Australian League begins anew Down Under

Australian League begins anew Down Under

Australian League begins anew Down Under

Four hours after the Boston Red Sox ended the 2013 Major League Baseball season by defeating the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 6 of the World Series, a whole new season began more than 10,000 miles away. Back for its fourth year, the Australian Baseball League opened up in front of a sellout crowd at Narrabundah Ballpark, home of the defending champion Canberra Cavalry, presented by Rolfe Renault.

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Hosting the Jet Couriers Melbourne Aces, the Cavalry took the season opener, 10-3, and went on to win the first three games of the four-game set, before the Aces salvaged the finale, 7-6.

Leading the charge for the Cavalry was former Phillies farmhand Jeremy Barnes, who went 7-for-16 (.438) with five RBIs in the series. Blue Jays prospects Michael Crouse and Jack Murphy also made major contributions, with Crouse producing six RBIs -- tied for the league lead -- and Murphy going 6-for-14 (.429) with three RBIs.

On the mound, Brian Grening made a stellar start for Canberra on opening night, striking out eight Aces while allowing just one walk and five hits. The righty yielded three unearned runs over seven innings. Nick Pugliese, a one-time member of the Angels organization, looked sharp out of the bullpen for Canberra, making two scoreless appearances and recording five of his seven outs via the strikeout.

For the Aces, Rockies prospect Ryan Casteel led the team with seven hits, collecting at least one in each of the four games and going 3-for-3 in Game 1 of Saturday's doubleheader. The 22-year-old Casteel is coming off a strong season with the Class A Advanced Modesto Nuts, in which he blasted 22 home runs and drove in 76 runs.

Melbourne native Brad Harman, who played four games for the 2008 World Series champion Philadelphia Phillies, sat each of the first two nights, but went 5-for-8 with two home runs while playing in both halves of Saturday's twin bill. Fellow Aussie Scott Wearne -- who made headlines this past summer for his remarkable 7-10 bowling split with two baseballs -- also had a strong weekend for the Aces, going 5-for-11 with a pair of RBIs.

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While most of the opening-weekend action was being played on the East Coast, the Perth Heat and Sydney Blue Sox opened the season at Barbagallo Ballpark on the West Coast in Perth in a series that featured both the Pitcher and Player of the Week for Round 1.

The Heat took their season opener, 10-0, but the Blue Sox responded by taking the final three games of the series by a combined score of 23-6.

Perth's Tucker Nathans, an Orioles product, led all ABL players with nine hits while batting .500 over the weekend, and his teammate Brandon Tripp led the league with five runs scored. Tripp -- who has spent seven years in the Minors as part of the Orioles, Marlins and Phillies organizations -- saw four of his six hits go for extra bases, including two home runs. The outfielder led his team with five RBIs and was named the ABL's Player of the Week for Round 1.

Sydney, after being shut out on opening night, flexed its muscles the rest of the weekend and was led by outfielders Keon Broxton (D-backs) and Trent Oeltjen (Angels). The 23-year-old Broxton was 6-for-14 with three RBIs over the weekend, coming off his first season with the Double-A Mobile BayBears.

The veteran Oeltjen, meanwhile, clubbed four doubles and drove in six to lead the league in both two-baggers and RBIs after the season's first four games. A native of Sydney, Oeltjen has put together a storied career that includes a silver medal at the 2004 Olympic Games, 99 games in the Major Leagues with the D-backs and Dodgers, and a career .295 batting average in 1,267 Minor League games.

Chicago White Sox prospect and 2013 third-round pick Jacob May also made major contributions for the Blue Sox, picking up five stolen bases. No other ABL player swiped more than two bases during the opening weekend. The 21-year-old May stole 24 bases in 66 games with the Great Falls Voyagers and Class A Kannapolis in his inaugural pro season.

On the bump, Perth's Mike Ekstrom delivered the most dominating performance of the weekend, allowing just three hits and striking out nine over seven innings in Friday's 10-0 Heat win. The 30-year-old Ekstrom, currently a part of the Angels system, has made a total of 51 Major League appearances over the course of five seasons with the Padres, Rays and Rockies. He earned ABL Pitcher of the Week honors for his efforts.

Angels prospect Aaron Sookee provided a shutout effort of his own for Sydney, fanning five over six innings in the Blue Sox's series-clinching 11-0 win on Sunday. Former Brewers farmhand Connor Whalen also made a solid start for Sydney, earning one of the two wins on Saturday after allowing just one unearned run on three hits in five innings.

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In Brisbane, it was the visiting Adelaide Bite, proudly presented by SA Power Networks, that became the only road team to win an opening-night affair, downing the Bandits, 10-6, in their first home game at historic Halloway Field. The Bandits recovered, however, and took the series by sweeping Saturday's twin bill and edging out a 4-3 squeaker on Sunday.

James Baldwin (Dodgers) and Joe Sclafani (Astros) each delivered four hits for the Bite in Friday night's win, and Sclafani went on to finish the weekend with three doubles, a home run and four RBIs. A 2012 14th-round pick out of Dartmouth, Sclafani is coming off an impressive 2013 campaign in which he hit .294 with seven home runs, 62 RBIs and 19 stolen bases in 111 games for the Class A Quad Cities River Bandits and Class A Advanced Lancaster.

Adelaide's own Ben Lodge, the 2012 ABL Rookie of the Year, also had a strong weekend for the Bite, going 6-for-13 with three doubles and two RBIs.

For Brisbane, Rays prospect Joey Rickard powered the Bandits with a pair of home runs -- one in each of the first two games -- while 21-year-old Indians prospect Andrew Campbell led the team with six hits. Rickard, a ninth-round pick in 2012, is coming off a solid season for Class A Bowling Green, in which he collected 122 hits, 29 doubles and 30 stolen bases.

Phoenix native Casey Barnes, 25, the Bandits' Game 3 starter, turned in the strongest start of the series, shutting out the Bite over five innings in a 4-0 win. The right-hander allowed just three hits and finished with three strikeouts.

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The Brisbane Bandits and Melbourne Aces will both be idle this weekend, while the Cavalry head to Sydney to meet the Blue Sox for three games. Perth travels to Adelaide for a four-game set that includes a Saturday doubleheader.

Craig Durham is a contributor to This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.