Heat open ABL season against Aces in Melbourne
PERTH Heat's Australian Baseball League season belatedly gets underway Thursday evening and it's quite the challenge first up against the defending champion Melbourne Aces on their home deck.
The Heat's ABL season was scheduled to begin pre-Christmas with a home series against the Canberra Cavalry, but COVID-19 saw to it that didn’t happen and now it's a New Year's Eve opener at the Melbourne Ballpark they have to look forward to.
While it will be the season opener for the Heat, the Aces have already played some matches to begin their 2020-21 season on the back of winning last season's championship with Perth favourite son Allan de san Miguel on deck as their new manager.
Melbourne played two games in Sydney against the Blue Sox, splitting the two, before that series was also cancelled once the COVID-19 outbreak hit the northern beaches of NSW.
The Aces then played two matches straight after Christmas at home to the Cavalry and again split those so they come into the series against the Heat with a 2-2 record.
With the ABL season now set to run pretty much just through January, it's going to be a jampacked schedule and with only teams from Perth, Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide and Canberra competing, every series takes on extra significance.
Given all of that and the quality of the rosters both teams have put together, the Heat and Aces should both be thinking of a championship now in 2021 and getting off to a strong start in this series is going to end up pivotal.
Heat manager Andy Kyle is fully aware of the challenge that the Aces present especially with the added advantage of playing at home and already having four official ABL games under their belts while his team has none.
The Aces are also the defending champions and have put together a roster for 2021 at least on par with that one that won the title which included a thrilling final series win to close the regular season that guaranteed them a semi-final berth and forced the Heat into a wildcard playoff.
Kyle is also no stranger to the Aces new manager with de san Miguel taking over for the first season on the back of his remarkable ABL playing career.
Most of it was spent in Perth and along the way he became the league's games record holder, a seven-time championship winner and four-time golden glove recipient so Kyle knows they are going to be well led and tough to beat.
"They are going to be tough, no doubt. De San has put a strong squad together and he's a professional coach, and knows what it takes to get a team ready," Kyle said.
"You can guarantee they'll be ready to go and it looks like they've created good pitching again and some versatility in the rest of their roster with a mix of veteran type guys and some younger kids.
"It will be exciting and we're looking forward to the challenge. It will be a good opportunity to see where we're at straight off the bat against an opponent that we know will be ready to go as well."
Given that the Heat's season has already suffered one disruption with the postponement of that opening home series against Canberra, Kyle has his group ready for anything that might now end up changing over the next month.
Right now what he knows for certain is that this series over the next four days in Melbourne is going ahead, but really beyond that it's still a guessing game.
But the Heat squad is ready and willing to accept anything and he is glad that they have agreed to that approach with the potential of a championship as a reward at the end of it.
"What I'm aware of now is that the Melbourne series is going ahead so that's what we're preparing for," Kyle said.
"There has been talk of schedule changes and what not, and we just want to play baseball and win games of baseball so we are prepared as a group to do anything asked of us.
"But we can't get caught up in things we can't control so we played an intra-squad game just before Christmas and we've been working on building up our arms heading into this Melbourne series.
"Until we hear otherwise, we are preparing to take on Melbourne this weekend but our whole process this whole team is to be ready for anything and be the best prepared we can."
While the Heat didn’t get to officially open their ABL season before Christmas, in the place of Canberra was a Brisbane Bandits Futures team that played two exhibition games against them at Empire Ballpark.
That provided the first chance for the Heat to play against a real opposition and the first chance for a lot of the team to play for the first time at all in 2020 so Kyle is thankful they received that opportunity now heading into taking on the Aces.
"It was a huge weekend for us really. We have tried to train at game-like intensity but it's just not the same as being out there against a team with a different uniform on, with umpires and being out in front of a crowd and atmosphere," he said.
"So it was vital in our preparation and I thought the guys handled it really well considering they could have got down about everything that happened. But to their credit they just took it on board and we've talked the whole time about just controlling what we can, and being ready for anything."
While there's no shortage of talent with the bat at the Heat, the pitching bullpen looks remarkably strong following the late additions of former Detroit Tigers Major League Baseball teammates Warwick Saupold and Zac Reininger.
With reigning ABL Pitching Champion Dylan Unsworth, Tampa Bay Rays prospects Jacob Lopez, Alan Strong and Nathan Wiles, Californian relief pair Beau Sulser and Nathan Gercken and the locals led by Dan Schmidt, Will Sherriff, Tom Bailey and Lochlan Southee, pitching already looked a strength.
Now with Saupold and Reininger to top that group off, Kyle is happy with the mix as they get more and more throws into their arms.
"We are really happy with the staff we've put together and we are still trying to get some innings into the arms so that's still going to take some time, but if we can stay healthy and continue to build these guys, there's going to be a lot of competition for spots to make the roster," Kyle said.
"That's always a healthy thing and that's when you know you have some depth when you have guys fighting for those last couple of spots. It means they are going to have to pitch well too."
There were good signs with the bat too with Rays prospects Grant Witherspoon and Abiezel Ramirez especially impressive while Shane Sasaki ran the bases well and Ford Proctor did well both batting and catching.
Regulars Tim Kennelly, Robbie Glendinning, Alex Hall and Ulrich Bojarski looked good too so Kyle is happy with how they come into the series against the Aces with the bat too.
"I thought there was a good mix across the two games with the bat. Some guys really performed well in Game 1 and then in Game 2 some other guys stepped up and had good at bats," Kyle said.
"It's always pleasing to see when guys pick each other up and you can create some good depth in that line-up. There's a lot of versatility there too in the line-up so I think that's really exciting for what we can do with the bat.
"We weren’t sure how some guys would go when they haven’t faced live pitching in so long, so for them to make some good contact in a live game environment will be really important for them moving forward.
"TK had a couple of really good at bats, Justin showed his power potential and I thought Hally was outstanding behind the dish in Game 1. There was a lot of good signs there for us moving forward."
IMAGE: James Worsfold, SMP Images
PERTH HEAT v MELBOURNE ACES
Melbourne Ballpark (WST)
Thursday – 4pm
Friday – 4pm
Saturday – 4pm
Sunday – 10am
All games live on Kayo
By Chris Pike