Stepping up to the plate

Craig Barnett wants Berwick City to aspire to play finals this summer. Picture: SUPPLIED

By Lance Jenkinson

Berwick City Cougars ace Craig Barnett is itching to throw down the first pitch of the Baseball Victoria Summer League Division 1 season.

The 26-year-old’s motivation is overflowing because of the potential the season could hold, on both a personal and a team level.

There was no off switch over the winter for Barnett, who got creative during the Melbourne lockdown to remain sharp.

Some players around the league might have cheated during the break, taking sessions off here and there, potentially days and weeks at a time. But Barnett remained focused.

That kind of dedication is why he was recently crowned the Cougars’ most valuable player for a third year running.

If Barnett was not repeatedly throwing the ball against a fence, he was taking over the nets at the Clyde Cricket Club hitting the ball off a tee.

His gym equipment at home did not sit idle for too long either.

“I’ve tried my best to take advantage of it,” he said.

“I’ve been training three or four days a week.

“You weren’t allowed to see anyone for a long time there, so there was a lot of throwing into a fence, and when it came to hitting, I went down to the Clyde Cricket Club and had a hit in their cricket nets just by myself off with a bucket of balls.

“I’m very excited for the season to start now because I feel like I’m sort of ahead of everyone.”

Barnett’s latest MVP award came in a typically strange 2020 style.

The 2019-20 season was the furthest thing from his mind when he was scrolling social media to find the Cougars’ club awards would still be handed out six months after the last pitch.

It is an important award, one that Barnett cherishes, so it did not matter to him how he received it.

“I completely forgot about it until they mentioned it on Facebook that we’re having our awards night,” he said.

“The last season was completely gone from my mind and then all of a sudden it came back.

“Always very humbling, very proud.

“It’s just great to have the recognition from my peers and the coaching staff.”

Barnett has won two Division 2 league MVPs and you would not put it past him taking out the highest honour in Division 1 this summer.

His craftiness on the mound – a mishmash of curveballs, sliders and off-speed pitches – make him difficult to counter for the batters.

He is a quality batter himself, too, as well as a good leader in the clubhouse, so he brings so much to the table for the Cougars.

Entering the prime of his career, Barnett has not given up hope of one day playing for the Melbourne Aces, but he concedes the dream is slowly slipping away.

“I’d love to play for the Melbourne Aces one day if the opportunity ever came up,” he said.

“I’ve been down to a few sessions with the Aces and played in a practice game or two, but nothing more than that.

“If it came up, I’d absolutely jump at it.

“If there was ever a chance, I guess it would be now, wouldn’t it?

“Being realistic with myself, I’m loving my time at Berwick and I’m really all about Berwick winning baseball games.”

Barnett is excited about Berwick City’s prospects this season.

The Cougars narrowly missed out on the finals last summer, something that will drive the team entering the new season.

“We were knocked out of finals contention with two games to go in a 27-game season last year,” Barnett lamented.

“There’s no reason why we can’t be playing finals baseball this year if we get it all together.

“The guys are all in.”

The moment Barnett saw his teammates back in training, he could tell how much they wanted to atone for last season.

His teammates came back in tip top shape and ready to impress recently extended coach Shaun Surtees.

“A few of the guys have come back in the best shape of their lives,” Barnett enthused.

“It’s not only great for their baseball, but it’s great for them as people too.

“We’ve had a couple of guys lose a considerable amount of weight and really trim up and make their body great.

“Those guys are going to be the ones where you say ‘wow’ when you see them this season.

“I think we’re in a very good position.”

A big advantage Berwick City will have over some rivals is its home-grown pitching roster.

Barnett is working closely with young and talented pitchers Cameron Gibbens, a Melbourne Aces and LA Dodgers contracted player, and Matthew West, a promising teenager.

Barnett predicts rival teams with a heavy reliance on import pitchers could be in for a difficult summer.

“A lot of clubs will be found out,” he said.

“There’s clubs out there who rely solely on imports to do all their pitching.

“They score a couple of runs off their own bat and that’s how they’ve scraped across the line.

“(For) teams like ourselves – and I can think of another couple who rely heavily on home-grown talent – it’s definitely going to be an advantage.

“The clubs that are stealing wins from them are coming back to the pack now because they don’t have an import they can rely on.”

Berwick City’s first game in a shortened 16-game season will be on 6 December away to the Malvern Braves.