Heat begin title charge against Giants
Perth Heat continue to have hurdles put in their way but as they prepare to open their Australian Baseball League playoffs campaign against a familiar opponent, they are in Melbourne aiming for nothing less than a championship.
It has been quite the rollercoaster ride for the Heat this ABL season. If you go back to before Christmas and the home series to open the season against the Canberra Cavalry never eventuated.
The season then began in New Year's Eve in Melbourne but the scheduled four-game series against the Aces lasted just one game before the Heat had to begin outrunning coronavirus.
The anticipated eight games in Brisbane ended up being just four before the Heat got to Adelaide and had to stay three days beyond the matches before returning home on the same day of their first home game at Empire Ballpark.
The Heat and Adelaide Giants then played eight games in the course of a week before again COVID-19 got in the way and denied the chance for another home series to close the regular season.
Not only that, but it put in jeopardy the chance for the Heat to even take part in the playoff which is now all behind the team and the quest for the championship begins at Melbourne Ballpark at 10am Perth time on Thursday.
The Heat qualified for the playoffs in second position with a 12-9 record which means they will now play the third ranked Adelaide Giants in Thursday's semi-final.
It's a remarkable turn of events that means the Heat's opponents for the 10th straight match this season will be the Giants and it's the 15th time they have played another now in 2021.
The Heat won nine of the 14 matches during the regular season with two of them played in Brisbane, four in Adelaide and then eight in Perth.
It's only fitting the two teams now clash to open the playoffs on Thursday with the winner to advance to Friday's qualifying final with a spot in the championship game on Sunday on the line.
But the loser will still get another chance on Friday to then win in an elimination final to get another chance to win their way into the championship game on Sunday.
For Heat manager Andy Kyle, he knows it's all about executing well when two teams are so familiar.
"It's funny that it's worked out that way and there's probably no surprises within each club now it's fair to say," Kyle said.
"It's probably just going to come down to who executes better on the day. We both know each other and we have what we have at this stage, and I imagine it's going to be another tight and close battle."
The Heat have suffered a significant blow on the eve of the playoffs losing three key players to injury – pitcher Nathan Wiles along with Robbie Glendinning and Ford Proctor.
The Heat's pitching has been the best in the ABL this season with a team ERA of 3.16 while only giving up 138 hits, 67 runs and 12 home runs across 21 matches and 154 innings.
While the injured Wiles and departed Alan Strong played their part in that, the rest of the Heat bullpen have the full faith of Kyle led by Dylan Unsworth and Beau Sulser with support from Warwick Saupold, Jacob Lopez, Nate Gercken, Daniel Schmidt, Will Sherriff and Zac Reininger.
The Heat batting has been a little more hit and miss, and making the challenge tougher in the playoffs is the fact that Glendinning and Proctor have been the team's best and most consistent batters throughout the season.
However, with a line-up still including Tim Kennelly, Shane Sasaki, Grant Witherspoon, Abiezel Ramirez, Jess Williams, Ulrich Bojarski, Alex Hall and Jake Bowey is one that Kyle is backing in to get the job done.
"We have full faith in our line-up and across the group we think we are as strong as anyone in that finals format," Kyle said.
"I think we have the potential to really breakout with the stick to score lots of runs. Obviously good pitching will produce a tight game and we know that, and history shows that, and we know we are going to have to execute and get the job done when we have the opportunities.
"But I feel pretty comfortable with our line-up and the depth that we have to be able to create enough hits throughout the playoffs to come."
To just be able to get to a point where his team is in Melbourne ready for the playoffs and knowing a champion will be crowned on Sunday means that Kyle is thankful for the way this season has panned out despite all the challenges that have presented along the way.
"As difficult as it has been, you have to give the ABL and the owners credit for doing what they needed to do to keep the season alive, and we are really thankful for that," Kyle said.
"Our guys have been through a lot and have been really resilient, and I applaud them for how they have handled everything. For me to give them the opportunity to go and play playoffs, and whether we win or lose, at least we'll get to finish it on the field and it will be in our hands.
"At this time last week it was kind of a 50-50 whether we would even get to finish the season or not so it's really important for our guys to get back on the field to compete out there."
By Chris Pike.
ABL PLAYOFFS 2021
All games played at Melbourne Ballpark
THURSDAY (all times WST)
Semi-Final 1: Melbourne Aces v Canberra Cavalry – 4pm
Semi-Final 2: Perth Heat v Adelaide Giants – 10am
Elimination Final: Losers of Semi Finals – 10am
Qualifying Final: Winners of Semi Finals – 4pm
Preliminary Final: Winner Elimination Final v Loser Qualifying Final – 12pm
Championship Game: Winner Qualifying Final v Winner Preliminary Final – 12pm
IMAGE: SMP Images.