The Bandits don’t need any leg ups from their opponents but round ten was most helpful for their journey to a fourth straight ABLCS win.
Sydney are a huge chance to progress but so are their opponents Perth. Does that make sense? The weekend in the west has the potential to be the best series of the season. Perth were Southwest Division winners, while Sydney blew a four game lead in the Northeast during the last two rounds.
Canberra booked their flight to Brisbane as the ABL’s first Wild Card team after a cold blooded 5-0 dispatching of Melbourne on Wednesday night. The Cavs combined Frank Gailey’s wonderful start with some well-placed small ball to earn another shot at their conquerors from last season’s Championship Series.
On to the previews. The baseball gods have smiled upon the weather and the scheduling… Let’s hope they give us the quality matchups these Semi Finals deserve!
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SEMI FINAL 1: BRISBANE BANDITS versus CANBERRA CAVALRY (Holloway Field)
Game One: Friday 6.00 pm Brisbane time (Forecast weather: 32, morning shower)
Game Two: Saturday 6.00 pm Brisbane time (32, partly cloudy)
Game Three (if required): Sunday 1.30 pm Brisbane time (33, mostly sunny)
LAST TIME: ROUND NINE
Canberra raced to a 2-0 series lead in Brisbane behind Steve Kent and efficient offense, before Brisbane’s Tim Atherton stepped up and stymied his old team once again in game three. Canberra had no answers to Ko-Chien Lin in the fourth game and a very entertaining series was split 2-2.
Brisbane won the round four matchup in Canberra 3-1, arguably the series of the year where all four games were in the balance at the final out.
Canberra’s Michael Fransoso is on a 21-game hitting streak and has hit safely in 25 of his 26 games played (in the one game where he didn’t get a hit, he walked twice). He’s hitting at .430 and has an on base percentage of .504 – that’s an eerily similar line to Brisbane’s 2016/17 phenom import David Rodriguez
Brisbane are second in the ABL for most strikeouts (364) but they’re first for homeruns (68, next best 51)
Canberra’s batters struck out the least during the regular season (277)
Zach Wilson (Cavs) and TJ Bennett (Bandits) are one and two for extra base hits (24 and 23), they’re one and two for homeruns (Bennett 13, Wilson 12) and they’re one and two for total bases (Wilson 99, Bennett 97)
Tim Atherton is fourth in the ABL for strikeouts (67), fourth for homeruns conceded (8) and fourth for opposition batting average (.208)
Brisbane are 3-1 when a game goes to extra innings, Canberra 1-3
Brisbane made the most errors in the regular season (51) but turned the third most double plays (38, highest was 40)
A two win and two loss record does not do justice to Travis Blackley’s season on the mound for the Bandits. His two losses conceded a grand total of six earned runs, although he’s also given up the second most hits of any pitcher (59, but only resulting in 19 earned runs).
What stands out though is that Blackley has conceded just three homeruns – and importantly only one homerun at Brisbane, where even the most mishit of fly balls tend to float gracefully over the fences.
David Kandilas hit .140 through the first half of the season as he struggled to find his rhythm. That rhythm came in a rush with a .324 average and consistent appearances on the basepaths in the second half.
It was no coincidence that as Kandilas’ batting average trended upwards, so did Canberra’s win/loss record. He’s one of the prize outs for the opposition and he is very, very keen to do some damage to the Bandits.
It has been a good season for Brisbane’s TJ Bennett (that’s Tyler James, in case you were wondering). In December he signed with the Chicago White Sox organisation and to celebrate, he continued hitting ABL pitchers a long, long way.
Bennett’s 13 home runs are the league standard and his glovework in the infield has been great, especially his unbelievable unassisted triple play against Geelong-Korea - a play that kept his team in front at a critical point and went a long way to Brisbane securing the number one seed.
Zech Lemond’s two hitless innings in Melbourne on Wednesday secured the wild card for the Cavalry after Frank Gailey’s stellar start. With regular closer and saves leader Tomoya Mikami gone home to Yokohama, a lot of the late inning responsibility may come to Lemond (1-1, 1.89 ERA, 1 save), who will face situations a lot tougher than the comfortable cushion he had against the Aces. Lemond has five holds for the season which is good for fourth in the ABL, but his work may just be required a little later than usual.
PREDICTION: BRISBANE WINS
I keep looking for reasons, but I can’t go against the champs. Especially when history and a fourth straight ABLCS is on the line and their opponent has played a midweek game then flown interstate. It’s the depth of pitching that wins me over. It’s not just the starters, there’s also a bullpen featuring Justin Erasmus, Ryan Searle, Loek Van Mil and Matt Timms. That’s enough to make any lineup sweat.
Canberra match up well against Brisbane and they did get two wins up there in round nine. They’re also on a mission to avenge last year’s ABLCS loss. But Brisbane are built for this and they should do the job in a classic series.
SEMI FINAL 2: PERTH HEAT versus SYDNEY BLUE SOX (Barbagallo)
Game One: Friday 7.00 pm Perth time (Forecast weather: 27, sunny)
Game Two: Saturday 7.00pm Perth time (32, sunny)
Game Three (if required): Sunday 3.00 pm Perth time (34, sunny)
LAST TIME: ROUND SIX
Perth were swept at their own ballpark by the Blue Sox, outscored 25-16 over the weekend but only outhit 37-34.
Sydney reliever Ty’Relle Harris has only allowed seven hits from the 65 batters he’s faced
The Blue Sox are statistically the ABL’s best defence, with a fielding percentage of .982 and only 25 errors made (next best 37). Their pitching gave up the fewest runs (137) and second least home runs (22) in the regular season
The Blue Sox are 17-2 when they score first, Perth 17-5
Sydney are 5-4 in 1-run games, Perth 3-5
Perth’s Tristan Grey leads the ABL for runs batted in (41), his team mate Alex Hall is third (37)
Sydney and Perth players occupy the ABL’s top four spots for hits: Dwayne Kemp (55), Tim Kennelly (54), Tristan Gray (50) and Gift Ngoepe (50)
Perth’s Robbie Glendinning is on a tear, hitting .444 in his last ten games, finishing the regular season second in the ABL for on base percentage (.467), plating 25 RBIs (10th in the ABL) and taking 21 walks (8th in the ABL). All that in just 28 games after he eased into the season.
Glendinning’s moving well, feeling good and he’s one to watch in the future. But against Sydney in round six, he went 3/15 with five strikeouts. If Perth want to play three more games, Glendinning needs to work out the Blue Sox pitching staff.
A few eyebrows were raised last week when Sydney’s Michael Campbell missed a spot at Team Australia’s Premier 12 training camp to be held in February. Campbell’s hitting at .387 in the last month (.339 overall) and he’s been error-free in the outfield. Playing more games and getting more plate appearances has seen the 32-year-old flourish and give Manager Tony Harris a reliable bat late in the order that can deliver a crucial hit.
Conor Lourey’s outing will be critical to the Heat’s Semi Final chances. Lourey (3-4, 3.04 ERA) has put together a solid season, with only 32 hits off his pitching, 55 strikeouts (7th in the ABL) but third in the ABL for walks (24).
Lourey holds opposition hitters to a .188 average and in Perth, that average drops to .146. Perth Manager Andy Kyle will be relying on him to keep Sydney’s big guns under wraps or the Heat will be in big trouble.
Todd van Steensel leads the ABL in saves, converting 10 of 12 opportunities in the regular season (next best is 6). But there’s a big variation in opposition hitting against him away from Blacktown. At home opponents hit .138 off Van Steensel, away it’s .289.
Having said that - in round six against Perth in Perth, Van Steensel collected three consecutive saves in three nights with only one hit allowed. He’s having a sensational year.
PREDICTION: PERTH WINS
I flip-flopped over this decision over and over again. Sydney has the pitching and defense, the hitting is maybe a draw and usually that would mean I’d lean towards the Blue Sox advancing. But neither team has really set the world on fire in the second half of the season, combining for a 12-12 record in January.
I’ve taken Perth because I think their hitters can make inroads into Sydney’s quality pitching, but ask me tomorrow and I’m just as likely to be convinced the Blue Sox will win. That’s how close this one is and that’s how enjoyable it’s going to be.