Thursday, March 1, 2012

2/11/12 Melbourne Aces 3, Perth Heat 2

Barbagallo Ballpark, Perth, Australia
Australian Baseball League Championship Series Game 2
(Perth leads the series 1-0)

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!!

Still on a buzz from Game 1, I’m ready for more of this great ABL stuff as the Aces collect their baseball wits and try to come back against the Heat to even up the series and stay in it for the Shield. Dubuque, Iowa native Nic Ungs starts for Melbourne against Queensland, Australia native Warwick Saupold, both of whom have great baseball names. But the hands down winner in this category is neither. The definitive winner, and after this game, suddenly one of my favorite pitchers in baseball, is none other than Bubbie Buzachero.

Nic Ungs is a veteran Minor Leaguer, with 10 seasons of work for the Marlins and Brewers organizations (no MLB experience), who spent last season with the Somerset Patriots of the Independent Atlantic League (the very same league where Michael Schlact, ABLCS Game 1 stud Virgil Vasquez, and the aforementioned Buzachero all pitched last year). Ungs is a “pitch to contact” guy. He doesn’t throw with fire (he sits at 80-85 mph, touching 87 only occasionally), or possess any inordinate nasty stuff (his predominant pitch is a sinker)…he throws strikes, and throws them well. For a right-handed pitcher, he has an excellent pick-off move, the kind that would even make lefties blush with envy.

Warwick Saupold, on the other hand, has only pitched in the ABL during his career, and was only 21 in 2011. Saupold’s payoff pitch seems to be the well-located 2-seam fastball (sitting at 90-91 mph), with an occasional 73-76 mph Curve.

Hijinks ensue almost right away, as Melbourne 3B Scott Wearne has a rough defensive inning, charged with 2 errors in the 2nd. Wearne is another Australian native with only 1 season of indie ball experience under his belt in 2010, to be fair he flashed some great glove work in the game despite this inning, and the Heat fail to capitalize on the affair, with the game staying scoreless until the 5th.

I forged a slight disagreement with the Official Scorer on one of the Wearne error plays, Perth DH Dylan Jones placed a hard-hit dribbler in Wearne’s direction and reached 1B on the charge, reached 2B on a bad throw by Wearne. The Scorer charged Wearne with the throwing error (which I agree with), but didn’t credit Jones with a base hit. Wearne had no play at all, I’ve watched the tape several times, and I stand by my initial ruling…no play, Jones reaches 1B on a single, and reaches 2B on the error throw.

In the 5th, the Heat strike first when lead-off man Mychal Givens (an Orioles farmhand for the last 2 seasons) reaches on a double, advances on a SAC bunt by Brenden Webb, and scores on a SAC fly by Tim Kennelly. The small-ball barrage on Ungs continues when Allan de San Miguel doubles and SS Mitch Graham reaches first on a bloop single to left-center, scoring de San Miguel. Aces Manager and Australian Baseball legend Phil Dale gives Ungs the hook in favor of RHP Bubbie Buzachero, who retires James McOwen on a grounder to 2B to end the inning.

From the moment I see Bubbie on the mound, I know this guy is going to be something special; with his errant, free-flowing mullet, flat-brim cap pulled down to obscure his eyebrows in shadows, leaving only his cold, argumentative stare…socks strikingly visible, and a set of ink on his arm that would make Kyle Farnsworth smile.When his name comes up, that pretty much seals the deal. My first thought is “what a great baseball name, and he really looks like a Bubbie Buzachero.” Once he starts throwing, I find myself particularly enthralled by this enigmatic pitcher. Immediate memories of the most entertaining pitcher in MLB history, Mitch Williams, start raging through my consciousness. Not just in his form, one of unkept aggression and sinister pin-point control, but also in his occasional violent backlash from his arsenal of pitches, sometimes throwing himself into a crouch over the mound.

Bubbie was born in Livingston, TN as Edward Dale Buzachero, but don’t call him that. Legend has it that his sister gave him the nickname, but in baseball mythology one can only speculate on how many other permutations of the origin might possibly exist. Beyond mythology, know ye this: Buzachero was drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays in the 23rd round of the 2002 draft and spent 4 seasons in that organization before heading to the Cleveland Indians in 2006, splitting 146 games between AA Akron and AAA Buffalo from 2006-2008. In 2009 he spent some time as a Long Island Duck in the Independent Atlantic League and eventually returned to the Toronto system. 2010 found Buzachero starting out in the Houston Astros system, before finishing that season as a Blue Jay farmhand once again. In 2011, Buzachero returned to the Long Island Ducks’ roster, appearing in 52 games and finishing the season with a 7-2 record, 3.26 ERA, and admirable 1.190 WHIP and 6.1 SO/9. This is his first season in the Australian Baseball League, and the fans down there can’t get enough of him.Aside from his cold stare and aggro mound presence attack, Bubbie’s pitching arsenal is very mixed and effective. His slider has a great deal of nasty, ranging from 77-84 mph; on the lower speed end batters swing helplessly as the ball breaks down and away, at higher speeds, batters pop up sky high. His devastating change-up sits at about 75-78 mph (including his quasi-trademark “knuckle curve,” as described by commentators Warren Smith and Jon Deeble), his curve ball is a thing of true beauty and his sneak-attack fastball (sitting at 89-91 mph) is an effective part of his portfolio that adds to the bewilderment of opposing batters. Buzachero can mix these up in deadly fashion, I assure you that every pitch is as exciting to watch as the last one.

The decision by Dale to bring in Bubbie is an effective one; Buzachero handcuffs the Heat for 3.1 innings and along with his defensive backup, keeps things under control. Buzachero does his part for defense as well…In the kookiest play during the series so far, as Matt Kennelly lines out into a double-play that is more accurately scored as “Buzachero’s shoulder > Ramos”…the line shot bounces high and wide off of Bubbie’s shoulder, into the glove of Ramos, who steps on the bag at 2B for the second out.

Melbourne responds to the Heat’s 5th inning strike by capitalizing on a throwing error by Perth 3B Tim Kennelly to his brother 1B Matt Kennelly, allowing Melbourne 1B Josh Davies to reach safely. Saupold is unable to keep the Aces from advancing Davies one batter at a time, and he scores on a 2-out line drive single to left-center by Justin Huber, allowing Davies and SS Dominic Ramos to score, both unearned runs for Saupold.

Huber is one of two MLB veterans in the Aces’ lineup…the Melbourne native spent 2001-2004 as a New York Mets prospect, then 2005-2007 as a Royals farmhand before spending a season each with the San Diego and Minnesota organizations. Huber never saw any MLB experience with the Mets, but played in 38 games with the Royals, 33 games for the Padres, and a single game for the Twins. Justin was on the Hiroshima Carp roster in NPB during 2010, and spent 2011 as a Somerset Patriot, along with Nic Ungs. This RBI single was Huber’s first and only hit in the series.

NOW we’ve got us a baseball game!!

Saupold faces 2 batters to start the bottom of the 6th, after Royals farmhand Kevin David singles to lead-off, he is advanced by DH Joshua Hendricks on a SAC bunt and Saupold is yanked by manager Brooke Knight in favor of Perth native RHP Cameron Lamb. Lamb has spent 4 seasons with the San Francisco Giants organization (missing the entire 2008 season) and utilizes a treacherous mix of a 90-94 mph FB with aggressive movment, and an 84-85 mph slider that sometimes translates into a sinker-slider at higher speeds. Lamb throws 3.2 scoreless innings.

Meanwhile, Buzachero is in the game until the bottom of the 9th, game still tied, with the 8,9, and 1 hitters due up. Manager Phil Dale gives the ball to side-armer Andrew Russell, and Buzachero is demonstratively livid, animatedly arguing with Dale to no avail, and returns to the dugout, throwing his glove in disgust. As this occurs, I am throwing stuff around as well…I really wanted Bubbie to stay in! With only 1 hit allowed and only having thrown 48 pitches, he seemed prime and ready to go. Smith and Deeble assert all of us that this is necessary on Dale’s part for strategic purposes. Bubbie was hot tonight, if Dale hopes to win this game and force a 3rd game, he’ll want Buzachero available for that game…if he works anymore tonight, Dale won’t have that option. OK, I settle down, and a few minutes later Bubbie is seen cooling down in the dugout, so everything is fine.

Russell does his job with a great sinking fastball and an occasional curve (that is occasionally a little wild). The 9th ends, still tied at 2-2 and we are headed for extra-innings!!! The joy of this series just got more joyous, Bonus Baseball RULES!!

Lambs stays in for the 10th, 2 of the 3 hits he allows happen in this inning but he manages to stave off the Aces’ threat. In the 11th, Lamb is replaced by side-armer Benn Grice (from parts unknown, whose sole experience is 2 seasons in ABL) who pitches 2 beautiful innings. In the top of the 13th, Grice allows Davies to reach on a base hit to lead off, Davies eventually scores on a double (my ruling, not the Official Scorer’s) by Brad Harman and the Aces have the advantage. “Haahhhman” (hat tip to the Aussie commentators!), is the other MLB veteran in the Aces’ lineup and like Huber, is also a native of Melbourne and has spent his entire Minor League career in the Phillies organization (2004-2009). His cup of coffee stint with the MLB Phillies occurred in 2008, appearing in 6 games towards the end of the season. This is his first season in ABL; he picked up his offense a little bit in this game (2-for-5 with this key RBI). Grice’s adversary during these 3 innings two innings is Kevin Reese, who pitched one inning in yesterday’s game. Harman lends some great defensive assistance in robbing de San Miguel of a sure-thing chopper base hit to start the bottom of the 13th. Subsequently, Reese cruises through to end the 13th inning, allowing 3 hits and fanning 2, and the Aces win the game 3-2.

I shined out Heat SS Mitch Graham for his defensive plus to their roster in my post on Game 1, I only thought it would be fair to mention Aces SS Dominic Ramos, who is nearly as good at what he does. Ramos is from Texas and spent 2 seasons in the Boston Red Sox organization before starting a lengthy trek in Independent Baseball; in 2007 he was on the Worcester Tornadoes roster, from 2008-2011 he played for the Brockton Rox, both teams of the Canadian-American Association. Another hat-tip goes out to Heat LF Corey Adamson, son of Australian Baseball star Tony Adamson, as he slid straight into the left-field chain-link wall to steal complete extra bases from Justin Huber.

The game was called by Warren Smith and Australian National Baseball Team Manager Jon Deeble for Fox Australia, their accents are really growing on me now…so much that I fear I may campaign MLB Network for Australian SAP on their broadcasts!! I don’t know what the deal is with the microphones they use, but check out these screenshots of an in-the-booth interview with Game 1 winner Virgil Vasquez. Maybe I’m just not up on the new microphone technology, but from what I saw here, you have to press the plastic piece on top of the mike against your upper lip when you speak into it. Amazing stuff, I guess.

2 games down, the series is tied, and so far the score is:
1 complete game victory
1 mayhemic extra-innings contest
9 fantastic pitchers, including 1 extra-special fantastic pitcher who is a great deal of fun to watch

I’m hoping Phil Dale does bring Buzachero back, I’d hate to think that this would be the last I’d see of him for a while!!

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

You can also follow Bubbie on twitter (@bbuzachero) or visit his fun website, Bubbie Buzachero International Baseball to find out more about him and where his interesting career will take him next.

If you enjoy my work, I encourage you to spread the word via Twitter
(I am @yoshiki89), and also please leave a comment!

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