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The week in ABL:   Preliminary Final Series

Stuart Capel

28 January 2015

 

Entering the final round of the regular season, four teams suited up with the chance of joining Adelaide in the playoffs. Come Saturday night, both Brisbane and Canberra had dropped out of the running. While Adelaide waits, the Perth Heat and Sydney Blue Sox meet this weekend in a best-of-three series for the right to take on the Bite in next weekend's Championship Series.

 

PRELIMINARY FINAL SERIES:   PERTH HEAT vs SYDNEY BLUE SOX

 

While their position in the playoffs was not cemented before the start of the final round of the regular season, the Heat emphatically sealed second position on the ABL table and the chance to host two games in the Preliminary Final series by sweeping the Brisbane Bandits, knocking the Queenslanders out of the top three with the first, and what turned out to be only four-game sweep of the regular season.

 

The series result was far from any regular four game sweep, with the Bandits outhitting the Heat over the series by eleven hits forty-five to thirty-four, although the Heat stood up when the game was on the line. Jorge Marban emphatically shut the door with three straight strike outs to close out Game One, Brisbane’s Tommy Coyle made two errors in the eighth innings - the second of which allowed two runs to score -  giving the Heat a 4-3 victory, while Alan de San Miguel’s eighth innings Grand Slam was the difference between the sides in Game Three, with Rene Tosoni’s two-run shot making a winner of Ben Shorto and the Heat 6-5 in the Sunday finale.

 

Having been as low as fifth on the ABL table several weeks into the season, the Heat’s climb up the ABL table began with a 3-2 series win in Melbourne against the Aces. However their post-Christmas form was simply outstanding and a sign of why they passed all but the ladder-leading Bite come the end of thirteen regular season rounds:

 

SEASON RECORD 2014-15:   POST CHRISTMAS

Team                                Wins     Losses     Winning %

Perth Heat                          15           5              .750

Adelaide Bite                      13           7              .650

Sydney Blue Sox                10           8             .555

Canberra Cavalry               8          10             .444

Brisbane Bandits                5           13             .277

Melbourne Aces                  5           13             .277

 

While much has been made of the Heat’s mid-season transactions - with the likes of Steel Russell, Jorge Marban, Shawn Sanford and Nick Rulli being replaced by Rene Tosoni, Mike McClendon, Mike McCarthy and McKenzie Acker - the improvement out of a couple of arms in the bullpen has certainly played its part in the Heat’s second-half revival.

 

Scott Mitchinson was a big part of the Heat’s third championship last season (3-0 2 SV 2.70 ERA) but he started the season poorly, entering December with a 6.48 ERA. However, from there he improved greatly, with his performances to end the season being exceptional.

 

                                                IP      H   BB   K   ER   ERA

First 11 appearances           14.2     17    6     11    8      4.90

Final 8 appearances           18.1      8     5     6     1      0.49

 

Shadowing Mitchinson in turning around his season was Chad Robinson, the former twelfth-round selection by Milwaukee out of Las Vegas. Robinson was the losing pitcher in three of his first seven outings in the ABL, blowing three saves along the way, with rock bottom coming in Melbourne - where a wild pitch allowed the Aces to walk-off with the victory. Like Mitchinson, Robinson’s season underwent a transformation, with that pitch that got away from Matt Dixon signalling a turnaround for the twenty-seven year-old right hander:

 

                                               IP   H   BB   K   ER   ERA

Before loss vs Aces               8    8     6     12    4     4.50

After loss vs Aces               13.1   9    4      14    1     0.68

 

While McClendon received much of the attention as the rest of the ABL noticed the latest Heat version of a Virgil Vasquez-like player, the efforts of Mitchinson (7-2 2.45 ERA 1.09 WHIP), who recorded wins in each of his last five appearances and Robinson (2-3 2 SV 2.11 ERA 1.27 WHIP), coupled with those of Jorge Marban (4-1 8 SV 2.12 ERA 1.15 WHIP) and little lefty McKenzie Acker (0-0 2 SV 1.72 ERA 0.89 WHIP) provided the Heat with a bullpen that could be considered the best performing of any of the six clubs entering the playoffs.

 

The ace of the staff however is the imposing McClendon, who joined the Heat at the beginning of December when they ventured to Melbourne for the first time, and eased his way into the rotation, and to a record of 5-1 1.66 ERA 1.11 WHIP.

 

While the Texan-born right-hander had his troubles with the Brisbane in four appearances against the Bandits, against everyone else he has dominated:

 

                                          IP    H   BB   K   ER   ERA

vs Bandits                        19    26    8    15    8      3.78

vs rest of ABL                 29.2  25     2    25   1      0.30

 

McClendon will be joined in the starting rotation for the Preliminary Final series by local Warwick Saupold, while it would appear another mid-season acquisition Mike McCarthy would be the Game Three starter if required.

 

As the Heat waited for their pitching to come around, some light tinkering to the hitting saw the Heat lead several of the more important hitting categories.

 

While the Heat finished second to Brisbane (.279) in hitting with a .277 team average, the Heat led the rest of the ABL in hits (446), runs (279), on-base percentage (.361), while proving to be the hardest team to strike out (292) and registering the most walks (.210).

 

It did help the Heat that they had six core players who were effectively fixtures in the line-up throughout the season.

 

Only Matt Kennelly (.287-3-26-1) played in all forty-eight matches, although the quartet of Jordan McDonald (.307-3-30-2), Joey Wong (.301-2-21-9), Tim Smith (.300-4-27-9) and Tim Kennelly (.255-8-28-9) all played in forty-seven games, with Allan de San Miguel (.260-3-31-2) featuring in forty-five games.

 

With such a core six, the Heat could carry someone like Brian Pointer (.222-4-14-3) in forty-four games, though the addition of Luke Hughes (.352-6-29-6 in thirty-two games) was seemingly always welcomed by a strong, senior line-up.

 

Sydney on the other hand haven’t had much stability with their line-up, with just three players, Josh Dean (.329-5-28-1 in 43 games), David Kandilas (.297-4-31-8 in 44 games) and Trent Oeltjen (.284-6-33-3 in 41 games) in the league’s leading twenty-five hitters.

 

Holding the Blue Sox back were Tyler Bortnick (.238-3-16-3 in 45 games), Zach Shepherd (.227-6-169-2 in 37 games), Trent D’Antonio (.202-0-11-1 in 37 games) and the import catching combination of Will Swanner and Trent Baker (.200-4-16-2).  While Bortnick started the season exceptionally well, after his first dozen games he came back down to earth hard:

 

                                           HITS     AT-BATS     AVERAGE

First 12 games                     15             48                  .313

Rest of the season              24            116                 .206

 

To beat Perth they will need to hit better than their season figure of .256 over the coming series, although their hitting has not done anything this season to inspire any confidence.

 

The .256 season mark was only better than the Melbourne Aces paltry .237, while their tally of 227 runs was a competition fourth best figure, their thirty-eight home runs fifth best, and they were all but the easiest team to strike out, with their tally of 354 marginally better than Melbourne’s 358 record.

 

Saving the Blue Sox in season 2014-15 was their trio of starting pitchers Markus Solbach (6-3 4.81 ERA), Craig Anderson (5-6 3.59 ERA) and Luke Wilkins (5-3 3.31), who combined to throw fifty-five percent of the Blue Sox total innings for the season.

 

With a bullpen that largely struggled and a fourth-starter position that a quartet of arms tried to fill - without any success - there can be little doubt that if one or more of the starting trio had failed, then the Blue Sox would be watching from the sidelines this weekend.

 

                                                           SEASON ERA      WINS

Solbach/Anderson/Wilkins               3.93                      16

Fourth Starter                                     8.58                        1

Bullpen                                                 5.26                        5

 

The bullpen did have some solid contributors, with Dae-Sung Koo (0-1 4 SV 2.12 ERA 1.53 WHIP) once again proving reliable for Jason Pospishil, while Aaron Sookee (40.50 ERA before the 21U World Cup and 3.15 ERA after) and Todd van Steensel (0-0 2 SV 2.25 ERA 1.00 WHIP in minimal playing time) were also solid, but otherwise there appeared to be little for pitching coach Darian Lindsay to offer his manager when another arm was required. Someone will have to stand-up over the course of the Preliminary Final series for Sydney to advance.

 

Assisting the Blue Sox is the ABL ruling which sees the Preliminary Final series played on both sides of the country, with Game One being played at Blue Sox Stadium on Friday, and Games Two and Three (if required) being played at Perth’s Barbagallo Stadium.

 

While the Heat chose to host Games Two and Three when asked earlier in the season, the decision by the ABL to play Friday night in Sydney and have the two squads jet to Perth and play on Saturday and Sunday has left the Heat perplexed, with the Heat GM noting that “…just due to flying across the country in a 24-hour period to try and play a game in each state, we thought that Perth would be exempt from this.”

 

Looking to circumvent any travel issues, the Heat will travel on Thursday morning for the Friday night fixture, while leaving Game Two and Three starters Saupold and McCarthy back at home given they will not be required in the opening game.

 

Starting in front of their home fans, the Blue Sox enter Friday’s game knowing that winning back-to-back playoff fixtures in Perth would be extremely difficult - although they have won two series in Perth against the Heat. However, they represent the only two series the Blue Sox have won against Perth, with the Heat having won four with another four split series. The two teams have met twice in the playoffs previously, with the Heat sweeping the Blue Sox on both occasions. 

 

Could lightning strike three times?

 

The form line does favour Perth, with the Heat having hit their straps at the right time of the season. Allan de San Miguel has moved back behind the plate and the Heat have compiled a 10-1 record since he has resumed the full time catching duties with the Heat conceding an average of just three runs per game. Outside of de San Miguel being the primary signal-caller, the Heat were 18-19 and conceding five runs per game.

 

Perth’s stable line-up provides Steve Fish with an easily compilation when it comes to his line-up, and Fish may just have an extra edge when it comes to the pitching. At the beginning of the season, the Blue Sox faced the likes of Brian Baker, Daniel Schmidt, Shawn Sanford and Tom Bailey as the starting pitchers and the likes of Alex Burkard and Cameron Lamb in the bullpen.

 

Now, they will be facing McClendon, Saupold and McCarthy, with different versions of Mitchinson and Robinson to contend with, a fresh-face in Aker and one of the league’s dominant closers in Marban.

 

For Sydney to win the series, Game One is a must, and at least two of the big three pitchers must lead from the front, while Dean, Kandilas and Oeltjen will require solid contributions from the rest of the line-up for the Blue Sox to be any chance.

 

Perth, however, enters the series with the better form and after four straight Preliminary Final series defeats, it is hard to choose the Blue Sox with any confidence. 

 

While the ABL may wish for a couple of fresh faces to square-off in the Championship Series, look for the Heat to take the series and progress to the ABLCS against the Adelaide Bite, a series that will be shown live on ESPN Australia/ New Zealand, the MLB Network and Fox Sports Asia.

 

Series Prediction: Perth Heat to win.