by Bob Fromer
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma: July 24 -- Having to play the two best women's softball teams in the world on the same day could have been the stuff of nightmares for the GB Women's Fastpitch Team.
But GB added to its growing reputation at the 6th World Cup of Softball by having a real go at Japan, then playing Team USA absolutely even for the first three innings, though the Americans then ended British pretensions with one massive outburst.
So both games were losses, as they were probably always going to be, but the GB Women's Team has done British softball proud here in Oklahoma City and accomplished its major objectives. By playing excellent softball against the world's top teams and coming together both on and off the field, the GB Women have had the best possible preparation for the European Women's Championships and World Championship Qualifier, starting on July 31 in Italy.
On July 25 at 1.00 pm, GB will meet the Czech Republic in the game that will decide fifth and sixth place in the World Cup. GB already has a victory against the Czechs here and will hope to achieve another to establish a psychological advantage that will carry over into the European Championships.
GB v Japan
In the morning game against Japan, GB played flawless defensive softball, took the lead in the first inning, pounded out 13 hits (Japan had 15), kept coming back at the Japanese, and in the end went down 13-6 in six innings.
Every player but one in both line-ups had a hit. The Japanese scored in every inning except the fifth, and GB scored in every inning except the second and fourth. The game was certainly harder than Japan had expected, but in the end the Japanese had too much offense.
When GB met Japan in the World Championships last year in Venezuela, there was a certain amount of fear in facing the Olympic Champions. GB committed three nervous errors in the first inning and never came close to scoring.
But what a difference a year makes.
With one out in the top of the first inning today, GB centre fielder Laura Thompson drove a double to the left centre field fence against Japanese starter Kasumi Hirahara -- the first of three hits for Laura in the game and five on the day, as she also went two-for-two against the United States. Altogether, it was a performance to cherish from GB's longest-serving player.
Following Laura's double, Stacie Townsend struck out. But Karlene Headley-Cooper walked, Jess Legendre singled sharply to left and Leah English hit a long drive to right centre field that hopped over the wall for a ground rule double, driving in Laura and Karlene. GB was 2-0 up on Japan!
The lead didn't last long, because GB starter Megan Brown just couldn't keep the Japanese offense in check. One left-handed hitter after another flicked, drove or sliced base hits to left field. But Japan also had some power. A four-run outburst in the bottom of the first inning was topped off by a three-run homer by the normally light-hitting shortstop Haruka Kageyama.
By the top of the third inning, Japan had a 6-2 lead, but GB pulled a run back when Karlene Headley-Cooper singled and eventually scored on a ground ball out by Morgan Parkerson.
Japan scored two more runs in the third off Megan Brown and another two in the fourth off Stacie Townsend to lead 10-3. But GB kept fighting and pulled two runs back in the top of the fifth, one on a home run over the fence in left centre by Leah English and the other on three straight solid singles by Ali Parkerson, Naomi Jones and Kristi Yoshizawa.
When Stacie Townsend hit a towering fly ball that just cleared the left field fence for a home run in the top of the sixth, GB had pulled the lead back to 10-6.
But Stacie, who had retired Japan without scoring in the fifth, was scheduled to start against the USA later in the day, so 18-year-old Carling Hare came in to pitch the bottom of the sixth for GB.
The first batter she faced was one of Japan's best, third base player Yu Yamamoto (DP'ing in this game), and she drove Carling's second pitch deep over the fence in left centre. Though Carling managed to get two outs, Japan soon had two more hits and two more runs, the second on a wild pitch that ended the game on the mercy rule at 13-6.
Though Japan kept hitting and scoring throughout the game, the GB defense never panicked in the face of all those baserunners and all that pressure. Not a single error was committed, every play was made, including a tag-out at home plate and a perfectly executed rundown, and every throw from the outfield went to the right place. GB has played this kind of defense (with a few exceptions) all during the tournament, and it will stand them in good stead in Italy.
And the 13 hits GB managed against Japan in six innings, including two home runs and two doubles, was an astonishing total considering that in the game against Japan last year in Venezuela, GB had exactly one hit, also in six innings. Today, Laura Thompson and Leah English had three hits each and Kristi Yoshizawa had two.
GB v USA
This game, the last round-robin game for both teams and televised to 147 countries on ESPN, started at 4.00 pm with the temperature well over 100 degrees on the field.
The new Team USA, still learning to play and win together after all its former stars retired or defected to the women's pro league over the winter, has had its ups and downs in the tournament, including a comeback 8-4 win over Japan but also a 4-3 loss to Canada.
Although the USA certainly expected to beat GB, they had to make sure they did so to guarantee a place in tomorrow's gold medal game.
For the first three innings, there was nothing at all to separate the teams.
At the end of three innings, each team had no runs, two hits and no errors. Whitney Canion for Team USA and Stacie Townsend for Britain were each pitching effectively, and Stacie had escaped from a two-on and none out jam in the bottom of the third inning by getting the first three hitters in the US lineup on a grounder back to the pitcher, a pop fly to the pitcher and a pop fly to second base.
Then, in the bottom of the fourth inning, the roof fell in on Stacie and Team GB.
It started with a leadoff walk to right fielder Kaitlin Cochran and a single by first base player Valerie Arioto. Catcher Brittany Schutte sacrificed them to second and third.
And then nine of the next ten hitters reached base on a hit batter, a walk, an error, a single, a double, a grand slam home run by Stacy May-Johnson and two solo home runs by Valerie Arioto and Brittany Schutte. Schutte's home run brought the game to a sudden and brutal close on the mercy rule by making the score 10-0.
It was a tremendous display of US power, even if totally unexpected in a 0-0 game, and it was the only really bad inning that GB has suffered during the tournament.
It will, and it should, be quickly forgotten, because the GB Women have played excellent softball here, and impressed a lot of people.
Tomorrow, the final day of the tournament, all six teams will be in playoff action.
At 1.00 pm, GB and the Czech Republic will play for fifth place.
At 4.00 pm, Canada and Australia will play for third place.
And at 8.00 pm, Japan and the US will play for the 2011 World Cup of Softball gold medal.
But it could have been a Canada-USA final instead. Had Canada beaten Australia in the last round-round game that followed GB v USA, Japan, Canada and the US would all have had 4-1 records, with Japan having conceded the most runs.
However, Australia beat Canada 8-3, letting the Japanese take their place in the final.
Will it be a repeat of Japan's 7-0 win over the US in the final of the Canadian Open? Or will Team USA, in front of a passionate home crowd here in Oklahoma, turn the tables?
Tomorrow will tell.
Previous reports on the GB Women at the 6th World Cup of Softball can be found on both the Home Page and the News section on this website.