The Rays had several prospects and a coach participating in the Australian Baseball League season this winter and they represented the team well. Their Brisbane team was able to knock Adelaide out 7 to 1, winning the Championship Series and winning the Claxton Shield.
As Baseball America's Vince Lara-Cinisomo puts it:
Brisbane had a heavy Rays flavor with Unroe and Williams joined by fellow Tampa Bay farmhands Nick Ciuffo, Bralin Jackson and Maxx Tissenbaum, while Michael Johns, manager of the Rays’ affiliate in high Class-A Charlotte, is third base coach for Brisbane.
The win was especially sweet for the Rays prospects (and an ex-Rays prospect), led by Tissenbaum (now in the Marlin's organization).
Let's do it for Nick Ciuffo
Unfortunately, Ciuffo broke his finger, and the Rays decided to end his ABL season early rather than risk further damange. Team leader Tissenbaum turned that broken finger into motivation to win the Championship. As Tissenbaum noted in the Australian press:
"We were hoping he could come back towards the end of the season and help us in the last few series, but they (the Rays) pay the contracts so they make the call."
Rays prospects had good seasons for the Bandits, and seemed to enjoy the experience as well:
- Justin Williams: .342/.398/.582 with 12 doubles, 1 triple, and 10 HR. Of note is that he was 2nd in the league in total bases with 107, and that he walked 12 times while striking out only 25 times in 184 AB.
- Riley Unroe: .318/.402/.389 with 9 doubles and 3 triples. He added speed in the lineup with 14 SB, getting caught stealing 4 times, and walked 33 times while striking out only 37 times in 211 AB.
THE BRISBANE BANDITS ARE CHAMPIONS OF THE ABL FOR THE FIRST TIME SINCE 2006!!!!— ABL (@ABLeague) February 6, 2016
- Bralin Jackson: .264/.328/.366 with 9 doubles, 2 triples, 3 HR. Of note is that he did strike out 52 times in 212 AB and was caught stealing 7 times while stealing 5 bases. While he didn't play in the winning game, he did hit a HR the previous game, shown below.
- Nick Ciuffo: Didn't complete the series, but did manage a .259/.279/.432 line before getting injured. He hit 5 doubles and 3 HR, striking out 14 times while walking 2 times over 81 AB.
- Michael Johns: The 3rd base coach in Charlotte was able to help all of the players improve, but was noted by Williams as being key to his development.
To make sure we cover all of the bases, here's the box score from the winning game for Brisbane:
As you can see, Unroe and Williams both played key roles in the win, with Unroe leading off and managing a hit and a walk, and Williams earning a hit. Each scored a run and now get to call themselves ABL Champions.
For Justin Williams and Maxx Tissenbaum this adds to their Florida State League Championship with Charlotte and begins to build quite the trophy case and a memorable year overall. Williams actually made the winning catch:
Winning breeds winning, which bodes well for Wiliams and his future as a Ray. With impressive performances and playoff success in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, Williams could make a significant leap forward in 2016.
The ABL Experience
Rays prospects have benefited from ABL participation, with several building on this experience to advance in the system. Kevin Kiermaier made the jump down under in 2011/12, and both Justin O'Conner and Patrick Leonard did the same later on.
Speaking about the current Bandits squad, Brisbane manger Dave Nilsson had this to add:
"All teams say that but this is one of the best groups I've ever been around," Nilsson said. "I can't really put it into words, I'm just so proud of my team. So many individuals have just had great years and I'm just glad that everyone can celebrate and everyone feels like we're part of one big family."
World Growth of Baseball
You don't have to look any further than Grant Balfour, Peter Moylan, and Liam Hendriks to see the impact the ABL is having on baseball in Australia. The more players MLB teams send, the more the sport will grow. In truth, this is about as great a win-win-win experience for the players-MLB teams-ABL as they get to improve-get better prospects-grow the game.
With South America, Central America, and the Caribbean representing the ABL's biggest competition during off seasons, it's great to see another area of the world enhance its exposure and promote the game to its athletes and sport fans. It may not be as popular as Rugby, and is unlikely to ever be, but it's making headway and it's showing up in how closely followed the ABL has become and in how many players are sent down under.