The Auckland Tuatara are on the verge of history.
For the first time in their short lifespan, New Zealand's only professional baseball team are set for a playoff run in the Australian Baseball League.
Barring a monumental meltdown in their final series of the season against the Brisbane Bandits in Auckland this weekend, the Tuatara will punch their ticket for a shot at the Claxton Shield. Christopher Reive looks at the scenarios that could lead them into the business end of the season.
To clinch a spot in the playoffs…
It's simple really. The four-time champion Brisbane Bandits are the only team that can stop the Tuatara from a playoff berth in just their second season. The Bandits sit 2.5 games behind the Tuatara in the North-East division, and need to sweep the Auckland club at North Harbour Stadium this weekend. If the Tuatara win just one of the four games, they're playoff bound.
To win the North-East division...
It's somewhat of a flipped script for the Tuatara to win the division. Going into the final round of the regular season atop the North-East, they need to win at least three games to ensure their spot at the top. The Canberra Cavalry, who took three games off the Tuatara last week in Canberra, can take over at the top spot if the Tuatara split the series against Brisbane or lose it. The Cavalry sit just 1.5 games back from the Tuatara on the ladder, so if the Tuatara take one game against Brisbane, the Cavalry need to win three against the Sydney Blue Sox; if the Tuatara win two, the Cavalry need all four; if the Tuatara win three they claim the division.
Of course, if the Blue Sox manage to upset the Cavalry and win the series or split it, the Tuatara will be sitting pretty.
What's difference does it make between clinching a playoff spot and clinching the division?
If probably helps to understand the Australian Baseball League's playoff structure, which takes the top two teams in each division as well as the third-placed team with the best record – so five teams make the post season.
The third-placed team and the second-placed team with the worse record – the No5 and No4 seed teams respectively - meet in a one-off wildcard game. The winner goes on to play the No1 seed in the semifinals, while the No2 and No3 seeded teams square off. The semifinals and finals are played out over three-game series'.
Winning the division means the Tuatara avoid playing in the wildcard game against, most likely, either the Adelaide Giants, Melbourne Aces or Perth Heat. All in the South-West division, just one game separates the teams going into the final round, though Adelaide – currently leading the way – have the benefit of a series against Geelong-Korea this weekend, who have the worst record in the competition.
Is there any way the Auckland Tuatara can finish with the No1 seed?
Yes, but if we're looking at it realistically, that yes becomes a lot less enthusiastic. For the Tuatara to finish with the best record in the league, the following needs to happen:
-Tuatara sweep Brisbane in Auckland
-Melbourne and Perth split their series
-Geelong-Korea win three of their four games against Adelaide
Geelong-Korea, who joined the competition last season along with the Tuatara, have an 11-25 record this season, so it's hard to see them taking three games from the competition leading Adelaide side (22-14).
Now that we've gone through all of that, is there any way the Tuatara miss the playoffs?
Again, yes - we're full of possibilities here. If the Tuatara get swept by Brisbane and Canberra win two of their four games against Sydney, the Tuatara will miss the playoffs. The Perth Heat – currently third in the South-West division – hold a better record than the Tuatara and if the Auckland club is swept, there's no way they will qualify as the No5 seed.
Alright, so there's a lot on the line this weekend. What happened the last time the Tuatara played Brisbane?
The two teams met in Brisbane back in round four, where the Tuatara won three games in the series; outscoring the Bandits 23-17 across the four games. Since then, the Tuatara have lost two of their four starting pitchers, with Philadelphia Phillies prospect Kyle Glogoski and Oakland Athletics recent signee Jared Koenig being shut down for the season. Jimmy Boyce and Josh Collmenter have remained strong on the mound, while Junya Michihara and Kyohei Muranaka have stepped into starting roles admirably, while former MLB pitcher Jen-Ho Tseng has joined the team for the run home.
Auckland Tuatara probable starting pitchers v Brisbane Bandits
7pm January 23:
Kyohei Muranaka (2-1; 1.82 earned run average - four starts)
7pm January 24:
Jen-Ho Tseng (0-1; 7.71 ERA - two starts)
7pm January 25:
Josh Collmenter (2-1; 2.57 ERA - nine starts)
1pm January 26:
- All games at North Harbour Stadium.