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Aussies back amongst baseball's elite

24 March 2017

BASEBALL: It may not have followed a fairy tale script, but the Australian men’s baseball team announced themselves as a force to be reckoned with at the World Baseball Classic earlier this month.

The Aussies were faced with a formidable group, clashing with world number one side Japan, China, and Cuba – the most successful side in Olympic baseball history.

The side were gallant in defeat to Japan, before bouncing back to dismantle China in an 11-0 thrashing.

In their final encounter however they fell agonisingly short against traditional rivals Cuba, with veteran Alfredo Despaigne’s grand slam seeing the Cubans scrape through 4-3.

“We wanted to make it to the second round because Australia has never been there,” said infielder Logan Wade, who praised their preparation as ideal.

“The team we had, it was probably our best chance to make the second round.”

The result meant that Australia has still failed to progress past the first round in the history of the Classic, but a philosophical Wade insists the campaign had more highs than lows.

“I think it just came down to the little things during the game, but you know how baseball is, things can go your way, things can go their way.

“After the WBC, I think it was all positive in terms of players and the way we went about things and of course the way we gelled off the field.”

The team conceded eight runs in the group stage, the equal fewest in the group and made only one error in an impressive defensive performance, while their dominance against China highlights the side’s attacking potential.

And potential is key in this side, with 11 players making their national debut in the tournament. The 25-year-old was impressed, particularly with the youngest member of the team.

“Lachie Wells who is with the Minnesota Twins, he came in and pitched really well and showed what the future of baseball in Australia is going to be.”

20-year-old Wells demonstrated why he is held in such high regard in the US, pitching two scoreless innings against Japan.

But with plenty of other youngsters around the squad, including Robbie Perkins and Aaron Whitefield who were part of the side which won silver at the 2016 U/23 Baseball World Cup, the Queenslander believes the future is bright.

“We’re going to have some superstars I think by the time of the next Olympics.”

The performance is part of a continuing revival of baseball in Australia.

At the turn of the millennium, the sport was in clear trouble, with the national league being sold due to plummeting gate takings and a lack of sponsorship.

Baseball spent ten years in the wilderness before the Australian Baseball League was rebranded and relaunched in 2010.

The national team suffered during this period, dropping to as low as 15th in the world rankings.

Now back inside the top-ten, and with youth participation and national league attendances on the rise, the team are only looking up.

Wade expressed optimism for the future of the sport in Australia.

“I’ve played in every season since its begun – I can definitely see growth and I can definitely see, as a player, the finer details are getting there and getting better and better each year.

“To me, the Australian Baseball League is only heading upwards and hopefully we can make our mark on sport in Australia.”

Tournaments such as these are the perfect platform to promote the Australian product and their performance has certainly put the baseball world on notice.

“That’s probably the biggest stage that you’re going to get in international baseball.

“When Australia goes overseas to play, we really bring a different brand of baseball and I think most Americans and most Japanese teams enjoy that.

“For baseball in Australia, we have our own name, and it’s a good one and that comes across well in those countries.”

And with baseball making its return to the Olympics at Tokyo 2020, the team has high ambitions.

“We have to be in the top eight in the world in baseball to qualify, that’s how we’re thinking.

“But if you look at all those young guys that are playing in America, in three years’ time they are going to be at the top of their game.

“I think we’re all going to get together and make a good run at it.”

Reason for optimism in a sport on the rise.

Australia’s victory over China sees them gain automatic qualification to the 2021 World Baseball Classic, but before that they will be aiming for a potential debut in the Premier12 tournament and chasing a berth in the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.

Nathan Lange

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