AT THE halfway point of the 2016 ABL season the Melbourne Aces have raced out to a handy lead at the top of the standings and into outright favouritism for the Claxton Shield.
Strong offseason recruiting and impressive imports have helped the Aces improve in a big way and they enter the second half of the season in an unfamiliar position of being the hunted.
What’s gone right
The Aces bulked up their pitching and landed a major coup in signing Mark Hamburger. The former Major Leaguer has headed the league’s best starting rotation and Melbourne’s bullpen has been left with far less work to do than in the past. The Aces’ starters have pitched more innings than any other side in the league and a staggering 28 more than sixth-ranked Canberra. They have also recorded a league-high seven quality starts in the first 20 games. In the second half of the season they will have former World Series starter Jeremy Guthrie in their ranks but lose Keisuke Honda.
What’s gone wrong
Melbourne has been almost faultless but they did blow a 1-0 series lead and game two lead away to Adelaide in round two. They struggled for the rest of the series after the Bite fought back in the seventh and stole the game in extras. The next week the Aces did finally ended their road hoodoo and began a run of 11 wins in 12 games.
While Hamburger and Honda have been outstanding in the starting rotation –averaging 6.1 innings per outing and a little more than 1.5 runs per nine innings – Dushan Ruzic has held his own. The former Adelaide Bite pitcher has carried his strong form for SA club side Port Adelaide last season into the ABL after a five-year absence. The right-hander has compiled a 2-1 record with an ERA of 3.00 and ranks eighth in the league with 22 strikeouts.
Veteran Brad Harman hit a mediocre .188 (6-for-32) in the first half of the season. His selection in the ABL All-Star Game shows Jon Deeble has faith and Harman has a role in the Team Australia set up but his sluggish start was not flattering, especially in a firing team.
Hamburger has been outstanding for the Aces and given them a platform for victory in each of his five starts. Melbourne has outscored its opponents 28-7 in Hamburger’s starts. He pitched a complete game shutout away to Brisbane, which set the tone for a historic away series win, and has two quality starts. The right-hander’s 45 strikeouts lead the league and his WHIP of 0.67 is second to only Adelaide’s Matthew Williams amongst qualified players.
What to watch for in the second half
After assembling such a strong roster there was always going to be expectation for the Aces. After winning 11 of their past 12 outings that expectation is at its highest. Can Melbourne handle it or will the Aces fold? Have they already peaked and played their best baseball? Have we seen the best of Hamburger, Acuna and Collins or is there more to come? If Melbourne can continue its hot run and finish first it will be hard to beat in a home ABL Championship Series.
A. The Aces have been outstanding since the hiccup in Adelaide. Across the season they have choked opposition sides, outscoring them 94-49. Their strong pitching is complemented perfectly by offensive threats in Ronald Acuna, Roman Collins and Allan de San Miguel.
How would you rate the Aces’ first half of the season? Comment below.
Follow author David Penrose on Twitter at @David_Penrose