On the face of it, the first day of the uropean Co-Ed Slowpitch Championships went about as well as it could have -- and as many expected it to -- for Team GB.
As one of the few teams to play three games on Day One, the British squad already sits comfortably atop the leader board with a 3-0 record. What is less expected, though, is the team nipping at their heels: Slovenia. GB's two perennial challengers -- Ireland and the Czech Republic -- sit at the bottom of the table with 0-2 records. As ever, the standings do not tell the full story, and there is still a lot of softball to be played.
The 2011 Slowpitch Euros are being held in Dupnitsa, Bulgaria, about an hour's drive from the capital, Sofia, and nestled in the foothills of the Rila mountains. If you wanted one word to describe the event, it would be "hot". Day One saw temperatures of 35°C, and Day Two of the event is expected to break 40°C. The Lesvski Stadium where the Europeans are being held offers little by way of shade or amenities, and all the teams must have suffered as the day wore on.
The tournament got underway with Ireland and Slovenia matching up. Ireland led for the entire game and went into the top of the seventh inning with a 4-0 lead, which included a home run by Linda Horan, only to lose the game 6-4 after a number of errors.
There have been a number of schedule changes and tightening-up of timings by the ESF tournament organisers in order to reduce the use of the second field, Marek SC. This meant that 15 minutes after blowing the game against Slovenia, the Irish team were back on the diamond, ready to face Team GB.
GB vs. Ireland
Shaking off their tough loss, the Irish team looked strong in the early stages of their game against the Brits. GB batted first and started with two quick outs before a double from Steve Hazard and a bloop single by Vicky Chapman put Britain on the board. Ireland came straight back with two runs of their own in the bottom of the first inning, but left the bases loaded to end the frame.
The first four innings were tight and edgy, with neither side able to string hits together, and the score was tied at 2-2 going into the fifth inning.
At this point, Head Coach Jeremy Bedford made a number of substitutions, which in effect turned the game. New batter Danny Gunn led off the inning and reached base on an error, and that was to prove critical. With one out, Ben March drove a double into left field to score Gunn. Next up was Fiona Hunter (in for Ruth Macintosh) who cleared the outfield with a towering triple, and then scored on Steve Hazard's sacrifice fly.
A combination of hits from Dan Spinks and Martin Cartledge and two errors from Ireland gave Team GB three more runs in the top of the sixth inning and an 8-2 lead. The top of the Irish order led off the sixth with hits and got two runs back, but then Ireland left another three baserunners stranded and the game was effectively over at a score of GB 8, Ireland 4.
GB vs. Germany
After the game against Ireland, the British contingent had a game break and were able to watch their next opponents, Germany, take on Slovenia. It has been nine years since Germany played in a European Slowpitch Championship and everyone was interested to see how they would fare.
The tone was set early when the German pitcher walked the first three batters and, then faced Slovenia's clean-up hitter, who put the ball over the fence. After that, Germany were never really in it, although they put 10 runs on the board before the game ended 25-10 in the sixth on the run-ahead rule.
Like Ireland before them, Germany then had to immediately turn around and face the reigning European Champions, Great Britain. Coach Bedford took the decision to start the game with everyone who had not played against Ireland in Game One, plus all of the "rookie" members of the squad.
It was quickly clear that this was a sound strategy as GB piled on seven runs in the bottom of the first inning. The last of these came from a triple by Robbie Robison. It was clear that he was hurt as he rounded second base, but Robbie still managed to heroically jump-step most of the way to third, throwing himself on to the bag with a head first slide. Danny Gunn came in as the pinch runner and scored on a single to left by Lillian Tanner.
Britain added three more runs in the second inning. In the top of the third, Germany scored a single run and then held GB to a scoreless inning, which proved to be their high point in the game. This was short-lived, though, as GB added another seven runs in the fourth. When Germany failed to add to their single run in the fifth, the game ended on the run-ahead rule at a score of 17-1.
While the victory was a team demonstration of solid hitting and excellent baserunning, special mentions are due to Ben March and Ruth Macintosh, who both were 3-for-3. First-time call-up Lucy Binding, who had been hitting the ball hard, but right at the fielders, lined a double in between the outfielders in centre-left. And Vicky Chapman smashed a triple over the outfield to lead off the second inning.
GB vs. Czech Republic
It was now Team GB's turn to play in back-to-back games as the Czech team returned from the second stadium (after a 22-19 loss to Bugaria).
The game started much like the Ireland match earlier in the day with an even-keel first inning, but Britain notched two runs in the top of the second inning on Paul Gough's inside-the-park home run on which Dan Spinks also scored. GB added two more runs in the next inning, and then the Czechs answered back with two of their own and held GB to just a single add-on run (another inside-the-park HR from the speedy Gough) in the fourth.
The Brits really found their bats in the fifth inning and added another five runs to take a 10-2 lead. In the top of the sixth, the Czech left-centre fielder Pachl drove in two runs with yet another inside-the-park home run to pull the score back to 10-4.
At this point the game was erroneously called and everyone left the field. Five minutes later, with the grounds crew already watering the field for the next game, the official scorers realised that the seventh inning had not been played and everyone was called back to the diamond. As the batter's box was no longer lined, the home plate umpire scratched the markings in the sand, and the GB leadoff hitter, Ben March, stepped up to bat.
There followed the most remarkable inning of the day for GB, as all 12 batters in the lineup came to the plate and added another six runs with consistent singles hitting, except for a double from Dan Spinks.
In the bottom of the inning, a fairly demoralised Czech team managed to add a fifth run before the game ended with a diving catch by Ben March on a line drive to his right with a final score of 16-5.
At the close of the first day, the thing that stood out about the GB performance was that it had really been a team effort. It was one of the few times one could honestly say that everyone contributed and, unlike in years past, it was done without the aid of the long ball over the fence – although Steve Hazard came close.
After the day's play, Coach Bedford remarked: “One of the highlights was being able to blood the squad early.” He had anticipated that the new members of the squad would feel some level of tension and apprehension and felt that it was very positive to get them in games from the start. Bedford was particularly proud that while GB put out a team to designed to “handle” the Irish, “it was the bench players that turned the game.”
This is Jeremy Bedford's first tournament as Gb Slowpitch Head Coach and it's clear that he has an eye for the details and will make full use of his squad to try to win games, as evidenced from the judicious use of pinch-runners on Day One.
So, in short, a perfect start for Team GB. Tomorrow (Wednesday 20 July) Great Britain will face Slovenia and the tournament hosts, Bulgaria.
Standings (19 July)
A full list of results from the Co-Ed Slowpitch European Championships can be found at http://competition.europeansoftball.org/2011/dupnitsa/schedule.php.