The Alcohol. Think Again Perth Heat have overcome nearly every obstacle in their quest for a third straight title, and it's very fitting that the final battle against the Canberra Cavalry, driven by Rolfe Renault, will be their toughest.
The Cavalry boast what is undoubtedly the strongest batting lineup seen in the three year history of the ABL, presented by 'Be the Influence: Tackling Bing Drinking', with six players hitting above the .300 mark this season. The Cavalry's offence has thrived against the Heat, averaging over nine runs per game in the eight clashes between the sides. The Heat fell in six of those contests in what was a distinct turning point for both sides, as the Cavalry soared to the top of the table and the Heat soon fell outside of playoff contention.
Starting on Friday evening in Canberra, the Heat have a best of three series to turn what has been a one-sided matchup into their third straight title. The Cavalry will have a capacity crowd behind them in the bid for their first ever Claxton Shield, but the Heat carry plenty of momentum into this series with a six game winning streak and a line-up back to full strength.
Steve Fish summed up the difference in the Heat's current situation to their difficult mid-season slump. "I was looking at the numbers and seven out of our nine guys missed at least 25% of the season and quite a few guys missed over half. One guy (Reigning MVP, Tim Kennelly) missed almost the whole season. It's great to have them all back and they are having a big impact on our line-up now."
Baltimore Orioles prospect Brenden Webb has played a crucial role over the past two Perth Heat seasons, and feels that the Heat roster is coming together similarly to the squad that dominated last season with a 39-13 season record. "Last year we had a pretty healthy squad but recently we've had a whole platoon of guys going in and out. I think that's the biggest difference this year over last year."
"For the most part everyone is good to go and excited to be heading over to Canberra. We have a good chemistry going right now. We've won our last six games in a row so hopefully we can carry it over to Canberra and come back with the Claxton Shield."
Another difference between the past two seasons is that the Heat haven't had to contend with Adam Buschini, the league's triple crown winner and the biggest threat to dethroning the back to back champions. Buschini hit .363 over the season with 15 home runs and 50 RBI and won the final round's player of the week honours with nine hits, four home runs and nine RBIs in a must win series against Adelaide.
The Cavalry offence is even more fearsome considering that Buschini is backed by an incredible string of hitters including Kody Hightower (.333), Jeremy Barnes (.343), Ryan Stovall (.320), Antonio Callaway (.307) and Jack Murphy (.304).
There's plenty of firepower in the Heat offence to match that of the Cavalry. Regulars such as Luke Hughes, Allan de San Miguel and Tim Kennelly are hitting peak form alongside Corey Adamson and catcher Michael Ohlman. The Heat's big advantage in this series in their piching, who will be difficult to beat with a full strength offence behind them.
Game One - Anthony Claggett (4-5, 3.31) vs Brian Grening (4-2, 2.87)
Grening has been highly consistent with the Cavalry as their number one starter all season. The Cavalry ace has successfully held the Heat's offence at bay with a 1-0 record, allowing only 3 earned runs through 14 innings. Claggett was hot and cold against the Cavalry giving up five runs in Perth but bounced back in Canberra throwing 6.2 shutout innings in their most recent meeting.
Claggett's will head into this matchup with plenty of confidence, coming off a 14 strikeout performance against Melbourne and earning the victory in the Preliminary Final throwing six innings while allowing a single run.
Game Two - Warwick Saupold (1-1, 2.59) vs John Holdzkom (4-3, 4.10)
Cavalry starter John Holdzkom's up and down season was never more evident than against the Perth Heat. Holdzkom capitulated against at Barbagallo Ballpark, giving up eight earned runs while recording only a single out only to bounce back and shut out the Heat in the return leg throwing seven outstanding innings while allowing only two hits.
Saupold was the opposing starter in Holdzkom's disastrous start in Perth, but sustained a toe injury and left the game after two innings. Since returning from injury, Saupold has been channelling his outstanding season from last year, and will be looking to his seven shutout inning performance for the Lakeland Flying Tigers in the Florida State league Championship Series as motivation. As the game two starter in the 2012 Championship Series, Saupold pitched 6.2 innings without allowing an earned run.
Game Three (if required) - Daniel Schmidt (7-2, 3.72) vs Chris Motta (3-3, 5.93)
If the ABLCS goes to a Game Three, Daniel Schmidt will have comfort knowing that he has thrived in this situation before. Schmidt is coming off his best season for the Heat with a team record of seven wins but his career highlight would have to be his Game Three victory over NSW in the 2009 Claxton Shield final, where he threw eight shutout innings for the Heat.
Motta and Schmidt have met twice this season, and both resulted in high scoring affairs as the offences took control. Over the two clashes between the sides Motta is 1-0 with a 6.55 ERA while Schmidt was dealt an 0-1 record with a 7.59 ERA.
Instead of focusing on their previous matchups, the Heat will be drawing on their playoff experience where the squad has a 15-4 record over the past five seasons.
"We feel very comfortable. We're excited to get out there this weekend. The boys put in a good effort last week and we're all ready to go and I can't wait." Said Game Two starter Warwick Saupold.
"We went through our ups and downs all year and lucky enough all the boys are back on the diamond at the right time. They love their February baseball and that's what it's all about. It's not an easy trip when you go to Canberra. But when you look at our stats over the last couple years and you'll see we're a lot better on the road. It's going to be a tough trip but the boys are ready for it."
After injury problems sidelined Luke Hughes to play a DH role last this season, Steve Fish is looking forward to having his leader back in the infield.
"It looks like Luke Hughes will be in the infield this weekend, so not only can we push guys around in different positions we will probably line-up better defensively than we ever have this year."
While the Heat feel confident at full strength Fish isn't bothered by seeing Canberra as the favourites this weekend.
"I'm not sure if we're in the driver's seat, I think we're still the underdogs and that's the way I like it too. I'm ready to go out there out and get it on. This is war and we're ready to go."
The full series will air live on FOX Sports 2 at 4:00pm WST on Friday, Saturday and Sunday if required. Saturday night's game will be a "Red Button" option where Foxtel viewers can select between different sporting events to watch game two of the ABLCS. MLB Network will air the complete ABLCS in the United States on Friday at 1:00pm ET and Saturday and Sunday at 3:00pm ET. FOX Sports in Asia, Sky New Zealand, and the Australia Network will also broadcast the ABLCS. The ABL Championship Series will be broadcast into over 50 countries. In addition, a live digital broadcast of the series will be available on ABC Grandstand and Sport FM 91.3 in Perth.