Wednesday, February 29, 2012

2/10/12 Melbourne Aces 1, Perth Heat 4

Barbagallo Ballpark, Perth, Australia
Australian Baseball League Championship Series Game 1
(Best of 3 game series)

Outside of Peter Moylan and his ilk, Australian Baseball was an unbelievably unknown element to me and what I thought was my better-than-typical focus on International Baseball. My first real exposure to the Australian Baseball League was the ABL All-Star game aired on MLB Network late last year; having been completely overjoyed to find something new and exciting in the Baseball world such as this, I was sure to have this Championship Series in my DVR queue once I found out about it. I was certainly universally less than disappointed; as the All-Star game was a source of joy, this series was a source of pure elation.

Three key items of note permeated this magnificent off-season spectacle: Amazingly good pitching, wonderfully coy announcers with brilliant and crisp Australian accents, and a bevy of formidable talent the likes of which you may recognize in some faces and which you may never have known about before this event. Besides that, squirmy baseball fans such as myself were treated to extra-innings mayhem, the successful movement of baserunners when most appropriate, the dramatic and sometimes critically sorrowful pitching changes by managers who knew what they were doing as well as should have known better, and the emotional call and response of costly errors, with offensive and defensive response to those errors.

This is Tournament Baseball without the hype, playoff action without the glam, and focused Minor League-plus competition at its finest. By comparison, this series makes the AAA PCL-IL 1-game championship playoff look like a Little League intra-squad scrimmage. I mean it. This is a very big stage for these players; regardless of what you may think, most of them aren’t even Australian…some have Minor League contracts, some had Major League contracts at one time, some are only recently removed from successful stints in Independent League as well as other International Baseball Leagues. They know that no matter what their current contract status, their performance right here, right now, in the Western Australian sun, is being watched by millions of fans, writers, front office people, and a handful of others who can alter their professional baseball careers with a pen or a phone call. This did happen to at least one player, immediately following one of these games. They know the stakes here…the Claxton Shield, yes…but beyond that, they know what this series can mean to them, and they are legitimately executing every play as if they understand.

The Australian Baseball League is comprised of 6 teams and plays a short season schedule of 45 games. The League in its current format is, not surprisingly, part of a joint venture between the Australian Baseball Federation, the Australian Federal Government, and Major League Baseball (the latter of which owns a 75% share…again, shouldn’t be a surprise to find that out). There was an ABL that existed from 1989-1999, but the current league has been around since 2009…what both versions have in common is, among other things, the prized Claxton Shield, the award that goes to the victor of the annual Championship Series. This is the second ABLCS, the first was won by the Perth Heat 2-1 against the Adelaide Bite. This year, the Heat return to face the Melbourne Aces (who finished 13 games behind the Heat in the regular season). The Perth Heat are the only team located in Western Australia, the other 5 teams are located largely around the Central-to-Southeastern coast. Perth claimed the right to play the series at their home park, known today as Barbagallo Ballpark (also known as, blah, Baseball Park).

Here, I am presenting all 3 games with my scoresheets. You’ll see more of an emphasis on the pitchers and their pitches in some of these posts than you may be accustomed to…after all, as I wrote earlier, this series was all about pitching, and damn excellent pitching to top it off. I’m also a sucker for the metric system!!

Right off the bat, I’m recognizing the starting pitcher for the Perth Heat. Virgil Vasquez? Oh yeah! He was the winning pitcher for the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs in relief of Michael Schlact, in this rain-shortened game, which was my first Indie Ball game posted on this blog.Vasquez (a native of Santa Barbara, CA) started a handful of games for the Tigers in 2007 and the Pirates in 2009, but never really stuck with either club at the Major League level, instead spending most of his time in the minors (DET 6 seasons, PIT 1 season, TBR 1 season) before taking his craft to the Blue Crabs, finishing the 2011 season with a 1.224 WHIP, 5.2 SO/9, 8-6 record and a 4.25 ERA. Needless to say, if Vasquez was working towards a career game to remember, this one certainly would be it.

Vasquez faces Travis Blackley, who is Australian, and has spent several years in the minors from 2001-2010 with the Mariners, the Giants, the Phillies, the Diamondbacks, the A’s, and the Mets…but has never pitched in the Major Leagues. His only work in 2011 was for ABL as a member of the Melbourne Aces, he went 1-0 with a 3.55 ERA in 8 games and 12.2 IP, his first start for the Aces was in the first round of Postseason play, a no decision for Blackley.

Blackley started strong, and stayed strong for most of his innings, but a series of small-ball offense by the Heat in the very first inning found the Aces behind by one. In response, Aces Catcher Kevin David (from Baton Rouge, LA, currently active in the Royals organization with a .617 OPS in Kane County last year) rips a 2-out HR to even the score.

This would be the only run allowed by Vasquez in the game.

In the 4th inning, 2011’s ABLCS MVP James McOwen (a Florida native in the Mariners’ system from 2007-2009 and 2011, no MLB appearances) launches a solo shot to lead-off and the game is locked at 2-1 in favor of the Heat until they score two more times in the 6th and 7th innings against Blackley. After 7 innings, no BB, 1 HB and 5 strikeouts, Blackley is replaced by Kevin Reese, who only allows 1 hit in his one inning of work.

Vasquez, on the other hand, cruises through 9 innings, pitching a complete game of 1 run baseball, with no BB and 8 strikeouts. Neither staff walks anybody, that’s how crazy good the pitching was. Vasquez throws 122 pitches in this outing, and shows his best stuff in his last 3 innings of work, striking out 4, 2 groundouts and 3 flyouts. He was breath-taking, never making his outing look as easy as he made it look brutally calculated and well-executed, with some ultra-formidable help from his team-mates…

The Heat defense really showed their stuff; I don’t think I’ve seen a shortstop in the minor leagues that has the kind of smack that Mitch Graham does. Graham is a native of Perth, who spent 2004 with the Phillies organization in the GCL before losing time due to injury. He resurfaced in 2009 with the Edmonton Capitals of the Independent Golden Baseball league. Besides ABL work, he played for the Dutch Major League Almere Magpies in 2010. Why he isn’t on a minor league roster with a ticket to the big leagues now, I really have no idea…Graham handles those kooky sinker-baller-high-choppers as good as anyone in the minors or majors I’ve ever seen. His G6-3 partner in the infield, fellow Western Australian native Allan de San Miguel, has been a Twins farmhand since 2005, on the New Britain Rock Cats roster in 2011 with a less-than-impressive .190/.244/.238 and .483 OBP for the season. His impressive dig and tag of a rushed grounder to 3B Tim Kennelly was a delicious defensive highlight.

The Heat lock down the first game of the series strongly, and I’m locked into what is probably the most exciting baseball I’ve seen in the offseason. I can’t wait for this series to continue, total hat-tip to MLB Network for bringing this my way!!

The game was called by Warren Smith and Australian National Baseball Team Manager Jon Deeble for Fox Australia, their accents are so kool I had to watch Mad Max with the Aussie soundtrack on afterwards, just for kicks. Deeble, by the way, was a pitcher in the original ABL and was a Minor League Manager for the Marlins and Red Sox systems. He was third base coach for the 2005 Red Sox and is currently their coordinator of scouting for the Pacific Rim region. He’s noted mostly for his signings of Daisuke Matsuzaka and Hideki Okajima, as well as lots of Australian talent.

Do you want to know more about the Australian Baseball League? Of course you do, if there’s one takeaway I would request if you’re reading this it would be for you to want to know more. Head on over to the Official Site of the ABL where there is a lot more information, including the ripping History section, where you can read about Australia’s Baseball beginnings, previous domestic leagues and competitions, international successes, and a lot more. You can also follow the league on twitter: @ABLeague

UPDATE: Immediately following the game Travis Blackley gets a phone call from the Giants and signs a deal to return to their system in 2012.

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