SYDNEY, NSW -- New Year, same baseball.
This weekend, four teams will play their first action of the 2017 part of the 2016/17 Australian Baseball League season, in a round that features rematches from Round 3 of this season. Though the races seem to have some distance, the reality is that all teams still have a shot at the three available playoff spots.
BRISBANE (11-13) at MELBOURNE (18-6)
Melbourne and Brisbane face off this weekend for the second time this season. The Bandits have had their way with the Aces in the past, but that hasn't been the case recently. The two teams played each other in Round 3, and the Aces came away with a historic series sweep.
Those four wins helped cement the ladder-leading Aces' place as the club to watch this year. The highlights of the series were plentiful and meaty, from Mark Hamburger's series-opening complete-game shutout to his exuberant tarp slide during a rain delay. Hamburger hasn't cooled off on the mound at all, and he's now part of a pitching staff that includes former World Series starter Jeremy Guthrie, who's made a strong impression in the ABL so far despite a mediocre first start in an Aces uniform.
The reigning champion Bandits enter the series still within reach of a playoff spot, sitting in fourth place, one game out of third and two back from second-place Canberra. And, though their pitching hasn't been the best, posting a league-worst 5.49 team ERA, the Bandits' hitting has improved since the beginning of the season, with a .278 team batting average that ranks second in the league. Brisbane have also scored the second-most runs of any club this year (130), and add MLB-calibre bat Trent Oeltjen to the roster this weekend, for reinforcements.
Two of the most star-studded teams in the league get a little bit studlier this weekend, with some Major League additions joining the rosters on both sides. These additions mean that the two sides have a combined nine players with MLB experience on their rosters.
Players to watch: Ryan Rowland-Smith (BRI), Trent Oeltjen (BRI), James Beresford (MEL), Daniel McGrath (MEL)
Series prediction: Series split, 2-2
Reason: Though the Aces are 10-2 at home, the Bandits are 6-6 on the road. This one's a shot in the dark.
Thursday: Jake Ezell (1-0, 2.25) at Mark Hamburger (4-0, 2.11)
Friday: Rick Teasley (2-3, 5.22) at Jeremy Guthrie (0-1, 4.50)
Saturday: Ryan Rowland-Smith (0-0, 0.00) at Jon Kennedy (2-1, 3.65)
Sunday: Justin Erasmus (1-0, 4.28) at Daniel McGrath (0-0, 0.00)
SYDNEY (10-14) at PERTH (8-16)
Two sides with strong playoff histories and recent struggles to reach the postseason rematch this weekend in Perth. Sydney won the two teams' Round 3 series 3-1, boosted by a series of strong pitching performances.
The Heat showed some pop late in last round's home series against the Cavalry, taking the first and final games of the four-game set. Recent Major Leaguer Warwick Saupold joined the bullpen and made an impression in his first weekend back, assisting a staff that has a fifth-ranked 5.09 team ERA. An interesting note for the Heat this weekend is the return of legendary lefty Dan Schmidt to the roster. Though typically a starter and not listed as one of Perth's probables, Schmidt's arm can lend a level of depth to the Heat bullpen, and give solid support to a starter in trouble.
However, the other unfortunate reality of this weekend's matchup between Sydney and Perth is that they sit fifth and six on the league rankings in both batting average and runs scored. Despite walking a league-best 108 times, Sydney have a league-worst .242 team batting average, and have scored a measly 97 runs (5th) in 24 games. Perth haven't fared much better in either category, hitting .250 (5th) and scoring 88 runs (6th). The Blue Sox potential saving grace is the fact that the team's pitching staff hasn't been that bad by comparison, posting a 4.36 team ERA that ranks second in the league.
Players to watch: Trent D'Antonio (SYD), Tucker Neuhaus (SYD), Tim Kennelly (PER), Lex Rutledge (PER)
Series prediction: Series split, 2-2
Reason: The Heat are just 5-7 at home this season, the Blue Sox have a 2-8 road record.
Thursday: Trevor Foss (1-2, 3.28) at Conor Lourey (1-1, 3.44)
Friday: Craig Anderson (4-1, 3.73) at Tom Bailey (1-3, 4.25)
Saturday: Luke Wilkins (2-2, 2.72) at Mike Lee (0-4, 6.43)
Sunday: Chris Oxspring (0-2. 8.00) at Nick Veale(1-3, 7.01)
CANBERRA (13-11) at ADELAIDE (12-12)
Though few games separate places two-four on the league ladder, right now the key battle for second place will play out in Adelaide this weekend, as the third-place Bite host the second-place Cavalry. Canberra hosted Adelaide back in Round 3, and won the series 3-1.
This weekend will be a Battle of the Bats in a state where baseballs tend to fly over the fences. The Bite and Cavalry rank first and second in the league in most major offensive categories, and both respective offences have shown a propensity for the dramatic - be it home runs, late-inning comebacks, or double-digit run totals.
In terms of offensive production, Adelaide have transformed from one of the worst teams in the league to one of the best. They've scored a league-high 131 runs as a team, a total that saw some major additions in last weekend's high-scoring series in Brisbane. The Bite also rank second in the league in home runs (21), and have the two men at the top of the individual leaderboard on their roster.
As they've been all season, the Cavalry are the most dangerous team in the batter's box, with a .296 team batting average and 24 team-slugged home runs. Canberra's pitching has also improved since the beginning of the season, now ranking third in team ERA (4.37), and getting strong performances from pitchers like Louis Cohen, whose outing last weekend earned him an award, and the duo of starter Sean Guinard and reliever Andrew Case, who combined for a seven-inning complete-game shutout in Round 6.
Players to watch: Boss Moanaroa (CAN), David Kandilas (CAN), LeDarious Clark (ADE), Marcus Greene, Jr. (ADE)
Series prediction: Bite win, 3-1
Reason: Logic. The Bite have been good at home, the Cavalry have struggled on the road.
Friday: Josh DeGraaf (2-2, 4.08) at Jack O'Loughlin (2-2, 3.20)
Saturday, G1: Sean Guinard (2-1, 2.63) at Zach Cooper (0-0, 0.00)
Saturday, G2: Louis Cohen (1-0, 0.98) at Steven Chambers (1-2, 5.76)
Sunday: Scott Cone (0-2, 7.71) at Sean Callegari (0-1, 21.00)