Tomorrow is ‘playoff day’ in British baseball. Twelve teams will battle it out at six venues across the country to determine the final six entrants to the 2009 National Baseball Championships.
There are four broad levels of play in the British Baseball Federation (BBF). The National Baseball League (NBL) is at the top of the pyramid followed by AAA, AA and A, as used in the Minor League set-up in the States. Each level of play has a National Baseball Championship (NBC) involving four teams. The entrants for the NBL and AAA have already been determined by the regular season and two of the AA teams are also confirmed. Tomorrow’s round of playoff games will determine the other two AA teams and the four A teams.
In AA, Brentwood Stags face Mildehall Bulldogs at the United States Air Force base, while Halton Jaguars travel to Jarrett Field to play against Kent Mariners. The four playoff games in A are: Leicester Blue Sox @ Bolton Robots of Doom, Humber Pilots @ MK Bucks, Guildford Mavericks @ Bracknell Blazers and Richmond Flames @ Essex Arrows.
Four levels of play over six leagues
Newcomers to British baseball should be aware that although there are four levels of play, there are actually six different leagues: four in the south, a Midlands League and a Northern Conference.
The four Southern leagues directly reflect the four levels of play and the teams that qualify for the postseason go through to the equivalent postseason level (e.g. A South go on to the A postseason etc). In previous years, this was replicated in the North (e.g. there was an NBL North division and an NBL South division); however it was decided this year to combine the Northern teams into a single conference.
No teams from the North go through to the NBL postseason. The top two teams qualify for the AAA postseason, the third and fourth-placed teams go on to AA and the fifth and sixth to A. Menwith Hill Patriots finished fourth in the Northern Conference, but decided not to compete in the postseason. That has pushed Halton and Bolton up a spot and allowed Humber Pilots to claim the final position.
The Midlands League, revamped for 2009, in effect sits between AA and A. Here, the top two teams at the end of the regular season move on to the AA postseason and the third and fourth-placed teams move on to A.
NBL and AAA are set
The top four of the five NBL South teams qualified for the NBC. Only the bottom team missed out and the Croydon Pirates plummeted to that position by going winless throughout the season.
Richmond Flames and London Mets both compiled 17-7 records during the regular season. The Flames took the regular season crown, denying London a second successive league championship in the process, on account of their head-to-head record against the Mets. Bracknell Blazers came in third with a 14-10 record, while Herts Falcons finished with a .500 season (12-12). The Falcons can consider that to be a notable achievement in their first year in the top tier of British baseball.
The AAA NBC will be competed between the top two teams from both the Northern Conference and the AAA (South) League. Harrogate Tigers will host the event after finishing top of the North with a 20-1 record. They won the league by 3.5 games over the Liverpool Trojans, whose second-placed finish was a welcome turnaround after a tough 2008 campaign.
Essex Arrows completed a memorable unbeaten regular season in AAA (South). Their 25-0 record has already put them in contention to make the step up to the NBL in 2010 and winning the Championship could turn that into a certainty. The second-placed Southampton Mustangs also impressed with a 21-5 season and having qualified for the NBC, they may just come up the rails and snatch the glory away from their rivals.
AA League – Two in, two more needed
Alconbury Braves and Manchester A’s have avoided the playoff stage and gone straight into the AA NBC. The Braves won the Midlands League in their first year as part of the BBF system, finishing with an impressive 15-5 record. Manchester A’s qualified thanks to their third-placed finish in the Northern Conference, only missing out on second (and a spot in the AAA NBC) on account of conceding more runs in their head-to-head games against the Trojans.
Tie-breaking rules also came into play in the AA South as three teams finished at the top of the league with 14-6 records. Croydon Pirates III were the team to miss out in heartbreaking fashion, rounding out a disappointing year for the Pirates organization. Kent Mariners and Brentwood Stags finished first and second respectively to go through to tomorrow’s playoff stage. The Mariners will host the Halton Jaguars from the Northern Conference, while the Stags travel to the other US Air Force team from the Midlands: Mildenhall Bulldogs. Each pairing will play a nine-inning game and the two winners will progress to the NBC.
A League – all to play for
The same single playoff game format is used for the A League, only in this case all of the NBC competitors will have to make it through tomorrow’s Sunday showdown first.
Two of the games will be between the four postseason qualifiers from the A South League. They are the three Pool winners (Bracknell Blazers, 12-0, Essex Arrows, 10-2, and Richmond Flames, 7-4) and the wild card (Guildford Mavericks, 6-6). The Blazers and Arrows have been kept apart, the formers hosts the Mavericks and the latter hosts the Flames, and are the favourites to head on to the NBC. However, both the Mavericks and the Flames are certainly capable of upsetting the odds in a ‘best-of-one’ format.
The other two playoff games match teams from the Midlands with teams from the Northern Conference. It’s particularly difficult to predict how these games will turn out as there is no easy way to compare the standards of the two leagues based on their regular season records. The only way you can do so is by pitting the teams against each other. That subplot should make these two games even more interesting.
Leicester Blue Sox reached the playoffs despite a 4-16 regular season record in the Midlands, but they faced strong competition from the Braves and Bulldogs and Bolton Robots of Doom won’t be taking them lightly, even though they compiled a 10-12 record. MK Bucks managed to end the season with a winning record in the Midlands (12-8), while their opponents Humber Pilots went 10-14.
Six good games to enjoy
Tomorrow should produce a great day of baseball. Good luck to all the teams involved. Visit www.baseballsoftballuk.com for further details.