30 Jan 2020

Auckland Tuatara ready for baseball finals

11:40 am on 30 January 2020

There is an air of confidence around the Auckland Tuatara ballpark.

Auckland Tuatara Max Brown and Kent Blackstone.
Action from the Australian Baseball League

Auckland Tuatara's Max Brown and Kent Blackstone. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

What started out as a tumultuous second season in the Australian Baseball League, the Tuatara overcame setbacks to book a spot in the semifinals for the first time.

As the club prepared for the best-of-three semi-final series against the Melbourne Aces, which starts tonight, there was a belief that the Tuatara could take the title.

The fact that the Tuatara had not beaten the Aces in four attempts, or that their star pitcher Josh Collementor headed home on the eve of the playoffs, did not dent American second baseman Kent Blackstone's bold optimism.

Blackstone was in no doubt about how tonight's game in Melbourne would play out.

"We're gonna beat 'em," he said.

Blackstone was not posturing and he is not the only person at the club that felt that way.

From Tuatara general manager Regan Wood right down to the burgeoning fanbase, there was a feeling that the club would once again beat the odds.

"They're gonna be a tough test for us but I'm not worried or I'm not intimidated playing against [Melbourne], every team we've played in this league are beatable, so we're gonna beat 'em," Blackstone said.

Blackstone arrived in New Zealand after the death of Tuatara player Ryan Costello and witnessed the club build from the tragedy and a run of losses to eventually start winning.

He gave an honest assessment of what it was like to be a part of the Tuatara's record-breaking season.

"We kinda sucked at first together and went through those growing pains and then we just took off.

"I mean that was a lot of fun, so we have that confidence that we've been on both ends of that and the winning side's a lot better."

Auckland Tuatara's Kent Blackstone

Kent Blackstone Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Blackstone has played a lot of baseball, but said his time with the Tuatara was different.

"It's a once in a lifetime experience I'd say.

"I can be all cliché about it but I think things happen for a reason and I ended up here for some reason and I've absolutely had a blast.

"I was telling the guys that this is the first team that I've been on, in pro ball or in college, that is a first-place team so it has been pretty special to me and I am hoping we can ride this out to the end."

Auckland Tuatara manager Stephen Mintz

Steve Mintz Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Manager Steve Mintz said the team would not make excuses despite not being at full strength for the biggest games in the club's history.

Pitcher Josh Collmenter, who has been with the Tuatara since the start, returned to America last week for personal reasons.

He had a shutout in his last appearance for the club which helped the Tuatara clinch the playoff spot and finish top of the Northeast Division.

"The loss of Collmenter that leaves, I wanna say a little hole, but that leaves a hole to fill," Mintz said.

"If somebody leaves then the next guy needs to do what they need to do, that's been our mindset all year and it has worked out for us very well to get us to get to this point."

Mintz remained optimistic all season despite the changes in personnel the club had endured for a variety of reasons.

"It's things that everybody in the league deals with, and yes, we probably had a little more than most this year, but I'm just super proud of the way we have rebounded from a 1-8 start and then understanding exactly how good we knew we could be and then seeing it actually take place on the field."

The Tuatara faced the Aces in one series this season - they lost all four games.

But Mintz said the club is in a different place now than it was two months ago.

Ryan Costello.
Auckland Tuatara. Costello died on 18/11/2019

Ryan Costello Photo: Photosport

"With Ryan's passing, looking back on it now we probably never should have played that first weekend, but the guys were adamant they wanted to, they felt like that was something Ryan would want us to do to play baseball.

"[We were] very distracted that round and even into that second week [against Melbourne] we were winning three of those games before we kinda threw them away."

Mintz expected a different result against the second placed team in the Southwest Division this time.

"Their team has changed, our team has changed, we feel like we've got information to be able to know how to pitch them and it is going to come down to an execution thing because there is not a team left in this competition that can't win the whole thing."

The Tuatara return to their home ballpark at North Harbour Stadium on Saturday for game two and potential game three on Sunday.

The two winners of the semifinals will play in a best-of-three Championship final from 6-9 February.