Aces, Bandits face off for national title
Qualifying for the Australian Baseball League Championship Series, Brisbane Bandits have enjoyed a magnificent post-Christmas run in building serious momentum that – to many – accords them favourite status against Melbourne Aces, who have endured some setbacks despite being the benchmark all season.
Scheduled for Melbourne Ballpark starting on Friday evening, the ABL season decider will be a best-of-three series between the reigning titleholder and a previously underperforming Aces outfit that finished in the cellar the past two seasons.
With the sides managed by Australian baseball Hall-of-Famers David Nilsson and Jon Deeble, this battle for the time-honoured Claxton Shield promises to be an absolute beauty – one not to be missed by a success-starved Victorian baseball community and the expected influx of passionate Bandits supporters.
AUSTRALIAN BASEBALL LEAGUE CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES
7 February 2017
The road to the Championship Series was quite different for the two clubs – both of them worthy combatants.
For Melbourne Aces, the appointment of Jon Deeble to the managerial role was the first of numerous positive developments – and astute recruitments – that together helped drag the club from its moribund depths of recent times to set the pace for all comers in a league now administered and funded entirely by Australian interests.
Dominant for much of the season, the Aces were never really in doubt for the minor premiership – despite some tapering off in the New Year with the loss of key players including exciting tyros Ronald Acuna and Keisuke Honda.
In win and loss terms it was a far tougher journey for the Bandits, who started the season slowly – by their own lofty standards – and were still in doubt for a post-season berth right until the final regular-season round.
With a hard-fought first-up Preliminary Final win in Adelaide, the Bandits dropped the second game – in Brisbane – before shaking off some early lethargy in the Sunday decider to thump their opponent by a cricket score in an aberrant blowout that was not at all reflective of what had been another superb season by the Bite.
Adelaide had beaten Melbourne Aces seven times from eight this season, yet the Aces had also beaten Brisbane seven times from eight outings – a fascinating juxtaposition of results that may tell us something, though probably nothing.
On regular season results against Brisbane, Melbourne would surely go in as favourite for the Championship Series.
Not so. In fact some pundits have the Aces as the underdog. With good reason.
While the Bandits have steadily gathered impetus to be at their peak across all aspects of their game, Melbourne has struggled to cover the loss of livewire Acuna, key slugger Mike Walker appears to have gone off the boil, Jeremy Guthrie will not be returning for the play-off series, Josh Davies has retired, Sam Gibbons has quit and key players have been carrying injuries that may or may not have been fully resolved.
For its part, Brisbane has shown outstanding offensive form over recent weeks, culminating in a crushing finale over Adelaide that will surely have the club at optimum confidence coming into the deciding series. Although its starting pitching has not been consistently dominant, Brisbane has benefited enormously by the inclusion of Tampa Bay prospect David Rodriguez – an outstanding defensive catcher and a powerful hitter who has done serious damage for the Bandits since his arrival.
As an indication of the Bandits’ offensive depth, Rodriguez was rested from catching duties for the final game against Adelaide – in deference to an arrangement with the Rays – and his catching replacement in Ryan Battaglia (himself an Australian national representative) stepped up by belting a couple of home runs for multiple RBIs.
“Brisbane is carrying real momentum into the series,” Aces Manager Jon Deeble told Australian Baseball Alumni this week. “Although we don’t place too much importance on what they did against Adelaide in those last few innings on Sunday, we respect them as having the strongest offence in the league. Our pitching and our defence have been consistently among the very best, so it should be a great battle.”
Factoring in the absence of Acuna for Melbourne after his barnstorming early season, Brisbane has a clear statistical edge on offence. Over thirty-nine games (for an extra seventy at-bats - a detail that in itself says something), the Bandits scored 234 runs on 374 hits, with 42 home runs – the most in the league – for a team batting average of 0.283. The club has enjoyed terrific service from the likes of national team outfielder Aaron Whitefield (hitting 0.340 on 53 hits, with four home runs and 15 RBIs on the regular season), Mitch Nilsson (0.317, with 40 hits, seven homers and 24 RBIs), Logan Wade, Kevin Padlo, former Major Leaguer Trent Oeltjen, Wade Dutton, veteran David Sutherland and the indomitable Rodriguez (hitting 0.442 for his nineteen regular season games behind the dish and as Designated Hitter).
For Melbourne, which relies so heavily on pitching and defence, the numbers are somewhat more modest. Over forty games, the Aces scored 177 runs, including 318 hits and twenty-five home runs for a team batting average 0f 0.253. Roman Collins averaged 0.336 in the regular season (49 hits with three home runs and 22 RBIs), Liam Bedford 0.293 (twelve RBIs) and Cody Jones 0.254 (with 33 hits for ten RBIs). On fire earlier in the season, Mike Walker is still hitting at an 0.277 clip (36 hits with seven home runs and 26 RBIs), while Allan de San Miguel – who is capable of turning any game off his own bat - has smacked half a dozen homers in amassing 26 ribbies.
“Mike (Walker) has tapered off a little, but he is a dangerous hitter who we know can step up,” Jon Deeble said. “Brad Harman and Beresford are getting better with every game. Brad was carrying injuries, but is healthy now and right back at his best. Those two guys will be vital for us in defence and with the bat.”
“Another bloke on this club who has really impressed me has been Kelii Zablan. He swings the bat well, he defends well, he runs and has a great defensive arm.”
Contributing class to the Aces offence and defence, Jared Cruz, Ryan Dale and emerging superstar Jarryd Dale are among other squad members expected to play a key role in the Championship Series.
It is in pitching and defence that the Aces Manager believes that his club can potentially excel – especially now that his squad is match-fit after a break that has include practice games to keep the players sharp.
“There was some talk going around about his availability, but Cody Jones will be playing. He had a bit of a hamstring strain and he has come up fine after a rest,” Deeble said.
“de San Miguel had a hamstring strain and Liam Bedford a bit of an ankle problem, but they will be fine. We have a few guys who have niggles at the moment but it will all be good by the weekend,” he said.
Boasting a damaging offence, the Bandits have a plethora of pitching options at their disposal – especially in the set-up and closing capacities.
Spinning an outstanding Preliminary Final game against the Bite in Adelaide, Justin Erasmus (3-1, for an ERA of 4.89 over 42.1 innings) is clearly a starting option for the Bandits, along with Kramer Champlin (2-4 over 47.1 innings for 34 Ks and an ERA of 4.37 in the regular season) and Rick Teasley (3-3 over 51.00 innings, with 52 Ks for an ERA of 5.12). Zac Treece will certainly be utilised at some stage by the Bandits, who will use Ryan Rowland-Smith in match-ups if required and can call upon Simon Morriss and Ty’Relle Harris before Matt Timms and Ryan Searle are handed the ball late in any game.
For the Aces, its championship prospects rely heavily on a customarily tight defence and its starting pitching. Assured of the Game One start, Mark Hamburger has been a revelation with a record of five wins and one loss over 75.2 innings for a staggering 86 strikeouts and an ERA of just 1.90. Slated for Game Two, Josh Tols boasts an even skinnier ERA of 0.91 (3-2 over 29.2 innings), while Dushan Ruzic (4-2 over 45.2 innings, with 29 Ks) is expected to be used in a relief capacity along with rangy southpaw Jon Kennedy. With Virgil Vasquez, Daniel McGrath, Peter Moylan and Brandon Stenhouse certain to be on the roster, Melbourne Aces are not lacking quality options in any particular game situation.
“Jeremy Guthrie will not be back, which is disappointing,” Jon Deeble said. “He was keen enough to help us, but has other commitments now with his new professional contract.”
“We are expecting a very close series. Hamburger will be a key in Game One and we would dearly love to get six or seven innings – even a whole game out of him. That would set us up.”
“Josh Tols has been really good for us and he has definitely earned his chance in Game Two.”
“We rely heavily on our pitching – as everyone knows - and we have a strong bullpen with the likes of Kennedy, Moylan, McGrath, Ruzic and Stenhouse in particular.”
“The spirit around the clubhouse is upbeat, really positive,” Deeble said. “We have a great group of guys and they are raring to go. This club has come a long way in a pretty short time and its culture is quite different to what it was for the past couple of seasons. We will be giving it our best shot.”
“We know we can win. We are confident we can win. We have the pitching and the defensive class to contain a very good Brisbane team.”
“We just have to play the game we know we can, swing the bats and the rest should take care of itself,” he said.
This should be just a ripping series between two clubs who have done exceptionally well in qualifying for the ABL Championship Series and a shot at the Claxton Shield. From the two squads expected to be named by the Brisbane Bandits and Melbourne Aces, at least eighteen players will this week be included in the Australian national squad heading to the World Baseball Classic in four weeks’ time.
That is an extraordinary concentration of elite national level players, augmented with quality imports on both sides that will guarantee a high-class and potentially memorable series – a clash of the titans - that will showcase the very best of the Australian Baseball League.
Australian Baseball Alumni congratulates Melbourne Aces and Brisbane Bandits on qualifying for this series. We extend our congratulations, too, to the four other clubs who helped make this season such a competitive and hotly contested affair that has further built upon the credibility and the viability of the league as its management looks to potential expansion into Asia.
While seeking to remain impartial on most matters, your Alumni Editor of course has own sense of how this series might pan out. My head says Brisbane (probably in two), though my heart certainly says Melbourne.
Australian Baseball League Championship Series will be a best of three affair starting with Game One at Melbourne Ballpark on Friday evening (7.30 PM start AEDST). Game Two is scheduled for Saturday night, starting at 6.30 PM AEDST.
A third game, if required, will be played at Melbourne Ballpark, starting at 2.30 PM on Sunday 12 February.
GAME ONE LIVE STREAM (ABLTV.COM)
GAME TWO LIVE STREAM (ABLTV.COM)
GAME THREE LIVE STREAM (ABLTV.COM)
Image: Australian Baseball League
Image: Australian Baseball League