While responsibility for coverage of the Australian Baseball League quite properly will be taken up by the league itself, by Baseball Australia and its state associations, Australian Baseball Alumni will strive to offer another layer of reporting to help deliver the baseball message to the widest possible audience and in a variety of formats. For full schedule, rosters, box scores and news, visit the ABL website.

Stuart Capel

7 January 2015

 

The first round of matches in the 2015 was a happy one for the Adelaide Bite, who won their series against Sydney three games to one, while the other two series were split. 

 

While Adelaide is well ahead and Melbourne well behind, the other four teams appear to be battling for two finals positions. 

 

Will the playoff picture be any clearer come the end of Week Eleven of the ABL season?

 

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PREVIEW:   PERTH HEAT (18-18) vs ADELAIDE BITE (25-11)

 

Having salvaged the final two games from their visit to the Sunshine State, the Heat return home this week for a series against the Adelaide Bite, a team that the Heat have always enjoyed success against at Barbagallo BallPark. But with their remaining matches coming against the other teams in the top four on the ABL table, the Heat will not be able to leave anything behind this week against South Australia’s finest.

 

While the pitching was largely hot and cold throughout the series at AFA Stadium, Manager Steve Fish would be satisfied that his potential playoff rotation is all but in order now. Mike McClendon had a rough outing but has otherwise been exceptionally solid. Mike McCarthy threw five solid innings for a no decision in replacing a struggling Brian Baker in the rotation, while Warwick Saupold threw five innings of three-hit ball. Should any of them work their way out of the rotation, Daniel Schmidt -  who threw into the seventh innings in Brisbane, giving up only two runs - will provide another option for Manager Fish.

 

The hitting still needs to find a way to fire, with one Heat person lamenting their lack of two-out RBIs this season compared to last. While the likes of Luke Hughes (five hits against Brisbane), Joey Wong, Tim Kennelly and Tim Smith (all four hits) were solid, only Matt Kennelly (8-14) stood-out in Brisbane. They will need similar consistency, but at least a couple of their big bats to fire this weekend in order to outduel the ladder leaders.

 

Despite losing the first game of their series against Sydney, it was otherwise business as usual for Adelaide, who took the final three games of the series to again increase their lead atop the ABL table to an impressive six games, as the rest of the league split their respective series elsewhere.

However, Adelaide's return to Barbagallo BallPark comes at a bad time for the Bite, with leading hitter Aaron Miller returning home for family reasons, while catcher Landon Hernandez - who made a mercy dash last week to be with the team - has seemingly left after just one series with Brooke Knight's team.

The series against Sydney was another strong one for Miller, who went 8-13 (3 home runs, 8 RBI, 9R, 4BB with two doubles and one highlight reel play in left field foul territory). With fifty-six hits, he is now tied for tenth in single-season hits in the new ABL. While there is a chance that he may return for the playoffs if issues at home settle, there is no doubt that one of the ABL's most gifted five-tool players will be sorely missed by Knight and his team.

Fortunately, the slack is starting to be picked up elsewhere, with Brandon Dixon having an excellent series (9-20, 4 HR, 8 RBI, 8 R) - including a game changing grand slam in the series finale - while Mitch Dening's seven hits for the series was his most in a four-game stand for his new club.Chan Moon had a solid six-hit series, while Stefan Welch hit a game winning home run among his six hits over the four games.

Although the pitching staff had a rough week in giving up twenty-five runs - their second worst effort for the season - the Bite are 15-1 when scoring six or more runs this season, so the equation still remains somewhat simple for the Bite - score often and the pitching will find a way to get it done.

Having stepped in for one departed American already, Wil Thorp - who was perhaps unluckily dropped from the roster for the Sydney series to make way for Hernandez - comes back in for his third series, and makes it two different import catchers he has replaced, while former Brisbane Bandit Connar O'Gorman, who transferred from the Surfers Paradise club on the Gold Coast last month to play in the local Adelaide competition, has also been added to the roster.  

 

O'Gorman featured in six games for the Bandits last season, and during 2014 spent some time with the Amarillo Sox in the American Association.

 

The surprise addition for the Bite is that of Virgil Vasquez, the MVP of the Championship series in season two of the new league when he was with the Perth Heat. Having last pitched in the ABL in 2012-13, Vasquez had recently taken up a coaching role within the Minnesota Twins organisation. However, it would appear Brooke Knight has pulled somewhat of a rabbit out of the hat by getting Vasquez back into the league. With Stem and Coombs doing such a good job starting however, look for Vasquez to come out of the bullpen for now.

With a visit to Canberra on the cards next week, this series looms as a big one for Perth, who would most likely welcome as big a buffer as they can muster for next weeks visit to Narrabundah Ball Park. The arrival of the top side usually makes for a tough assignment, however the Bite are now without Miller, while Hernandez's heading home does leave the catching stocks below a strength that Bite coach Brooke Knight would prefer.

Needing just a solitary win to make the playoffs last season, the Bite visited Barbagallo BallPark confident of reaching the top-three after a disastrous start to the season under Charlie Aliano. However, three one-run losses and a two-run loss gave the ladder leading Heat a series sweep, and allowed Canberra to sneak into the top-three on the last day of the season.

While the Heat are not yet to their 2013-14 level, look for them to take advantage of an Adelaide side that will have to realign itself following the loss of two key players, and take the series, which will mark Adelaide's first series defeat of the season.

Series Prediction: Perth Heat 3-1

PREVIEW:   CANBERRA CAVALRY (17-19) vs BRISBANE BANDITS (19-17)

 

Following the Cavalry’s back-to-back victories in the opening two games of their series in Melbourne, the Canberra camp would have been feeling confident of where they were, in third place on the ABL table with a .500 record, and with what lay ahead, two further matches against a jaded Aces team which had been largely uncompetitive in the opening two games of the series.

 

For the Cavalry to subsequently lose the following two matches - albeit losing both by a run - has cost the club ground in the playoff chase as they begin this weekend’s series against Brisbane a game back from Perth (who the Cavalry host next week) and two ahead of the Bandits, who consistently find ways to keep themselves in position as the leading chaser to the ladder-leading Adelaide Bite.

 

On the mound, the starting pitching was solid without being spectacular, with all four starters going at least five innings and giving away at least three earned runs.  Ironically, arguably the best-performed of the quartet - Tristan Crawford - ended up being the losing pitcher in his game, with the Canberra offence failing to fire in the fourth game of the series when the game was on the line.

 

Losing Alex Hudak to a shoulder injury on the morning of the opening game of the series hampered Michael Collins’s ability to juggle his line-up, which came back to hurt the Cavalry late in the series when his team was down by a run at the business end of back-to-back matches.

 

Christian Lopes had a solid series for Collins’ team, going 8-16 (4 HR, 9 RBI, 7 R and 4 BB), while two born and bred Canberra players had excellent series at Melbourne Ball Park.

 

Robbie Perkins had four hits in the opening game and hit safely in all four matches, having a 7-15 series, being walked three times and scoring three runs, while Jason Sloan continued to quietly compile an excellent season, going 5-11 (2HR, 4 RBI, 3R, 6 BB) to now have season numbers of .352-3-13-0, with the .352 average that would see him in the league’s top five in average. However, Sloan is five at-bats short of qualifying for eligibility at present. His two home runs in Game Three of the series came after hitting just one in his first forty-five games in the ABL.

 

Like the Cavalry, Brisbane was left ruing what might have been, winning their first two games of their home series against Perth, opening up a two-game gap on the Cavalry and three-games against the Heat. However, as the Cavalry did, the Bandits went down in their final two games of the series, costing David Nilsson’s team a chance to put a gap between themselves and the rest of the trailing pack.

 

Brisbane’s inability to put consistent scoreboard pressure on the Heat ultimately cost them a series victory, as the Bandits scored eleven runs in the opening game of the series but just ten runs in the final three games. While they hit eight home runs for the series, the final seven were all solo shots, with the first one of the series - off the bat of Tommy Coyle - being a two-run bomb. While the hitters were consistent through the series - with four hitters tallying five hits apiece and Logan Wade extending his hitting streak to twelve games - no one stood out to lead the club, especially when it was required in the third game of the series.

 

As mentioned last week, the Brisbane bullpen has had a high workload this season, and had to be at its best over the series against Perth, with three Brisbane starters only going four innings, with just Chen-Hua Lin (5.2) managing more than twelve outs, and even then, three relievers were used in securing the victory when the Taiwanese right-hander had finished on the mound. In all, the bullpen responded well, compiling a 3.30 ERA for the series, and recording both wins and a save with two holds in 16.1 innings pitched.

 

While the Bandits are in second position, three series against the hapless Aces have championed their cause this season, though the rest of their record does not make for positive reading, with Brisbane 9-3 versus Melbourne and 10-14 against everyone else, and having lost two of their other three away series 1-3, with their other series, in Sydney, ending in a two-two split. Such a result would almost suit the Bandits this weekend.

 

With Steve Kent offering a local left-handed option out of the bullpen and Aaron Thompson back after an overseas sojourn over the past couple of weeks, Michael Collins will soon have at his disposal a couple of local arms with which to manoeuvre the rule that allows an extra import in the line-up if it’s a reliever that replaces a local who has thrown to at least one hitter. Collins has shown that he is not beyond working the rule to its fullest capacity, and the extra local in the pen can only help him juggle his line-up.

 

Losing LB Dantzler and Alex Hudak will have an impact on the Cavalry, who have added Thompson and Sam Thornton to their roster for the series, while Brisbane welcomes back Ryan Battaglia, who has not played for the best part of a month.The loss of two import hitters does hamstring Collins and his hitting line-up. Even though he has five import hitters on the roster, he found it hard to find a winning line-up as the series went on without his full compliment of imports in Melbourne.

 

Without Dantzler and Hudak, the edge Canberra had does appear as if it may have diminished somewhat.  Look for the series to be split down the middle as a result.

 

Series Prediction: Series Split 2-2.

PREVIEW:   SYDNEY BLUE SOX (16-20) vs MELBOURNE ACES (13-23)

 

Winning their opening game in Adelaide would have had the Blue Sox confident of the victory propelling them to a positive weekend’s work in Adelaide, although three straight losses dropped the Blue Sox from 16-17 to 16-20 and in danger of losing track of falling off the back of the pack chasing a finals position.

 

How fortunate then that the Melbourne Aces come to town this weekend!

 

Sydney’s twenty-six runs scored was their highest runs total in a series since scoring thirty-one in Canberra in early December 2013, and if David Kandilas (9-18, 2HR, 3 RBI, 4R) can continue the form he had in Adelaide, then the Blue Sox will go a long way towards having a successful series against the Aces.

 

Ironically, it’s the Sydney pitching that requires a tune-up after the four starting pitchers were all rocked by the Adelaide hitting line-up.

 

SYDNEY BLUE SOX - STARTING PITCHERS IN ADELAIDE

Innings          Hits     Walks     Runs     ERA     Home Runs

   19.2                 31          10           24        10.98          10

 

The bullpen also had its struggles, posting a series ERA of 9.81, largely due to a series finale in which the relief corps gave up eight runs in getting the last four outs of the game. For a team that has an ERA of 6.89 outside of the big three starters, they have found it difficult to get the big outs when required.

 

Therefore it was somewhat of a surprise that Jaspreet Shergill was picked-up by the Blue Sox when the Brisbane Bandits decided he was surplus to requirements.

 

The right-hander averages less than 4.1 innings per start this innings and has never gone beyond the sixth innings in any of his nine starts for either the Bandits or Blue Sox, so it is a tall order to expect the bullpen to be near perfect for five innings come the fourth game of the series.

 

Sydney were bolstered last week by the quiet arrival of Tyler Baker, a catcher from within the Arizona Diamondbacks organisation, who hit .271-2-24-1 between rookie and short-season A levels, throwing out 38% of base runners along the way. Baker had a solid week in Adelaide last week, hitting safely in the two games he played, while joining an elite club by hitting a home run in his first ABL at-bat.

 

Anchored at the bottom of the ABL table, Melbourne deserves some credit for coming back to square their series against the Canberra Cavalry at Melbourne BallPark, though after their performance in the opening game - which Manager Tommy Thompson described as “embarrassing” - it was the least the Aces could do for the fans who have stuck with them throughout the course of another tough season.

 

Aside from the two wins, Kellin Deglan’s red-hot hitting created the headlines, with five home runs in the series seeing him become the single-season Home Run leader in the new ABL with sixteen. Aside from his five home runs in the series, Deglan had another two hits to record a seven hit week with eight RBIs, while Adam Engel had seven hits and five runs of his own, although it does appear that his running game has deserted him over recent weeks.

 

Engel ran early and often in his ABL debut, needing just six matches to record his first six stolen bases. However he has swiped just six bags in the following thirty games, and he has not stolen a single base in his last eleven games. At one point, he spent fourteen pitches in Canberra anchored to first base without even attempting to steal, a surprising change of tactic for someone ballyhooed before the season as a player who would steal as many bases as Canberra’s former speedster Jon Berti - according to one club insider.

 

Of further concern to the Aces is the form of Dylan Cozens - which had seemingly been turning itself around. However, Cozens has now gone a dozen games since his last multi-hit game, and has hit just .159 (7/44) in those twelve games, recording just one home run, four RBI and three runs over that time. In the final game of the series against Canberra, Cozens faced four pitches, swinging at all of them, flying out to left field on two occasions and popping-up to the shortstop in the third at-bat after fouling a ball off to the left-side.

 

The form of Cozens isn’t manager Tommy Thompson’s only concern with the bats, with Josh Davies going 1-16 for the series, while Brad Harman broke an 0-17 slump in the series finale with two hits but is still hitting just .121 (5-41) since his last extra base hit. The trio of Ryan Dale (1-5), Ben Leslie and Aaron Sayers (both 0-2) did little to set the Melbourne faithful alight.

 

After all that, the headaches for Thompson and pitching coach John Hussey come thick and fast with the pitching staff getting a solid revamp for the visit to Blue Sox Stadium.

 

The Japanese trio of Makoto Aiuchi (2-1 3.52) - who leads the Aces in innings pitched - Kentaro Fukukura (1-3 5.61) and Isamu Sato (6.48) have all returned home to Japan, while Eric Kline (1-0 2.93) will return to club ball after some mixed success with the Aces over the past three series.

 

With little pitching seemingly in reserve, how the Aces can all of a sudden break a twenty-nine road series winless streak seems a question that simply cannot be answered this weekend in a positive fashion. Into the squad come James Darcy (21.60 ERA), Adrian Berka, who posted a 10.12 ERA in 2012-13 and has not pitched for the club since, while Lachlan Madden, an eighteen year old right hander who was 2-1 5 saves with the Houston Astros Dominican League rookie team will make his ABL debut during the series. Josh Hendricks (.270) and Scott Wearne (.205) have also been added to a roster that not only misses the three Japanese pitchers, but is without Josh Davies (.303-3-14-2) and Justin Huber (.289-2-7-0).

 

While there are perfectly sound statistical and form reasons, the Aces roster is enough to suggest the Blue Sox will win the series comfortably, and there is a chance they could even roar back to .500 as a four-win series is not out of the equation.  Three wins, however, is a realistic outcome for the Blue Sox.

 

Series Prediction: Sydney Blue Sox 3-1

The week in ABL 10: post-season race gathers momentum