Aussies primed for success on world stage
21 February 2017
Boasting arguably the greatest array of baseball talent to have represented at senior national level, the Australian “Southern Thunder” squad will fly to Seoul later this week for a pre-tournament tour prior to travelling to Osaka, then Tokyo, to contest Round One of the 2017 World Baseball Classic.
Under no illusions about the toughness of the competition, which comprises pool games against Japan, Cuba and China, Australian Manager Jon Deeble is delighted with the squad that has been assembled – one whose fine balance of experience and youth presents the potential to progress to the next round of a celebrated and financially lucrative event that carries significant points towards world baseball rankings.
Australia’s first World Baseball Classic game – against Japan – will be played on Wednesday 8 March.
A participant at the World Baseball Classic since its inception in 2006, Australia has won only one of its eight games played – reflective of the challenges faced against the strongest baseball nations in the world, including two-time winner Japan (2006, 2009) and reigning champion Dominican Republic (2013). Significantly, though, Australia conceded a relatively modest total of fourteen runs over three games in 2013 – indicative of the solid pitching and defence that have been a real focus under long-serving Manager Jon Deeble.
Although Chris Oxspring did not make the final squad, Australia has amassed a strong contingent of players with Major League experience – including pitchers Travis Blackley, Liam Hendriks, Peter Moylan, Ryan Rowland-Smith and Warwick Saupold along with infielders James Beresford, Luke Hughes and Brad Harman and outfielder Trent Oeltjen.
“I think this is the best squad that we were able to put together,” Deeble told Australian Baseball Alumni this week. “Because of their professional commitments, we won’t have Moylan, Hendriks and Saupold available for the Korea series, so they have been replaced by Justin Erasmus, Tom Bailey and Josh Guyer for those games.”
“Our other guys with MLB experience will be with us in Korea. When we play our first World Classic game we will be at full strength.”
“Everyone is fit and raring to go, although it will be minus three to five degrees the next few weeks in Korea – with snow,” he said. “We will be in a dome, but it will still be cold – especially for the blokes coming out of an ABL season at home.”
“There are no injuries to report at this stage, and we will be hoping to keep it that way. Mike Walker dislocated a finger in the ABL playoffs, but he seems fine.”
Notwithstanding the quality and the depth of its pitching roster, Australia has needed to factor in the Designated Pitcher rule and other limitations placed on participating teams.
“The DPP will only become an issue in Round Two – in our case if a player like Hendriks has to go back to his professional organisation,” Deeble said. “There will be restrictions in regard to pitch counts. No more than 65. If you throw over thirty it will be one day off, under thirty cannot pitch three days in a row.”
In order to advance to Round Two of the World Baseball Classic, Australia will need to finish in the first two of its group - which is likely to require at least two wins from three games played. While Japan will be at prohibitive odds to qualify for the second round, Jon Deeble is not counting anything in – and he is not counting anything out at this stage, even given the task with which his impressive squad is confronted.
Replete with young talent while being thin on established stars, Cuba made the second-round elimination in 2013 despite defections affecting its pool of big league talent. This time around the island nation will be without Jose Abreu, Yasiel Puig, Raisel Iglesias, Yulieski Gurriel and Yeonis Cespedes – whose nineteen year-old younger brother Yoelqui will be given his chance in an outfield role.
“Cuba will still be tough,” Deeble said. “They have some very good emerging young players and they smashed Taiwan in a warm-up game just this week.”
While only two players born in mainland China have ever reached Major League level, baseball is booming in this massive nation whose population and burgeoning wealth alone will help ensure that it will be an economic and sporting powerhouse into the foreseeable future.
With his native Panama not qualifying for the tournament, seventeen-year MLB veteran Bruce Chen will be a key for China, who will – unfortunately for them - be without Cardinals utility Kolten Wong.
“China will throw Bruce Chen against us,” Deeble said. “They have two AAA guys in Joey Wong and Ray Chang – both quality infielders who are going to help make it tough for us.”
“Everyone has to beat us for that second spot, so we are going to get every team’s best guy on the mound.”
“Tomoyuki Sugano is Japan’s number one. He is really good. We expect him also to be pitching against us.”
While the competition is bound to be intense for a tournament that carries all-important world rankings points and that offers serious financial inducements both to players and to the support of national development programmes, Jon Deeble is excited about the opportunities presented to our national squad – including to emerging players like Aaron Whitefield, Lachlan Wells, Robbie Perkins, Mitch Nilsson and Josh Guyer, who will be among those helping shape the future of our national team.
“We have some great established players on this club,” Deeble said. “These are guys who still have heaps to offer in professional baseball and at national level. Their influence on our younger group is going to be profound, and really valuable.”
“We have a great staff for this tournament. Craig Shipley and Glenn Williams have done an amazing job getting our advance reports on all teams. We are prepared the best we have ever been. Between all of us – including Phil Dale, Tony Harris and myself – we have a lot of scouting on the Japanese team as well.”
“I think we are in the best shape we have ever been leading into a tournament regarding advance scouting and preparation,” he said. “We have to go in thinking our prospects are good, and we are definitely looking for the second round.”
“We can’t get ahead of ourselves, though. We have to beat China and Cuba and not give up on our chances against Japan.”
“We will be going out with the aim of beating them in Game One,” he said.
Australian Baseball Alumni extends its appreciation to Southern Thunder Manager Jon Deeble for his assistance in the preparation of this story. We wish the Australian squad all the very best for its preparation and for three vital World Baseball Classic games at Tokyo Dome.
The entire Australian baseball community will be following team progress with interest.