Tuesday, March 6, 2012

2/12/12 Melbourne Aces 6, Perth Heat 7

Barbagallo Ballpark, Perth, Australia
Australian Baseball League Championship Series Game 3
(Series tied 1-1)

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!!

Two games down, and I am on a veritable International Baseball high. Proper pitching in the Perth Heat’s victory in Game 1, followed by extra-innings mayhem and my first look at a fantastic pitcher with charisma, character, and great stuff in the Melbourne Aces’ victory in Game 2. Today is the rubber match, to the victor goes the Claxton Shield and while I thought, at first, that Perth would take the championship, I’m now rooting for the Melbourne team after their comeback triumph yesterday.

On the mound for the Aces today is Jeff Jamnik, who famously won (or lost?) a “best mullet contest” to none other than my hero from Game 2, mister Bubbie Buzachero earlier in the season, this is why his previously wicked mullet-ified locks in this photo: are now shorn, yielding a much-cleaner look for Jamnik, but with the same ol’ nastiness in his pitching:

His opponent is yet another surprise for me, none other than Geoff Brown starting for the Heat. If you don’t remember Geoff, he was a 23rd round pick for the Kansas City Royals during the 2007 Draft. Brown didn’t sign with the Royals, choosing instead to stay near his home and pitch for the Washington University Huskies. Brown was un-dazzling in his 4-year stint there, compiling an 8-19 record in 94 games (25 starts), with an ERA of 5.53 and a gruesome opponent BA of .298; his work with the Heat this season is his first venture into professional baseball. His work in this game is rather short, yet brutal.

Brown lives on his fastball, sitting between 86-90 mph only touching 90 a few times. He used his curve quite a bit, but his accuracy with this pitch caused him to walk a few folks. As far as the Aces were concerned, they loved his fastball just as much as he did. Brown faced 14 batters in 1.2 innings of work, struggling to record outs, and was mercifully lifted after giving up 5 runs (4 earned) on 5 hits and no punchouts.

One of these hits was good news for Perth CF Elliot Biddle, who emerged from his offensive silence in the series with a bases-clearing triple in the first inning that put the Heat on the board. Biddle hails from Victoria, Australia; other than 3 games for the GCL Twins (as a pitcher) in 2008, his only professional baseball experience is 2 seasons in the ABL, including the current season.

Brown’s replacement is Jacob Clem, another native of Washington State, whose only professional baseball experience is also this season in ABL. Clem is a klassic “sinker slider guy,” according to Jon Deeble, with “3-quarter side-arm action,” according to Warren Smith. I love side-arm pitchers; Clem wields a curiously formidable fastball, with 86-90 mph velocity (including a nasty 86-87 mph sinking fastball) plus a 70-74 mph Curve and a 72 mph changeup, used sparingly. Clem stays in through the 8th inning, with his only damage being a single run on 4 hits.

Jeff Jamnik, by comparison, fared much better than Brown but still wasn’t able to handcuff the Heat effectively. The Arlington, TX native has worked exclusively in Independent League Baseball from 2008-2010, this is his second season with the Aces in the ABL. Jamnik fits the mold of ABL pitchers as a Fastball/Curve/Changeup pitcher; his FB sits at 86-91 with an 83 mph Slider, wicked 73-77 mph breaking curve and a pitch-to-contact changeup that doesn’t fool as many batters as it does send balls lazily into the air, turning them into gravy for outfielders. Jamnik doesn’t go the distance, only working 4 innings and allowing 5 earned runs on 8 hits, including a 1st inning 2-run HR by Allen de San Miguel.

With a lead-off single by Brenden Webb in the bottom of the 5th, Phil Dale calls on his “Ace in the hole,” removing Jamnik in favor of his mullet contest adversary…yes, that’s right…Bubbie Buzachero is back!! Until now, the pitching in this series of unusually great pitching has been surprisingly not unusually great. Bubbie allows Webb to score on a line drive to left center by Mitch Graham (charged to Jamnik) and allows one more run in the inning on a SAC fly by James McOwen, scoring de San Miguel…this 2nd run ties the game at 5 apiece.

From this point forward, Buzachero is literally inhuman. Bubbie confuses the Heat deliberately with his amazing curve (occasionally a curve-slider and/or curve disguised as an elevated fastball) and devastating changeup, and his sneak-attack fastball worked in between. Watching his work inning-by-inning was a truly gripping affair.

Still tied after the 9th, the game goes into extras again and for the second day in a row, I’m in Baseball Heaven.

If Buzachero’s performance yesterday was brilliant, today it was phenomenal. During the 11th, Jon Deeble playfully cheers “It’s the 11th inning, and he gets better as the night goes on!!!” Truth! In the 10th, Buzachero retires the side on 2 flyouts and a strikeout, throwing 6 pitches total. In the 11th, Buzachero hits Mychal Givens after retiring 2 batters, but retires Brenden Webb on a pop out…all in 11 pitches.

Buzachero regains his focus after hitting Givens…the look on his face is priceless, as I wrote in my Game 2 post, Bubbie bears more than a functional resemblance to the wonderful Mitch Williams…this gaze, this countenance screams Mitch Williams. In this brilliant sequence, I provide an example as evidence that as the night went on, Buzachero was certainly channeling his own “inner Mitch Williams” as he works against Webb…

Buzachero held his own against Fastballer Brendan Wise (9th inning) and Jack Frawley, who lives “almost exclusively on the slider.” After the 12th, Bubbie has thrown 113 pitches, 74 for strikes, has stuck out 7, walked one, and allowed one run on 4 hits. In the bottom of the 13th, Bubbie surprisingly takes the mound again…maybe not such a surprise, as by this point he is a certified pitching monster. Then the unbelievable happens…

Buzachero hits James McOwen on his first pitch of the inning. Just like that, Phil Dale is on the field and Buzachero reluctantly hands him the ball.

This isn’t the time or the place for a vexed discourse on the fallacy of earned runs and how earned runs, along with the traditional W-L record, really add a bit of bitter pudding to the long-standing historical picture of a pitcher’s true performance in a game, as a pitcher, and not as a toy of defense, offense, and otherwise independent factors. If you want to read more of this, start with the fantastic book Baseball Between the Numbers, primarily the chapter “When Does a Pitcher Earn an Earned Run?” and go from there. From my standpoint, Buzachero’s mark in the box score of this game, from this point forward, is more than a clear example of what could be wrong with the stickiness of these outdated, non-illustrative, situation-disregarding numbers and what they really mean (or don’t mean).

Of course, if you’ve been reading this series, you may consider me a “Bubbie Buzachero Apologist” after what I’m about to write…you need to know, I don’t have a problem with this whatsoever. Bubbie was totally and unequivocally fantastic tonight…where his line score ends up at the conclusion of this game is fundamentally unfair in regards to his performance today, and that’s really the bottom line.

Every great pitcher has these moments…I’ve mentioned Mitch Williams quite a bit, especially in my admiration of Buzachero as an homage (not a comp) to Williams. This happened to him. This happened to Goose Gossage. This happened to Dennis Eckersley. Tonight it happened to Bubbie Buzachero, that’s reality.

In relief, side-armer Andrew Russell retires Perth PH Dylan Jones on a SAC bunt on one pitch, McOwen advances to second. He retires Perth 1B Matt Kennelly on a full-count grounder to short, McOwen advances to second. Russell is on his way to closing the inning and stranding McOwen to continue the game and salvage Buzachero’s antiquated linescore heritage. After two pitches, both away from the zone, Russell delivers a wild pitch and in a scene reminiscent (but not as glorious) of an extra-innings game I saw on the second BIL Tour on 8/26/2010, McOwen crosses home plate while Kevin David scurries to retrieve the ball, and just like that…the Perth Heat win, and are recipients of the Claxton Shield for the second consecutive year. Russell was that damn close to getting the Aces out of this inning and extending the game, but as he lost control of his slider, even during Kennelly’s AB, he pretty much blew the chances of that, pitch by pitch. Again, my point is sure, Buzachero owned the runner on base, but where in the linescore will it record, accurately, that it was indeed Andrew Russell, whose errant throw was wild enough to preclude any other outcome, who gave up the game? And if this is so, then why will Buzachero walk away with an “L” in the linescore and even take credit for that scored run?

This is perhaps why Buzachero is a hero and a legend to Australian baseball fans, despite the fact that he’s a guy from Tennessee, a competitor who does things differently than the grain on the bat runs. Think what you want about that “L” in this most important game, but Bubbie won a great deal more. He won the collective hearts of a nation of baseball fans, and even more hearts around the world, those who couldn’t have enjoyed his work more than they ever thought possible…this fan certainly included.

Mitch Williams. Goose Gossage. Dennis Eckersley. The moments they are infamous for are decidedly much more humbling yet in hindsight, never tarnished their respective reputations. They dealt with it, Bubbie deals with it, and for fans like me, we all know what really happened. Bubbie was amazing, did the heavy lifting for the Aces in staying in this game, and was intrinsically no more responsible for the loss than McOwen was in scoring the winning run.

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!! Besides their glowing amazement at Buzachero’s performance, they kept a thread of discussion around catcher framing going on throughout the game. Catcher framing is so damn important in this game, it’s nice to hear these blokes discuss the reality and validity of catcher framing, where dorks like Joe Morgan would rather talk about their career!! If you haven’t read Mike Fast’s gospel on Catcher Framing (”Spinning Yarn” on Baseball Prospectus, one of the most outrageous and wonderful writings of 2011) then you really, really should!

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. Bubbie has announced that this season, he’ll be pitching in Europe!! I’ll be doing more than my best to keep up with him during this next phase of his career!

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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