SYDNEY, NSW -- If it didn't matter before, it sure does now.
The 2016/17 Australian Baseball League season officially enters its second half this weekend, and the Jet Couriers Melbourne Aces hold on to a commanding four-game lead at the top of the ladder, while just one game separate second-place Canberra and third-place Adelaide.
The matchups for this weekend are nearly identical to those right before the All-Star break, except with the series locations swapped.
ADELAIDE (10-10) at BRISBANE (9-11)
A literal rematch of last season's championship series takes the field at AFA Stadium at Holloway Field this weekend, as the fourth-place Bandits host the third-place Bite. The two teams faced off at Adelaide Shores Baseball Complex in Round 5, splitting the series 2-2.
The Bite and the Bandits have built a rivalry over the past few years, exchanging players and facing off in some pretty serious games of value, most notably the 2016 ABLCS. I could wax poetic about the ABLCS, the various intricacies of Adelaide rostering and nurturing Queensland-born talent (see: Corey Lyon and Dan Nilsson, for example), but I'd rather use this space for the series finale, namely the pitching matchup.
It's scheduled to be Nilsson against young Bite southpaw Jack O'Loughlin, in a rematch of Game 3 of Round 5. Nilsson, who began his ABL career with the Bite last year, tossed five hitless innings against his former club en route to the win. Meanwhile, O'Loughlin's performance wasn't too shabby either, and he allowed one run on four hits in five innings, striking out five batters while walking one. On any given day when your opponent doesn't hold your offence hitless, that pitching line is accompanied by a "W" instead of an "L". Both pitchers deserved to win that game, and it will be interesting to see how they fare in Brisbane.
No matter what happens in the first three games of the series, it will climax on Sunday afternoon.
Players to watch: Jack O'Loughlin (ADE), Angus Roeger (ADE), Dan Nilsson (BRI), Donald Lutz (BRI)
Series prediction: Series split, 2-2
Reason: Last round was very close, very back-and-forth. Like watching a tennis match, or chilling out in a rocking chair.
Thursday: Max MacNabb (2-0, 1.54) at Zac Treece (1-1, 10.80)
Friday: Taylor Hawkins (2-1, 7.84) at Kramer Champlin (1-2, 5.67)
Saturday, G1: Steven Chambers (1-2, 4.03) at Justin Erasmus (1-0, 3.86)
Saturday, G2: Jack O'Loughlin (2-1, 1.99) at Dan Nilsson (1-1, 6.00)
MELBOURNE (15-5) at SYDNEY (9-11)
Melbourne lost one of their All-Star superstuds, but gained an arsenal of pitching arms. Sydney need a rebound weekend after being swept by the Aces in Round 5. The matchup shifts to New South Wales this weekend.
The Aces' already-prolific pitching staff receives a double-shot boost of MLB power, with the additions of Aussie veteran Peter Moylan and ASG-debutee Jeremy Guthrie. Guthrie started the ASG last week for the World All-Stars, and needed just six pitches (all strikes) to retire the Team Australia side in the bottom of the first inning. Moylan only has one inning of ABL play under his belt, tossing a shutout frame for the Aces last January.
Melbourne still lead the league with a minuscule 2.47 team ERA, and rank second in team batting average (.266). In the meantime, the Blue Sox fell to last place in the league, hitting .237 as a team in 20 games this season. However, not every Sydney at bat has been bad this season: they lead the ABL in walks (99) by more than 20 over the second team, and are second with a team .347 on base percentage. The Aces' lineup will suffer from the loss of Atlanta Braves prospect Ronald Acuna. No team is defined by one player, but it will be interesting to see how Aces' manager Jon Deeble plugs the Acuna-sized hole in his lineup, and how Jason Pospishil and the Blue Sox attempt to capitalise on it.
Players to watch: Darryl George (MEL), Jeremy Guthrie (MEL), Todd Van Steensel (SYD), Josh Dean (SYD)
Series prediction: Aces win, 3-1
Reason: Mars looks bright tonight (anybody got a telescope to verify?), and I have a hunch the Sox (and their 8-4 home record this season) will win one game. Other than that, it's all about that Ace.
Thursday: Mark Hamburger (3-0, 1.82) at Trevor Foss (1-2, 3.94)
Friday: Jeremy Guthrie (0-0, 0.00) at Luke Wilkins (2-2, 2.97)
Saturday: Dushan Ruzic (2-1, 3.00) at Craig Anderson (3-1, 4.44)
Sunday: Jon Kennedy (1-1, 4.12) at TBA
CANBERRA (11-9) at PERTH (6-14)
The Cavalry charged to a 3-1 series win over the Heat in Round 5, and the series shifts west this weekend for four games in Perth.
Canberra's offence has been so good this season, it's almost offensive. The capital city residents continue to get on base and score runs at a rate far above any other team in the ABL this season, and out-scored Perth 21-14 in Round 5. The Cavalry are hitting a league-leading .301 as a club on the year, and also lead in runs (108), home runs (21), on base percentage (.374) and slugging percentage (.461).
The Heat and their league-worst 5.21 team ERA will be reinforced this round by Major Leaguer Warwick Saupold, who joins the team for Round 6 as promised at the beginning of the year. Saupold made his MLB debut for the Detroit Tigers earlier this year, and has a 3.23 ERA while pitching in parts of every ABL season so far.
If first-year Perth manager Matt Kennelly can inspire more punch out of his offence and piggy back off of a successful outing or two from Saupold, the Heat may be able to drum up enough mojo for a series split. If not, the weekend will be all Cavalry, to Canberra and back.
Players to watch: DJ Davis (CAN), Mike Reeves (CAN), Conor Lourey (PER), Tim Kennelly (PER)
Series prediction: Cavalry win, 3-1
Reason: It'll be a repeat of last weekend, except in the west.
Thursday: Josh DeGraaf (2-1, 4.13) at Conor Lourey (1-1, 3.21)
Friday: Louis Cohen (0-0, 1.59) at Tom Bailey (1-2, 3.99)
Saturday, G1: Sean Guinard (1-1, 3.22) at Mike Lee (0-3, 6.35)
Saturday, G2: Scott Cone (0-1, 7.47) at Nick Veale (0-3, 7.40)