ABL Championship Series: who takes the shield?

AJ Mithen

31 January 2019

 

Here it is, the two best clubs in the Australian Baseball League going head-to-head over three games for Australian sport's best trophy, the Claxton Shield.

 

We tip our caps to the Perth Heat and Brisbane Bandits, the ABL’s two most successful clubs who have won every ABL title bar one when Canberra snuck in for the Shield in 2012/13. Brisbane seek an unprecedented fourth consecutive title while Perth are playing for ABL Championship number five since the League rebooted in 2010.

 

Andy Kyle’s Perth side ran out of steam last year when key injuries and import departures left his club running on vapour in the first round of the playoffs. This year Kyle has again had to deal with imports being called home, particularly from his pitching staff. But he’s managed his team brilliantly to bring them back where they feel they belong.

 

No one paces a season better than the three-time champions and whether you love or hate them, you can’t deny that Brisbane making the decider is an unbelievable effort in the face of improved opponents, injuries and suspensions to key players. The Bandits have had a target on them all year and so far, maybe only Perth has been able to aim up to it.

 

Congratulations to Brisbane and Perth for reaching the Championship Series, and well done and thank you to all those involved in the on and off-field playing, coaching, scoring, planning, volunteering, merchandising, food-trucking, raffle-drawing, uniform-washing, ballpark-cleaning, ticket-selling, injury-treating… you get the idea. The clubs of the ABL couldn’t function without you!

 

And a thank you the ABL’s umpire crews as well, I suppose. Umpiring is one of those roles where everyone else thinks they’re better at your job than you are and I don’t envy that. But I reserve the right to post angry social media stuff about calls I disagree with, even though I may not totally comprehend a rule.

 

Let’s take a look at our Championship Series.

 

We’re keen to get your thoughts about the Claxton Shield decider. Let us know on the Australian Baseball Alumni FACEBOOK page. To debate this preview, make suggestions or to offer information, visit @AJMithen on Twitter. All efforts are made to show correct broadcast times, but for definitive broadcast information check the official ABL website.

 

BRISBANE BANDITS versus PERTH HEAT

 

Game One (Perth):   Friday 7.05 pm Perth time (Forecast weather: 37, sunny)

Game Two (Brisbane):   Saturday 6.00 pm Brisbane time (31, possible shower)

Game Three (Brisbane, if required):   time TBC Sunday (31, possible shower)

 

Broadcast:    ABLTV           Fox Sports

 

LAST TIME: ROUND FIVE

 

Perth flew to Brisbane and handed their hosts a 3-1 series hiding, scoring 42 runs to 27, amassing a colossal 56 hits to Brisbane’s 35 and striking out 38 Bandits across the four games. Brisbane made eight errors in the series and Perth Manager Andy Kyle didn’t need to use more than three pitchers in each game.

 

INTERESTING STATS

 

Brisbane’s Riley Unroe may have gone 8-14 with two homers and five RBI in the Semi Final, but in round five against Perth he was 2-14 with four strikeouts.

 

Brisbane’s Donald Lutz was 1-13 against Perth in round five, last weekend he hit a homer in all three games of the Semi Final.

 

Perth’s pitchers walked 14 batters last weekend, Brisbane’s pitchers walked four (and one of those was intentional).

 

The Heat’s Tristan Gray walked five times last weekend (one of those was intentional).

 

Perth made four errors across their Semi Final series, Brisbane made none.

 

Perth finished the regular season first for hits (406), runs (289), RBI (255), doubles (80), walks (176), batting average (.291) and on-base percentage (.381).

 

KEY PLAYERS

 

Ryan Bollinger’s Game One start for Brisbane will set the scene for the series. Bollinger only pitched two innings of relief against Perth in round five prior to returning to the starting rotation in round seven. The lefty only allows opposition hitters a .202 average pitching away from Brisbane, but that’s not to say he can’t get it done at home. His eight inning, four hit outing against Canberra in game one of the Semi Final was masterful and gave the Bandits bats confidence to swing away. If he can go deep into game one, Brisbane will have one hand on the shield on the flight home for game two.

 

When Brooks Hall entered Perth’s cut-throat game two against Sydney during the fifth inning, the score was 0-0, there were two runners on base and only one out. Hall got out of trouble and proceeded to close out the remaining innings to take the win under incredible pressure in the face of elimination. Hall joined up with the Heat during January and whether he starts or is used as a long reliever by Andy Kyle, he could play a pivotal role in how the ABLCS unfolds.

 

Dave Nilsson must be ecstatic that Team Australia shortstop Logan Wade is back fit and firing. The 2016/17 ABLCS MVP has come back swinging after a dislocated shoulder, batting at .329 with 15 RBI in just 17 regular season games. Wade’s weekend against Canberra was pivotal in getting his club into the ABLCS, going 5-12 with 5 RBI. He’s got the speed to turn singles into doubles and doubles into triples, and his ability to get around the bases will make life most uncomfortable for Perth’s defence.

 

Perth catcher Alex Hall finished the regular season third in the League for RBI with 37, hitting .319 but striking out 41 times (second most for the Heat). His hitting late in the order is a real threat to Brisbane's pitchers and his ability to get on base and into scoring position will be critical. More importantly, he’s only committed one error in 248 innings behind the plate. Hall heads to Canberra next week as part of David Nilsson’s Team Australia squad for the Premier 12 Camp and after that he’ll go back to the USA to keep working with the Milwaukee Brewers organisation. Oh, and did I mention he’s 19 years old?

 

PREDICTION: BRISBANE WINS

 

Perth are very much a worthy contender and halfway through the season I and many others had them as championship favourites. The bats of Robbie Glendinning, Tim Kennelly, Alex Hall, Tristan Gray and Ulrich Bojarski have been consistent and major leaguer Pete Kozma has added a great infield glove and some good hitting too. Perth score runs in bunches and it’s going to be a tough order for the Bandits’ bullpen to rein them in should they get away.

 

But the Bandits have the taste for the postseason and have lifted their rating appropriately. Loek Van Mil picked up where he left off before his injury and Wade Dutton, Logan Wade, Riley Unroe, Andrew Campbell, David Sutherland and Donald Lutz all made key plays or got crucial hits when their team needed them. Add to that Sam Holland’s quietly effective work from the bullpen and Ryan Searle back delivering the coup de grace, and there’s a very familiar championship feel to the way Nilsson’s squad is going about their business.

 

I’ve taken Brisbane on the strength of their pitching, Nilsson’s management of his bullpen and the consistency of the Bandits’ hitting. While Perth’s bats cannot be denied, the Heat’s starters are going to be under immense pressure from the first pitch and I’m not sure they’ll hold on. The pressure on Cameron Lamb, Daniel Schmidt, Robert Garcia and the rest of Perth’s bullpen will be immense.

 

What do you think - who wins it all in ABL season 2018/19? Let us know on the Australian Baseball Alumni FACEBOOK page.