Brisbane Bandits title hopes face test tonight
THE Brisbane Bandits will face the first true test of their Australian Baseball League title credentials when they take on the reigning champions Perth away, starting tonight.
The Bandits are equal first with Adelaide on 12 wins and eight losses.
And although the perennial cellar dwellers from seasons past have shown immense improvement this summer, not much can be read into their early-season success just yet.
They have not yet faced the might of the Perth Heat and last season's Asia Series champions, the Canberra Cavalry.
But there is no doubting the Bandits will back their starting pitchers for the upcoming four-game series to keep some powerful Heat bats quiet.
Star Heat short stop and last season's Champions Series MVP Joey Wong is once again starring at the plate this season, averaging .342.
Jaspreet Shergill, Chen-Hua Lin, Ryan Searle and Masaki Takashio - starting in that order over the next four nights - will try to stop him and his team mates.
They will back themselves to do just that.
Shergill is currently sitting in third place in the league in earned run average, with a 2.57 mark.
Taiwanese star and EDA Rhinos recruit Lin is coming off a brilliant one-hitter against the Melbourne Aces on November 28, during his team's 3-1 series win.
Searle threw a complete game victory against the same opposition the following night.
And Takashio had an impressive outing against Melbourne the next game, going six innings, striking out nine and giving up just two hits.
Brisbane native Searle is in his fifth year with the Bandits, all of which have been losing seasons for the team, but where he has shone with an earned run average of 3.59.
But he's noticed a very different feeling among his fellow hurlers this season, with some shrewd acquisitions - including Shergill, Lin and Takashio - made over the off-season.
"We've got a fantastic bunch this year - Lin's been fantastic, and Takashio is looking really good too," Searle told APN.
"All the boys are looking really strong. It's great to have (closer) Matt Timms back, and (Daniel) Cooper and (Justin) Erasmus in the bullpen.
"I think it all started with Mark Ready stepping in and taking over as CEO. It's really given us a great turnaround.
"He's come in and he's a fantastic businessman. He's got fantastic ticket sales, great sponsors and our fan base is growing and growing."
Searle, the man who threw three amazing scoreless innings for Team Australia against the LA Dodgers earlier this year, returned with aplomb against the Aces for his complete game, after admitting his form took a dip.
"I struggled a little bit with my command the week before. I just needed a bit of a break," he said.
"I went back to club ball and worked on my fast ball command. Just having that break allowed me to come back refreshed."
Not all went to plan for the powerful 25-year-old while over in the US this year as well, playing Double-A at the Chicago Cubs organisation, before losing his contract.
"I didn't do so well unfortunately," he said.
"I got released because I didn't have the start to the season that I would've liked.
"I went to independent ball and struggled there a little bit but came good towards the end of the season.
"It was more mental than anything.
"But now I've come back I've got to lock in and try to land myself another contract."
It can be argued Searle's return to domestic form has been helped along by fellow starter Lin, who is pushing him as he strives to keep his Major League dream alive.
Searle will play for Team Australia again next Wednesday in the annual game against the ABL World All Stars, in Melbourne.
Lin was the pitcher that got off his international flight on November 2, and just hours later he was throwing in the Bandits' bullpen.
He will line up for the World All Stars.
"Just the way he mixes up his pitches - he keeps all the hitters off balance. It seems like they don't know what's coming," Bandits outfielder Granden Goetzman said of Lin.
"He doesn't know much English so it's hard to talk to him, but he's a great guy, he's an extremely hard worker and he did a great job (in his one-hitter).
"I feel like he's just going to keep on getting better and better.
"I've never faced him and I hope I don't have to."
The Bandits' offence is working just as well as its defence, with Goetzman and fellow US import and outfielder Johnny Field crushing the Aces' pitchers last series.
Field hit three homers for the series, including two in game three, while Goetzman hit one in game one.
Field and Goetzman are first and second respectively in Bandits' runs (17 and 13) and homers (six and five).
Goetzman could be a late addition to the World All Stars roster if he polls well in a fan ballot.
Field and Goetzman played together at Bowling Green before moving up to play for Charlotte in the Florida State League (High-A) over the American summer.
There, they joined fellow Bandits Tommy Coyle and Maxx Tissenbaum.
Coyle leads the Bandits in average (.373) and runs batted in (13) this season.
So the Bandits - like their imported pitching stocks - are getting plenty of bang for their buck from their offensive imports.
Part of the Tampa Bay Rays' system, Goetzman recently got the dream opportunity to play a Spring Training game with the Major League team.
"When I was in the Florida State League we had a bunch of the rehab group who would come down," Goetzman said.
"(David) DeJesus, (Ryan) Hanigan, (Wil) Myers and (Evan) Longoria were the big names.
"I got an opportunity to play in an MLB Spring Training game.
"It was a great experience - it gives you a little taste of what's to come."
Goetzman feels the best way to keep the progression going in his dream to play in the Major League is to keep performing Down Under.
The 22-year-old heard so much about the ABL through his best mate - the Aces' Darryl George, and he added his time Down Under so far has "been a blast".
Both Goetzman and Field, also 22, have time on their hands in their quests to make it to The Big Show.
Field also got a dream chance to play a Spring Training game with the Rays before the start of the 2014 season.
"I got to play in one of the big league games. I got in defensively and I was left on deck," he said.
"I was going to get an at-bat, but the game ended.
"But it was pretty cool to be around the guys and pick their minds.
"The main thing is everyone goes about their business professionally, all under their routines.
"Whatever it is, guys don't break their routine - whether it's sprints or stretching."
Field and his team mates will hope the Bandits can add another thing to their routines - something which has eluded them in previous seasons … winning often.
Fellow US import CJ Beatty, who homered in the exhibition series against the Japanese Amateur Baseball Association All Stars last week, said he was looking forward to that test.
"It'll be a good measuring stick to see where we're at. We know we have a fair bit of guns on our side as well," he said.
"What I know is our opposition teams are not going to take us lightly this season.
"We're up there in the top three in the league in power numbers offensively, and defensively we're doing well.
"We're not going to be taken lightly, so this second half of the season is going to be interesting."