Resilience is key as GB Slowpitch prepares

Thu 15 Nov 2018

By Mike MacDowell

Plant City, Florida: 14 November -- With four days of training and competitive games under their belt, the GB Slowpitch Team is in a fantastic place on the eve of the WBSC World Cup that starts on Thursday in Plant City, Florida.

However, it’s not been totally smooth sailing to reach this point.  From the three-hour queue to get through Orlando Airport customs and immigration to the unusual rules for some of the local competitions, the players’ and coaches’ patience and, to coin a phrase from Head Coach Stephen Patterson, “bounce-back-a-bility”, has been tested.

At the end of it all, however, GB is sitting on a nice-looking 10-5 record across 15 practice games in two local tournaments and a scrimmage session held at Champion Stadium inside ESPN’s Wide World of Sports, the spring training home of the Atlanta Braves.  Most of these games have been played with a 1-and-1 count and a 4-to-8-foot pitching arc, making a big change from the rules the players have been used to.

The team has also seen “Big-Moe Hitters”, players who can hit unlimited over-the-fence home runs in games with a home run limit, harder balls, bigger fields, pitching screens and innings automatically ended for exceeding the home run limit.

In one case, spectacularly, this happened as Chris Yoxall scorched the first pitch of an inning 350 feet for a long home run, only to realise that it ended the inning as GB were at their limit.  The hit itself was impressive, but the reaction from the coaching staff and the team was priceless: mirth mixed with awe and a reminder to Yoxall that hitting the bomb was the right thing to do in the larger context of the Slowpitch World Cup, where home runs will be unlimited.

Saturday 10 November:
ISPS British Invasion Tournament (Ocala, Florida)

Saturday morning was an early start, and after the aforementioned queueing at the airport there were some tired faces on the buses for the 90-minute drive up to Ocala for the first warm-up tournament.  This was a one-day affair, specially put on by the ISPS as a warm-up tournament for the GB and German teams, with three local teams providing the opposition.

GB got off to a hot start, winning all four round-robin games and showing off both their offensive flair and their defensive resilience, especially in the face of the sometimes hostile-yet-friendly local teams who were keen to test the mettle of both national teams they were facing.

Unfortunately, in the top-seed semi-final, GB came unstuck against a much-improved performance from one of the local teams, who pulled away early and never relinquished their lead.  Considering the change of time zone, lack of sleep and strange rules, including a one-up home run limit where a team could not be more than one home run ahead of their opponents, Head Coach Stephen Patterson declared himself very pleased with the performance of the team on both sides of the ball.

Highlights of the day included numerous long home runs by Kelvin Harrison, Chris Yoxall, Steve Hazard and Mike MacDowell; some slick outfielding, including a couple of impressive catches by Tash Humphris and Sherry Kenyon; and two almost triple-plays for Steve Hazard.  In her first game in a GB shirt, Crista Reed-Thomas got off to a quick start, getting on base three out of four times.

It’s also worth mentioning that both tournaments over the weekend featured mandatory pitching masks.  Given the proximity of the pitcher to batters with serious power, it seems unsurprising that more tournaments are moving to protect the most vulnerable position player on the field.

The tournament on Sunday also featured a pitching net, which, if struck by the hitter, resulted in a dead ball strike, which you could strike out on.  The presence of this net did not remove the need for the mask, however, as a pitcher who did not wear a mask was not allowed to field the ball until another fielder had touched it -- yet another new rule for Team GB to get used to quickly!

Sunday 11 November:
Big Moe Sports Tournament (Largo, Florida)

After five hard-fought games on the Saturday, the GB Team was well prepared for the challenge that faced them on the Sunday in a tournament organised by a local softball organisation called Big Moe Sports, who GB had been put in touch with by our great friend and local contact Veronica Shaw.

This tournament again had the rule variations of the previous day, but with a change to the home run limit of four per team and then one ahead as in the Ocala tournament.  Here, a variation to the rule meant one male and one female player per team could be nominated as a “Big Moe Hitter”, which meant that any long balls they hit did not count against this total.

GB was up and down initially on the Sunday, finishing the round-robin with a 2-2 record which unfortunately meant we did not qualify for the championship game.  What this record doesn’t show is how close the games were, including the final game of the day which ended on a walk-off double from outfielder Katherine Golik to cap a magnificent extra-inning comeback.

Sunday Game 4:
GB v Largo Local Team

GB entered this game against the previously unbeaten locals off the back of a disappointing loss in their previous game, where the level of performance had not lived up to the previous games played across the weekend.  Head Coach Stephen Patterson was keen to end the weekend on a high note and extolled the virtues of flat, hard hitting and using the GB Team’s greatest asset, speed and baserunning ability, to generate runs.

GB got off to a hot start, with Mark Bowman keeping the local hitters off balance with his mix of pitches and creating a lot of fly balls which the outfield foursome of Joe Grantham, Katherine Golik, Kelvin Harrison and Ruth Macintosh moved well on and tracked down for outs.

Offense came quickly too, with eight runs in the first two innings and another 10 across the next two in answer to a slow but consistent scoring threat from the opposition.  All of the GB batters managed a hit over this period and eight picked up at least one RBI as well.

The game went into the fifth inning and after a quick shutout, GB looked to push their advantage.  It was not to be, however, as the GB hitters struggled against a new pitcher and only managed four baserunners over the next three innings.  This gave the local team a chance to come back into the game, and they duly did so, taking a 19-18 lead after the top of the seventh inning.

Steve Hazard led off the bottom of the seventh with a double, advanced to third on Danielle Atkinson’s fly ball out and scored on an RBI groundout by Katherine Golik, tying the game.  Chris Yoxall then entered the game to pinch hit for Mark Bowman, but though he hit the ball hard, it was straight to third base and he was unable to beat out the throw.  So the game went to extra innings.

This is where things got particularly interesting, as the rules for extra innings were a variation on what we’re used to in the UK.  A runner started on second base as usual, but the game became a one-pitch affair, where every at-bat effectively starts with a full count.

After the game Stephen Patterson said to the team, “When the game went to one-pitch, we showed our class and made some great decisions on whether to hit or walk on that pitch. Getting better at that commitment in all counts will serve us well.”

The local team scored heavily in the top of the first extra inning, putting up six runs and putting GB’s backs to the wall with the bottom of their line-up due up in the bottom half of the frame.  But Ruth Macintosh continued her hot hitting to reach and score a runner from second base and Aaron Thomas and Kimberly Miller both reached base, flipping the order back to the top.

Matt Tomlin lined out hard into the pitcher’s screen, but once Kirstie Leach, Steve Hazard and Danielle Atkinson had reached, the stage was set for “Big Moe”, Kelvin Harrison, to win the game with one hit.  He didn’t manage this, but he did crash a ball through the infield, tying the game and bringing up Katherine Golik.  And Katherine, as previously mentioned, walked it off with a clutch drive to right field which, had the game not ended when the first run scored, would have cleared the bases.

After the euphoria from the win had subsided, GB relaxed while watching the championship game and chatted to the organisers, Chuck Lucas and David “Big Moe” Moore, who had quickly taken a shine to the GB team and were integrated as part of the GB Slowpitch family.

ESPN Wide World of Sports

For the uninitiated, this is one of the Disney-owned theme parks in Orlando and is home to Champion Stadium, the spring training home field of Major League Baseball’s Atlanta Braves. 

GB were fortunate enough two years ago to receive special access and played on one of the outside baseball diamonds.  This year, however, GB managed to secure access to the field in Champion Stadium itself, set up with 310-foot fences and with full use of the dugouts and facilities for a three-hour scrimmage session against a local team organised by GB Slowpitch’s friends in Florida, Veronica Shaw, Chuck Lucas and Big Moe.

The teams played three five-inning games to enable Stephen Patterson to roll his entire squad onto the field for this once-in-a-lifetime experience.  The GB players were solid in the field and made a number of outstanding plays, including a sharp line drive snag by Hannah Pitman and a well-executed double play by Aaron Thomas and Steve Hazard.

GB’s hitting was, as Stephen Patterson put it, “bookends”, in that they started and finished the first two games well but went a little quiet in the middle, and it wasn’t until the third game that GB managed to have a complete game with the bats.  The final results of the scrimmage games weren’t particularly important, though GB did win the last game convincingly after losing the first two, on yet another occasion for the coaching staff to test the abilities and mettle of the players with the bright lights and big surroundings of the stadium field.

A big catalyst in the final game was a line drive shot by Robbie Studholme for an inside-the-park home run, coupled with some aggressive base running from Ruth Macintosh and Hannah Pitman.

Fittingly, GB’s performance ended on a high note, and perhaps the highest note of them all was Steve Hazard parking the only over-the-fence home run of the evening in the bottom of the final inning.

Afterwards, GB mingled with the Orlando team, and stretched and cooled down with both Chuck and Big Moe, who have vowed to stay in touch and will hopefully become a great ally of GB Slowpitch in Florida.

Onward to Plant City

With the Slowpitch World Cup due to start on Thursday, GB completed their preparations with an individual-need training session on Wednesday and a chilled afternoon in the house pool playing fun but competitive water volleyball.  Team Manager Kellie Whitaker and some of the players cooked a team meal and there was yet more competitive spirit shown in a “guac-off” between Mike MacDowell and Joe Gratham to create the best version of the Mexican dip.

This trip has been highlighted so far by the camaraderie between the players and coaches, but also between all members of GB Slowpitch and the local players.  Both Chuck and Big Moe from Big Moe Sports have been outspoken about how great they find the spirit among the players -- how they are all supportive and push each other to become the best that they can be -- and this is a credit to Coach Patterson, Assistant Coach David Lee and Team Manager Kellie Whitaker.

GB Slowpitch is very grateful for all the support they have received from the Floridian softball community: Veronia Shaw, Chuck and Big Moe and Manuel at ISPS in Ocala.  The tour would not have started as successfully as it has without the help of these people and their friends.

Now it’s on to the real thing!

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