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British Baseball Beat: NBL Opening Day 2017

by Matt Smith

This Sunday (2 April) marks the return of the National Baseball League (NBL), British baseball’s top-tier competition.

The 2017 edition once again involves seven teams, with reigning champions the Southampton Mustangs having the target on their back and firmly in the sights of the London Mets, Brighton Jets, Essex Arrows, Herts Falcons, London Capitals, and South London Pirates.

The teams are scheduled to play 30 games each, generally scheduled as 7-inning double-headers, between April and August before the play-offs – the National Baseball Championships – in late August and early September.

Southampton Mustangs v London Mets

The season gets underway at Farnham Park near Slough with a repeat of 2016’s fantastic final between the Mustangs and Mets.

The London Mets (26-2) narrowly edged the Southampton Mustangs (25-3) over the regular season, yet the latter were able to recover from losing the opener of their best-of-three final by winning the remaining two games and claiming their first ever NBL title.

The Mets have made three national finals in a row, taking the crown in 2015 (the third title in their history) by beating the Mustangs two games to nil to further demonstrate that they have been the two form teams recently. Over those three season, they hold the best regular season record of the five constant NBL teams at 56-14, good for an outstanding .800 winning percentage.

Pre-season comments from the club note that they have lost some key personnel over the winter, but London’s great strength for years has been their depth through their host of teams. They are sure to be a formidable force once again.

The Mets hold a 9-4 series record over the Mustangs combined across the past three regular seasons and won their 2016 season series 3-2. Those two wins for Southampton were the only losses inflicted on the Mets all season, doubled up by the two defeats to the Mustangs in the NBC.

The Mustangs have also made some changes over the off-season, but all-time top-tier home run leader Maikel Azcuy is still on the squad and there is set to be a return to the NBL for the Trask brothers, Ryan and Michael, whose British league careers have been with Richmond up to now.

And, the Mustangs will have Great Britain pitcher Rei Martinez on the mound. When these two teams mets on Opening Day last season, Martinez pitched a no-hitter.

It may be too much to expect such an epic start to the season this time around, but the two teams are sure to show why they were the best of British in 2016 and once again will be heading off to represent British baseball in Europe later this season.

Herts Falcons v Brighton Jets

The other NBL double-header on Sunday takes place at Grovehill Ballpark, Hemel Hempstead, where the Herts Falcons host the Brighton Jets.

Brighton stepped up to the top-tier last year and had a very creditable first season by finishing fifth out of seven teams.

Most notably, five of their nine victories came at the expense of the Falcons. They won all three meetings between the two teams at Grovehill, whilst also sweeping a double-heading in Brighton.

That gives the Falcons even more incentive to use Opening Day to put a challenging 2016 behind them.

Herts finished second in the 2015 regular season standings before their title charge was brought to a crashing halt in the play-offs. They led their ‘play-in’ game against the Mustangs 5-1, but Southampton turned the game around and prevailed 11-6 to deny Herts their second NBL final appearance (the first – and only so far – a 6-3 loss to the Harlow Nationals in 2012).

Some key player departures also followed and saw the Falcons fall to a 6-24 record in 2016. Lee Manning’s squad will be intent on getting more wins on the board this year and pushing for a play-off spot.

Head along!

It’s free entry at Farnham Park and Grovehill Ballpark, so if you’re in either area on Sunday get yourself to a game or two before heading home to enjoy the MLB triple-header on TV that evening. For further details, check out the BBF website.

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