SYDNEY, NSW -- The final round of fresh matchups highlights the final first-half round of the 2016/17 Australian Baseball League season. As the summer weather heats up, the Jet Couriers Melbourne Aces remain the surging side, expanding their lead at the top of the ladder to two games.
The conclusion of this weekend officially marks the halfway point of the ABL season. For the clubs in the bottom half of the ladder, it's almost make-or-break time. Here's a look at what's ahead.
PERTH (5-11) at CANBERRA (8-8)
Two teams fresh from series losses look for light at the season's midpoint this weekend. The two teams faced each other 12 times last season, with the Cavalry taking the season series 7-5.
Canberra have been the best-hitting team all year long but last weekend came up against something they hadn't seen much of so far this season: dominant pitching. Despite scoring just five runs in four games against the Aces, the Cavalry still lead the league in most major offensive categories, and if they keep up the pace could become the first ABL team to hit .300 in a single season.
Though the Heat only managed to win one game last weekend, what a game it was. Tom Bailey struck out double-digit batters for the first time in his young career, and this season has developed into Perth's most reliable starting pitcher. Despite no longer ranking last in the league in team ERA or team batting average, the Heat still need to find more ways to score runs. Their total of 56 on the season averages out to 3.5 runs per game, and that won't cut it this weekend against a Cavalry side that has scored 67 times in eight 2016/17 home games.
Players to watch: Tom Bailey (PER), Luke Hughes (PER), Louis Cohen (CAN), Robbie Perkins (CAN)
Series prediction: Series split, 2-2
Reason: This prediction comes from a thermometer. The Heat are due for a more-than-one-win weekend.
Thursday: TBA at Louis Cohen (0-0, 1.50)
Friday: Nick Veale (0-3, 8.62) at Scott Cone (0-1, 10.24)
Saturday: Tom Bailey (1-1, 3.00) at Josh DeGraaf (2-1, 4.26)
Sunday: Dan Schmidt (1-2, 7.32) at Sean Guinard (0-1, 4.70)
SYDNEY (9-7) at MELBOURNE (11-5)
There's no doubt about it now: these are not your Aces of yore. The ABL's very own superteam hosts the second-place Blue Sox in the second consecutive matchup of first vs second this season. Sydney won last year's season series 7-5.
Power pitching is the not-so-secret reason why Melbourne made Canberra's hitters look doubtful at the dish last weekend. The Aces' team earned average of 2.71 is almost half that of the second-best team ERA (4.38, Adelaide), and their lone loss over their past eight games slipped away by one run. That loss snapped a club-record seven-game win streak. The last ABL team to win seven games in a row? The Bandits, en route to the Claxton Shield last season.
As great as the Aces have been, there's no reason to count out the Blue Sox. Their pitching has been dependable when needed, and though they overtook (undertook?) the Heat for worst team batting average this season (.243), they have scored the third-most runs (74) and have shown considerable late-inning punch with several walk-off wins. However, most of Sydney's magic this year came from home games; they're just 1-3 in four road games, played against Canberra.
Players to watch: Stone Garrett (SYD), Sven Schueller (SYD), Keisuke Honda (MEL), Jarryd Dale (MEL)
Series prediction: Aces win, 3-1
Reason: There's magic in Melbourne this season. Also Mark Hamburger has 24 strikeouts in 16 innings over his last two starts.
Friday: Trevor Foss (1-2, 4.76) at Mark Hamburger (3-0, 1.00)
Saturday, G1: Luke Wilkins (2-1, 1.40) at Keisuke Honda (3-0, 1.46)
Saturday, G2: Craig Anderson (3-0, 3.38) at Dushan Ruzic (1-1, 4.05)
Sunday: Chris Oxspring (0-1, 8.31) at Jon Kennedy (0-1, 5.52)
BRISBANE (7-9) at ADELAIDE (8-8)
Last year's ABLCS rematch comes to life this weekend in Adelaide, as the Bite host the Bandits. Not including the championship series, the Bandits took last year's season series 6-2.
Bite fans have had a lot to chew on so far this season. After a slow start to 2016/17, the Bite are 6-4 in their last 10 games, and have won two of their last three series. They're also now ranked second in the league in several major offensive and pitching categories, including team batting average (.266), runs scored (79), on base percentage (.352), and earned run average (4.38).
Whether or not the Bandits can get the ball to Ryan Searle will be an x-factor this weekend for the visiting side. After a rare rough outing in Perth, Searle rejuvenated with a weekend off at a mate's wedding and picked up two saves last weekend in Sydney, including a six-out, five-strikeout save in the series opener. He also has recent dominant history against the Bite, closing out both games of the 2015 ABLCS. If the Bandits can get and hold a late lead this weekend, and if they hand the ball to Searle, Vegas odds say Brisbane will win it. Getting there will be the important challenge.
Players to watch: Ryan Searle (BRI), David Sutherland (BRI), Loek Van Mil (ADE), Angus Roeger (ADE)
Series prediction: Bite sweep
Reason: Adelaide want revenge from last year's ABLCS. And they won their lone home series of the season, against the Aces. AND (bonus magic brownie points for this) they're hosting a promotion called Bogan Christmas one night. If that's not a recipe for victory, then I don't know what is.
Friday: Justin Erasmus (1-0, 3.26) at Steve Chambers (1-1, 3.63)
Saturday, G1: Rick Teasley (1-2, 6.20) at Taylor Hawkins (1-1, 8.62)
Saturday, G2: Dan Nilsson (0-1, 8.31) at Jack O'Loughlin (2-0, 2.04)
Sunday: Kramer Champlin (1-1, 4.56) at Nathaniel Roe (0-0, 0.00)