By Bob Fromer
Pardubice, Czech Republic: July 20 – As the final fly ball out off the bat of Slovenia’s Gabrijela Humerca settled into Paul Gough’s glove in left field, there were no wild celebrations by the GB team. Instead, they wandered around the field in a bit of a daze, because the feeling was probably more relief than elation.
The GB Team had just won its ninth straight European Championship title, and the final score of 13-7 suggests that the win was reasonably comfortable. In fact, it was anything but, and this was a game that eventually put both GB and the Slovenians through the wringer. Although GB led from the third inning onwards, and gradually widened their lead to 9-1 at the end of five innings, the last two innings were a rollercoaster for both teams, with numerous points where the course of the game might have changed.
In the end, GB won this game, and the tournament, in part because they had more talent than anyone else — though Slovenia comes close — but more because that talent ran all the way through the 18-player squad. Every single one of those players made genuine contributions throughout the tournament and GB’s “rookie” Head Coach Steve Patterson, in his first European Championship, did a superb job of blending those contributions into a winning formula.
The day of the overdog
As befits GB’s status as the ruling power in European slowpitch softball, about 95% of a surprisingly large crowd was rooting for Slovenia during the final. The entire Irish team and a number of German players had somehow found Slovenian shirts to wear, and Slovenian promotional fans to bang together. The chanting and singing and dancing in the aisle behind the backstop was never-ending, and all of it was in support of the underdogs.
GB players are far too experienced to let the crowd get to them; instead it was the determined play of the Slovenians at the end of the game, who refused to give up a lost cause, that caused a few cracks in the GB facade.
In the end, GB had too much experience, too much batting strength, and too many runs on the board for Slovenia to overcome — and Slovenia’s seven errors to GB’s two didn’t help the underdog’s cause either.
But the atmosphere generated by the crowd, and the pressure points in the game that suddenly appeared in the last two innings, made this one of the more memorable European Slowpitch Championship finals.
Given that GB had beaten Slovenia 13-3 yesterday and 15-3 this morning in the Page Playoff 1v2 game, the atmosphere at the start of the final was surprisingly tense, and both offenses struggled. Suddenly, after an endless double round-robin and playoff games with second chances, this was the real thing — one game for the prize.
Dan Spinks, now a veteran of several of these finals, took to the circle for GB and set Slovenia down in order in the top of the first inning. Ales Mravlje for Slovenia set down the first two GB batters — but couldn’t quite escape unscathed. Steve Hazard singled, Chiya Louie doubled to left centre and Steve scored when the Slovenian outfielders bobbled the ball — the first of several times that happened.
Brett Gibbens, who had powered two home runs in the 1v2 game, was the next batter, but his long drive was caught at the fence in centre field by Gabrijela Humerca — just one of several GB batters who appeared to be looking for home run glory early in the game.
Slovenia tied the score in the top of the second, the first time they had been level with GB in the tournament. Tjasa Skabar, who had three hits for Slovenia, led off with a single, went to second when Nicola Duerden let the ball get behind her, moved to third on a fly ball out and scored on a single by Peter Milosec.
GB pull away
Dan Spinks and the GB defense shut down the Slovenians through the third, fourth and fifth innings, and meanwhile, GB pulled ahead and pulled away.
Two more runs were scored in the third inning on a single by Lee Cornwall, a double by Danny Gunn and a single by Ruth Macintosh — though GB lost another run when Emily Clifford (who had reached on a fielder’s choice) and Danny Gunn wound up together at third base and Emily was the victim.
In the fourth inning, GB added two more. Brett Gibbens and Jenny Ball singled to lead off the inning, and the runs were eventually driven in by Nicola Duerden on a fielder’s choice and Emily Clifford on a two-strike single to centre.
Then, in the fifth inning, GB scored four more, all with two out, and looked to have put the game away. Chiya Louie singled to centre and Brett Gibbens singled past second base on a ball that took a bad hop past Peter Milosec — unfortunately a pretty regular occurrence during the tournament, as both the infield and outfield on the main field at Krtkova Arena have been treacherous. Jenny Ball then reached on an error by Milosec to load the bases, and Dan Spinks poked a very effective two-run single to right field. Nicola Duerden stroked an equally clutch single to centre to drive in two more runs and GB led 9-1.
But Slovenia are too good a team to lie down, and they came charging back with three runs in the top of the sixth inning to cut the GB lead to 9-4. That in itself wouldn’t have been so alarming, but after those three runs had scored, Slovenia loaded the bases with two out on a single by Gabrijela Humerca, Dan Spinks’ first walk of the tournament to Peter Milosec and the automatic walk to Tina Trobec that followed.
Up stepped Ziga Strukelj, and one good hit might have suddenly made the game a very close affair indeed.
But Strukelj went after the first pitch and flied out to Brett Gibbens in left.
GB breathed a collective sigh of relief, came in for the bottom of the sixth, and promptly put four huge runs on the board that made their lead all but impregnable. Emily Clifford led off with a single, Danny Gunn doubled and Ruth Macintosh reached on yet another error by Peter Milosec at second base. GB had the bases loaded and Steve Hazard at the plate.
Steve promptly singled to left to drive in two, Chiya Louie got a bad hop single to drive in a third and Nicola Duerden came up with yet another clutch base hit to drive in the fourth.
So GB took a 13-4 lead into the top of the seventh inning, and Slovenia was never going to make that up.
But they tried — and suddenly you could feel the tension among the GB players on the field.
Pinch-hitter Jerneja Cedilnik led off with a little bloop single to left. Jenny Ball made a fine play on Andraz Skabar’s hard grounder to first to get the force out at second, but Savina Golinic singled and Dan Spinks walked pinch-hitter Tomo Zezlina to force in a run.
Tjasa Skabar then drove a line shot up the gap in left centre for a double to bring in two more and suddenly the inning felt like it was getting away from GB. Except that Tjasa Skabar got greedy and tried for the triple, and was cut down by a fine relay from Nicola Duerden to Steve Hazard to Chiya Louie for the second out.
That took the wind out of the Slovenian sails, and though Ales Mravlje followed with a double, there was no momentum left and Gabrijela Humerca flied out to Paul Gough to end the game.
As expected, GB dominated the individual awards at the Closing Ceremony. Roger Grooms was the tournament’s Best Pitcher, Jenny Ball the Best Female Batter and Danny Gunn the Best Male Batter.
The Most Valuable Player awards went to Ruth Lillis of Ireland and Ales Maravlje of Slovenia.
And after all the awards had been given out, it was entirely in the spirit of the tournament that the three medal teams and all the spectators danced together on the field to the song that has become the tournament anthem, Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline”.
THE REST OF THE DAY
Four games preceded the final on Saturday, three of them in the Page Playoff.
In the other game, Serbia and the Czech Republic played after lunch to decide fifth place, with the Czechs winning 20-0 over a depleted Serbian team down to only nine fit players.
Here is what happened in the Page Playoff 3v4 game, the 1v2 game and then the semi-final.
PAGE PLAYOFF 3v4 GAME
The first game of the day was the Page Playoff 3v4 game between Germany and Ireland. The loser would be done and would finish fourth; the winner would play the loser of the 1v2 game for a place in the final.
Both teams scored a run in the first inning and Ireland added another in the second on a triple by Peter Mullen to right field when Germany chose to play three of their four outfielders to the left of second base. But Germany scored five in the bottom of the second to take command of the game.
That lasted until the top of the sixth, when Ireland loaded the bases with two outs and called on their pinch hitter extraordinaire, Colum Lavery, who promptly hit a shot down the right field line, clearing the bases and bringing the Irish to within a run at 7-6. But Ruth Lillis flied out to end the inning, leaving Colum on third.
In the seventh inning, Ireland got a leadoff single from Frank Geoghegan and another from Eoin Connor with one out, but both runners died on base.
PAGE PLAYOFF 1v2 GAME
A powerful and convincing 15-3 win over Slovenia in the Page Playoff 1v2 game put the GB Slowpitch Team into its ninth straight European final.
The first time that GB and Slovenia had met in this competition, in round-robin play on Thursday, the game was close and low-scoring and GB only won by 4-1. But Slovenia has been unable to contain the GB offense since, losing 13-3 yesterday in pool play and then 15-3 today. GB just had too many weapons.
“We’re locked in,” said GB Assistant Coach Mike Ashley, “and we just need to stay that way.”
“After 12 games in four days in the heat, we’re running on fumes,” said Slovenian Coach Derek Ward. “We just don’t have the depth on the bench that GB has — they’re really 18 players strong.”
If there can be such a thing as a dominant pitcher in slowpitch, that’s what Roger Grooms has been in this tournament.
In the 1v2 game against Slovenia, Roger had only one inning, the fourth, when his command slipped and Slovenia rattled off four straight hits and scored two runs. Otherwise, Roger was completely in control, setting down Slovenia on six pitches in the first inning, five pitches in the second, seven pitches in the third, nine pitches in the fifth (when Slovenia scored their only other run on an error that turned a single into four bases), 10 pitches in the sixth inning and seven pitches in the seventh.
You will have to go a long way to see that kind of efficiency and economy in a slowpitch game.
But the thing the Slovenians probably found most discouraging, with the final in mind, was that GB’s power was on full display in this game.
When GB turned an early 2-0 advantage into 7-0 with five runs in the bottom of the third inning, the bulk of those runs came on consecutive triples by Steve Hazard and Chiya Louie and then a long and satisfying home run over the left field fence by Brett Gibbens, his first of a tournament in which he has spent a long time trying to do exactly that.
Things didn’t start well for Brett when his bat failed to pass the ESF’s compression test before the competition began, so he has had to use other people’s bats. He has struggled at times, caught between trying to find his home run stroke (despite the discouragingly soft balls the ESF are using in this tournament) and the desire to hit the singles and doubles that will usually produce just as many runs.
But GB Head Coach Steve Patterson kept faith in a player who has been GB’s main source of power and RBIs for the past decade, and in this game Brett repaid the trust, belting a second home run into the trees behind the left field fence in the bottom of the sixth inning when GB scored a final five runs to make the game utterly safe.
Keeping up the average
The GB team, who finished the 10-game round-robin with a collective batting average of .564, came up with 18 hits in this game, eight of them for extra bases.
Steve Hazard hit for the cycle, with a single, double, triple and a line drive home run over the fence in left field, good for four RBIs, and Jenny Ball had three singles and a double. Nicola Duerden had two singles and David Lee had a pinch-hit RBI double, typical of the way that Steve Patterson has used his bench during the tournament to pick up runs in key situations.
The only time Slovenia even threatened to score was during a sudden offensive outburst in the fourth inning, when Tina Kramberger, Andraz Skabar, Tjasa Skabar and Ales Mravlje all stroked hard-hit singles with no one out. But with things threatening to get out of hand, Roger Grooms induced three straight ground balls that the GB infield turned into fielder’s choice outs.
That was really the last we saw of Slovenia’s offense. Their only other run, in the top of the fifth inning, came when Ziga Strukelj singled to left with two out and Brett Gibbens let the ball get through him and roll to the fence.
Slovenia had just seven hits in the game, and only one extra-base hit, a double by the dangerous Ales Mravlje with two out in the sixth inning.
Once again, the indefatigable Irish supporters led the crowd in supporting Slovenia against GB, but it certainly didn’t rattle a very professional GB team.
What it has done is create a fantastic atmosphere over the past two days at a tournament which has been friendly and cheerful throughout.
When the tournament began, rather dreary national anthems were played before every game on the main field. By yesterday, that had been abandoned in favour of what has become the unofficial tournament anthem, Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” — which is so much better!
The semi-final game between Germany and Slovenia to decide who would meet GB in the final was close for just one inning.
Germany scored one run in the top of the first, and had the bases loaded with two out, but Chris Oeser lined hard to short. And that, as it turned out, was Germany’s last chance.
Slovenia scored three in the bottom of the first inning, six in the second, one in the third, three in the fourth and four in the fifth, and the game ended on a walk-off as Ales Mravlje deposited his second home run of the game over the left field fence with two on to bring the mercy rule into effect with the score at 17-1.
Germany went up and down in order in the second, third and fourth innings and had only four singles in the game.
And the crowd sat back to wait for the GB-Slovenia final.
This was a well-organised tournament, played in the usual friendly spirit that slowpitch tournaments create — and the singing and dancing of the Irish-led crowd made it even more special.
But the European Slowpitch Championship needs more teams and more varied competition. The 2010 edition in Prague, which included Belgium, Austria and Guernsey, was a better tournament. There are an increasing number of countries playing slowpitch in Europe; the trick is to get them all to come to the same tournament at the same time.
The British Softball Federation will press for a special Slowpitch Meeting at next year’s European Softball Federation Congress to try to get the slowpitch-playing countries on the same page.
It would also help to separate the Slowpitch Championships from other major European tournaments, such as the Women’s Championship last week in Prague. Some countries have players that play both formats (as Chiya Louie and Jenny Ball did for GB), and for many of them, two tournaments in a row is too much.
But for now, the debate can start among those with long memories about whether the 2013 GB Slowpitch Team was the best ever, or whether the 2010 or 2002 team was even better.
One thing is for sure — the 2013 Team played great softball from the beginning to the end of this tournament, and the depth in this team is undoubtedly the best GB has ever had.