Pragmatism gets GB Cadettes near the final four

Thu 13 Jul 2017

By Bob Fromer

Ostrava, Czech Republic: 13 July – Wednesday was a good day for the GB Under-16 Girls’ Fastpitch Team at the European Championship, but Thursday was even better, as a dramatic win over Russia has put GB within touching distance of the tournament’s final four.

Because of time lost to rain earlier in the week, GB had three punishing games to play today – the last game in the first playoff round against the Czech Republic at 9.00 am, and then the first two games of the second playoff round, which turned out to be against Russia at 1.45 pm and then the Netherlands immediately afterward at 4.00 pm.

Given this schedule, the GB coaching staff had to make some calculations about which of today’s games might be most winnable and which were most important, with the target still to get to the Page Playoff involving the last four teams standing at the end of the week.


A cunning plan​

On the one hand, a morning loss to the Czechs would send GB into the second playoff round with an 0-2 record, since they would take their losses to Italy and the Czechs with them, and that would be a big hole to climb out of to progress to the final four. 

On the other hand, there might be games coming up in the second playoff round that a GB team with a mixture of experience and relative inexperience at this level might be better able to have a go at, whereas the Czechs were undefeated coming into this game and had shown their prowess by beating Italy yesterday. 

So the GB coaches decided that the Czech game would be a good time to change the line-up, and in particular to save pitcher Hannah Edwards for the early afternoon game against Russia.  Depending on the outcome against Russia – and with the final second round playoff game against Germany scheduled for 9.00 am on Friday -- the coaches could make a decision about how to approach the Netherlands.

So how did it all work out?


Success

What happened was that GB started 14-year-old Kira Kenny against the Czech Republic and lost 10-0 in four innings – though that certainly wasn’t down to Kira (see game story below).

Then GB took on Russia, and with Hannah Edwards pitching a gutsy complete game, came out of a nerve-wracking contest with an ultimately triumphant 8-5 win.

So it was Kira Kenny again who started against the mighty Netherlands  just half an hour after the Russian game ended, and who shared the pitching duties with another young pitcher just learning her trade, Michelle Shaw.  The result was a 19-0 mercy rule win by the Netherlands in just three innings against a line-up featuring several changes from the game against Russia.

But neither the GB coaches, players or family and friends really cared.  That’s because by finessing their way through a gruelling day with the important game safely in the win column, and with Hannah Edwards only having pitched once, GB can assure themselves of a place in the final four -- unless some very strange and unexpected results happen elsewhere -- by beating Germany tomorrow morning. 

That is the target that the team had set itself coming into the tournament, though not too many seasoned European softball observers would have given GB much chance of getting there.

Of course, nothing has yet been achieved.  The GB coaches will note the fact – but will not give too much weight to it – that when Germany played Russia yesterday, the Russians won 6-4.

But so much for strategic planning!  Here is how today’s three games went, in the order in which they were played.


GB v Czech Republic​

By starting Kira Kenny against the Czech Republic rather than Hannah Edwards, the GB coaches were by no means giving up the game.  The hope was that Kira’s slower deliveries might throw the Czech hitters off balance, at least for a while.

And that plan worked to perfection.  The Czechs may have won the game 10-0 on the mercy rule in four innings, but only two or three Czech batters hit the ball hard off Kira in fair territory, with most of them pulling the ball foul, and then either hitting it meekly on the ground or popping it up.

Unfortunately for Kira, who put in a really impressive performance, this was a game where the GB defense didn’t do the same.  Maybe it was the early start, or maybe it was the unseasonably cold and windy weather that had suddenly descended on the area overnight.  But whatever the reason, GB committed six errors in the first two innings, and every one of the nine runs that the Czechs scored in those innings was unearned.

The only earned run that the Czechs brought home in the whole of the game was the one run they scored in the bottom of the third inning on a double, a wild pitch and an infield groundout.  That was the 10th run in total, and meant that the game ended on the mercy rule after GB failed to score in the top of the fourth inning.

Were it not for all those errors, however, the Czechs would not have scored at all in the first two innings against Kira Kenny, and the game might have been an entirely different affair.

Ironically, in addition to the errors, GB also had the best defensive play of the game: a great catch in the bottom of the third inning by left fielder Esme Potter, who ran down a long drive off the bat of Anezka Bartonova in left centre field and made the catch at full extension.


GB threat​

Two hard-throwing Czech pitchers – Klara Pospechova, who pitched the first 2.1 innings, and Andrea Markvartova, who pitched the rest – generally dominated the GB attack, recording 11 strikeouts in four innings.

But the top of the first inning was different -- another story of what might have been.  With one out, Esme Potter hit a single to second base, and Diana Nisbett followed with a fly ball single to left field.  Ivy Clark struck out, but Elise Coulthard then drove a sharp line drive in the hole between first and second.  But if anything, Elise hit the ball too hard: Czech right fielder Magdalena Kavanova was able to charge the ball and throw Elise out at first to end the inning and a substantial GB threat.

After that, the Czechs scored three unearned runs in the bottom of the first inning without a hit, and then six more in the bottom of the second inning.  The Czechs had five hits in the second inning, two of them on bunts, but most of those hits came after the point when the inning would have been over had errors not occurred.

By the end of the game, every GB player except Hannah Edwards had been on the field, which was another object of the exercise, and the team could re-set and focus on the three games to come in the second playoff round: Russia and then the Netherlands later in the day, and Germany on Friday morning.


GB v Russia​

This was the game the GB coaches and players were aiming for.

Russia is traditionally one of the top four teams in Europe at this age level, and finished third two years ago when the Netherlands failed to take part and Italy won the title over the Czech Republic.

But there is usually a little gap between the Russians and the teams above them, and in particular, Russian pitching tends to be slightly less strong.

This is what GB hoped to exploit, and they did so in spades, with their best offensive performance of the tournament against Russian starter Polina Aleksandrova, who lasted just two batters into the third inning, and relief pitcher Viktoria Poloshchuk, who finished the game.

After failing to register a hit over the first two innings, GB had 11 of them over the last four frames, producing a five-run outburst in the top of the third inning and a crucial three runs in the top of the sixth after the Russians had come from 5-1 down to tie the score.

Diana Nesbitt and Elise Coulthard led the way.  Diana had a single, a double and a triple plus a walk, and Elise had two doubles that produced four huge RBIs.  But there were also crucial hits that kept GB rallies going from Esme Potter, Rose Taylor Bhanji and Ivy Clark, plus further hits by Jasmine Lee-Tin, Eliza Esiri and Hannah Edwards.

Apart from the top of the second inning, when Polina Aleksandrova struck out all three GB hitters, the British had runners on base in every inning and never let the Russian defense rest.

But the Russian offense had its moments too, and that’s why the game grew increasingly tense as it moved towards the late innings, with the outcome more and more uncertain.

When the Russians tied the score at 5-5 in the bottom of the fifth inning, and then GB responded with three huge runs and Hannah Edwards shut down the Russians in the bottom of the sixth, the explosion of joy on the part of the team and the GB supporters could be heard for a very long way. 


Starting out​

GB put pressure on Russia from the start of the game.  Diana Nesbitt walked to lead off the top of the first inning, and after Esme Potter popped out and Rose Taylor Bhanji reached first but forced Diana out at second, the Russians elected to walk Hannah Edwards intentionally, and then an error by the Russian shortstop on Ivy Clark’s ground ball loaded the bases.

That brought Elise Coulthard to the plate with a chance to give GB an early lead.  Instead, Elise took a called third strike that looked suspiciously high – but she was to get and take further chances later in the game.

As if to rub it in that GB hadn’t taken their opportunity in the top of the first inning, Russia brought in a run in the bottom of the frame.  With one out, Iuliia Maranovich walked, stole second and third, and scored when Polina Aleksandrova, who was also the Russians’ most dangerous hitter, drove a ball up the middle that Hannah Edwards managed to knock down but couldn’t convert into an out.


GB outburst​

The score stayed at 1-0 to Russia through the first two innings, and GB had yet to record a hit.  But that changed with a vengeance in the top of the third.

Diana Nisbett led off the inning by smashing a wicked line drive into left field that skipped through the Russian left fielder and all the way to the fence for a triple.  The next batter, Esme Potter, flipped the ball into right centre field for a single that tied the score.  Then the Russian defense started to crumble, as Rose Taylor Bhanji and Hannah Edwards both reached on errors.  And then Ivy Clark drove a double to the right of second base and into right centre field, and Elise Coulthard sliced another double down the right field line that just eluded the Russian right fielder.

That explosion of hits and Russian gifts produced five runs, GB’s biggest inning of the tournament, and put GB in the lead by 5-1.

But no one thought the game was over.


Russia comes back​

In fact, the Russians responded immediately with three runs in the bottom of the third inning to cut the GB lead to 5-4 and ensure that none of the rest of the game would be stress-free.

It was the top of the Russian line-up that was dangerous, and here it produced two singles and a triple in the space of four batters to bring in three runs, even though, in between all that, Hannah Edwards struck out the side.

After that, both teams had runners on the bases in both the fourth and fifth innings, but only the Russians were able to bring one in. 

That was in the bottom of the fifth inning, when Iuliia Maranovich and Galina Dmitrun led off with successive singles, then reached second and third, and a big-time threat looked on the cards.  Polina Aleksandrova’s bouncer back to Hannah Edwards brought in the tying run, but then Rose Taylor Bhanji made a fine grab on a low line drive outside first by Viktoria Poloshchuk, and Hannah Edwards eventually got Alena Alferova to pop up to Glynis McGuire at second base to end the inning.

Now it was the last inning and the Russians had come all the way back to tie the score.  How would GB respond?


Denouement​

Inevitably, it was Diana Nisbett who set the tone, leading off the top of the sixth with a line drive double to the gap in left centre field. 

Now the pressure was on the Russians, and their suspect defense cracked once again, with Esme Potter reaching on an error at second base while Diana moved to third.  The count went to two strikes on Rose Taylor Bhanji, but she cracked a single to left field, and GB had a slim lead.

A few minutes later, and with two out, they had a much bigger lead, as Elise Coulthard hammered a pitch up the gap in right centre field to drive in Esme and Rose and put GB ahead 8-5.

That was never a lead that Hannah Edwards was going to surrender in the bottom of the sixth inning – especially to the bottom of the Russian line-up that she had handled comfortably all afternoon.

Hannah struck out Olesya Osipova looking and Antonina Tokar swinging.  Now it was lead-off hitter Milana Kozhina, and she sent a towering fly ball up behind second base and into the teeth of a strong wind.  Diana Nesbitt and Glenys McGuire moved towards the ball – but then Diana took charge and pulled it in with a lunging catch.

The GB players and coaches converged on the mound, and well they should – it was a tremendous victory and one that could lead to an important result.

 

GB v Netherlands​

With the win against Russia secured, the game against the Netherlands became another exercise in pragmatism, with as many line-up changes as a squad totalling 14 players will permit.

Kira Kenny started and pitched the first inning; Michelle Shaw pitched most of the second inning; and Kira returned for the last four batters of the second inning and, as it turned out, the last four batters the Dutch had to send to the plate.

That’s because the Dutch, unlike the Czechs, had no problems hitting slower pitching, and they were also the beneficiaries of nine walks and a goodly quota of passed balls and wild pitches.

So the Dutch put up seven runs in bottom of the first inning and 12 more in the second, and after GB batted in the top of the third inning and failed to dent the scoreboard, the game was called on the mercy rule (“15 after three”).

GB didn’t have a hit in the game against two Dutch pitchers, and their only baserunner was Elise Coulthard, who reached base when Dutch first base player Lisa Meyering bobbled her ground ball.

Ironically, unlike the Czech game in the morning, GB’s line-up in this game committed only one error, and the Netherlands had to earn their runs.  Rose Taylor Bhanji took a couple of nice catches in centre field and Glynis McGuire had a solid game at shortstop.  But there wasn’t much the GB defense could do about 14 Dutch hits and those nine walks.


Looking ahead

For a GB Cadette team that has spent the tournament doing an increasingly good job of maximising its assets and finessing its weaknesses, a win tomorrow morning against Germany will put the team in a position that will have exceeded expectations. 

And if that happens, there will even be a chance of a medal, though the other teams that will make the final four will undoubtedly be the Netherlands, the Czech Republic and Italy.

David amongst three Goliaths – but the GB Cadettes won’t mind a bit.

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