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by Jenny Fromer

Dupnitsa, Bulgaria: July 22 -- It was three more wins for both GB and Slovenia on the final day of group games at the 2011 European Slowpitch Championships, and those two teams will play the 1 v 2 Page Playoff game at 11.30 am tomorrow, the last day of the tournament. Before that, Ireland will play Bulgaria in the 3 v 4 game, with the loser eliminated and the winner guaranteed at least a bronze medal.

But everyone will expect a GB v Slovenia final.

Difficult situation

As the last day of the group stages dawned, GB had more bad news to deal with. Steve Hazard's wrist, now tightly strapped, was still swollen and sore, Martin Cartledge had a thigh strain and Paul Gough had been ill all night. So for the first game at least, Head Coach Jeremy Bedford had only five available men. He mentioned that Robbie Robison was pencilled in for later in the day if he felt ready to go.

Game 1 against Bulgaria therefore presented a difficult situation, with both pitchers needing to take the field. Jeremy Bedford said, “I come from a background where you wrap your pitchers in cotton wool," and the key pre-game instruction was: “Don't get injured!” This was no mean feat on a field with no safety base, long coarse grass with few true bounces and a very short outfield fenceBeing on the second field with literally no amenities or even seating provided a rare opportunity to be part of the GB "dug-out". It was an interesting behind-the-scenes look at what appears to be a very positive dynamic. Staff and players alike know their roles, as does the bench. There's a lot of banter, much of it coming from the Head Coach, who is talking all the time. He spent most of the game pacing beside the fence, always focused, quick to pick up the players with an encouraging word, never dwelling on an error and constantly reminding the bench players to make noise. To be fair, the GB players seldom need asking twice. Steph Jardine in particular can always be heard singing encouragement.

GB v Bulgaria

At the close of the first inning Bulgaria had a 3-2 lead thanks to a couple GB errors.

GB failed to score in the top of the second and then suffered through a tough bottom half. Pitcher Georgi Trenkov led off with a ground-rule double that hopped the fence, followed by sharp singles from Leonor Nikolova and Kristian Krumov. Sara Markova hit into a fielder's for the first out and the second was called when catcher Iliana Mihovska hit a pop-fly foul on which first base player Emily Clifford was prevented from making a play as the base coach stood rooted to the spot. The inning finally came to an end when pitcher-turned-right-centre-fielder Roger Grooms made an impressive running over-the-shoulder catch.

In the third inning, GB pulled a run back when Dan Spinks hit a massive shot over the right-field fence that was deemed a ground-rule double because of the ground rules – despite it clearing the back fence of the house behind. He came in to score when Nicola Duerden's hard ground ball bounced off the first base player for an error.

In the top of the fourth inning, what has now become a pattern for GB played out again. After a slow start, the team had a single massive inning, with 14 batters coming to the plate to score 11 runs. There were doubles from Danny Gunn (ground-rule over the fence), Vicky Chapman, Dan Spinks and Nicola Duerden and Roger Grooms had an inside-the-park home run. When Lucy Binding smashed a double into left centre field, Jeremy Bedford turned to say, “Beautiful -- I love to see my rookies out there!”

GB added four more runs before the game concluded, two of which were fence-clearing home runs from Dan Spinks to bring his total in the tournament to three. The Bulgarians had a bit of a flurry in the sixth, adding three runs, and GB almost closed out the game with a triple play.

Game won, no further injuries, job done. Final score: GB 19, Bulgaria 10.

Playoff decider

Making our way back to the Levski Stadium, we learned that Ireland had beaten the Czechs 16-7 and we saw  the  Slovenians close out a 15-4 win over Germany. The next game up in the main stadium was Germany v Bulgaria – a game that would affect the final standings and Page Playoff qualification.

Germany started well, scoring a couple runs and playing great defence. But the Bulgarians are one of the best teams to watch, and are certainly the quickest. It's a team made up of tall male baseball players and small, quick fastpitch women. They make great defensive plays, but just don't have quite enough offensive power. They kept coming back in the game and went into the last inning 10-3 up.

Suddenly the Germans got things going and got the score to 10-8 with one out and the go-ahead run at the plate before the Bulgarians closed out the game – and ensured they would go into the Page Playoff in fourth place.

GB v Czech Republic

It would be  fair to say that this was not the most exciting game of the tournament. The Czech team seemed  pretty dispirited and didn't bring much fight to the game. GB went about their business in their usual organised fashion, and scored at least a run in every inning except the last. In contrast, the Czechs only managed two runs late in the game and only had seven base-runners throughout.

The points of note were that Martin Cartledge was back on the field and fit enough to play left field – and hit two triples. Lillian Tanner and Kirsty Leach, who had not played in the last few games, both started. Lilian had a strong game in the outfield, making assertive calls and catching everything that came to her. Also worth noting was that three times the Czech shortstop, Jiri Brabee, came up to bat, and three times he hit hard line drives down the third base line and Steph Jardine caught every one of them. The final score was GB 10, Czech Republic 2.

When the game was over, the Czechs immediately had to face Slovenia. The Slovenians had an early lead but the Czechs kept coming back and played some really good softball. Suddenly the Czech bench was full of life, singing songs, and the watching Bulgarians were giving them loud support.

Going into the seventh inning the score was tied at 12 apiece. It looked like the Czechs had won the game in the bottom of the seventh, but it was adjudged that their runner had not crossed the plate before a final tag was made and the run was removed. In the top of the eighth, the Slovenians scored five more runs and the Czechs were unable to come back with anything more.

Then followed Bulgaria v Slovenia, with the Slovenians winning 13-2.

GB v Ireland

The final game of the group stage was GB v Ireland. Ireland had played their last game at 8.00 in the morning and had to hold on until 6.30 pm for this, their next.

But the Irish contingent was very psyched up for the contest. Their supporters preceded the game by hanging Irish flags around the back fence, singing Irish songs and re-enacting River Dance in the stands. It was good news for GB that both Paul Gough and Robbie Robison were back in the line-up, although it was hard to tell if Robison was able to run fully.

The game started quietly, with neither side able to score through the first two innings. In the bottom of the third, GB put three runs on the board with singles from Nicola Duerden, Steph Jardine, Dan Spinks, Fiona Hunter and Robbie Robison. In the top of the fifth inning Ireland pulled a run back thanks to the incredible speed of right centre fielder Barry Casey and it looked like they might threaten further until Andrea Kavanagh grounded into a double play to end the inning.

In the bottom of the fifth, GB put the game to bed, adding four more runs thanks to singles from Dan Spinks and Robbie Robison and doubles that cleared the outfield from Fiona Hunter and Lucy Binding. Lucy had a great game on third base, opening the game by throwing out the lead-off batter at first and killing off the Irish threat in the fifth with an unassisted double play.

Both teams added another pair of runs in the sixth inning and then GB got three quick outs in the top of the seventh to end the game.

So GB and Slovenia go into the play-offs tied for first place and will first face each other at 11:30 tomorrow, after Ireland and Bulgaria play their elimination game.

Final Round-Robin Standings

GB (9-1)
Slovenia (9-1)
Ireland (6-4)
Bulgaria (3-7)
Czech Republic (2-8)
Germany (1-9)

Page Playoff Schedule: Saturday 23 July

09:45: Ireland v Bulgaria (Game 1)
11:30: GB v Slovenia (Game 2)
13:15: Czech Republic v Germany (5/6 Playoff)
15:00: Winner Game 1 v Loser Game 2 (Game 3)
16:45: Winner Game 2 v Winner Game 3 (Final)