The progress on the field was matched by progress off it, as the full post-season format and schedule was published this week allowing everyone involved to start planning their play-off push early.
The NBL-leading Herts Falcons (5-1) were not in action on Sunday and the team that took best advantage was the Southampton Mustangs. They collected a double-header sweep over the Croydon Pirates to improve their early season record to 5-2. The Mustangs didn’t quite claim the second spot in the league after the London Mets (4-1) pushed past thanks to a 9-1 victory over the Harlow Nationals.
Essex Arrows (4-4) also secured two wins over the Lakenheath Diamondbacks (1-4) in the other NBL match-up to even up their early season record.
It promises to be a gripping race for the playoff spots as we head through the summer as five of the eight teams will qualify, with the top three going straight through to the National Baseball Championship (NBC) and the fourth and fifth placed teams playing a single nine-inning game on 19 August to determine the final entrant.
The Falcons, Mets, Mustangs and Nationals have been the pace-setters early on this season and if that remains the case then one of those four will have to battle through a nervy sudden-death encounter to ensure their season doesn’t end early. The Arrows and D-Backs will certainly have something to say about that – and also a potential top three spot – whilst it’s far too early to count the Blazers and Pirates out of the running either.
Liverpool Football Club hasn’t done a good job of turning performances into wins over the past year and manager Kenny Dalglish could do worse than head over to Bootle Stadium this summer to try and pick up the winning habit from the Trojans. They made it six wins from six this season with two victories over the Cartmel Valley Lions, although the Lions put up a strong showing in defeat, especially in the second game.
Menwith Hill Patriots (4-2) are the Trojans’ closest rivals so far in the North after they took two wins from the Halton Jaguars. The competition for second place in the North is going to be important because only one team from the division will qualify for the NBC and that team will be determined by a single game play-off between the first and second placed teams. Whilst Liverpool have been the top team in the North for a while, another brilliant regular season will only give them home-field advantage in the play-off and the Jaguars or another Northern team could pip them to the NBC if they emerge victorious from the sudden death game.
The Northern play-off winner will join three teams from the South in the NBC. The two pool winners will qualify automatically and the Essex Redbacks (5-1) have made an early claim for one of those spots, although they did suffer their first defeat of the season on Sunday in a double-header against the Latin Boys (3-2).
The other NBC participant will be determined by a play-off game between the two non-pool winners with the best regular season records. The fact that it’s not simply between the two second-placed teams means that we could have, for example, the Latin Boys and London Metros facing each other in the sudden death game. The Metros (2-3) swept a double-header over the Bristol Badgers on Sunday to earn their first wins of the season.
The Double-A play-offs will involve two rounds before the NBC for the southern teams. It looks like the top four teams from each Southern pool will make it through to the first round, with the second round then producing two finalists that will represent the South in the NBC. The current (version 2) ‘Road to the Finals’ document refers to games between “South Pool” and “North Pool” teams, but that presumably should be South Pool A and B. London Mammoths and Poole Piranhas are out in front so far with both improving to 3-0 on Sunday.
In the Midlands and the North, it’s a simple case of the top two teams from each heading into a play-off round where the division winner from one will face the second-placed team from the other to determine the two Midlands/North representatives. Hull Scorpions and Sheffield Bladerunners swept double-headers on Sunday to become joint-leaders in the North on 4-0 records, whilst the Leicester Blue Sox defeated the Milton Keynes Bucks 8-3 to improve their record to 3-0 at the top of the Midlands.
The Southern section of the Single-A postseason will take the same format as in Triple-A, with the two pool winners being joined by the two remaining teams with the best records. The Essex Archers and the Guildford Mavericks II are the early favourites for two of those spots as both took victories on Sunday to make it three wins from three to start the season.
The third and fourth-placed teams in the Midlands and Northern AA divisions will continue to join the Single-A play-offs again this year. The two-round play-off structure will result in a team from the Sourth and a team from the Midlands/North qualifying for the Single-A final at the NBC.
The NBC itself
The main change with the National Baseball Championship this year is that it will be split over three days (the 25-27 August Bank Holiday weekend) rather than the normal two. This means that, excepting the single game Single-A final, the teams that make it to the NBC will be there for two or three days, making it much more of a season-ending event than a ‘turn up and go home’ affair.
The announcement of the postseason structure has come at the perfect time, rallying the rain-soaked teams to really get their play-off push on track after the stop-start beginning to the regular season. Plenty of teams will have an extra bounce in their step this Sunday as they run out onto the field knowing what their path to glory may be this year.
[NOTE: article updated at 16.55 on 10 May to correct the section on the Essex Arrows' victories over Lakenheath Diamondbacks. The initial version incorrectly stated that the Arrows and D-Backs had split the double-header]