Black Sox hitters can tame 'flamethrower'
World softball's best slugger, Donny Hale, is sure the Black Sox batters won't be psyched out by Australia's pitching ace at the upcoming world softball championship in Auckland.
Australian flame-thrower Adam Folkard hurled a no-hitter to beat the Kiwis 5-0 in the 2009 world championship final in Canada and scuttled their dream of a fourth successive title.
The right-hander had the wood on Hale, Jarrad Martin, Brad Rona, Thomas Makea, Travis Wilson and Patrick Shannon - some of the greatest batters in the world. Not once, but twice, the Kiwis had collectively failed to score off the Canberra pitcher after a 7-0 thrashing in the first round of the playoffs.
Folkard has been hailed as the best pitcher of the 21st century, a throwback to past greats like Kiwis Kevin Herlihy and Michael White, the United States' Ty Stofflet and Canada's Darren Zack.
But Hale, who's won batting titles in three countries, knows from first-hand experience that Folkard can be vulnerable. He, Rona and Black Sox outfielder Ben Enoka helped their Canadian club team Jarvis Ontario Travelers beat Folkard's Hill United Chiefs in the International Softball Congress (ISC) tournament final in Michigan last September.
Hale hammered a home run and a single off Folkard and Rona had three hits from four at-bats as Jarvis became the first team in 55 years to win three back-to-back titles at the ISC event, world softball's most prestigious club tournament.
Asked if the Black Sox now believed they could beat Folkard in a big final, Hale said: "Definitely. Obviously we had some good at-bats against him. We [Jarvis] touched up for 13 runs in one game and eight in another. It gives you a big boost going into these world championships knowing that we didn't fear him as we did in '09.
"He's four years older and he's not throwing as hard, although he might get sharper [by the time the world championship starts]."
But Hale insists the Black Sox aren't solely obsessed with Australia at the world championship, beginning at Albany's Rosedale Park on March 1.
"Japan are right up there along with Canada, and Argentina is now producing some very good pitchers."
The championship will be Hale's fourth since he won the first of two gold medals at East London, South Africa, in 2000.
The 37-year-old Aucklander first played for the Black Sox in 1994 as a teenage pitcher. He reckons a four-year stint in Japan has "definitely extended" his international career.
Hale plays for the Osaka Momojiro club in Japan's lucrative Top League. He's one of only four foreign players. Ex-Black Sox pitcher Thomas Cameron played for his club this year while Australian pitcher Adam Kirkpatrick pitched to another former Black Sox, Nathan Nukunuku, on an opposition team.
"It's a pretty good standard," Hale said.
"It's their culture that anything they do, they do well. They train hard, as you can see from a lot of their sports."
Hale reckons it's been a "two-way learning" process. He's Momojiro's technical adviser and has helped them - "when the language barrier doesn't get in the way" - tactically while "the training regime has really helped my game".
Recognised more as a designated player or DP, a spot reserved for a slugger who rarely fields, Hale plays in the outfield for Osaka and said he was capable of playing there again for the Black Sox.
He won a Japanese championship in 2009 which helped "soften the blow" of losing the world series to the Australians. One season he also took out "the triple crown", winning the league awards for top batter, most RBIs (runs batted in) and home runs.
Hale shattered a 14-year-old North American record last year for the most RBIs (17) at an ISC tournament. He also tied the home runs record with six, to share the pedestal with Black Sox buddies Martin and Shannon, and took home the MVP award after 11 hits from 19 at-bats for a .579 average.
No wonder pitchers break out in a sweat and outfielders retreat to the perimeter fence when Hale enters the batter's box.
He said he was a smarter hitter now than when the Black Sox won a third consecutive world title in Christchurch in 2004 with a batting lineup regarded as the greatest seen in world softball.
"I believe I'm definitely mentally better now, that's probably the biggest thing. As I've said to a lot of younger players, I've had a huge number of at-bats and been through every situation, as opposed to the younger guys coming through now."
Playing at home brings its own pressures and Hale said he "will still be nervous" under the first high ball in the outfield, "it doesn't matter how long you've been playing".
But he fondly remembers the highs of winning a world title before a home crowd in 2004. It's an experience he's anxious to repeat nine years on.
- © Fairfax NZ News
Has Home and Away jumped the shark? (spoiler)