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By Bob Fromer

Utrecht, Netherlands: 26 July – After all the possible permutations for deciding which European team will go to the Tokyo Olympics next year, everything is suddenly very clear:  GB and Italy will play at 3.00 tomorrow (Saturday) and the winner will claim the place.

The game, at the Sportpark de Paperclip, will begin at 2.00 pm UK time and can be seen on high-quality web-stream here.

Today, in the so-called Super Round at the Europe/Africa Olympic Qualifier, the Czechs were eliminated this afternoon after the GB Women beat them 4-2, and tonight the Dutch were eliminated after taking a 4-0 lead over Italy in the first inning but eventually losing 7-4.

The other four teams that took part in the Qualifier – France, Spain, South Africa and Botswana – were eliminated at the end of first-round pool play on Thursday.

GB will probably start Georgina Corrick against Italy tomorrow, pitching for the third straight day in a pressure game against a top opponent – but at least she should be pitching in slightly cooler weather, with the temperature forecast to “only” reach 30 degrees, with a good chance of thunderstorms in the afternoon.

Were the game unable to be played tomorrow due to rain, it will be played on Sunday instead.

Ironically, the probable Italian starter tomorrow, the veteran Greta Cecchetti, will have had almost two days of rest.  She didn’t need to pitch on Thursday when Italy played their final pool game against France, and she only pitched an inning-and-a-third tonight against the Netherlands before being removed because the Dutch were hitting her hard.

The GB Women have defied a lot of odds and obstacles and done wonderfully well to get to this position, one game away from a place in Tokyo.

The fact that GB will be in what is now a final, though the WBSC format didn't necessarily plan for one, is no fluke.  Following the games today, GB led the tournament in batting with a .414 average (Italy .337, Netherlands .333 and Czech Republic .278) and in pitching Earned Run Average with .091 (Italy 1.35, Czech Republic 1.52, Netherlands 1.59).  In team fielding, GB is second at .961, behind Italy at .991 and followed by the Czech Republic (.960) and the recently error-prone Netherlands (.904).

Win or lose tomorrow, these 15 players have been fantastic and have performed in this tournament at a very high level.

And, of course, tomorrow, they have no plans to lose.

Today’s games

The report on GB’s win today against the Czech Republic has been on the BSF website since late this afternoon and can be found below.

It was followed this evening by a showdown between the Italians and the Dutch, the teams that have forever monopolized European softball, played in front of a packed and partisan crowd that chanted “Holland! Holland!” throughout the game.

The Dutch had to win to have any chance of getting to Tokyo, and they came out with all guns blazing in the top of the first inning against Greta Cecchetti and put four runs on the board.

Britt Vonk reached first on a bunt single, Eva Voortman walked, Dinet Oosting singled to load the bases, Maxime van Dalen singled in one run, Virginie Anneveld singled in another, and Jessie van Aalst drove a double to the fence in right centre field to bring in two more.

So the Dutch were off to a great start.  Italy countered with a run in the bottom of the first inning against surprise Dutch starter Becky Soumeru, but when they threatened more, Ginger de Weert replaced Soumeru and closed out the inning.

In the top of the second inning, the Dutch resumed their assault on Greta Cecchetti with singles by Britt Vonk and Dinet Oosting, and the Italian coaching staff had seen enough.  Out went Cecchetti, in came Ilaria Cacciamani, and though not many would have forecast this, she pitched a three-hitter over the rest of the game and the Dutch never scored again.

But the way in which Italy came back to win the game will leave painful memories in Holland, and especially for one of the world’s best players, Dutch shortstop Britt Vonk.

In the bottom of the second inning, Italy had one on and two out when Laura Vigna hit a routine ground ball to shortstop.  But first Britt Vonk bobbled it, then threw the ball away trying to flip it to second base, and instead of the Dutch running off the field, both runners were safe. 

And then Italian second base player Emily Carasone came up and blasted a three-run home run over the fence in centre field to tie the score at 4-4, and moments later Erika Piancastelli launched a monster solo home run to left field to give the Italians the lead for good.

Italy tacked on two more runs in the bottom of third inning on a home run by Giulia Longhi with Beatrice Ricci on base, and that was all the scoring.

Eva Voortman, who had lost to GB the night before, replaced Ginger de Weert after Longhi’s home run, and though she was wild and a bit shaky, she managed to hold the Italian total at seven.

Meanwhile Ilaria Cacciamani just kept throwing strikes and mowing Dutch hitters down, and the Netherlands never really threatened to get back in the game.

The Dutch have had an uncomfortable last 10 months: fourth in the European Super 6 tournament last September (losing to GB in the bronze medal game), second to Italy at the recent European Women’s Championship in Ostrava and now eliminated from the Olympic Qualifier by losing to both GB and Italy in front of their home support.

There will be a period of reflection now in Dutch softball.

GB v the Czech Republic

Earlier today, Georgina Corrick outdueled Czech Republic ace Veronika Peckova for the third time in three recent meetings and GB beat the Czechs 4-2 to put themselves one game away from Olympic qualification.

The Czech loss meant they were unable to win the tournament and gain the Olympic place, and the Dutch were eliminated after losing this evening to Italy, as described above, leaving the prize to be won in a straight fight between GB and Italy tomorrow

Low key

Despite the stakes, this first game of the two-day Super Round between GB and the Czechs felt like a low-key affair on a hot afternoon that was, however, blessed with a strong breeze.  Certainly, the game lacked the tension, passion and energy of last night’s GB win over the Dutch.

But GB maintained their calm in the field, playing consistent defense while committing just one error, and Georgina Corrick maintained her focus, handling the Czech offense fairly easily apart from the top of the sixth inning, when the Czechs scored twice to cut a 3-0 lead to 3-2 and could easily have had more.

But just as they did last night when the Dutch cut a 3-0 GB lead to 3-2, GB came right back to put another run on the board and give themselves some breathing room before the Czechs took their final at-bat.

Missing opportunities

Slightly lost in the euphoria attending GB’s win over the Netherlands on Thursday night was that it should have been more emphatic.  GB had multiple scoring threats but left nine runners on base, and had only one hit with a runner in scoring position.

Today was more of the same, as GB had baserunners in every inning against Veronika Peckova, who wasn’t as sharp as in the past and exited the game in the fifth inning after issuing consecutive walks.  Martina Blahova  replaced her.

But though GB scratched and manufactured single runs in the third, fourth, fifth and sixth innings, with some help here and there from the Czech defense, the big hit never came, apart from an RBI single by Lauren Evans in the fifth inning as the first batter to face Martina Blahova.

GB’s other three runs scored on a throwing error, a wild pitch and a bases-loaded walk to Alicja Wolny in the bottom of the sixth inning after the Czechs had intentionally walked Nerissa Myers to fill up the bases.  GB left 10 runners on base in six innings.

When GB meets Italy in the winner-take-all game tomorrow, they will have to take more advantage of scoring opportunities when they come their way.

Low output

GB only had five hits in the game and the Czechs only four, and two of those came in the top of the second inning, when they were the first team to mount a serious threat.  One-out singles by Ludmila Kucerkova and Lucie Petraskova put runners on first and second and Kucerkova eventually stole third.

But Georgina Corrick retired Julie Coufalova on a pop-up to second base and Adela Weissova on a foul pop-up to third to keep the game scoreless.

GB then took the lead in the bottom of the third inning.  With one out, Veronika Peckova, who had been wild at times through the game, with pitches over batters’ heads or in the dirt, hit Sydney Brown in the helmet with a high inside pitch. 

Sydney went to second on a wild pitch, moved to third on Aubrey Peterson’s infield single, and scored when Veronika Peckova’s throw to first trying to get Aubrey was off-target and rolled into foul territory.

Adding on

While Georgina Corrick faced just two batters over the minimum across the third, fourth and fifth innings, GB tacked on two more runs.

In the bottom of the fourth inning, Amy Moore and Chloe Wigington led off against a tiring Veronika Peckova with successive sharply-hit singles to left field and moved to second and third on a wild pitch.  There they remained while Amie Hutchison grounded out to third and Katie Burge struck out.  But on another wild pitch, Alana Snow, pinch-running for Amy Moore, scored with a nice slide that evaded the attempted tag.

In the bottom of the fifth inning, Aubrey Peterson led off with another bunt single, but was then caught trying to steal second base.  Had that not happened, the inning might have been more productive, because Veronika Peckova then walked Nerissa Myers and Alicja Wolny and left the game to applause from the vocal Czech fans in the stand.

Lauren Evans, as noted, greeted Martina Blahova with a line drive single to right field on a 1-2 count to score Nerissa.  But again, the chance for more went begging as Amy Moore bounced out to third and Chloe Wigington struck out.

Things get scary

Nevertheless, GB had built up a 3-0 lead and life for Georgina Corrick had been pretty serene to this point, with not many pitches thrown.

But in the top of the sixth inning, things got scary.

Maybe it was the fact that the bottom of the fifth inning had taken a long time, and Georgina had only thrown one warm-up pitch before starting the top of the sixth.  Whatever the reason, Czech third base player Veronika Klimpova drove Georgina’s first pitch over the head of Chloe Wigington in right field for a triple, and Tereza Jackesova then walked on a 3-2 count.

A few moments later, Klimpova scored on a passed ball as GB for once looked rattled.  But that may actually have eased the situation by removing the runner from third, even though Tereza Kubicova also walked to put runners on first and second, still with no one out.  There was a stretch in this inning when it seemed that whatever Georgina threw, the umpire was never going to call a strike.

Ludmila Kucerkova’s bunt moved the runners up to second and third at the cost of an out, and a sacrifice fly to left field by Lucie Petraskova chased Jackesova home with the second Czech run, just ahead of the throw from Katie Burge. 

But pinch-hitter Eliska Stejkalova lined out to Chloe Wigington in right field and GB was still ahead.

The end game

Nothing daunted – or perhaps because they heard the footsteps – GB came right back in the bottom of the sixth inning with that all-important insurance run.  And again, the Czechs gave GB a helping hand.

Amie Hutchison led off with a walk and Martina Blahova threw wildly to first for an error on a bunt by Katie Burge, who might have beaten it out anyway.  The runners wound up on second and third with no outs – and once again stayed there as Sydney Brown bounced to third and Aubrey Peterson hit a hard line drive straight at first base player Adela Weissova.

But then the Czechs decided they didn’t want to face Nerissa Myers and waved her to first to load the bases, and Martina Blahova came nowhere near the strike zone on four pitches to Alicja Wolny.  GB’s lead was now 4-2.

In the bottom of the seventh inning, calm was restored.  Pinch-hitter Krystina Mala flied out to Katie Burge in short left field and Natalie Kopicova grounded to Lauren Evans at third.

Then Nerissa Myers made the best play of the day to backhand a ball hit up the middle by Eva Rendlova and throw her out to end the game.

It may not have been a thing of beauty, but it was still the win that means there is one more game to go and one more hurdle to overcome to make GB’s Olympic dream a reality.

Scores and standings

The Super Round scoreboard for today reads:

GB 4, Czech Republic 2
Italy 7, Netherlands 4

That means the Super Round standings are now:

GB (2-0)
Italy (2-0)
Netherlands (0-2)
Czech Republic (0-2)

And those standings show exactly why GB and Italy will be playing for the Olympic place tomorrow.

Photos by Paul Stodart & Jason Lee