It’s a statistic which, in the modern era of professional sports, is hard to believe. However for the Melbourne Aces, it was proving to be a curse which was growing all the more painful with every failed trip interstate.Since the establishment of the ABL almost six-and-a-half years ago in 2010/11, the Melbourne Aces had never won a series on the road. These struggles were a key factor behind the team’s miserable all-time record of 111-166, which is by far the worst of the six ABL teams.
Heading into the 2016/17 season though, there was a wave of confidence sweeping through the clubhouse. Some impressive international signings, some fresh faces in the front office and within the coaching ranks, and some good young local talent, saw expectations raised and promise of the curse being broken.
After taking three of four against the Perth Heat at home to start the season, the Aces slipped and reversed that record in Adelaide against the Bite the following week, despite winning a tight opening game 2-1. Heading into this weekend’s series in Brisbane against the first place Bandits (5-3), they were keen to make amends and prove to Australian baseball fans that the hype existed for good reason.
In the series opener Friday night, former major leaguer Mark Hamburger tossed a gem, allowing just two hits and a walk on the way to a memorable complete game shutout which yielded 12 strikeouts. The bats were just as hot, with Atlanta Braves number 17 prospect Ronald Acuna (3-for-5, HR, 4 RBI) and Ryan Dale (2-for-4, HR, 2 RBI) leading the way as the Aces won a blowout, 8-0.
A rain-affected Saturday resulted in just one game of the scheduled double-header being played and the Aces made it two-in-a-row on the back of a huge six-run fifth inning. The highlight was back-to-back-to-back jacks from Acuna, Kansas City Royals prospect Roman Collins, and former Milwaukee Brewers minor leaguer Mike Walker, as the Aces went on to win 7-3. Japanese import Keisuke Honda picked up his second win of the season, allowing three runs in his rain-shortened 5.1 inning outing.
Sunday’s first game provided the Aces with a chance to break the curse and for much of the game, it looked like they’d need to wait for a while longer. Trailing 5-0 after five, in a seven-inning encounter, the Aces offense sparked to life in the 6th on the back of consecutive stolen bases from the speedy Acuna, before he was knocked in by Walker’s sharp double to right field. With plenty of work still to do in the seventh, the offense unleashed a ferocious one-out rally which produced six hits and five runs – lead by crucial RBI doubles from another Royals prospect, Cody Jones, and Walker. Suddenly holding a 6-5 lead, Josh Tols worked a clean bottom half of the inning to record the save and break the ABL’s most prominent curse.
With the curse broken and a chance of a rare series sweep on offer, the Aces were unrelenting in Game 4, racing out to an early 6-0 lead on the back of a five-run second inning, before ultimately winning 7-3. Jarryd Dale’s grand slam in the second was the shot which busted the game wide open, while Walker (2-for-4, HR, 2 RBI) and Liam Bedford (3-for-4, 2B) each impressed and turned in multi-hit games.
The series sweep sees the Aces move to the top of the ABL ladder, owning an 8-4 record, one game ahead of both the Sydney Blue Sox and Canberra Cavalry – their next opponent in a four-game set at home starting Friday night.