UCE Travellers win European Slowpitch Cup

Sat 2 Aug 2014

by Bob Fromer

Mlade Buky, Czech Republic -- At the beginning of the European Slowpitch Super Cup in the Czech Republic, no one would have thought this result possible.  But on Saturday 2 August, the UCE Travellers from Germany upset both British teams – first H2O in the pre-final by 11-8 and then the Chromies in the Grand Final by 8-4, both dramatic games, to win the tournament and put a new name and a new country on the trophy.

It marked the second straight time, and the third in total, that a British team has failed to win this competition on the seven occasions that the European Slowpitch Cup – this year the European Slowpitch Super Cup – has been played.  In the last edition, in 2012, Lisicke from Slovenia defeated three-times winners Chromies in the final.  The other non-British team to win was Dodder Dynamoes from Ireland in 2009.

And now a well-drilled, talented and above all smart German team, that got better and better as the tournament went along, has struck a blow for parity in European club slowpitch softball.  The Chromies and H2O were utterly dominant for most of this tournament, but not on the final day.

Twelve teams – the most ever for an ESF slowpitch event – took part in this extremely well-run and friendly competition, and everyone from the ESF officials to the losing British teams acknowledged that the German victory was “good for slowpitch in Europe”, because it will encourage more and more slowpitch teams around the Continent to raise their standards and have a go.

British help

Of course, the Germans had some British help along the way.  Two of the UCE Travellers' key players, both of whom had starring roles on Saturday, were GB Slowpitch Team members Lucy Binding and Kim Hendry.

Lucy's value to the Travellers can be gauged from the fact that she won the tournament award for the Most Valuable Female Player.

Meanwhile, against H2O, Kim had three hits and made a sensational running catch in left field, and she banged out three more hits against against the Chromies in the final.

Afterwards, Lucy said, “I was so proud of the way Kim played this week.  It was her first taste of European softball, and she's going home with a gold medal.  Her performance absolutely deserved it.”

And it's worth remembering that two of the UCE Travellers' founders, best players and strategists, Wolfgang Walther and Karim Abu-Omar, have made the decision to play softball for the Knights in the NSL to expose themselves to the pressure and skill levels of British tournament softball.

Pre-Final: H2O v UCE Travellers

Both games on Saturday were close for most of the way, and both were broken open with big innings by the German team late in the game.

In the pre-final with H2O, which the Germans won 11-8, the British team was the architect of its own downfall, as only three of those 11 German runs were earned and H2O committed seven errors to none for the UCE Travellers. 

H2O were actually leading 5-3 after four innings, but then the game turned around when the Travellers scored six runs in the top of the fifth inning, only one of them earned, as the British defense fell apart and committed errors on three consecutive hitters.  Even the normally reliable Steve Hazard made three errors in the game, all on plays that for him would normally be routine, and all of them led to German runs.

Down 11-6 going into the bottom of the seventh inning, H2O tried to mount a rally, and did manage to score two runs on a two-RBI single by Jeff Swindell.  It was Jeff's third two-RBI single of the game, good for six of H2O's eight runs, and to a large extent he was the British team's offense.  Below Jeff, the bottom five players in the order managed only one hit (by Christine Davies) in the entire game.

Those two runs weren't enough, however, and after Vicky Chapman flied to centre field for the final out, an ecstatic German team were looking forward to the Grand Final, while H2O had to settle for the Bronze medal.

Steve Hazard said afterwards, “We had one too many errors and no hits.  You can't win a softball game doing that.”

But the lack of hits by H2O was not entirely an accident.  The UCE Travellers had actually scouted both H2O and the Chromies in depth, and they had a defensive plan for every hitter.  Sometimes, this meant switching the right and right centre fielders against certain hitters; in other cases, it was positioning fielders where they knew hitters tended to hit the ball.

With regard to the danger posed by Steve Hazard and his 13 home runs coming into the game, the Germans simply declined to pitch to him.  Steve was walked more or less intentionally in his first two at-bats, and though it led to a couple of runs for H2O, it was a price the Germans were willing to pay.  Later in the game, the Germans put three infielders to the left of second base against him.

As Lucy Binding said afterwards, “We got in the heads of some of the big hitters on both British teams.”

The Final: Chromies v UCE Travellers

The final against Chromies was a very different affair, a classic game of good pitching and excellent defense by both teams that was greatly appreciated by a packed crowd on a beautiful summer afternoon.

Karim Abu-Omar for the Germans and David Lee for the Chromies kept ahead of the hitters and hit their spots, both teams turned double plays, Jarrod Pretorius made a sensational diving catch for the Chromies at third base, and clever positioning by the German defense took hits away from Chromies' hitters. 

And then the game had an utterly sensational ending.

Lucy Binding scored the first run of the game for the Germans in the top of the first inning, when she singled and later came home on a single by outfielder Michal Vojacek.

The Chromies tied the game in the bottom of the second inning when Marketa Sulcova reached on a fielder's choice and eventually scored on a single by Natalie Bailey.

The Germans went ahead again, 3-1, with two runs in the top of the third.  First base player Miriam Meyer, who got the start in this game after she had delivered the key hit as a substitute in the Germans' big rally against H2O, started things with a single to right field.  Two outs later, Miriam was still on first base, but then came three straight singles by Max Zerhusen, Kim Hendry and Michal Vojacek.

The Chromies wasted no time in responding, scoring three runs in the bottom of the third inning to take a 4-3 lead.  With one out, Ryan Martin and Mo Flett singled, and then David Lee drove in Ryan with a double to left field.  But Mo Flett pulled up at second base with a torn hamstring and had to leave the game.  Moments later, Michael Lee blasted a triple to right field to drive in Kim Hannessen, running for Mo, and David Lee, and the Chromies had that slender lead.

And that's the way things stayed through the next three innings, as neither team could manufacture a  run.  Two double plays by the German defense – one on a line drive that Lucy Binding snagged at third and then doubled off David Lee at second base – kept the Chromies down, and the Chromies had a double play of their own while pitcher David Lee, unusually, piled up three German strikeouts.

Then came the top of the seventh inning.

A fabled Major League Baseball manager used to say that the best recipe for winning ball games was “a bloop and a blast”.  And that's what the Germans employed to perfection. 

Weak-hitting catcher Nina Linnert, leading off the inning, dropped a little single just over the infield into short left field.  Konstantin Daher, pinch-hitting for the pitcher, pushed a little single into right field.  Miriam Meyer did the same, and Chromies' right fielder Michaela Sulcova charged the ball and launched a throw to try to nail Meyer at first.  But the throw sailed wide of the base and Nina Linnert scored to tie the game at 4-4.

And then came the blast.  Up stepped German captain Wolfgang Walther and drove the first pitch he saw over the fence in left centre field – the only home run of the entire day with the wind gusting in from left – and suddenly the Germans were in wonderland with a 7-4 lead.  One more run scored in the inning on another error to stretch the lead to 8-4, and though Jarrod Pretorius and Vicky McKendrick singled to start the bottom of the seventh, Danny Gunn, Jenny Ball and Ryan Martin skied the ball to waiting German fielders, and the Germans were throwing themselves on the ground in joy and disbelief. 

Summing up

“They deserved it,” said Chromies manager Doug Clouston afterwards.

“The best team won,” said Chromies' infielder Jenny Ball.

The best team on the day did win, without a doubt, and they did it with both execution and intelligence.  Not many teams take slowpitch softball seriously enough to scout opponents and plan defensive alignments in detail, but the UCE Travellers did (the GB Slowpitch Team, under Gary Crock, once won an unlikely European Championship in 2002 at this very ground in Mlade Buky by doing exactly that to a superior Irish team).

By the end of the final game, however, the Chromies were, in Jenny Ball's phrase, “broken”.  They had come with a squad of 13 players and only six men, and after the third day of the tournament, both Lee Rowe and Jarrod Pretorius had serious hamstring problems.  Jarrod managed to play – sensationally well – on one leg, but Lee couldn't play at all.  Then, during the final, Mo Flett blew out her hamstring and had to leave the game in the third inning, and catcher Natalie Bailey had an arm so dead she couldn't throw the ball back to the pitcher, and was replaced in the fourth.

When the tournament schedule first came out, back in May, a number of teams, led by Roger Grooms and H2O, were complaining to the ESF that there weren't enough games.  British teams may be used to playing 8-10 games on a weekend – but that's on a weekend, and those are generally one-hour games.

Playing two to three seven-inning games day after day during a tournament can be wearing, and both British teams, made up largely of “veteran” players, were struggling by the end of the week.  For H2O, the result was a team that looked flat and lacking in energy on both Friday and Saturday; for the Chromies, it meant that string of injuries.

For the UCE Travellers, it meant a day they will never forget.

Individual awards

Individual awards were given out at the Closing Ceremony, and not surprisingly were dominated by British players -- even when they weren't playing for British teams.  The awards were:

Best Batter (Female):  Kirstie Leach (H2O)
Best Batter (Male):  Steve Hazard (H2O)

Best Pitcher:  Roger Grooms (H2O)

Most Valuable Player (Female):  Lucy Binding (UCE Travellers)
Most Valuable Player (Male):  Steve Hazard (H2O)

Consolation Playoffs

There were two games played on Saturday in the consolation Page Playoffs.

In the pre-final, the Afterburners from Belgium won the right to play in the Consolation Final with a 10-8 win over the Czech Team Rytiri Trutnov.  The Czechs put up a six-run second inning to take a 6-2 lead, but the Belgians scored in bunches late in the game to seal the win.

However, the Afterburners may have wished they hadn't bothered as they were blown away by a rampant Czech Wayne's World team in the Consolation Final, 14-2, with 'Wayne' himself (aka Tomas Rambousek), contributing an inside-the-park home run in which his habitual limp seemed to disappear as he tore around the bases.

Final standings

The final standings at the first-ever European Slowpitch Super Cup were:

1 -- UCE Travellers (Germany)
2 -- Chromies (GB)
3 -- H2O (GB)
4 -- Lisicke (Slovenia)
5 -- Askoe Linz Bandits (Austria)
6 -- Kiely's Kegs (Ireland)

7 -- Wayne's World (Czech Republic)
8 -- Afterburners (Belgium)
9 -- Rytiri Trutnov (Czech Republic)
10 -- Sparks Mlade Buky (Czech Republic)
11 -- Mortsel Skywalkers (Belgium)
12 -- Hangarounds (Germany)

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