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The week in ABL 9:   Bite and Heat looking strong

Stuart Capel

31 December 2014

 

Christmas has come and gone, though Perth gave their fans a fantastic gift pack and the prospect of more big things in the New Year with a hard-fought series win over Melbourne. 

 

Adelaide continued their winning ways, and now sit five games clear of the rest of the field following three victories in Canberra, while a close series in Sydney saw the Blue Sox keep pace with the rest of the field against the Brisbane Bandits, who will be looking to put a gap between themselves and the chasing pack this weekend.

 

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PREVIEW:   ADELAIDE BITE (22-10) vs SYDNEY BLUE SOX (15-17)

 

Three victories against the Cavalry in Canberra saw the Bite take a five-game lead atop the ABL table to put them seven games clear of Canberra and Sydney, who sit outside the top three behind Brisbane and Perth.

 

The Bite’s twelfth innings victory on Monday was the club’s twenty-second for the season, a mark that sits well on their all time wins list over the first five years of the ABL.

 

SEASON          WINS

2010-11                 23

2011-12                 20

2012-13                 21

2013-14                 21

2014-15                 22*

* after thirty-two games

 

The series win in Canberra was once again paced by Aaron Miller, who went 7-17 (3 RBI,  3 SB, 2 R), plating the winning run in Game Two on a squeeze bunt, while he scored the winning run in Game Four after a twelfth innings single and steal, scoring on a Stefan Welch single.

 

Miller now needs just four hits to take the Bite’s single-season hits record, as he sits on forty-eight knocks, three behind the pairing of James Jones  and former Helms Award winner Jamie McOwen, while he has also moved into equal-fourth on the single-season home runs list with eight.

 

Once again, Manager Brooke Knight demonstrated his want to play for the now, with another rarely used pitching change in Canberra, using his Game Three starter Morgan Coombs to close out the game, knowing the right-hander would be starting the next day. Not only did Coombs close out Game Two for his first save of the season, but backed it up with 6.1 innings less than twenty-four hours later, giving up just an unearned run, making it three of his last four starts in which he has not conceded an earned run.

 

Situations such as Coombs’s save and the movement of Josh Tols from the mound to the outfield and back two weeks ago are part of the reason why the Bite are 7-3 in one run games and are heading the field.

 

Adelaide will be bolstered by the addition of catcher Landon Hernandez, who comes onto the roster this weekend in place of Wil Thorp, who did an admirable job in the fortnight following the departure of Rocky Gale.

 

A fiftieth-round selection in the 2008 draft by the Detroit Tigers, Hernandez has spent the last five seasons with the Gateway Grizzlies in the Frontier League, where he has caught a total of seven current or former ABL pitchers.

 

With a batting average of .263 over those five seasons, Hernandez is hardly a speed threat, but can hit a long ball, averaging just short of thirteen home runs a season with a good understanding of the strike zone. Behind the plate, he has thrown out 37% of base runners, including an impressive figure of 55% in 2013.

 

An unlikely comeback win in their Monday finale against Brisbane gave the Blue Sox their third straight win of the series, and somewhat of a lifeline back into the playoff race in a December that saw the Blue Sox compile a 4-8 record despite their post-Christmas heroics.

 

Throughout the month of December, the Blue Sox struggled largely with the bats, hitting just .217 for the month, .205 with RISP and averaging less than four runs per game.

 

For the most part, the club’s lack of ability when it came to putting up ‘crooked numbers’ throughout games cost them greatly, winning both matches where they scored in three or more innings (both of them being extra innings affairs at home), while being just 2-8 when they scored in two or fewer innings.

 

SYDNEY BLUE SOX - MONTH OF DECEMBER

Innings Scored          Win/Loss          Score

             2                            Loss               4-5

             0                            Loss              0-3

             0                            Loss              0-6

             3                             Win              6-5

             2                             Loss              3-10

             2                             Loss              2-6

             1                             Loss              2-4

             2                             Loss             3-4

             1                             Loss              2-6

             1                              Win              2-1

             2                              Win             6-4

             5                              Win             10-9

 

Also hurting the Blue Sox has been their lack of consistency with their fourth starter, with Jason Pospishil trying three pitchers to little or no avail behind the starting trio of Markus Solbach, Craig Anderson and Luke Wilkins.

 

SYDNEY BLUE SOX -STARTING PITCHERS 2014/15

                              Record     Innings     Hits     Walks     Ks     ERA     WHIP

Solbach                    4-2           49.2            43           15         36      3.81        1.17

Anderson                 3-5           52.2             52           11         43      2.91        1.20

Wilkins                     3-3           52               46           11         21       3.12        1.10

Fourth Starter         1.2            35               43           20        19      8.23        1.80

 

While a couple of come-from-behind victories have indeed helped the Blue Sox in games started by someone other than the Blue Sox big three, the club is still conceding an average of nine runs per game started by any of Tim Cox, Lachlan Wells or Vaughan Harris.

 

The new Blue Sox crisis, however, looms from behind the plate. Import Will Swanner has reportedly returned home due to a family illness and he is unlikely to return. Guy Edmonds is off the roster and James Philibossian seems to be considered too young to handle the every day duties.

 

In an attempt to solve their catching crisis, the Blue Sox have been combing the country for a catcher, though with Connar O’Gorman heading to Adelaide, it appears their search - for now anyway - has come up short. This means Alex Glenn, a few months out of collegiate ball, is the default number one, and while Trent D’Antonio is no slouch behind the plate, the Bandits attempted eight steals against the Blue Sox stalwart, successfully navigating the ninety feet course on six occasions. To continue to improve, the Blue Sox need to come up with a Plan D. Or is it a Plan E now?

 

One plan the Blue Sox have to come up with is how to overcome the Adelaide pitchers, who have restricted them to just 2.5 runs per game in their eight meetings over the month of December, in which the Blue Sox hit just .192 and hey hit just .196 with runners in scoring position.

 

Adelaide not only restricted the Blue Sox hitters throughout December, but they were far better in converting their chances, a significant factor in their taking seven of eight against Sydney.

 

The Bite hit just .237 over the eight games, but were 21-77 with runners in scoring position, an average of .272, which meant that the Bite were able to produce more runs than the Blue Sox (43-20) over the eight games, as they have left just fifty-six on base to the Blue Sox sixty-nine.

 

While the Bite will feature a new catcher for the series, there’s no reason to expect the Bite to alter their winning ways at present. With Sydney still looking for consistency, look for the Bite to take the series strongly.

 

Series Prediction: Adelaide 3-1

PREVIEW:   BRISBANE BANDITS (17-15) vs PERTH HEAT (16-16)

 

Although the Brisbane Bandits lost three from four in Sydney against the Blue Sox, losses by one, two and one run in extra innings should not raise too much of a concern in isolation.

 

Over the course of December. however, the Bandits were 5-7, turning a 12-8 record into a 17-15 figure, still good enough for second position on the ABL table. But with Perth finding their feet and the Cavalry and Blue Sox in a position to pounce, the Bandits will need to get back to their winning ways soon to ensure they capture their first finals berth in five seasons.

 

That forfeit victory over Canberra could prove to be invaluable to the Bandits come the end of the season!

 

For the Bandits to turn it around, however, they may need to have a look at their bullpen and how it is operating.

 

ABL - CALLS TO THE BULLPEN 2014/15

Team                    Number of pitching changes (32 games)

Brisbane                                  96

Adelaide                                  87

Sydney                                    84

Canberra                                79

Melbourne                             75

Perth                                       65

 

So far in season 2014-15, the Bandits have made the most pitching changes in the ABL, with three pitchers already featuring in the top ten in single season appearances after just twenty-eight games.

 

All-time Single Season Appearance Leaders – Brisbane Bandits

Player                          Appearances          Season

Chris Mowday                      20                   2010/11

Rhys Niit                               20                   2013/14

Masato Goto                        19                     2014/15

Chris Lamb                          17                     2011/12

John Veitch                          17                    2010/11

Tristan Crawford                16                    2013/14

Justin Erasmus                   16                    2012/13                   

Justin Erasmus                   15                    2014/15

Matthew Bates                    14                    2013/14

Daniel Cooper                    13                     2014/15

Simon Morriss                    13                    2010/11

Italics denote David Nilsson’s first season as Bandits Coach

Bold denotes David Nilsson in current season as Bandits Coach

 

For a pitcher such as Daniel Cooper, that his record before the All-Star break was 1-0 (1.32 ERA 1.02 WHIP), and 0-1 (8.31 ERA 2.31 WHIP) since is a concern, especially if Nilsson is going to rely on the right-hander over the final four series of the season.

 

Interestingly, in 2010-11, aside from a good run against cellar-dwellars Canberra, Nilsson’s team, which relied heavily on the bullpen arms of Chris Mowday, John Veitch and Simon Morriss, finished on a 3-11 run.

 

Perth on the other hand have not been as reliant on their bullpen this season, making just seventy-one changes, the lowest figure in the league.

 

The introduction of former Major Leaguer Mike McClendon has certainly corresponded with an improvement in the Heat’s form (and a run against bottom side Melbourne), and his performance on Saturday evening against the Aces was sheer class.

 

In just his second start for the Heat, McClendon needed just seventy-one pitches to get through seven innings, allowing just five hits and no walks. In all, McClendon only went to a three ball count on one hitter - Josh Hendricks - who promptly struck out on the next pitch, and a two-ball count on two hitters, one (Kellin Deglan) who made an out and another (Brad Harman) who struck-out on a 2-2 pitch.

 

Over his outing, which included fifty-five strikes and sixteen balls, McClendon’s ability to throw first pitch strikes was the key to his working over the Aces line-up.

 

MCLENDON vs ACES  27 December 2014

Result of first pitch          Result of at-bat

First pitch strike                    3-19 (0.167)

First pitch ball                       2-5 (0.400)

 

Sitting between 86-90 with his fastball throughout the game, McClendon may not be the second coming of Mike Ekstrom, although he is so far proving to be an excellent pick-up for the defending champions, who continued their climb up the ABL ladder.

 

The two teams have mirror records over their past eleven games, with the Heat winning eight and losing three and the Bandits winning just three against eight losses (though one loss was reversed via a Canberra forfeit).

 

With McClendon throwing well, Warwick Saupold coming back and Brian Baker and Daniel Schmidt providing solid support, the Heat certainly appears on the rise at the right end of the season and it would certainly be no surprise for the visiting team to AFA Stadium take at least two, and maybe even three games against the Bandits.

 

Series Prediction: Series tied 2-2.

MELBOURNE ACES (11-21) vs CANBERRA CAVALRY (15-17)

 

Another road series and another series loss for the Melbourne Aces, who are still searching for their first road series victory after twenty-nine attempts. The record is now so bad that even Justin Huber on SEN Radio noted the figure had to be some sort of ‘World Record’.

 

Perhaps one of the reasons is the Aces record of poor series starts this season. After eight series, the club has demonstrated a distinct lack of ability when it comes to getting out of the blocks quickly:

 

SERIES                    RESULT          SCORE

vs Brisbane               Loss                  3-10

@Brisbane                 Win                   7-6

vs Sydney                  Loss                   3-5

@Brisbane                 Loss                  0-9

vs Perth                     Loss                   5-6

@Canberra                Loss                   3-4

vs Perth                     Loss                  15-5

@Perth                       Loss                  0-11

 

With a 1-7 record in series openers, which come with a mammoth run differential of minus-forty, is there something about the Aces preparation or the team being switched-on to begin a series?

 

Once again, the team had its strugglers during the Perth series, with Adam Engel - who was 10-22 at home two series ago - just 2-17 at Barbagallo BallPark, while Brad Harman, who appears to be playing hurt, is hitting just .156 over his past ten matches. Dylan Cozens had a slow week despite hitting a home run - going 3-15 - while Josh Hendricks, Aaron Sayers, Darryl George and Scott Wearne could only combine for four hits across the series.

 

Positively, Chace Numata was 7-17 but scored only two runs out of the two-hole, Josh Davies showed somewhat of a return to form with a 6-11 weekend, while youngster Jared Cruz suggested his facial fracture was not slowing him down with a 4-9 series, though he was held out of the series decider.

 

After two outstanding weeks, the Aces starting rotation finally faltered, throwing just 17.2 innings for the series and conceding eighteen earned runs for a series ERA of 9.16, whereas the previous fortnight had the rotation ERA under 2.00. Given the series against the Cavalry will see the final outings from the Japanese pairing of Makoto Aiuchi and Kentaro Fukukura, it is hard to see how the Aces can mount any challenge to the top three over the final three series of the season.

 

Canberra has recently had their own personnel problems, with a forfeit loss in Brisbane that cost them a series victory against the Bandits, and a series loss that saw Manager Michael Collins’s substitution of Jack Murphy to satisfy the import requirements questioned in the local media.

 

Fortunately for the Canberra, the Cavalry…err…reinforcements are on the way for the club that should give them extra leeway in regarding their Australian contingent.

 

First, left-handed pitcher Steve Kent will make his season debut after throwing well in bullpen session recently following Tommy John surgery. 6-2 with six saves over his previous two seasons, an extra left-hander and an extra local pitcher will help Manager Collins, especially with Wayne Ough rumoured to be sore following his outing on Monday against Adelaide.

 

The Cavalry have also organised two players from a Chinese Academy. Aaron Cheng, an eighteen year-old outfielder and Liwi Huang, a seventeen year old infielder are also reportedly part of the team that will visit Melbourne Ball Park. However, with the ABL rules stating drafted players must be part of the roster all season, who will miss out for the Cavalry will be worth following.

 

For the Cavalry to take the series in Melbourne, they will need more output from their American contingent. While Jason Sloan (5-16, 4 RBIs vs Adelaide and 12-28 over his eight game hitting streak) is enjoying a breakthrough season, Robbie Perkins is hitting .300, good for twelfth best in the league and Kieran Bradford is hitting .277, it will be the local contingent who will likely make way for the incoming Chinese duo of Cheng and Huang.

 

While Jack Murphy (4-10), Christian Lopes (5-13) and LB Dantzler (5-16) had solid weeks, they were left to do much of the heavy lifting themselves. Markus Lemon was 2-8 and made two errors, Mitch Walding 2-10 and an error, Anthony Alford 1-11, with a muffed fly that cost a run in extra innings of game four along with another error, and Alex Hudak 0-3 all struggled, however they will all be relied upon to bounce back strong against the Aces.

 

Fortunately for Canberra, their starting rotation hit a good patch of form against the Bite, with Grening, Hernandez, Atherton and Crawford throwing twenty-four innings for a combined four earned runs. The start of Gaby Hernandez - which ended in a loss -  would have pleased Manager Collins, with the big right-hander throwing six innings and giving up a single, unearned run. That he did not get any run support was certainly not his fault.

 

For the Cavalry to ensure they take the series, they will have to get their bats working, after a series in which they averaged .244, dropping their season mark to .272, still good enough for the league lead, but their situational hitting will have to improve - as will their fielding.

 

Against Adelaide, the Cavalry hit into a total of eight double plays, a season series high for the club, while they also made a staggering nine errors - eight of them from six different imports.

 

While the Aces have the home advantage, they do have a tough assignment facing them, having endured a tough four-game series, a red-eye flight and the knowledge they have had one day turnaround to face a motivated Canberra side.

 

The bullpen is still proving to be the Achilles heel for the Aces, with Tim Brown blowing their latest save in Game Four over at Barbagallo, and as noted above they will have to reverse their season trend of poor starts to series. New left-handed reliever Al Yevoli’s debut wasn’t anything to advertise, however his second appearance was much sharper, with his slider breaking late with a wicked snap. He could provide the answer to the Aces eighth and ninth innings woes, though it does appear too late to propel the club towards the top three.

 

Canberra took three from four against the Aces at Narrabundah, although the Aces bullpen cost them one game and lazy fielding another. While they are tired, their being at home and the presence of Yevoli should give them a series split, a result which may not help either side, but will demonstrate the desperation both sides still possess.

 

Series Prediction: Series split 2-2.