The 2012 ConcocoPhillips Australian Baseball League Championship Series, featuring Major League Baseball prospects, is under way and being broadcast by MLB Network this weekend. The defending champion "Alcohol Think Again" Perth Heat have a 1-0 series lead over the Jet Couriers Melbourne Aces entering Game 2 Saturday at Perth.
Saturday's game will be aired on a tape-delay basis by MLB Network at noon ET, and a deciding Game 3 would be shown at the same time Sunday, if necessary. Major League Baseball Advanced Media powers the official ABL website and offers live Gameday pitch-by-pitch plus streaming on a 30-minute delay, in addition to full coverage of the league's climax Down Under.
A record nine Australians played in the Majors last season, and about 70 more in Minor League Baseball, some of them participating in this ABL postseason. Paul Archey, MLB senior vice president of international business operations, said this ABL season has been indicative of the sport's rising popularity there and a growing stream of talent.
"Australia has been a growing market for us over the last 20 years," Archey said during the last round. "We saw a lot of development take place because of the old Australian Baseball League, players choosing baseball because it had a profile, and this was a market where we thought we could start the ABL back. Not just for the fans, but for development as well.
"We're seeing great talent at the youth level, and you'll continue to see Australia in the Major Leagues, that's for sure."
There is growing interest in games being played there, not just locally but abroad. The ABL Championship Series is being broadcast to more than 50 countries and 400 million households through MLB Network, Fox Sports, ESPN Star and Australia Network.
Right-hander Virgil Vasquez, who pitched for the Tigers in 2007 and Pirates in 2009, struck out eight Melbourne batters and finished off a complete game in the series opener. His Perth pitching coach is Graeme Lloyd, the big Aussie who pitched in 568 Major League games as a left-hander and was a member of the 1996 and '98 Yankees title teams.
Former Royal, Padre and Twin Justin Huber was held hitless by Vasquez in the opener. Huber had collected at least one hit in each postseason game to that point, reaching base in 15 of his 19 plate appearances in the first round against Melbourne. The Heat won that series, 3-1, but in the ABL, clubs are able to meet again in the title series.
Perth is 11-3 this year against Melbourne, so it will be interesting to see this weekend whether the Aces can break through. The Aces will have their work cut out for them, because they will face ABL Pitcher of the Year Warwick Saupold, a native Aussie who tops the league with a 1.41 ERA.
Outfielder James McOwen, who hit a combined .271 with 10 homers and 53 RBIs for the Mariners' Class A High Desert and Double-A Jackson clubs last season, led Perth at the plate in the opener with a solo homer and RBI single.
Former Phillie Brad Harman, the only ABL player with a World Series ring (10 at-bats for the Phillies in 2008), set a new ABL record with 15 homers this year. His three long balls in the final two games of Round 2 against Sydney earned him Player of the Series honors. Against Vasquez on Friday, he fanned three times and singled once.
Perth is playing this series without maybe its best player: current Twins infielder Luke Hughes, who has a shoulder injury.
Other MLB prospects in this series include Tim Kennelly (Phillies), Mathew Kennelly (Braves), and Allan de San Miguel (former Twins prospect recently signed by the Orioles).