BaseballGB previews tomorrow’s NBL play-offs

September in British baseball, with only a few exceptions, has in the game’s modern era become the October of Major League Baseball. Building on this tradition, in 2013 the National Baseball League postseason and the ninth month share a start day.

Tomorrow, the teams ranked third through sixth from the regular season will travel to Hemel Hempsetad, where Grovehill Ballpark will be hosting the first round of the play-offs. Following 28 games of jostling for seedings, going back to April, each of these sides now has 27 outs between them and a spot in the national semi-finals at Farnham Park on 14 September.

According to a schedule posted on the Essex Arrows’ Facebook page, the timings are likely to be as follows.

  • 11h00 first pitch: Bracknell Blazers @ Harlow Nationals
  • 14h00 (approx) first pitch: Essex Arrows @ Southampton Mustangs

Below, we examine each of the four teams involved.

Southampton Mustangs (#3 seed)

Postseason pedigree

Since being invited to join the National Baseball League in 2010, the Mustangs have been an ever-present pillar of the National Baseball Championships. Back in their first year, they were fourth in the regular season standings and then defeated the Mildenhall Bulldogs 11-7 to gain a place in the final-four stage.  The next season they finished one place better in the regular season and again won through to the championships by claiming their play-off game by a 4-run margin (this time it was the Croydon Pirates they felled, 12-8). In 2012, they defended their third place in the league and advanced straight through to the last four. But on each of the Mustangs’ three trips to Grovehill Ballpark for the championships, heart-break has awaited them. The short version is that they have not yet made a national final.

Players to watch

Gary Davison, winner of last season’s Most Valuable Two-Way Player award, has again proved his great worth in a Mustangs uniform. With a batting line of .455/.532/.712 he has been among the league’s outstanding hitters, and he posted a 6-2 record on the mound with a sub-3.00 ERA. Another stand-out player for Southampton has been Victor Aizpurua, who tore his way to a stolen base tally of 45, a total that is quite possibly an all-time British record. If he is on base with an open sack in front of him, even the strongest-armed catchers will have serious problems.

Reasons to root

Having fallen at the penultimate hurdle for the past three seasons, the Mustangs will no doubt have a greater hunger than ever to reach the national final. Their consistent performance level has been all the more impressive given a catchment area that is not as favourable as that for some of their rivals. They’ve shown that being dedicated and well-drilled can compensate for having a comparatively small squad. Having put together a run of 16 straight wins to end the regular season, only to be deprived of an automatic semi-final berth on head-to-head record with the London Mets, it could be seen as a cruel blow for them to be absent from the final four. If they do win through, they might be relieved to be playing in their first national championship at a field other than Grovehill Ballpark (where they have suffered only the aforementioned heart-break).

Harlow Nationals (#4 seed)

Postseason pedigree

Two seasons in existence; two national titles. That is the perfect record that the Nationals have achieved in their short history so far. They were propelled towards their title defence by a league pennant, but it’s worth recalling that their first championship came after they finished with only the fifth best record in the regular season.

Players to watch

The Nationals’ can construct a line-up that has as its core some of the best hitters in the country. Among them, Jarrod Pretorius and Maikel Azcuy could be the most feared of all. Pretorius did not match the numbers that earned him the 2012 Most Valuable Hitter award but is still one of the trickiest outs, and Azcuy’s power can flip a game on its head in a bat swing.

Reasons to root

A double defence has only been achieved on two prior occasions in British baseball’s history. In 1988, the Cobham Yankees sealed a third straight title (and fourth in total) and then the season after that the Enfield Spartans began a run of three consecutive titles of their own. Never before, though, has a team won the national title three times in its first three years. Of course, the squad that the Nationals assembled in their founding year pulled together experienced talent, including players with national championships to their name, but the team itself was a genuinely new one and the feat would be quite remarkable.

Bracknell Blazers (#5 seed)

Postseason pedigree

The Blazers have made the last-four stage on five previous occasions. The first of these was in 2002, when they lost 5-4 in the semi-finals against eventual champions the Brighton Buccaneers. The following season, they again met Brighton with a place in the national final at stake and again lost by a single run (8-7). In 2006, Bracknell made its third appearance in the semi-finals. The Buccaneers had already been knocked out, after finishing bottom of the southern pool, and had in fact played their last ever game. However, the Richmond Flames presented a similarly formidable obstacle and the Blazers fell one win short of the final for a third time. In 2009, Bracknell finally made a first championship decider and downed the Flames 16-4, having been tied 3-3- after six frames. They returned to the final in 2010, but Richmond inflicted revenge with a 10-1 reverse.

Players to watch

Jordan Edmonds is arguably the pick of Bracknell’s youthful line-up. He struck out a staggering 73 batters (compared with just 29 walks) in 58 innings pitched this season and held his own at the plate too. The experience and level-headed presence of Henry Collins, who pitched a complete game in the Blazers’ triumphant 2009 national final, could help keep the youngsters clam and focused.

Reasons to root

The Blazers have won great respect for their policy of bringing young domestic players up into the top tier and supporting them with quality coaching. The experience of playing in the final-four stage would be invaluable for their development.

Essex Arrows (#6 seed)

Postseason pedigree

The Arrows, then playing under the name of Waltham Abbey rather than Essex, first reached the quarter-final stage of the play-offs in 1990. Four years later — in a league weakened by a renegade independent league playing in parallel — the Arrows made the final itself. In a best-of-three series with the Hull Mets, the Arrows won the opener 3-2 but were shut out in games two and three. This remains the closest the Arrows have ever been to a national title in their 30-year history. In 1999, the Arrows stunned the much-fancied London Warriors in the first stage of a four-round postseason but crashed at the next corner. Since that unlikely triumph over the Warriors, the Arrows have endured a long barren patch, including a stint outside of the top tier.

Players to watch

Giovanni Escalona is a through-and-through quality hitter and this season he has put up a line of .416/.448/.596. His base-running has shown absent-mindedness at times in the past but his glove-work, be it in the infield or in the outfield, is genuinely classy. Luke Foley has posted another strong set of offensive numbers this season (.359/.533/.538), building on the experience he gained playing for the under-23 Great Britain squad in the 2012 tour of New England.

Reasons to root

The story behind the Arrows making it this far is incredible. On 11 August they travelled to Lakenheath and were swept in a doubleheader, which looked to have extinguished the last remaining embers of hope for a spot in the play-offs. The following weekend, playing — they thought — for little more than pride, the Arrows faced the same opposition, but this time at home. Essex, who were so short on players they had to call up second-teamers just to make a nine, swept the doubleheader: they won both games by a solitary score. Richard Chesterton picked up the win in game one on the mound and drove in the winning run. Luke Foley matched this feat in the “nightcap”. On their Facebook page after the games, the team wrote: “Arrows players stepped up and showed that they are definitely improving as a squad which is a great attribute to take to the 2014 season.” The lights for 2013 had been switched off. Even if the sixth-placed Diamondbacks lost to the Nationals the following Sunday, the Arrows knew that it would not be enough to move themselves out of the seventh spot. They hadn’t, of course, considered that the Diamondbacks (a military squad) — needing only to show up for those games to guarantee a play-off spot — might forfeit. We cannot compare the significance of the British baseball postseason with that of world affairs, and there was probably a valid reason behind the Diamondbacks’ need to forfeit. Nevertheless, it adds another instance to a growing list of reasons that opponents to the inclusion of military teams in the top tier of British baseball (including the author of this piece) might cite. The Arrows will not be worrying too much about that right now, and if they make it past tomorrow, their story, and their confidence, will gain further in stature.

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