Black Sox worlds squad lacks new blood
Eddie Kohlhase talked the talk but picked the walk when it came to making a significant shift in the Black Sox softball team's style of play.
Since the Black Sox surrendered their world title to Australia in 2009, coach Kohlhase carped about abandoning our baseball-derived power-hitting philosophy for a return to New Zealand's traditional speed-based "short game" built around manufacturing runs through bunting, slapping, contact hitting and aggressive base-running.
But little changed on Sunday, when Kohlhase and his co-selectors named their 17-man squad for the world championships in Auckland in March.
Yes, he has two young pitchers - Canterbury's Penese Iosefo, 25, and Hutt Valley's Nik Hayes, 23 -but the only other new faces are Wellington catcher Aaron Stroman-Neemia, Hutt Valley infielder Tyson Byrne, outfielders Jerome Haretuku (Auckland), Wayne Laulu (Wellington) and Canterbury's Tyron Bartorillo, a now-naturalised New Zealander who represented his native Australia in 2009.
The remaining 10 players were all on the roster in 2009 when Kohlhase admitted the Black Sox paid a price defensively for being a little too leg-weary.
Only last week, Kohlhase hinted some veterans might fail to make the 2013 cut. But the only omissions from the 2009 squad were two men still very much in their prime - Auckland shortstop Nathan Nukunuku, 32, and Canterbury outfielder and captain Gareth Cook, 34.
Nukunuku appears to have been discarded on attitude, not ability. There is a perception he picks and chooses when he's available for New Zealand. But so have others who have been selected.
Besides, it's a test of a top coach to bring out the best in so-called "challenging " players for the good of the team. Witness Graham Henry's handling of Rugby World Cup-winning All Blacks Ma'a Nonu, Piri Weepu and Andrew Hore.
Cook's snubbing beggars belief. Ask anyone who saw him lead Canterbury to the National Fastpitch Championship final on Sunday and watched him bat in three runs to win a vital playoff game.
The Black Sox are certainly not short of experience. Two players - Jarrad Martin, named as an outfielder not a first baseman, and Thomas Makea - date back to 1996, when New Zealand achieved the first of three successive titles.
Outfielder Donny Hale (Auckland) and infielder Brad Rona (North Harbour) have been on board since the 2000 triumph in South Africa while catcher Patrick Shannon joined the aforementioned foursome on the 2004 gold medal squad in Christchurch.
All are New Zealand softball greats - Makea and Martin would rival former captain Mark Sorenson as the best Black Sox ballplayer of all time. Martin will be 40 by March and the other four are in their mid to late 30s - not old for a sport like softball, where, like cricket, players tend to peak in their late 20s to early 30s.
The Famous Five are also still among the best batters in the country - but are they as good as they were in 2009, let alone 2004, when the Black Sox boasted the best batting lineup in world softball history. Unlikely.
How does Kohlhase shoehorn them all into his lineup at the same time without compromising his stated aim of playing a "short" game?
Only one can fill the designated hitter (DH) - a slugger who bats but doesn't field - berth. Rona was a world-class third baseman but does he have the speed to play there now? Or does he duke it out with Martin and Hale for first base. Martin is the only specialist and none is left-handed - a definite advantage for a first baseman.
Shannon had his difficulties behind the dish in Saskatoon, infamously throwing behind an Australian baserunner. The Aucklander isn't a better catcher now than Stroman-Neemia but he's still a devastating batter with his trademark open stance. Makea is the finest outfielder the Black Sox have ever had - even better than the late, great Jimmy Cotter. But he's had his share of injuries and can he still cover the same ground?
The logjam for the DH job might mean no room in the starting lineup for Laulu, a DH for Wellington.
Kohlhase has two options. He can relegate some of his vets to the pinch-hitter roles whereby they get one bat a game.
Or he could adopt a "platooning" strategy. He could start his power men and hope they knock in some early runs and then replace them with defensive specialists - men such as Haretuku and Canterbury utility Daniel Milne - to protect the lead. He would then have the option to bring back the starters if needed to drive in more runs later in the game.
He could even use ace pitcher Jeremy Manley - a top hitter in his own right - in the outfield at a pinch when he's not needed on the mound.
The selectors have taken a massive gamble in discarding Nukunuku, a Black Sox automatic selection since 2000.
Bartorillo is a specialist shortstop but he's better suited to third base at international level and is likely to start there if Rona moves to the first-base corner.
Byrne could take over the shortstop slot but has played most of his career at second base and still looks more comfortable there.
Milne, who plays shortstop at club level but outfield for Canterbury, has been named as an infielder.
Bartorillo and Byrne do give the Black Sox some extra short-game options on offence along with Enoka, Haretuku and Milne. But, basically, this is a slugger-stacked squad. Fortunately, Hale, Rona and Shannon still rank among the best in the world but they and the rest of their team-mates couldn't produce a run in two playoff losses to Australia in 2009 and now they're four years older.
The Black Sox still have a lot of hard work to do on hitting rise balls before they face Australia's hard-throwing pitcher Adam Folkard, who had their measure in Saskatoon.
But Kohlhase must remember the old adage of picking the best defensive specialists at catcher, shortstop and centrefield.
As the masterly former New Zealand women's coach Ed Dolejs always maintained - batting wins games but defence wins tournaments.
Let's hope Kohlhase doesn't live to regret leaving out Nukunuku, Cook and young Wellington centrefielder Campbell Makea.
There's one other glaring gap on the Black Sox roster. Make room for Mark Sorenson as technical adviser. The wily Chubb Tangaroa is the pitching coach and there's no-one better to help Manley, Iosefo, Shannon and Hayes with their mechanics.
But when the chips are down, as they will be, New Zealand will need someone to call the right pitch at the right time to the right batter, someone to instantly assess a hitter's weakness.
For all the experience in this squad, no-one is better at that than Sorenson.
Don't waste one of the game's biggest brains in an ornamental ambassador role. Give him a dugout job.
- © Fairfax NZ News