The first international fastpitch softball games played in Great Britain since 2018 took place on the weekend of 28-29 May at the Farnham Park Baseball and Softball Complex, where the GB and Sweden Men’s Fastpitch programmes staged five training games under the title of the Sweden Series.
The Swedish Senior Men’s Fastpitch Team, under Head Coach Israel Nukunuku, played against three different opponents over the weekend, but the highlight was three games played against the GB Senior Men’s Fastpitch Team on Saturday evening and on Sunday.
The event was sanctioned as an official international friendly series by the World Baseball Softball Confederation (WBSC).
The Swedes won the first of the five games, played on Saturday morning, against an invitational team from the Men’s Division of the Great Britain Fastpitch League (GBFL) by a score of 12-6.
After that, however, success lay with the British.
The GB Under-23 Men’s Team, who will compete in a European Championship this summer in the Czech Republic, built up a 16-11 lead over the Swedes after five innings but then had to cling on in the bottom of the seventh to preserve a 16-15 victory on Saturday afternoon.
Richard Brown, recently appointed Head Coach of the Under-23 Men’s Team, said, “It was a great team effort all round and the team spirit was exceptional. I told the players just to take this as a training game, but the fact that it was international competition will be really good for them.”
On Saturday evening, with a substantial crowd in attendance after play had finished for the day in the GBFL, the Sweden and the GB Senior Men’s Teams met for the first time in a showpiece game. The score was 2-2 after two innings, but then the GB Men steadily pulled away and took the game on the mercy rule after five innings by a score of 11-2.
The two teams met again at 9.00 am on a bright but chilly Sunday morning and the result was exactly the same: an 11-2 win for GB in five innings.
A final game, played at Sunday lunchtime, produced the same result with a slightly different scoreline. GB won again by mercy rule after five innings, with the final tally standing at 9-2.
But results mattered less than the chance for the Senior Men’s Team to play competitive games in a year when there is no European Men’s Fastpitch Championship. The GB Men last played in official European competition in 2018, then faced the hiatus caused by the pandemic. In the meantime, the GB men’s fastpitch programme has since been rebuilt around primarily GB-based players and staff.
GB Men’s Head Coach Colin Barrett said, “The series was important both to us and Sweden to find out where we are with our players and our game. I’m really happy with our progress – these games showed we have a solid foundation with a lot of good young players which can lead to bigger things to come.”
Player awards were presented at the end of the final game on Sunday, with GB’s Damon Brown winning the trophy as Best Pitcher in the Series and GB’s Josh Stanley winning the award as the Tournament MVP.
Sweden 12, GBFL Invitational Team 6
The first team to take on the Swedes on Saturday morning was composed mainly of non-British players from Great Britain Fastpitch League men’s teams, plus two GB Under-23 reserve players, Owen Randall and Reuben Verity. The team played wearing uniform shirts from the GBFL Men’s Division Team Heat.
The game was close for an inning.
Sweden scored once in the top of the first inning, and the Heat replied with two runs in the bottom half of the frame. Darren Tighe struck out against former GB Men’s Team Head Coach Kevin Stockford, guest-pitching for Sweden in this game only, but reached first on a passed ball. One out later, GB Men’s Team Assistant Coach Gareth Purchase lined a two-run home run over the left field fence.
After that, however, the Swedes took advantage of wildness from Heat pitchers to pile on the runs. Darren Tighe pitched the first two-and-a-third innings for the Heat and Tyler Badenhorst pitched an inning and third and between them they gave up 11 walks, four hit batters and seven wild pitches in four innings. Ten of the Swedish batters who walked or were hit by pitches scored, and after the top of the third inning Sweden had a 10-2 lead.
The Heat rallied for four runs on three hits plus some walks and hit batters of their own in the bottom of the third inning, including a triple by Josh Barrett, but Sweden eventually ran out 12-6 winners.
GB Under 23 Men 16, Sweden 15
Walks and hit batters featured prominently at the start of this game on Saturday afternoon, which turned out to be a thriller.
The GB Under-23s took a 3-0 lead in the top of the first inning against Sweden starter Jonny Edgren, who walked two and gave up a bunt single to Jack Scholes and a line drive single to right field by Josh Smith.
However, GB starting pitcher Bryn Davies walked five Swedes and hit another in the bottom of the first inning as Sweden took a 5-3 lead.
The Under-23s came straight back with five runs of their own in the top of the second inning on singles by Max Fagan, Josh Stanley, Tom Russell and Ben Tomlin plus a walk, two hit batters and two Swedish errors, and though Bryn Davies walked another two Swedes in the bottom of the second, he also struck out two and managed to escape the inning after giving up just one more run.
Olly Howley took over the pitching for the GB Under-23s from the third inning onward, and though he gave up some walks and hits, he bent but didn’t break. Meanwhile, GB continued to add runs: two in the third inning, one in the fourth and five more in the fifth, where there were hits from Jack Scholes, Lucas Prefontaine, Bruce Candlish and Max Fagan.
So the score after five innings was 16-11 to the GB Under-23s.
However, the GB attack then dried up over the last two innings, with two strikeouts and four infield outs, all made by Swedish second baseman Alejandro Reyes, while the Swedes were adding three runs in the bottom of the sixth inning off a tiring Olly Howley.
So while the GB Under-23s held a 16-14 lead as Sweden came to bat in the bottom of the seventh inning, the lead felt anything but safe.
It felt even less safe after leadoff hitter Mike Noreen singled, left fielder Daniel Andre doubled him home with one out to bring the score to 16-15 and then Niklas Af Forselles walked.
But Olly Howley got Toofan Khazal to ground into a 6-4 fielder’s choice for the second out and Zoltan Toth poked the first pitch he saw back to Olly, who flipped it to first for the game-ending out.
The GB Under-23s had generated a lot of offense and then held on when it mattered, and they can take that into their European Championship in July, where only four teams will be competing and two of those teams will qualify for the first-ever WBSC Under-23 Men’s World Cup in Argentina in October of this year.
GB Men 11, Sweden 2
This first encounter between the GB and Swedish Senior Men’s Teams was staged as a showpiece game at 6.00 pm on Saturday evening, with the players introduced on the field to an enthusiastic crowd, national anthems played and British and Swedish flags on display along with a WBSC banner.
It was also the first of three games in which the GB Senior Men’s Team dominated Sweden, chalking up a five-inning mercy rule victory in every game.
In this game, Kalle Hjelm, possibly the most consistent of three Swedish pitchers, started against GB’s Gareth Jooste, and the score was 2-2 after two innings. Four walks and a hit batter from Gareth Jooste helped the Swedes to a run each in the top of the first and second innings without benefit of a hit, while GB also scored a run in each inning thanks to a single by Trent Nash in the first inning, a double from Amit Aswani in the second inning and some misplays by Sweden in the field.
Gareth Jooste then set Sweden down in order in the top of the third inning, and after that it was all GB as a seven-run outburst on six hits against Kalle Hjelm in the bottom of the third inning sealed the game.
Darren Meintjes walked with one out, Trent Nash slashed a double to left field, and singles followed from Tom Russell, Josh Stanley, Ieuan Gale, Josh Peat and Matt Tomlin.
Two final runs in the bottom of the fourth inning for GB, featuring an RBI single from Amit Aswani, were icing on the cake.
Meanwhile, Damon Brown had taken over the pitching for GB in the fourth inning and threw nothing but strikes, retiring six of the seven batters he faced and giving up just a lone single to Alejandro Reyes.
GB Men 11, Sweden 2
No, that score isn’t a typo. It was, in fact, the result of the second Sweden Series game between the two Senior Men’s Teams, played early on Sunday morning with not many people about, and it duplicated the score of the game played the evening before.
Olly Howley started this game for GB and put in a much tidier performance than when pitching the previous day for the Under-23s. Olly allowed just two runs and two hits in four innings of work, giving up only two walks while striking out three. One of those hits was fortuitous – a pop fly behind second base by Kalle Hjelm in the third inning that fell between converging GB fielders and bounced into foul territory down the right field line for a triple.
Meanwhile, GB scored early and often against Swedish starter Jonny Edgren and reliever Ramon Illa Argudin, belting out 10 hits in five innings including a triple and a booming home run, both to right centre field, off the bat of Darren Meintjes.
Three runs in the first inning were followed by two more in the second and six in the fourth inning to put the game well beyond Sweden’s reach.
Gareth Jooste pitched the mop-up fifth inning for GB, giving up a lone single amid a strikeout and two weak grounders back to the pitcher’s circle.
To back up Darren Meintjes’s power, shortstop Josh Peat added two doubles to the GB attack while Tom Russell and Bruce Candlish each had a pair of singles.
GB Men 9, Sweden 2
The last game of the Sweden Series, and the third game between the two Senior Men’s Teams, started just before noon on Sunday, and to no one’s surprise, it went pretty much like the first two.
Damon Brown threw all five innings for the GB Men, giving up just two runs on four hits, four walks and a hit batter, while striking out seven and cementing his award as the tournament’s best pitcher. Sweden had baserunners in every inning, but Damon made good pitches when he had to and was backed up by some alert GB fielding.
As far as the GB offense was concerned, this was the Josh Stanley show, with the GB left fielder driving in five runs on an inside-the-park home run in the first inning and a triple in the third inning.
GB scored four runs in the first inning and five in the third against three Swedish pitchers – starter Kalle Hjelm and relievers Jonny Edgren and Ramon Illa Argudin -- and that was more than enough.
Trailing 9-1 entering the top of the fifth inning, Sweden managed a second run on GB’s lone error of the game plus a groundout and a wild pitch, but that wasn’t enough to stave off the mercy rule.
Talking after the award presentations, Colin Barrett was enthusiastic about the young players in the GB Men’s Fastpitch programme.
“I’ve learned this weekend that age is just a number,” Colin said. “The Under-23s stood up well under pressure and the Tournament MVP (Josh Stanley] is only 20 years old. Their knowledge, and their understanding of what we’re trying to do, will be vital going forward.”