SYDNEY, NSW -- By Sunday, the 2017 Claxton Shield Champion will be crowned.
The Jet Couriers Melbourne Aces host the Brisbane Bandits, proudly presented by WellDog, in the Australian Baseball League Championship Series presented by Boral this weekend at Melbourne Ballpark. Game 1 is scheduled for Friday, 10 February at 7:30pm AEDT, followed by a 6:30pm AEDT start the next night for Game 2. If necessary, Game 3 is scheduled for Sunday, 12 February at 2:30pm AEDT.
The matchup represents a rematch of the 2006 Claxton Shield Grand Final, which the Queenslanders won 8-7 in an epic clash that featured several members of the current squads, including Peter Moylan (VIC), Brad Harman (VIC), and David Sutherland (QLD). It's Brisbane's second-straight ABLCS appearance, and Melbourne's first direct fight for the title since falling to Perth in the 2012 ABLCS.
ABLCS: MELBOURNE (26-14) vs. BRISBANE (21-18)
The Aces and Bandits clash in the postseason for the first time in the history of the modern ABL this weekend. Both teams make their second ABLCS appearances. Overall, Brisbane have a 2-0 game record and 1-0 series record in the modern ABL postseason, and Melbourne are 5-9 in individual postseason games and 1-2 in playoff series.
Melbourne and Brisbane faced off eight times during the 2016/17 regular season, with the Aces winning the season series 7-1. The Aces swept the Bandits in Brisbane in Round 3, in a series that saw skateboarding starting pitcher and ABLCS Game 1 probable starter Mark Hamburger toss a complete-game shutout in the series opener. Later in the year, Melbourne won the two teams' four-game set at Melbourne Ballpark in Round 7 by a 3-1 series mark. However, Brisbane tagged Aces' pitchers for 19 runs in their lone win of the series, a 19-4 victory in the third game of the set. That run total was the second-highest in the ABL this season, behind the Cavalry's 21-run effort against the Blue Sox on 27 November.
Despite the series results, the head-to-head numbers are a lot closer than one might expect. Brisbane's pitchers posted a 5.92 ERA in those eight games, and their hitters batted .276 against Melbourne pitchers. The Aces' pitching staff had a 4.76 ERA against the Bandits, and hit .297 as a team against Brisbane's pitching corps. Melbourne out-scored Brisbane by just nine runs (46-37) in the eight games combined, and both teams' respective head-to-head ERAs are well above their season averages.
Given the above, this matchup also brings to light the age-old baseball debate of which matters more: good pitching or good offence? And after those two categories, where does good defence factor?
Melbourne boast one of the best pitching staffs in the ABL in several years, reminiscent of Brisbane's fearsome rotation and bullpen combo last year. Former Major Leaguer Hamburger lost just once this year, against the Heat in Round 10, and struck out double-digit batters in five of his 10 starts on the season.
Despite losing Keisuke Honda (4-0, 1.21) earlier in the year, the Aces still led the league with a 3.23 team ERA. The next-closest side was Adelaide (3.90), and Brisbane ranked last in the league in the category, with a 5.10 mark that ranks as the worst team ERA since the Aces' 5.16 team figure in the 2012/13 season. The Aces also tied for the fewest walks allowed (119) and led the lead in strikeouts (314). Though not slated to start in the series this weekend, Dushan Ruzic was also a key part of the Aces' rotation, posting a 4-2 record and 2.96 ERA that ranked third in the league in the regular season.
Brisbane counter Melbourne's mound magic with a starting nine that developed into the best and most prolific offence in the league. The Bandits scored the most runs (234), hit the most home runs (42), and had the best on-base percentage (.349) of any ABL club this season. They also posted a .283 overall team batting average, tying the Cavalry for the league lead, and hit a league-leading .283 with runners in scoring position.
Second-year Bandits player Aaron Whitefield blossomed in the top spot in the order, hitting .338 (second) while leading the league in steals (20), hits (53), and runs scored (34). Tampa Bay Rays prospect David Rodriguez is another intriguing factor at the plate for Brisbane. He enters the ABLCS as one of the hottest hitters in the professional baseball world right now, hitting safely in every ABL game he's appeared in, a streak of 22 games that stretches from his first ABL at bat on 29 December to the final game of the ABLPF last Sunday. On the other hand, Melbourne ranked fourth in the league with a .253 team batting average, and third overall by hitting .253 with runners in scoring position.
Pitching and hitting aside, Brisbane were also the best defensive team in 2016/17 season, with a league-leading .980 fielding percentage and the fewest team errors (27). Melbourne ranked fourth with a .970 fielding percentage and 43 errors. However, the Aces have an advantage in an area of the defensive game where the Bandits struggled. Melbourne catcher and Team Australia stalwart Allan de San Miguel led a Melbourne catching corps that had the second-fewest passed balls (3) and threw out 41.9 percent of would-be base stealers. Brisbane's numbers in the same categories are significantly weaker, ranking fifth in both passed balls (seven) and caught stealing percentage (22.2 percent).
Numbers aside, there's another factor to take a look at here, and that's the intangible touchstone of team momentum. Though the Aces were the near-perfect Minor Premiers for most of the season, the regular season champs ended the year on a bit of a cold stretch, gong just 3-7 in their final 10 games of the regular season.
However, the Bandits are hotter than the summer sand in Queensland right now. They went 8-2 in their final regular season games, and are 10-3 in their last 13 matches including the Preliminary Final. They also just scored 18 runs against a fairly formidable Bite team last Sunday. The Bandits want the Claxton Shield to stay in Brisbane, and they've already proven this postseason that they'll fight tooth and nail for it.
According to the ABL's Andrew Reynolds, the winner of the first game of a three-game series are 10-4 in series all-time. What does that mean for this weekend's series? Hot, cold or lukewarm and drinkable, the winner of Game 1 will win the series, bet my bottom dollar.
Probable starters (regular season record and ERA in parentheses)
Friday: Justin Erasmus (3-1, 4.89) at Mark Hamburger (5-1, 1.90)
Saturday: Kramer Champlin (2-4, 4.37) at Josh Tols (3-2, 0.91)
*Sunday: Rick Teasley (3-3, 5.12) at Virgil Vasquez (3-1, 3.10)
Players to watch: Trent Oeltjen (BRI), Aaron Whitefield (BRI), Mitch Nilsson (BRI), Mark Hamburger (MEL), Roman Collins (MEL), Ryan Dale (MEL)
Series prediction: Aces win, 2-0
Reason: This reason hinges on my belief that Hamburger will lead the Aces to a Game 1 win.