Slovenians win the European Slowpitch Cup

Sat 4 Aug 2012

by Bob Fromer

Pardubice, Czech Republic: August 4 -- Everyone will say that it's the best thing that could have happened for slowpitch softball in Europe -- and even some of the Chromies might agree.

The long reign of British national and club teams (and, on one occasion, the Irish) at the top of European slowpitch is over.  In the final of the 2012 European Slowpitch Cup this afternoon in Pardubice, the Slovenian team Lisicke proved that last night's win over the Chromies in the 1 v 2 Page Playoff game was no fluke by doing it again.

This was a tense, close and extremely well-played final, and Lisicke prevailed 6-4 after the Chromies ran themselves out of a rally in the bottom of the seventh inning with the tying runs on base.

The game could not have been more even.  Both teams had 12 hits, the Chromies committed only one error and Lisicke two and both received superb performances from their pitchers -- David Lee for the Chromies and Ales Mravlje for Lisicke.  But for once, it wasn't the British that won on power.  Brett Gibbens, to be sure, had a home run in the game --his ninth in the competition.  It was a solo shot in the first inning and gave the Chromies a 1-0 lead.  But Lisicke's Ales Mravlje had two blasts over the left field fence in the third and fifth innings, driving in five of the Slovenians' six runs, and those home runs were the difference.

The Slovenian team, as winners often do, had three crucial pieces of luck in the game, including one of their errors that turned out to work in their favour.  But no one can begrudge them a wonderful triumph.  The Slovenians lost only once in the competition, and their blend of base-hitting, speed, power and thoughtful pitching is slowpitch at its best, as befits the only Central European country without a fastpitch programme.

"I don't have any complaints," Chromies Co-Manager Doug Clouston said after the game.  "They played great softball, and they were younger, faster and fitter than we were.  It was a wonderful tournament, and if anyone disparages the European Cup back home after the week we've had here, I'll just laugh at them.

"But I think we have some major rebuilding to do," Doug added.

Slovenia as a country is currently ranked second in the European slowpitch table, and now they are ranked first in European club slowpitch.  It is a remarkable achievement for a tiny country that came to the 2008 European Championships in Southampton and finished last.

The Final

Having lost on Friday afternoon to Lisicke in the 1 v 2 Page Playoff game, Chromies had to overcome dangerous opponents this morning in the German Team UCE Travellers to get back to the final.  That was a tight game as well, with the Chromies prevailing 11-8, and details  are below.

But there was a special atmosphere about the final even before the game began, and it had to do with the fact that no one could confidently predict the outcome.  The game the two teams had played the previous afternoon had gone into the seventh inning tied at 9-9. What would happen today?

Having lost the 1 v 2 game, Chromies were the visitors in the final, and the aim was to jump out on top quickly.  They did -- on Brett Gibbens' solo blast in the top of the first -- but a 1-0 lead didn't feel like much of a cushion.

Lisicke came back in the bottom of the first with two hits, but a double play started by Moe Flett at third base kept them off the board.  An even better play kept the Slovenians scoreless in the bottom of the second when Eric Kelly made a tremendous throw to the plate from right-centre field to nail the lightning-quick Ziga Strvicelj trying to score on a single by Ziga Bauer.

In the top of the third, the Chromies increased the lead to 2-0.  Eric Kelly led off the inning with a triple to the fence in left field and scored on Michael O'Sullivan's groundout to first. 

Clearly, this was going to be a game of pitching and defence -- but 2-0 was never going to be good enough, and Lisicke erased the lead in the bottom of the third with the benefit of their first break in the game. There were two on and two outs when Savina Golicnik hit a sharp ground ball back to David Lee.  On another day, David might have snared it, but this time it bounded off his glove, a run scored, and instead of the inning being over, Ales Maravlje was coming to the plate.  One long home run later and Lisicke led 4-2.

A double play cut down a Chromies' rally in the top of the fourth, but the British team shaved the lead to 4-3 in the top of the fifth.  David Lee singled to left, went to second when the ball was misplayed and scored on a double by Eric Kelly.

The Slovenians scored their last two crucial runs in the bottom of the fifth, but there were two out and no one on when they did it.  Savina Golicnik drove a 1-1 pitch over the head of Brett Gibbens in left, and that brought Ales Mravlje to the plate.  Brett Gibbens could only wave his arms in despair as the ball soared over his head and over the fence for a 6-3 Slovenian lead.

The final two innings were a tale of GB trying to find a way to catch up, and being thwarted by the Slovenian defence and two pieces of bad luck.

In the top of the sixth, Brett Gibbens and Misha Sulcova singled with one out.  Danny Gunn then smashed the ball back at pitcher Ales Mravlje.  The ball cannoned off his arm and up in the air -- but straight to second base player Grega Vacancic standing near the bag, and the result was an inning-ending and very fortuitous double play.

So to the top of the seventh, with the Slovenians still leading 6-3.  Could the Chromies find a comeback?

Moe Flett opened with a fly ball to Ziga Bauer, but the unflappable David Lee lined a single up the middle, Jenny Ball dropped a single into left and Eric Kelly lined a single to left, scoring David and cutting the lead to 6-4, with Jenny on second and Eric on first.

Up came Natalie Bailey, pinch-hitting for Vicky McKendrick, and Natalie hit a line drive to shortstop Andraz Skabar.  Andraz caught the ball for the second out and fired to first in an attempt to pick off Eric Kelly.  The throw skipped past the first base player, Tina Trobec, and Jenny Ball scampered to third and was waved on home.  But the ball had rebounded back to Trobec, who fired a strike to the plate and Jenny was tagged out by catcher Gabi Humerca despite a headfirst slide.

It was a stunning ending. Suddenly, the game was over and the Slovenians were European Cup champions.  And no one could deny that they deserved it.

‚ÄčImages courtesy of Brian Connolly

Individual awards

The final table of team placings can be found at the end of this story.

Individual player awards went to:

Best Batter (Male):  Brett Gibbens (Chromies/GB)
Best Batter (Female):  Danielle Finnemore (UCE Travellers/GER)

Best Pitcher:  David Lee (Chromies/GB)

MVP (Male): Max Zerhuser (UCE Travellers/GER)
MVP (Female):  Ruth Brady (Dodder Dynamoes/IRL)

Chromies v UCE Travellers

To get to the final this afternoon, Chromies had to defeat theGerman team UCE Travellers this morning.

If Chromies and Lisicke had been the best teams during the round-robin stage, the Germans weren't far behind them.  They finished third in the pool stage, then edged out the Czech host team Pasos Pardubice 7-6 in nine thrilling innings on Friday evening to earn the meeting with Chromies at noon today.  The winner would go to the final.

When the two teams had met in pool play, Chromies had cruised to a 22-7 win, but the Germans had kept their three best players off the field in that game, and no one was expecting a repeat.

They certainly weren't expecting it after the Germans came out swinging and put up four quick runs in the top of the first inning.  Five of their first six hitters stroked singles, some of them just out of the reach of Chromies' fielders.

It was important for Chromies to respond quickly, and they did, with five runs of their own in the bottom of the first, also on five hits. 

But Chromies had some help from a nervous German defense that committed four errors, and they might have scored more runs if Milada Zolobova hadn't been thrown out at third trying to take an extra base on a single by David Lee.

After that, it was mainly the pitching of David Lee and a Chromies defense that went errorless until the sixth inning that kept the Germans at bay and won the game.  David Lee, continually getting ahead of the German hitters and forcing them to hit pitches they didn't want to, held UCE Travellers to just one run between the second and seventh innings as Chromies gradually pulled ahead.

Three more runs came in the bottom of the third inning on two more German errors and singles by Misha Sulcova, Danny Gunn and Jenny Ball.

Another pair of runs in the fourth inning made the score 10-5 after Marketa Sulcova singled, Brett Gibbens doubled to the base of the left field fence and both runners scored on a long sacrifice fly by Danny Gunn that didn't get back to the infield as cleanly as it should have done.

German heads were down now, and GB stretched the lead to 11-5 in the bottom of the sixth inning when Brett Gibbens powered another home run, his eighth of the tournament, deep over the fence in left-centre.

But there was one more twist to the tale before the Chromies could close out the win.  After playing tight and errorless defense for five innings, Chromies had committed two errors in the sixth inning that didn't cost them. But two more errors in the seventh inning did, paving the way for three German runs to make the score 11-8 with one runner on and two outs.  But before any real uneasiness could develop, German catcher Janina Pfeiffer popped out to second base to end the game.

So a quick and pretty efficient Chromies win after falling behind 4-0 in the first inning set up the rematch with the Slovenians – and the rest is European slowpitch softball history.

The best yet

Players, umpires and ESF officials who have been in Pardubice this week are all agreed that this has been the best European Slowpitch Cup yet.

That's not just because the competition has enjoyed its highest number of entries (eight), but because of the quality of the softball played and the closeness of the competition, with seven of the eight teams capable of beating the others.

More importantly, the techniques and tactics of slowpitch are now much more widespread in Europe. It's no longer a case of European baseball and fastpitch players trying to adapt to the slowpitch game -- the teams here this week are playing proper slowpitch, and some of them are playing it very well indeed.

A proposal has been sitting on the desk of the ESF Executive for over a year now to make the European Slowpitch Cup a biennial event, alternating with the European Slowpitch Championships. The theory is that having just one European slowpitch event per year (instead of two in European Championship years) will encourage more countries/teams to enter.  It remains to be seen whether the ESF will bring this about, and what the response will be, but opinion here in Pardubice seems to favour the proposal.  All the teams here want their experience this week to be repeated (the 2010 European Slowpitch Championships in Prague were very similar), and having one slowpitch event per year amidst a full baseball and fastpitch calendar in Europe may be the way to go.

But the main lesson coming out of this week, foreshadowed in the European Slowpitch Championships last year in Dupnitsa, is that the days of automatic British (or occasionally Irish) victories are over.

When Japan beat the USA to win the last Olympic Championship in Beijing in 2008, the universal opinion (apart, of course, from Team USA and the ASA) was that the result was good for softball -- albeit maybe four years too late to keep the sport in the Olympics.  Here, the universal opinion (shared by many of the Chromies), is that the win by Lisicke is a very good thing for slowpitch softball in Europe.

If the Slovenians could beat one of the best teams in England, then other countries and slowpitch club teams will be thinking that they have a chance to do so as well.

And eventually, they will.

A win for the Tigers

In their very last game of the tournament -- the seventh place playoff game with the Askoe Linz Bandits from Austria -- the Sunville Tigers from Belgium finally won a game. They took an early lead, went into the bottom of the seventh 8-5 ahead, and just held out as the Bandits scored two and had the tying run on third and the winning run on second when the final out was made.

The crowd -- and there have been decent crowds here all week, even if largely consisting of tournament teams -- gave the Belgians a warm hand.

But it was a particularly disappointing result for the Austrians, who opened the tournament with three wins in their first four games, including the only pool defeat of Lisicke, then didn't win a game thereafter.  In the very last pool game yesterday, had the Austrians defeated the Dodder Dynamoes, they would have made the playoffs.  But after trailing 8-0 and coming back to 8-8, the Austrians lost 9-8 and now they have finished the tournament in last place.

As for Dodder Dynamoes, they lost the fifth place playoff game today to the Czech team DNAce by a score of 17-10 and played poorly in doing so.  Irish softball has some rebuilding to do, perhaps more urgently than the Chromies.

Final Standings

1 -- Chromies (GB)
2 -- Lisicke (Slovenia)
3 -- UCE Travellers (Germany)
4 -- Pasos Pardubice (Czech Republic)
5 -- DNAce (Czech Republic)
6 -- Dodder Dynamoes (Ireland)
7 -- Sunville Tigers Belgium)
8 -- Askoe Linz Bandits (Austria)

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