by Bob Fromer
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma: July 21 -- This morning, some of the GB staff went to see Australia play the Czech Republic in the opening game at the 6th World Cup of Softball, to see how Europe's other representative in this event would fare against one of the world's top-four teams.
It wasn't an encouraging spectacle. Australia scored three runs in the first and three more in the second on a combination of walks, hits and errors. The Czechs looked overmatched, and Australia won 11-0 on the mercy rule after five innings (but see the end of this story for another perspective on the Czechs).
So how would GB fare when they played their own first game against the Australians in the searing heat at 3.00 pm in the Hall of Fame Stadium?
The answer was that GB played a tough and skilful game of softball against the Australians, were never intimidated or overmatched and looked like they absolutely belonged on the field with them.
The game went the full seven innings, and GB lost 7-1 in the end. But that scoreline doesn't tell the story of a game in which Australia had most of the luck and scored most of those seven runs on chopped balls that bounced over the infield or little bloop singles that just about made it to the outfield.
The last four of those runs came in the top of the sixth inning, and all were unearned as Australia took full advantage of the one error GB committed in the game. Up to that point, a game in which GB had taken a 1-0 lead stood at just 3-1 for Australia, and two of those runs had come on balls that were beaten into the ground and bounced high over the heads of the left-side GB infielders.
That's how close this game was. Up until the sixth inning, it could have gone either way.
Moreover, GB pulled off some stunning defensive plays during the course of the game.
In the top of the third inning, GB centre fielder Laura Thompson made a huge amount of ground into left centre field and then threw herself full length, glove outstretched, to take a double or more away from Brenda de Blaes. There will not be a better catch in the tournament.
In the top of the fourth, GB left fielder Karlene Headley-Cooper hit the left field fence to make a catch that robbed Verity Long-Droppert of a home run.
In the Australian sixth, with shortstop Jade Wall on first, catcher Carmelle Sorensen dropped what should have been a single into centre field. But Laura Thompson charged the ball and threw back across her body to nip Wall at second for a force out. At least that's what the umpire thought, though most people in the Stadium disagreed with him. But Laura deserved the out for a great play.
In the same inning, GB shortstop Jessica Legendre dived full length to stop Brenda de Blaes' ground ball from going into centre field and managed to flip the ball to second for the inning-ending force out (another close call that may have gone in GB's favour).
GB's one error of the game, the play that turned a tight contest Australia's way, came with two outs and a runner on first in the top of the sixth inning. Australian DP Stacey McManus hit a little pop fly into short right field. GB second base player Sarah Jones went back on the ball and her sister, GB right fielder Naomi Jones, came in. At the last moment, Naomi called for the ball, but couldn't hold the shoestring catch.
Three straight singles followed, and suddenly Australia had four runs and a 7-1 lead that GB pitcher Stacie Townsend, who went the full seven innings, scarcely deserved. Stacie pitched extremely well to the hard-hitting Australian line-up, and only two of Australia's 12 hits were struck with any venom. The rest were bouncers and bloops that found holes.
Taking the lead
While Stacie Townsend set the Australians down in the first and second innings on just one hit, GB threatened to take the lead in the first inning, and did so in the second.
In the bottom of the first inning, Stacie Townsend sliced a two-out triple into the right-field corner, but was left on third when Leah English grounded out.
In the bottom of the second, Sarah Jones ripped the first pitch she saw into left field for a one-out single and went to second on a wild pitch from Australian starter Karina Cannon (more on her in a moment). With two outs, Karlene Headley-Cooper then drove the ball over the head of left-fielder Verity Long-Droppert for a double, driving Sarah home.
Both Karlene and Sarah went two-for-three in the game to lead the GB attack. GB left seven runners on base (Australia left eight), but the timely hit that would drive in some of those GB runners was missing.
An old friend
Australia's decision to start right-handed pitcher Karina Cannon against GB may just have had something to do with the fact that in 2007, Karina, a dual Australian/British national, played for the GB Women's Team at the European Championships in Amsterdam and then the Qualifying Tournament in Italy for the Beijing Olympics.
At the time, GB hoped that Karina, who had had a successful college career at the University of Utah, might help us qualify for Beijing. But six weeks before the tournaments in Europe were due to begin, Karina suffered a shoulder separation on her pitching arm playing for Utah, and though she came to Europe and tried to pitch, she wasn't able to do so with any effectiveness.
Karina then went back to Australia, regained her health, played club softball in Victoria, and, when she was selected for the Australian team that went to the World Championships in Venezuela last year, she opted to play for the country where she grew up.
Karina gave up all but one of GB's hits in the game, and when the Australians brought in Jocelyn McCallum to pitch the sixth and seventh, GB hitters found her a slightly tougher proposition.
The first full day at the World Cup of Softball produced the following scores -- and note how much better an account the Czechs gave of themselves in the last game of the day:
Australia 11, Czech Republic 0 (5 innings)
Japan 9, Canada 6 (8 innings)
Australia 7, GB 1
USA 7, Czech Republic 2
The Japan-Canada game was a dramatic affair in which the lead changed hands several times. Japan took a 6-5 lead into the bottom of the seventh inning, but a dramatic home run to left field by Canadian shortstop Meagan Baird tied in the score. In the eighth inning, however, Eri Yamada drove a two-run home run over the fence in right-centre field and the Japanese added a further run to win 9-6.
In the evening game, and the first game of the tournament for Team USA (fresh from their 7-0 loss to Japan in the final of the Canadian Open), the Czech Republic were set up as the sacrificial victims for the televised game on ESPN. But the Czechs refused to play their part, and though they were soon behind 4-0, they played the US very tough the rest of the way and only lost 7-2.
All things considered, it was a pretty good day for European softball.
Tomorrow (July 22), GB will have a morning game with Canada, and will play another morning game on Saturday against the Czech Republic.
Both teams will want to take a victory in this game back to Europe, where they will soon be battling against each other for a top three place in the European Championships and qualification for next year's World Championships.
Then, on Sunday, July 24, GB will have the pleasure of playing Japan in the morning and the USA in the afternoon to finish off the round-robin stage of the tournament. The GB-USA encounter can be seen in Britain on ESPN America starting at 11.00 pm, and the game will be repeated at more civilised times over the following two days (check www.espnamerica.com for details).