By Bob Fromer
Utrecht, Netherlands: 25 July – The GB Women's Fastpitch Team kept their nerve in a tense, gritty game of softball on a field still baking after record temperatures to upset the Netherlands 5-2 on Thursday evening and move one big step closer to Tokyo.
There is a long way to go before the Olympic place is settled, and GB will probably still have to beat both the Czechs on Friday and the Italians on Saturday to claim it. But tonight's win was a giant step towards the ultimate goal.
Against expectations, GB took an early lead, built on it by putting constant pressure on three Dutch pitchers and never lost the lead, though when the Dutch scored their only two runs of the game in the fourth inning, the GB advantage was cut from 3-0 to 3-2 as a large partisan crowd roared on what they assumed would be a Dutch comeback. But uncharacteristic errors by the Dutch -- four in all to one for GB – definitely helped the GB offense grind down the Dutch pitching and allowed GB to continue to produce runs.
Meanwhile, Georgina Corrick, who pitched five-hit ball, along with the GB defense, withstood plenty of pressure from the Dutch and used some risky strategy to get out of two major jams.
And when it came to the last chance for the Dutch, in the bottom of the seventh inning, two sensational diving catches, by GB centre fielder Aubrey Peterson and then left fielder Katie Burge, took all the wind out of Dutch sails, and Georgina Corrick struck out Virginie Anneveld looking to end the game.
Both teams put the other under pressure right from the start of a fascinating contest, and momentum swung back and forth.
In the top of the first inning, GB lead-off hitter Sydney Brown pushed a pitch up the middle from Dutch starter Eva Voortman that flicked off the glove of Dutch second base player Suka van Gurp for a single.
Quick momentum for GB – but then it swung right back to the Dutch. Aubrey Peterson put down a good sacrifice bunt, but Sydney Brown initially thought the ball might be caught in the air and hesitated, and the result was a 2-4-6 double play.
Georgina Corrick then had a shaky start in the bottom of the first inning, walking Britt Vonk and Eva Voortman to start the Dutch at-bat. Dutch catcher Dinet Oosting was out on an infield pop-up, but when Maxime van Dalen hit a ground ball to second base player Nerissa Myers, shortstop Sydney Brown was late getting to second for the force play, and the Dutch had the bases loaded with one out.
The game could have been broken open right there.
But Virginie Anneveld, who had a rough night at the plate, hit a bouncer down the third base line, and Lauren Evans stepped on third and threw to first for the double play that got GB out of the inning and kept the game scoreless.
GB takes the lead
If that wasn’t enough to swing the momentum back towards GB, the way the top of the second inning started certainly did the trick.
Alicja Wolny’s lead-off ground ball went straight through the legs of Suka van Gurp at second base, and when Amy Moore put down a sacrifice bunt, Eva Voortman’s throw to first was too low for van Gurp to handle and skipped past her, sending Alicja went all the way to third.
Lauren Evans then took a strike before driving a fly ball to centre field, deep enough to let Alicja tag up and score for a 1-0 GB lead.
Not for the last time, however, GB contrived to get only one run out of a promising situation when they might have got more. On this occasion, Eva Voortman struck out Georgina Corrick, hit Chloe Wigington with a pitch (when the teams had met in the recent European Championship, Voortman had hit Chloe twice!) but then struck out Amie Hutchison to close out the inning.
GB extends the lead
The Dutch went up and down in order in the bottom of the second inning, and GB immediately put more pressure on Eva Voortman and the Dutch and quieted the crowd – at least temporarily – by extending their lead.
As the inning went on, the hard-throwing Voortman became more and more tentative, aiming the ball and losing velocity as a result.
Once again, Sydney Brown led off the inning with a single, this time beating out a high chop to third base. Using speed to get infield hits has always been a Dutch speciality, but now they were getting a taste of their own medicine.
Aubrey Peterson lined out to Virginie Anneveld at third trying to push the ball to left field, but Nerissa Myers drove a long double off the wall in left centre field, sending Sydney Brown to third, and she scored on Alicja Wolny’s sacrifice fly to left field.
Nerissa took third on the sac fly, and then GB had an outrageous piece of luck. Amy Moore hit a pop fly behind second base and shortstop Britt Vonk tracked it and made the catch – but then collided with centre fielder Chantal Versluis. As both players went down, the ball came out of Vonk’s glove and Nerissa scored.
After a lengthy discussion between Dutch Head Coach Connie Clark and the second base umpire over whether Vonk had held the ball long enough to be ruled a catch, the decision stayed in GB’s favour and suddenly the underdogs had a 3-0 lead.
This wasn’t the way things were supposed to go, and the Dutch crowd alternated between pensive quiet and loud support for their team.
The Dutch come back
In the bottom of the third and fourth innings, it was the Dutch putting on the pressure.
In the third, a one-out walk to Britt Vonk and a single expertly pushed to left field by Eva Voortman gave the Dutch two on with one out. But Georgina Corrick put a called third strike past Dinet Oosting and Maxime van Dalen hit a little ground ball to third base on a checked swing.
In the bottom of the fourth inning, the Dutch broke through, and the rally was keyed by GB’s only error of the game.
Virginie Anneveld led off the inning by hitting a slow ground ball that somehow eluded third base player Lauren Evans and then was bobbled by Sydney Brown behind her, putting Anneveld on first base. Anneveld remained there while Wies Ligtvoet struck out, and then was forced at second on a grounder to first hit by Jessie van Aalst. The odds seemed good that GB could get out of the inning unscathed.
But Suka van Gurp drove a single to left field and Chantal Versluis got the host team's best hit of the game, driving a triple over the head of Aubrey Peterson in centre field while both runners scored.
That brought up lead-off batter Britt Vonk, probably the most dangerous Dutch hitter, and after the count went to strike one, the decision was made to walk Vonk intentionally and pitch to Damishah Charles, batting in place of Eva Voortman who had left the game after the third inning.
It was a sensible decision and it paid off: Charles popped out to second base and Versluis was left on third.
Grinding it out
GB still led 3-2, but in the past some GB teams might have begun to panic after the Dutch had closed the gap..
Not this team. Instead, they came right back and ground out another run against Dutch relief pitcher Becky Soumeru in the top of the fifth inning.
Again, a Dutch error provided a helping hand. Aubrey Peterson, leading off, hit a bouncer that Soumeru grabbed with her momentum going towards third base, and knowing Peterson’s speed, Soumeru tried a leaping throw that sailed past first base while Aubrey took second.
This time, it was the turn of the Dutch to issue an intentional walk, as they wanted no part of Nerissa Myers.
But Alicja Wolny beat out a single hit deep in the hole at shortstop and GB had the bases loaded with no one out.
This is where GB could have put the game out of reach, but instead they could only add a single run. Becky Soumeru, who relies on movement, changes of speed and an excellent change-up, struck out Amy Moore on an off-speed pitch away, gave up a sacrifice fly to Lauren Evans, then struck out Georgina Corrick to end the inning.
But the score was now 4-2; GB had put a little daylight back into the lead.
A pause in the action
The Dutch went down in order in the bottom of the fifth inning, but that included a great snag low and to her left by Lauren Evans on a line drive hit by Virginie Anneveld.
GB went down in order in the top of the sixth inning, with Becky Soumeru keeping GB hitters off balance -- but that included a fine diving catch by centre fielder Chantal Versluis on a line drive hit by Amie Hutchison.
And so to the bottom of the sixth inning, where the game was probably decided.
A brave decision
Wies Ligtvoet opened the inning by beating out a single to shortstop, but nothing much seemed to be happening as Jessie van Aalst hit a soft line drive to Nerissa Myers and Suka van Gurp flied out to centre field.
But then Chantal Versluis singled, putting runners on first and second with Britt Vonk coming to the plate.
And the decision was made once again to give Vonk an intentional walk. But this time it loaded the bases, putting the tying runs on second and third. Would GB get away with this?
Yes, they did: with the crowd on their feet and chanting, Damishah Charles flied out to Katie Burge in left field.
GB had led in this game from the top of the second inning onward, but the game had never, ever felt safe, and a 4-2 lead seemed fragile.
So things felt a lot better, if still not exactly comfortable, after GB finally began to solve Becky Soumeru and tacked on another run in the top of the seventh inning.
Aubrey Peterson opened by slicing a single to left field and Nerissa Myers drove a single to right centre, sending Aubrey to third. After the count went to 1-1 on Alicja Wolny, and Nerissa Myers had stolen second base uncontested, the intentional walk reared its head for the final time, as Alicja was waved to first base.
This loaded the bases with no one out, but it did set up a force play at the plate for the desperate Dutch, or maybe a double play.
The batter was Amy Moore, and she took a ball, missed badly swinging at a change-up low and away, and then punched the next pitch between third and short, through the drawn-in Dutch infield, for a crucial RBI single.
Now it was 5-2 to GB. The bases were still loaded with no one out. Surely the game would be put to bed.
But things are never that easy. Ilona Andringa came in to pitch for the Dutch, who then got their force out at the plate on a bouncer to short by Lauren Evans. After that, Andringa struck out the next two hitters to retire the side and keep the Dutch within striking distance.
The bottom of the seventh inning was simply extraordinary and will remain long in the memory for everyone who saw it.
Dinet Oosting led off for the Netherlands and lofted a fly ball into short centre field. GB outfielders had been playing slightly deeper to prevent extra-base hits and Aubrey Peterson had a huge amount of ground to cover to get anywhere near the ball. But she did it, ending with a full-out dive, catching the ball just before it hit the ground and somehow keeping the ball in her glove.
That brought up Maxime van Dalen, and she sliced a hard-hit ball down the left field line. The ball was going foul, so would only have been a strike. But Katie Burge flew after it and made a leaping, diving, twisting catch in foul territory. Aubrey Peterson raced over to give Katie a huge hug, and the Dutch would have known that the game was up.
Georgina Corrick made sure by striking out Virginie Anneveld on four pitches.
This was probably the most important game in GB Softball history – at least until the games tomorrow and Saturday! – and GB had won it with an extraordinary display of skill, resolve and nerve.
And while Georgina Corrick faced plenty of pressure from the Dutch, she kept calm throughout and never cracked, striking out only three but inducing plenty of ground balls and pop-ups to keep the Dutch off the scoreboard.
In a live post-game interview on the field, Head Coach Rachael Watkeys said, “I knew we had so much more left in us after Ostrava [where GB had lost to the Netherlands by 8-1]. The players have worked so hard for this all year, and they insisted on having batting practice this morning in the heat. So when the game came, they were ready to go.”
Whether the GB Women can claim the place in Tokyo still remains to be seen. But this was a win that justified the belief of many – not least the players themselves – that they have a genuine chance.
We are now down to the expected four teams for the Super Round – the Netherlands, Italy, GB and the Czech Republic -- while Spain, France, South Africa and Botswana are eliminated from the tournament.
But GB’s win over the Dutch has upset the expected order of things.
GB finished as the winner of Pool A – A1 on the schedule – and should thus have met B2 (the Czechs) in the 7.00 pm evening game on Friday. But the host team generally gets the evening game, and so GB will play the Czechs at 4.00 pm Dutch time tomorrow (3.00 pm in the UK) in what is expected to be even hotter conditions than today, when temperatures broke all-time records for the Netherlands. The Dutch will then play Italy at 7.00 pm.
That will absolutely be a must-win game for the Dutch. Lose to Italy – who beat them in the European Championship final in Ostrava a couple of weeks ago – and the Olympic dream will be over for the Netherlands. And even if the Dutch can beat Italy, they will probably need Italy to beat GB on Saturday to have any chance.
The Dutch will also have to beat the Czechs in a game to be played on Saturday afternoon, and that will be followed by what may be the game that decides the Olympic place between GB and Italy.
Starting times for the two games on Saturday have yet to be announced, and may partly be determined by a forecast of thunderstorms in the afternoon.
Scores and standings
Scores from the final first round pool games played on Thursday were:
Italy 5, France 1
Spain 5, South Africa 0
Czech Republic v Botswana
GB 5, Netherlands 2
France played a very strong game against Italy, taking the European Champions to a full seven innings and keeping the game scoreless until Italy broke through with four runs in the top of the fourth inning. That was more than enough, but after Italy added an insurance run in the top of the seventh inning, France scored a run of their own in the bottom of the frame. The French will not advance to the Super Round but they have done well here with a much-improved team under the direction of former GB Assistant Coach Celine Lassaigne.
There is something quite brutal about the format that the WBSC has devised for this tournament, both at the top and the bottom of the draw, and one aspect is that Spain, France and especially South Africa and Botswana have spent a lot of money to get here and will play only three games.
None of these teams had a realistic chance of getting to the Super Round, but surely the tournament could have been made more rewarding for them in terms of experience gained. There are other softball fields here at the Sportpark Paperclip; perhaps these teams could at least have played something like a Plate competition, or perhaps games against Dutch club teams? Could they have had clinic sessions from some of the many top coaches here after they were eliminated from the tournament?
At the top of the tournament, as noted before, the format means that just one loss almost eliminates your chances of winning the event and certainly takes it out of your own hands. Much reviled as it is within the WBSC and now, apparently, within the ESF, the old Page Playoff format that the ESF used to use in all its tournaments might have been a fairer and more flexible way to find a winner.
Final first-round standings were:
South Africa (0-3)
Czech Republic (2-1)
So GB, Italy, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic go forward to the Super Round, effectively another four-team round-robin, taking the result with them from the game played against the other team in their first-round pool.
This means that standings in the Super Round pool look like this before play in the Super Round begins:
Czech Republic (0-1)
With each team playing only two games against the teams from the other first-round pool, the only road back for the Netherlands and the Czech Republic is to win both their Super Round games and hope that the final game on the tournament schedule – GB v Italy on Saturday – goes their way.
For GB and Italy, the place in Tokyo is still in their own hands.
High-quality web-streaming from all games from the Europe/Africa Olympic Qualifier can be seen here.
Photos by Paul Stodart, Jason Lee & Gabriel Fidler