By Joe Gray, Staff Writer for baseballgb.co.uk
With contributions from Michael Jones, AAA Special Correspondent
On the final weekend of Britain’s 2011 adult baseball season (September 10-11), twelve travelling troupes convened at Grovehill Ballpark, Herts Baseball Club’s excellent Hemel Hempstead facility, to play out the National Baseball Championships (NBCs).
National titles were decided at all four senior levels.
The newly formed Southern Nationals emerged victorious in the National Baseball League (NBL) final; the Liverpool Trojans, the country’s oldest club, claimed the AAA crown; the Bolton Robots of Doom were champions at AA level; and the recently re-formed Cambridge Royals took the Single-A title.
The NBL showdown brought together two new NBL squads, the Southern Nationals and the Lakenheath Diamondbacks (photo by SA Images)
The event was run by Team GB to raise funds ahead of the crucial 2012 season, in which the Seniors will compete in the World Baseball Classic qualifier as well as the European Championship A-Pool, having regained a place among Europe's elite with the qualifier win over Israel this summer.
As a fundraiser, the NBC was very successful (a sum of close to £2000 was raised). And a straw poll of spectators yielded favourable comments on the running of the event.
The inclement weather predicted in Friday’s forecasts did not materialise for the most part, with many of the games being played in dry and at times bright conditions, though a heavy rain shower led to a short break during the NBL Final and gusts on the far diamond momentarily became strong enough to up-end a gazebo.
Here is how the games went over the weekend.
After three hours and nine minutes of increasingly dramatic back-and-forth baseball, it was a skilfully stroked single from Diamondbacks Player/Coach Ken Reber in the bottom of the ninth inning that decided the game.
Elation broke out among the Lakenheath camp as Reber charged down the first base line, fists pumping, while the realisation of defeat slowly emerged on the Mustangs’ faces. For the military squad, the goal of winning a national title in their first season was one step closer. For the Southampton team, there must have been at least some satisfaction that they had acquitted themselves at this highest level of competition far better than in 2010, when they were on the receiving end of a Reid Wilson no-hitter in their first of two losses.
Gary Davison faced off against the heavy-hitting D'Backs (photo by SA Images)
Lakenheath's big bats struck two early blows off Southampton starter Gary Davison, but with no runners on base, the home runs hit by Adrian Ryals in the bottom of the first and by Ryan Riniker in the bottom of the second did not faze the Mustangs. A chain of infield hits and walks brought up five on the scoreboard for Southampton in the top of the third, assisted by wildness from Diamondbacks starter Colton High.
But a new arm for the Diamondbacks, Peter Soares, kept the Mustangs quiet during the game’s middle three innings, a period during which Lakenheath plated four runs to edge into a 6–5 lead.
A single run in the seventh inning for Southampton restored parity, but a three-run rally in the eighth by Lakenheath appeared to have broken the spirit of the fighting Mustangs, given that they had loaded the bases in the top of the inning but had failed to score.
So, going into the ninth, the Mustangs trailed by three runs. Against the odds, though, the visitors appeared to have done enough to pull off a remarkable victory, with a five-run rally powered by a Marius Urbanavicius home run and a two-out Ben Davis double.
Now it was the Diamondbacks who looked down, but not quite out. Southampton relief pitcher Alberto Rodriguez was himself relieved by Lee Ralph during the ninth as the Diamondbacks loaded the bases and plated a run. Ralph gave himself a chance of navigating around the approaching iceberg, picking up two key outs including a force at the plate. But he was doomed to fail in the desperately difficult save attempt when Ken Reber stroked his walk-off hit.
Marius Urbanavicius was the pick of the Mustang hitters, with an earlier single to go with his last-inning homer. He had the Mustangs' only multi-hit game. The Diamondbacks’ offence was paced by walk-off hero Reber, with three hits including a double, while Adrian Ryals, Adrian Mendoza and Josh Miller each had two hits.
Nationals' Brendan Cunliffe had three hits versus the Flames (photo by SA Images)
In a game exuding intensity for much of its course, the grains of sand were running out for the trailing Nationals as their right-fielder Leo Perez drew a lead-off walk in the top of the seventh inning. Based on the tightly-fought nature of the contest up to that point, it appeared that the NBL newcomers would need to capitalise on every opportunity if they were to stand a chance of overturning a 5–2 deficit.
But a successfully executed pick-off from the ever-dangerous arm of Richmond catcher Ryan Bird removed Perez and had one spectator commenting that “It’s just not going to be the Nationals’ day.” This was underscored when hits by the Lintern brothers (a double for Will and single for George), sandwiched around a hit by pitch for Jason Roberts, loaded the bases for the Nationals, only for an infield pop-up and a fly-out to centre by Jason Holowaty to end the threat with no runs scored. The inning might have been different without the pick-off.
But redemption was reasonably swift for Leo Perez. He scored the go-ahead run in the eighth inning as part of a developing rally by the Harlow-based squad, and then sealed what turned into an 11-run onslaught with a three-run homer later in the inning. That incredible sequence of scoring had started with a lead-off home run by the 2011 NBL long-ball champion Edwin Alcantara. Richmond were aggrieved by the nature of the slugger’s celebration, and they lost their control of the game soon after.
Another five runs for the visitors in the ninth inning made the final score 18–6. The Nationals' attack had been driven by a 4-for-6 performance by Maikel Azcuy (including a two-run homer), and three-hit performances by Leo Perez and Brendan Cunliffe. Young infielder Luis Goncalves also impressed, going 2-for-2 from the ninth spot before being substituted.
Starting pitcher Jason Roberts entered the batting line-up at that point, with Jason Holowaty moving from designated hitter to second base. Shortly after, Holowaty took one of the most remarkable catches in any recent Championship, a full-stretch dive to his left that snagged a hard-hit liner off the bat of Cody Cain.
“Of all the gloves I had to hit it to...!” Cain remarked as he retreated to the bench.
Jason Roberts went the distance in the game, throwing 150 pitches in his nine-inning effort, striking out seven and walking four while scattering eight hits. Robbie Unsell, who was the NBL’s best pitcher during the regular season, had been a worthy adversary for six innings.
The 2010 champion Flames, to their credit, had played very well for seven innings, despite being short of at least one key pitcher through injury and fielding several players who were battling with cramp and other ailments. The lead they had built in the early innings was aided by round-trippers hit by Ryan Bird and Marty Visser and a three-bagger for long-time servant Michael Osborn.
But it was the Southern Nationals who advanced to join the Lakenheath Diamondbacks in the Final, ensuring that the 2011 National Championship was going to go a newly-formed team.
Jamie Ratcliff allowed just two runs on three hits in a six-inning shutdown of the Diamondbacks offence (photo by SA Images)
Nationals' Manager Jason Greenberg and Coach Marty Cullen handed the ball to graduating GB Junior Jamie Ratcliff for the Final. It had been 24 years, according to available records, since an Under-18 pitcher had won a National Final (the last being Tony Kuramitsu, who pitched a three-hit shutout for the Cobham Yankees in 1987).
What made the move braver still was the fact that Ratcliff had at times during the season struggled to direct his often-lethal missiles through the plane of the strike zone. At his best, Ratcliff had shut out the Croydon Pirates on the penultimate weekend of the season, but when he was not on his game he had walked batters in bunches and been pulled early on occasion.
But in this game, Ratcliff just had to focus on pitching, with the designated hitter spot filled by first Brandon Deal and then Carlos Casal, who delivered a pinch-hit double late in the game.
Ratcliff’s opponent on the mound was Ken Reber, the Lakenheath ace during the regular season.
The first run of the game came in the top of the second inning, the Diamondbacks scoring on a base on balls after Jamie Ratcliff had walked the bases full. Following some steadying words from his battery-mate and GB Junior Coach Will Lintern, Ratcliff pulled himself together and induced a ground ball that dependable third baseman George Lintern snared and then narrowly won a foot race to the bag against the incoming runner.
In the bottom of the second, Maikel Azcuy reached on a single for the Nationals, advanced to third on an errant throw and then dashed home on a wild pitch -- an early sign of the control problems that Reber would suffer.
Jamie Ratcliff issued a one-out walk in the third and, following a strike-out, yielded a single to the dangerous Cameron Banks. Hitting behind Banks was Ryan Riniker, one of Lakenheath’s main power hitters, but Ratcliff bore down to retire him on a called third strike.
The Nationals then gave the battling Ratcliff runs to work with by punishing a series of Lakenheath infield errors in the bottom of the third. The four runs scored gave the Nationals a platform for victory.
From that point on, the Diamondbacks looked increasingly like they had no answer to the young Nationals hurler, as Ratcliff grew in confidence and seemingly found even more movement on his off-speed pitches. Only when the 105-pitch count approached (this being a strict limit for Under-18 pitchers) did the Nationals move to bring in Jason Roberts as a closer.
Roberts entered in the top of the seventh with a 13–2 lead, knowing that the Diamondbacks would need to score at least two runs to avoid a mercy-rule ending. Lakenheath did manage to score once, and had the second run heading for home when triple-crown winner Edwin Alcantara, stationed in centre field, became a fitting recipient of the last out.
Jamie Ratcliff’s winning performance in the final (six innings, two runs, three hits, five walks and three strike-outs) earned him MVP honours, while Maikel Azcuy was named Player of the Tournament after going 7-for-10 across the two games. Leo Perez also excelled over the two days, finishing 5-for-6 in the tournament.
Beyond Ratcliff, the Nationals’ roster featured other talented youngsters in Luis Goncalves, Aaron Webster and Dan Parker. The last of these players completed a three-generation Championship run, with father Frank Jr and grandfather Frank Sr both having claimed titles in their respective eras.
Frank Jr was one of the most jubilant Nationals’ followers, which was understandable given that the first team inscribed on the trophy now lifted by his son’s team was one that he himself had played on.
Southern Nationals celebrate their victory (photo by David Ratcliff)
"This one’s for you, Norman!"
The Liverpool Trojans had their revenge for defeat at the hands of the Oxford Kings in 2010. They beat the same opposition in the AAA final on a good weekend for teams from the Northern divisions.
Martin Godsall pitched both the Trojans semi-final and final en route to an MVP award at the AAA championships (photo by Thomas Haywood)
The Essex Redbacks raced to a six-run lead during the first two frames, with Sean Briscomb delivering a two-out single to drive in two runs in the second inning. The Redbacks also looked sharp defensively, with pitcher Vince Warner instigating a double play.
But a couple of walks and Essex errors gave the impetus back to the Liverpool Trojans.
The Trojans had sent youngster Rob Vondy to the hill, but replaced him with old head Martin Godsall in the third inning, and after that the Redbacks couldn’t score. Indeed, they accumulated only four baserunners over the next seven innings.
Godsall’s effort cost him 88 pitches, but Liverpool Manager Rob Alger was quietly hopeful that the gritty Northerner would be able to return to the mound for the next day’s Final. Alger had seen his pitcher strike out eight and walk just one, and he faced only one more than the minimum over the closing five frames.
In contrast, hits fell in for the Trojans and by the bottom of the third inning they had a 7-6 lead. They added another couple of runs over the course of the game, but the margin might have been even greater but for five solid innings from John Read in relief of Vince Warner.
In the end, Liverpool did as they’d done all season: they won.
The Redbacks’ solitary multi-hit game came from left-fielder Sheldon Smith, with his two singles in the first two frames being instrumental in Essex’s early onslaught. The star hitter for the Trojans was Rob Vondy, emerging with a 3-for-4 game and stealing four bases after being relieved of the pressures of manning the hill. Harry Wren also impressed for the Trojans, with two singles from his four at-bats.
Redbacks Chairman Matt Jennings said: "It was a sad end to a fantastic season. It has been a truly remarkable achievement. We won an awful lot of games and also fulfilled every single fixture -- and of that we should be very proud.
“I am sure we will bounce back for more success next year," Jennings added. "We are already in discussions to strengthen the team with even more experienced personnel while continuing to bring through our young talent."
With the Halton Jaguars unable to take their position in the NBCs, the Oxford Kings wiped off their defeat in the Southern Playoffs and seized the opportunity to retain their title.
And they found a Bristol team waiting for them in the semi-final without a couple of their regular starting pitchers and missing other key players as well.
It was ultimately a struggle with the strike-zone that cost Bristol the place in the Final that their regular-season play had merited. Pitchers Peter Pfenning and Gian Jiminez gave away a combined 14 free passes, while the Kings’ complete-game winner Chris Oates had just two walks and two hit batters to his name.
Bristol were always in the hunt, though, and good defensive work, including a diving grab at second base and a double play by Tom Hollies, ensured that Oxford didn’t get too far ahead.
However, Bristol’s bats were a lot flatter than they had been all season and their rustiness (only eight games played since June 26) may have told as the game wore on.
The Badgers scored first, with two runs in the bottom of the first inning, and they led the contest as late as the end of the fifth and were tied going into the eighth. The Kings scored three times in the top of the eighth, but the Badgers had not quite retired to their sett. A pinch-hit single from Remmert Schouten looked like it might spark a rally for the Bristol squad, and a Tom Hollies double drove in a run. But that was the last time the Badgers would cross the plate.
In the top of the ninth, two more runs for the Kings took the score to 11–7, which is how the game finished. The Kings were one step closer to holding on to their throne.
Oxford’s Chris Hayes and Bristol’s Matt Bray, Tom Hollies, and Carlos Nunez all finished with two hits in the game. Oates struck out four and gave up nine hits in his winning effort.
“With fewer errors and a bit more luck we could have come away with the win, but this was not to be as Oxford put bat to ball and forced our defence to make plays,” said Co-Manager Tom Hollies.
“Although we lost, reaching this stage of the season was a huge success, considering our record last year, and all the players contributed massively throughout the season. We can only learn from this experience and look forward to going one better next season," Hollies added.
Less than 24 hours after throwing seven important innings against the Essex Redbacks, Martin Godsall took the mound again for Liverpool to try to shut down the Oxford Kings in a replay of last year’s AAA Final.
And though the Trojans ran into Oxford's Masa Egawa, last year's winning pitcher, they fared much better this time around.
Martin Godsall took his pitch count for the weekend to 173 in shutting down the Kings’ hitters for seven frames. The only run he conceded was unearned, which meant that he did not allow an earned run in pitching 14 innings for the Trojans over the weekend. In the victory over Oxford, Godsall struck out four, walked one, had one hit batter, and gave up a solitary hit, a fourth-inning single by the Kings’ semi-final winner, Chris Oates.
Nevertheless, at 2-1 to the Trojans heading into the fourth inning, hopes were high of a game that would rival last year’s 3-2 win for the Kings. But the Trojans’ bats suddenly woke up and Dave Martin-Baez was the star, knocking in five of the 11 runs that Liverpool eventually scored.
Godsall made sure there would be no heroics from the Kings. The game ended on the mercy rule after seven innings and the Trojans wrenched Oxford's hands off the AAA crown and took it north up the M6.
Dave Martin-Baez and Paul Smith both went 2-for-4 for the Trojans, the former with two doubles, while Rob Vondy took his tally for the weekend to four hits with a fifth-inning single.
Trojans’ first baseman Ian Blease summed up their success: “On Saturday we didn't play as well as we could, but it all came together for the Final. Goddy [Martin Godsall] was terrific -- get him a lead and he won't lose it. To give up just one unearned run in 14 innings of play is a phenomenal achievement for him and the team.
“There is one man back home who is an inspiration to us all who couldn't make it this weekend," Blease added: "Norman Wells -- this one is for you.”
Liverpool Trojans found sweet victory in their do-over of last year's defeat to the Oxford Kings (photo by SA Images)
While Saturday’s four games (the NBL and AAA semi-finals) had offered twists, turns, comebacks and capitulations, with the go-ahead run scoring in the eighth inning or later in all but one contest, Finals day on Sunday had served up three mercy-rule victories from its first three battles.
And so, with the NBL Final getting away from Lakenheath and louder and louder roars emanating from the far diamond, pockets of the crowd on the main diamond were drawn away to watch the closing stages of the AA final.
There they joined a boisterous party who were buzzing around behind the home bench rooting for the Latin Boys, and an equally vociferous bunch of Bolton supporters strung out along the fence parallel to the third base line. Among the latter’s ranks were the weary Liverpool Trojans, who had claimed the AAA crown on the same diamond in the previous game.
The early stages of the AA final were pulsating: the lead changed hands five times in the first three innings. After that, Bolton pitcher and eventual MVP for the Final, Zak O’Boyle, managed to work through four scoreless frames between the fifth and the eighth, while Bolton eked out an 8-5 lead to take into the bottom of the ninth.
It was at this stage that the game headed for a thrilling climax. The Latin Boys carefully built the inning they needed, piecing together base hits and free passes to load the bases and bring home the three runs that tied the game. Their rally was fuelled by an error at first base strangely reminiscent of the one that set Bill Buckner back for so many years.
On the play where the tying run scored, a loud burst of Latin music had the home spectators dancing and the Bolton players livid, but the chief umpire quickly silenced the beats.
With the winning run in scoring position and two outs, Zak O’Boyle managed to regain his control, and a pitch that challenged the bottom of the strike zone was bounced to shortstop for the third out.
In the top half of the first extra inning, hits from Tony Berry, Jimmy Walsh-Hill, Dale Hargan, Ryan Patterson, and Zak O’Boyle led to a four-run charge that put the Robots of Doom back in control. This time, the Latin Boys could not respond, and the team from Bolton emerged victorious by a score of 12–8.
For the Northerners, O’Boyle was 3-for-6 on the day, Ryan Patterson and Jay Sherlock both went 2-for-5 with two doubles, and substitute John Baxendale was 2-for-3, also with two doubles.
Bolton Robots of Doom needed an extra inning to beat the fiery Latin Boys (photo by SA Images)
Brett Curran delivered a complete game from the mound and paced the Royals’ offence to hand Cambridge a national title in their first season back in the BBF leagues.
An obvious pick for MVP in the Final, Curran gave up three earned runs on six hits over seven innings of work, with 12 strike-outs and no free passes, while going 3-for-3 and driving in five runs with the bat.
The mercy-rule-inducing run came with one out in the bottom of the seventh inning after 2.1 innings of shaky pitching from Birmingham's Andrew Larwill (four earned runs on two hits and seven walks). Larwill had relieved starter Chen-au Yu, who had given up 10 runs over the first four frames (nine of them earned).
Highlights for the Maple Leafs came in the form of a home run by James Moran as part of a 2-for-3 game by Birmingham’s starting centre-fielder, and another 2-for-3 showing by first baseman Jordan Williams.
In addition to Curran’s heroics for the Royals, Mark Gilley went 3-for-4 with a double while catcher Gary Liston was 2-for-5 from the lead-off spot. The team batted 7-for-17 with runners in scoring position.
The other two hits for Cambridge came from left-fielder Lucas Lattergas and centre-fielder Adam Gilbert. The latter swiped two bases during the game, an accomplishment that was matched by Royals' shortstop Jeng Yi.
The reformed Cambridge Royals cruised through the season to a Single-A victory in their first year back in British baseball (photo by SA Images)
Tag(s): Get in the Game News National League Triple-A Double-A Single-A NBL Pool A Triple-A North Division Triple-A South Division Double-A North Division AA Midlands Division AA South Pool B AA South Pool A Single-A South Pool B Single-A South Pool A NBL Pool B Southern Single-A South Pool A Single-A South Pool B