SYDNEY, NSW - The Southern Thunder is returning to the World Baseball Classic, after a triumphant 12-5 win from the host squad over South Africa in a competitive final game at the qualifier on Sunday afternoon at Blue Sox Stadium in Sydney.
Australia heads back to Major League Baseball's international tournament after leaving the event three years ago winless, and the squad will take to the field in 2017 at a venue to be determined at the end of next month.
"We deserve to be in the World Baseball Classic," Team Australia manager Jon Deeble said. "I think we deserve to be in the Premier 12 too, so this is great for the sport. The hard work these guys have put in, they deserve the fact that they are going to the World Baseball Classic."
Trailing 4-3 heading into the bottom of the sixth inning, Australia fought back to tie the matchup in the frame before adding two runs in the seventh and breaking the game open with a six-run eighth inning. Former big leaguer Trent Oeltjen - who came out of retirement to wear the green-and-gold uniform again - led the Aussie offence with three hits, two runs scored and two driven in.
"It's fantastic for the program [to have the players want to represent their country]," Deeble said. "You can see Oeltjen is a hero here. Guys like him, we've got to keep them playing, and [Peter] Moylan was just saying to me how much he enjoys it, so we need to get more of those."
Added Oeltjen: "It is amazing to be in another World Baseball Classic. We did what we came here to do and we will be in it next year, so that is very exciting…it is massive, not only for us but for the younger generation of kids. For baseball in Australia, it is huge."
South Africa took its first lead of the game in the top of the opening frame when Pittsburgh Pirates prospect Gift Ngoepe led off the matchup with a home run. The 26-year-old shortstop was the only man to do any damage against Aussie hurler Travis Blackley until the sixth, when catcher Kyle Botha sent a three-run shot out of the yard.
"If it was a bad pitch, I would understand," Blackley said. "But I made my pitch where I wanted, he just came out cheating on it I guess and got it. To give up the lead like that, I was not happy. I knew the boys in the bullpen were going to shut them down and we had the bats, so I wasn't too upset about it, just had to go get the next out and see what happened."
The big-league southpaw went 5 2/3 innings and allowed four runs on six hits with two walks and four strikeouts. He was followed by nine-year major-league veteran Moylan for 1 1/3 scoreless frames before Australian Baseball League saves record-holder Ryan Searle came in for the final two innings, sealing the deal with a perfect ninth.
"Our guys really battle," the Aussie skipper said. "We had some great at-bats, 17 hits tonight. Even when we got down, we had the ability to come back and the pitching was great. Moylan really helps in the middle for us, which we haven't had in the past, and Searle does a great job closing out games. So all in all, our pitching was very good for the whole tournament."
Australia tied the game for the first time in the bottom of the first, Oeltjen driving in a run with his third of four doubles over three games in the tournament, and both teams remained in the deadlock to the bottom of the fifth.
"[South Africa is] a really good team and they just keep going," Deeble said. "They struggled and they work hard and they're a niggly team, you never beat them. I knew this from the start that this wasn't going to be an easy competition.
"People said it would be a walk in the park and I said, 'This is going to be tough.' They proved that. 12-5, they sort of lacked a bit of depth in their bullpen but a couple more arms in the bullpen and it might be a one-run game."
Not having played together since the last qualifying tournament four years ago, the South African squad faced a tough challenge against the other three teams in Sydney, but battled right to the end against the more experienced Aussies.
"It is difficult to play at this level if you're not exposed to this level on a regular basis," South Africa manager Alan Phillips said. "Make no bones about it, that is a professional staff over there. They have quality pitchers and their position players are outstanding. Australia has a habit of producing decent sportsmen."
Added Blackley: "They played well up and above themselves today to start, they really came out on fire and they really dug their heels in and gave us a bit of a ride, but we were able to get through it in the end."
Back-to-back home runs from second baseman Brad Harman and catcher Allan de San Miguel - freshly signed to a minor-league contract with the Kansas City Royals - gave the Aussies a temporary lead in the fifth frame. Seven of Australia's starting nine had multi-hit contests.
The advancement for the qualifier favourites will help to continue the progression of the program on the international scene.
"It's big for Baseball Australia," Blackley said. "We had a bit of an unlucky run last time around, and the boys came out swinging today in this tournament and we got it done…On paper we clearly had the top team. We just had to go out here and take care of business and that's what the boys were able to do, so we're moving on."