Bucking the trend of the last few years, the annual Softball World Series tournament has never had outfield fences. In part, this is because the smooth grass playing surface at the BA Concorde Club near Heathrow Airport, where the tournament has flourished since 2005, sits on top of an old WWII runway, and getting fence spikes into it can be difficult.
But this year, as well as being blessed with warm September sunshine for most of the weekend on September 15-16, the tournament was bequeathed seven volunteer helpers from BaseballSoftballUK’s Youth Panel, and with all that help available, one outfield fence was erected on the main pitch.
Though the fence distance was 285′ down the foul lines, it was maybe a little shorter than that in the alleys and in centre field. This allowed a fair number of home runs by some of the usual suspects over the course of the weekend, but nothing really out of the ordinary.
But then came the final of the Trophy Competition on Sunday afternoon between the Anzacs and the GB Masters, two teams with home run hitters sprinkled throughout their line-ups. The result was something akin to the annual Border Battle in Oklahoma City, where US and Canadian Men’s All-Star Teams put on a long-ball show on ESPN, ending up with scores like 38-37.
In the World Series final, the game was neatly book-ended by the GB Masters going three-up, three-down in the top of the first inning and three-up, three-down in the top of the seventh. But in between was an extraordinary slugfest, with the teams belting out 14 home runs (seven each) and 45 hits.
When the smoke cleared, the Anzacs had 29 runs to 23 for the surprising GB Masters, and the Anzacs were in the winner’s circle at the World Series for the first time since their back-to-back titles in 2008 and 2009.
With their total of three World Series wins, the Anzacs have moved past the USA, England and MIA-POW from Lakenheath, who have two each, and are closing in on Africa, who won four titles in five years between 2000 and 2004.
As usual, 18 teams contested the tournament, including six from overseas: three teams from Ireland, two from Switzerland and one from Belgium.
All teams started out in the main competition, but after round-robin groups on Saturday, the tournament split into Trophy, Plate and Cup competitions on Sunday.
The Cup competition consisted of both Swiss teams – the Orcas from Zurich and the Geneva Softball League – plus Latin America, The Locals from the Thames Valley, Japan/Asia and a team from Wales making a welcome return to the World Series after a long absence. After losing all of their round-robin games on Saturday, Wales turned things around and won three straight games on Sunday to reach the Cup final.
“We started to bond on Sunday,” said Steph Gillard, a longtime Welsh Baseball stalwart who now plays GB fastpitch softball as well. “And because of that, we started to play better as a team.”
The Plate competition included a couple of teams – Canada and Munster – who had higher aspirations when the tournament began, and it wasn’t surprising that they wound up contesting the Plate final. The remaining teams in the Plate were the two other Irish teams – the Craicers and the Ireland Development Team – plus The Cage from Belgium and the Under-25 team Studentenland.
That left the big beasts who earned their way to the Trophy competition – the Anzacs, Africa and England, all of whom went undefeated on Saturday – plus the USA, GB Masters and the GB Development team, with GB Slowpitch Team Head Coach Steve Patterson and the other GB coaches helping the GB Development players put up very strong showing against tough opposition on Sunday.
Sunday Round-Robin: Trophy Group
Sunday always brings closer games as teams find their level in the Trophy, Plate and Cup competitions, but rarely as close as the way things started at 9.00 am in the Trophy group, with the USA defeating England 11-10 and the GB Masters overcoming the GB Development Team by 7-6.
USA won their game with a three-run rally in the bottom of the seventh, culminating in a walk-off home run by Ethan Solomon. And in the game between the GB Slowpitch Team’s past and future stars, the young players came back from 5-2 to 5-5 on a three-run home run into the left field corner by Areej Elmaazi, but the GB Masters blasted two long solo home runs in the top of the last inning (a foretaste of things to come) and confined a final rally by the GB Development Team to just a single run.
Africa had trouble scoring runs and went down 10-7 to the USA and 5-0 to England to miss out on the trophy Page Playoff, and after their one-run loss to the GB Masters, the GB Development Team were thumped 21-7 by the Anzacs and also missed out on the final round. But in their fifth-place playoff game, the GB Development Team finished the weekend with a flourish, holding their nerve in a 10-9 win over Africa.
Sunday Round-Robin: Plate Group
In the Plate competition, the Craicers and Canada won both their round-robin games on Sunday morning, while Munster and Ireland each went 1-1, which was enough to get them to the Plate Page Playoff.
The Cage from Belgium and the Under-25 team Studentenland missed out on the Page Playoff, but the Student team had enough to win their fifth-place playoff game by 15-12.
Sunday Round-Robin: Cup Group
In the Cup competition, Wales suddenly found the key to winning, and so did Japan/Asia, as both teams marched into the Page Playoff undefeated.
They were joined by the Orcas from Zurich and The Locals, while Latin America and Geneva played for fifth place, with Geneva winning by 25-8.
In the Cup Page Playoff, Wales beat Japan/Asia 9-3 in the 1v2 game and went straight to the final, while the Locals sent the Zurich Orcas out of the competition by winning the 3v4 game 14-8.
So The Locals met Japan/Asia to see who would meet Wales in the final, and Japan/Asia won a close and action-packed game by 18-4.
In the Plate Page Playoff, Canada, whose sartorial theme this year was Moose (“We would have done better if we’d been more outrageous,” said Canadian organiser Chris Macleod), defeated the Craicers by 8-4 in the 1v2 game to go straight to the final, while Munster defeated the Irish Development Team in the 3v4 game by 10-4.
So the Craicers and Munster met in another all-Ireland clash to see who would face Canada in the final, and Munster coasted to an 11-4 win.
In the Trophy Page Playoff, the Anzacs continued undefeated with a 15-9 win over the USA in the 1v2 game and went straight to the final. The GB Masters would not necessarily have been favoured to beat England in the 3v4 game, but they prevailed by 12-8, setting up a game with the USA to see who would join the Anzacs.
This was an extraordinary game, with the USA generally in the lead, but the GB Masters refusing to die. Down 6-3 in the third, the GB Masters tied the game on a clutch two-out two-RBI hit by Sandy Lewis. Down 11-6 in the sixth inning thanks to a three-run triple by the USA’s Beth Bear, the Masters came back to tie the game again on three home runs in the bottom of the sixth – solo shots by David Lee and Gary Hoxby and a three-run blast by Pete Nightingale.
The game eventually went to a tie-break in the seventh inning, with time having run out after the sixth. The USA scored two in the top of the sixth, but the Masters tied the game on a base hit by Paul Gough, a bloop single by Claire Green and a walk to Roger Grooms, and had runners on second and third, no outs and David Lee coming to the plate.
There was really no way the USA was going to prevent the winning run from scoring, but David Lee, whose home runs won the Premier Nationals for the Chromies a couple of weeks earlier, put the icing on the cake with a three-run walk-off shot over the right-centre field fence. Against all the odds, the GB Masters had reached the Trophy final.
“I felt sorry for Kevin,” said David Lee afterwards, meaning USA pitcher Kevin Quiney. “There was really nothing he could do in that situation.”
Wales had beaten Japan 9-3 in the Page Playoff 1v2 game, but it was a different story when the teams met in the Cup Final.
Both teams scored once in the first inning – a sacrifice fly by Mel Mason drove in Leo Nomura for Japan and a single by Matt Burnett drove in Dave Jones for Wales.
However, the Welsh offense after that was restricted to a solo home run by Matt Burnett in the fourth inning. Meanwhile, Japan put the game out of reach with five runs in the top of the fourth, including RBIs for Kayo Kitigawa, Hiro Ryan and Tanaka Kuzofumi. The Japanese added a pair of runs in the fifth inning and again in the sixth and ran out 10-2 winners.
But a Welsh team full of players who are new to this level will definitely be back.
The Plate Final was a high-scoring affair, with Canada always trailing, but never by enough for Munster to feel secure.
Munster led 4-2 after the first inning, 8-6 after two, 9-6 after three, 14-10 after four and eventually won 14-11.
Senan Dormer and Ruth Lillis had home runs for Munster, while John Leonard had two doubles and a single.
Canadian lead-off hitter Kevin Crowhurst also had two doubles and a single, and Canada put together their best offensive inning in the second, when consecutive singles by Becky Taylor, Steve Fullan, Joelle Whitley and Phil Bedford, followed by a double by Kevin Crowhurst and a single by Nicole Elliott, brought in four runs and brought Canada back from an 8-2 deficit to 8-6.
But Munster scored in every inning but the last and a five-run outburst on five consecutive hits in the fourth inning sealed the game.
There may have been 14 home runs in the Trophy Final between the Anzacs and the GB Masters, but five of them – in five trips to the plate – belonged to Anzac second baseman Ryan Martin, who plays fastpitch for the GB Men and semi-pro football in Norway. Those blasts were good for eight RBIs and the Male MVP Award for the final. Ryan’s hitting was the difference between the heavily-favoured Anzacs and a GB Masters team that was within one run of being mercy-ruled at the end of five innings, but kept fighting back and eventually only lost by 29-23.
The Anzacs‘ other two home runs both came from Dan Armstrong, while the GB Masters shared their home runs more democratically, with two each from David Lee and Pete Nightingale and one from Sean Wright, Gary Hoxby and Paul Gough.
The Female MVP Award for the final went to Anzac right fielder Sadie Hamilton, who had three hits and three RBIs in four trips to the plate, reached base four times and scored four runs.
But the game wasn’t all about home runs – more about a relentless assault on a succession of pitchers, as starter Roger Grooms, David Lee and Gary Hoxby all tried their luck for the GB Masters, while starter Ross Smith, Stan Doney and Dan Armstrong all pitched for the Anzacs, with no one really able to stem the flow of base hits.
The Anzacs had 25 hits and the GB Masters 20, and three huge Anzac innings – seven runs in the second, eight in the third and 10 in the fifth – were just too much for the GB Masters to overcome. Those 10 runs in the fifth inning put the Anzacs 27-16 ahead, one run shy of the mercy rule. But thus reprieved, the GB Masters came back with seven runs of their own in the top of the sixth to cut the lead to just four at 27-23. At that point, a most improbable comeback win for the GB veterans didn’t seem entirely out of the question.
But the Anzacs tacked on a final two runs in the bottom of the sixth on Dan Armstrong’s solo home run and a sacrifice fly by Ross Smith, and the GB Masters finally surrendered, going down 1-2-3 in the top of the seventh.
Final Trophy Standings
1 — Anzacs (Trophy Winner)
2 — GB Masters (Trophy Runner-up)
3 — USA
4 — England
5 — GB Development
6 — Africa
Trophy Final MVPs: Ryan Martin and Sadie Hamilton (Anzacs)
Final Plate Standings
7 — Munster (Plate Winner)
8 — Canada (Plate Runner-up)
9 — Craicers
10 – Ireland
11 — Studentenland
12 – The Cage (Belgium)
Final Cup Standings
13 – Japan/Asia (Cup Winner)
14 – Wales (Cup Runner-up)
15 – The Locals
16 – Orcas (Switzerland)
17 – Geneva (Switzerland)
18 – Latin America
BSUK Youth Panel Volunteers
World Series Winners
1999 – England
2000 – Africa
2001 – Africa
2002 – USA
2003 – Africa
2004 – Africa
2005 – USA
2006 – Rest of the World
2007 – Anzacs
2008 – Anzacs
2009 – England
2010 – Lakenheath Eagles
2011 – MIA-POW
2012 – Anzacs
by Bob Fromer
Images courtesy of Brian Connolly