Heat shortens as championship fancy

Kingsley Collins

16 December 2018

 

While plenty can happen in twenty games of a short Australian Baseball League season, Perth Heat (14-6) will enter the latter half of its campaign as championship favourite after its strong series win over the Brisbane Bandits (11-8) at Holloway Field this weekend.

 

Sydney Blue Sox (13-7) took a clear lead in the Northeast division with its series win over Melbourne Aces (12-8), while Canberra Cavalry (9-11) stayed well in touch with the Bandits in that division after outplaying Adelaide Bite (10-10).

 

In a shootout of the expansion teams, Geelong-Korea (4-16) won both of the Saturday doubleheader against Auckland Tuatara (6-13), which produced its best offence in other games to split this entertaining series.  

 

Round Five was plagued by bad weather, as persistent torrential rain swept down the east coast and disrupted playing schedules from Thursday through to Sunday. Quite remarkably, all twenty games were played out to their conclusion – testament to the outstanding work, under duress, done by ground crews and club volunteers at all four venues.

 

Although the weather inevitably had an effect on attendances, officials would surely be pleased by some the numbers nevertheless generated. Holloway Field drew a total of over 3000 people to four games – including 1409 for the Saturday doubleheader between Brisbane and Perth – while Blacktown attracted 1248 for the Saturday games between Sydney and Melbourne.

 

Played before a sparse crowd on Thursday night, the Adelaide versus Canberra series drew a more respectable 726 on Friday and 707 on Saturday, while Geelong-Korea continued to attract its enthused and regular support group – albeit more modest in number – as it played host to Auckland.

 

Now clear atop the Southwest table, Perth Heat again demonstrated that it is the real deal for season 2018/19 – not that anyone would have doubted that, given its formidable history since rebirth of the league. While the absence of Ryan Searle (for the time being) and Loek Van Mil may have exposed chinks in the Brisbane pitching roster, the Bandits clearly remain among the most dangerous offensive combinations in the league.

 

Of course no-one should doubt the capacity of the Bandits to produce another barn-storming second half season in challenging for another championship. However, the season numbers of even this great club are shaded by the extraordinary offence being generated by Perth – which leads the league on virtually all statistics.

 

The Heat have already scored 168 runs – in just twenty games. 69 more than Brisbane has scored in nineteen games. They have drawn the most walks of any club (82). They have the most RBIs – 144, fifty more than Brisbane.  They have amassed a league high 217 hits (43 doubles, six triples and 33 home runs – five more than Brisbane and many more than any other club). They boast a team batting average of 0.312 (ahead of Sydney 0.266) and they are slugging 0.533.

 

Heat hitters have struck out 169 times – second only to Brisbane, with 180. A hardly surprising statistic, given that the Heat have had a cumulative 696 at-bats – over eighty more than anyone else.

 

In conceding just seventy-eight runs over the season thus far, the Perth pitching has been steady rather than stellar, with a team ERA of 3.69. However, when a side can produce blistering offence – even against the best arms that this league can offer – then it always going to be tough to beat.

 

While the Perth offence will inevitably create headaches for opposition managers over the weeks to come, other clubs – including Brisbane – will have plenty to say about the make-up of the post-season.

 

A clear leader in the Northeast division, Sydney has provided plenty of entertainment, and has delivered regular success to its long-suffering fans, while Melbourne – currently second in the Southwest group – will be keen to get a break on Adelaide, which is sitting not far back in third.

 

While it faces a tough five series in Australia, Auckland is not yet out of the post-season equation although it – like Geelong-Korea – will be looking to more regular high quality outings in all aspects of the game in order to make inroads.

 

This was a round played in consistently difficult conditions - especially for pitching and defence – which makes some of the team and individual performances even more commendable. At West Beach, for example, all four games were decided by one run – with Canberra stalwart Steven Kent among several across the league to pitch a stunning game in atrocious conditions. A total of just sixteen runs was scored during four games in that series. By contrast, in Brisbane, the Bandits and Heat racked up 69 runs over four games – with Perth scoring forty-two of those.

 

Of many highlights this week, Geelong-Korea and Auckland Tuatara both produced some of their best – or at least their most productive - work of the season. Auckland generated by far its best offence yet, in Games One and Four, while falling away rather badly in the Saturday doubleheader – when the home club played some terrific defence, ran the bases aggressively and backed up a couple of solid pitching performances to deliver its supporters a terrific day at the ballpark.

 

BRISBANE BANDITS versus PERTH HEAT

 

After Bandits starter Travis Blackley conceded early runs in GAME ONE, Brisbane hit back – on homers by Daniel Nilsson and Ryan Battaglia – and the home club tied the contest before Tristan Gray and Robbie Glendinning both went deep in the ninth for a 9-5 Heat lead that was protected as winning score by Heat fireballer Joe Peguero.

 

Tim Kennelly left the yard for Perth with a two-run shot early in GAME TWO, although the Bandits dominated a ragged, game-defining bottom of three for a nine-run blast and a massive lead – although the Heat was not done, as Robbie Glendinning and Jake Bowey belted seventh-innings round-trippers before Brisbane closed out the game 10-7 on resumption after a rain delay.

 

Perth scored in the first of GAME THREE and TJ Bennett swatted a three-run bomb for Brisbane in the equaliser and Pete Kozma went deep for the Heat, although the Bandits momentarily drew away with three in the fourth of a slugfest before Perth exploded in offence for a 13-8 win – largely through the agency of Kozma (five hits) and Chris Betts, while Bennett did serious damage for the Bandits.

 

The Heat again jumped out early in GAME FOUR, when Chris Betts cracked a three-run homer off Justin Erasmus before Carl Chester cleared the bases with a triple in the third and Wade Dutton drew a couple back with a two-run shot for Brisbane in the fourth - although a three-run sixth and four-run seventh provided an unassailable buffer for the Heat, whose thumping 13-4 win in this game sent another stark message to championship aspirants.

 

Perth won this series 3-1.

 

GEELONG-KOREA versus AUCKLAND TUATARA

 

Despite conceding a two-run homer to Taylor Snyder, Jin-Yong Jang was solid with the GAME ONE start for Geelong-Korea, which ran the bases aggressively and surged to a three-run break that was shaved by a Kris Richards moonshot before Auckland generated a six-run eighth – including a three run Zach Clark bomb – as the Tuatara strolled away for a 10-5 win.

 

Anchored with a solid GAME TWO start by Jin-Woo Kim, Geelong-Korea plated two in the second and three in the fourth for a clear lead before the Tuatara put up a two-spot in the sixth - as Kim began to struggle and the home club called upon Geon-Yep Heo to close out the seven innings contest 5-3 for a Geelong-Korea outfit delighted with its third win of the ABL season.

 

Buoyed by its earlier success, Geelong-Korea began GAME THREE brightly with a run in the first and a couple more in the fourth against a ragged Auckland defence, whose hitters were well-held by Byeong-Geun Kim and Sang-Hak Lee – who combined to scatter four hits in an errorless 3-0 win in front of an appreciative and engaged crowd that continues to support its adopted team.

 

Auckland jumped out early in GAME FOUR, taking Jae-Gon Lee for a run in the first and again in the third before Geelong-Korea outfielder Han-Gyeol Joh drove Josh Collmenter deep in the fourth to little avail as the Tuatara offence piled on five in the fifth – including a bases-clearing Daniel Lamb-Hunt double – and three more in the seventh as the visitors cruised to a comfortable 11-2 win.

 

This series was split 2-2.

 

SYDNEY BLUE SOX versus MELBOURNE ACES

 

Starters Alex Maestri (Sydney) and Luke Westphal (Melbourne) traded blows early in GAME ONE, before the Blue Sox went on a scoring spree through the middle innings as Aces pitchers struggled for control against an opponent that was unrelenting in support of a brilliant Maestri outing (thirteen strikeouts over six) before Craig Anderson slammed the gate 9-0 for Sydney.

 

With Luke Wilkins (Sydney) and Hayato Takagi (Melbourne) exercising complete dominance over opposition hitters, there was nothing much doing in a seven innings GAME TWO until Darryl George cracked an RBI-triple and DJ Burt singled him home in the top of six of an errorless contest for a 2-1 Melbourne win credited to Takagi (six scoreless innings, for two hits and three punchouts).

 

Dushan Ruzic was on song for Melbourne early in GAME THREE, and his side scored first with a two-spot in the third – though Sydney plated three in the equaliser and it was not until resumption after a rain delay that the Aces hit back with a couple, only to see its reliever Jon Kennedy taken for an RBI-single and a bases-loaded walk that handed the Blue Sox a 5-4 break protected as the final score by seasoned professional Todd Van Steensel.

 

RBI-triples to Jacob Younis and Gift Gnoepe gave Sydney the ideal start in GAME FOUR, when Melbourne plated a solitary run in the second but struggled for conversion against winning pitcher Josh Guyer and a stingy Blue Sox bullpen that sealed a 5-1 win despite being held scoreless through the last five innings after Aces starter Jack Enciondo had been chased from the hill in the third.

 

Sydney won this series 3-1.

 

ADELAIDE BITE versus CANBERRA CAVALRY

 

Played in atrocious weather conditions at West Beach, GAME ONE pitted two of the league’s best on the hill – in Markus Solbach and Steve Kent – and it was the visiting side that scrambled a run in the first for a lead that was stretched in an ugly top of six, when the Bite defence faltered badly before a late recovery that came up just short as the Cavalry edged home 4-3.

 

Although Canberra plated a run in the first, GAME TWO was controlled largely by starting pitchers Kurt Heyer (Adelaide) and Frank Gailey (Canberra, win), although the Cavalry edged further ahead on a Robbie Perkins homer in the top of seven and Yuki Kuniyoshi conceded a run on a wild pitch before Tomoya Mikami closed out another thrilling contest 2-1 in favour of Canberra.  

 

Michael Gahan (Adelaide) and Shota Imanaga (Canberra) were dominant through the early innings of GAME THREE, with neither side able to score until the bottom of eight, when Bite veteran Stefan Welch doubled off Cavalry reliever JR Bunda, with two out, advanced on a Mitch Edwards single and scored on a wild pitch by Kyle Kinman before Ryan Chaffee closed out a thrilling 1-0 Bite win.

 

Canberra plated an unearned run early in GAME FOUR and rightfielder Michael Fransoso belted a solo homer in response to a Bite score before Kelvin Melean stretched the Cavalry lead with a lead-off shot in the seventh as both clubs rang the pitching changes – the Cavalry pen holding firm against an Adelaide offence that scored a run in the last but came up short as the visitors clung on 3-2.

 

Canberra won this series 3-1.