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RICHMOND, LEICESTER AND NORWICH CAPTURE NATIONAL BASEBALL CHAMPIONSHIP TITLES

09/17/2017, 8:45pm BST
By Bob Fromer & Don McDermott

SUNDAY 17 SEPTEMBER – Three excellent and dramatic finals were played today at Farnham Park as National Champions for 2017 were crowned in the British Baseball Federation’s Triple-A, Double-A and Single-A divisions.

The first game to get under way, at 11.00 am on a cool and cloudy morning, was the Double-A final between the Leicester Blue Sox and Tonbridge, both teams that had won the Single-A National Championship in recent seasons.  This turned out to be a tense and well-pitched game that was in doubt until Leicester scored four runs in a bizarre top of the ninth inning to turn a 5-4 lead into a much more comfortable 9-4 advantage.  It’s not often that one player can be said to win a baseball game single-handed, but in this case the evidence was pretty clear.  Read the report below to find out why the MVP award could only have gone to Leicester’s Rikson Martina.

Not long afterward, the Triple-A final got under way between the Richmond Knights and the Birmingham Bandits.  This was the most dramatic game of the day, as Richmond trailed for most of the contest, then fashioned a massive rally in the top of the ninth inning to fly past the Bandits and take the Triple-A title.  A report on this game is just below.

Finally, at 3.00 pm, the Single-A Final kicked off between the Guildford Millers and the Norwich Iceni.  Norwich took an early lead, was briefly passed, then built up a bigger lead and held off repeated threats by the Millers to finish their first-ever season in the BBF leagues undefeated and with a National Championship to boot.  It doesn’t get much better than that when you start a baseball team, and a report on the Single-A final is at the end of this article.

The BBF’s triple National Championship weekend was lucky to escape a dodgy weather forecast, with only a brief hold-up of play on Saturday, and the nine games of baseball played over the weekend were entertaining, exciting and rewarding.

Perhaps the best symbol for the weekend was this: after the Norwich Iceni recorded the last out to confirm their Single-A Championship win at around 6.00 pm on Sunday evening, a bright rainbow appeared in the sky over Farnham Park, and two talented and sporting teams enthusiastically clapped each other off the field.

It was a great way to bring the BBF’s 2017 season to an end.

TRIPLE-A CHAMPIONSHIP FINAL

Richmond Knights 15, Birmingham Bandits 10

Richmond secured the 2017 Triple-A title on with an eight-run top of the ninth inning that propelled them to a 15-10 victory over Birmingham. 

Richmond had a quiet start as Birmingham pitcher Mario Escobedo, who had shut down Cartmel Valley in the semi-final on Saturday, continued his excellent pitching.  He kept Richmond off the board in the top of the first inning and then his teammates gave him a lead in the bottom half of the frame.

Armando De Silva and Jamie Ratcliff got things going with back-to-back singles, and De Silva came home later in the inning on a botched pickoff attempt at third base. 

Richmond responded in the top of the second inning as Nicolo Montori drew a walk, stole second, advanced to third on a passed ball and came home on a double by Phill Eriksen.  However, the score was not level for long. 

Birmingham moved out in front again in the bottom of the second inning after Andy Dominguez led off with a triple and was driven in by Armando De Silva. 

Richmond tied the game again in the top of the third, but in the bottom of the frame, the Bandits picked up a couple of runs from a sacrifice fly and an error to give themselves some breathing space. 

Birmingham further increased their lead in the fifth inning as another run came home on an error and Andy Dominguez doubled to send around Alex Sencion.  Richmond starter Zach Lundgren was chased from the game at that point and replaced by Ryan Hopper, but he did little better.

Birmingham piled on four more runs in the bottom of the sixth inning.  The highlight was a two-run single from Miguel Martinez, with Jamie Ratcliff and Craig Deakin also picking up RBI hits, and the Bandits had a substantial 10-2 lead.

Mario Escobedo was replaced on the mound for Birmingham after a stellar four innings, but the Bandits’ reliever, Jamie Ratcliff, faltered in the top of the seventh inning as Richmond behind the long climb back into the game. 

Richmond’s Leo Suarez drew a walk and stole second and third, coming home when Mitsuhiro Shinkai singled.  Chris Brown came in as a pinch runner and sped home on a double to right field by Sam Rounce.  Michael Daykin walked and then Cade Thune singled to drive home Rounce to cut the Birmingham lead to 10-5.

Richmond pulled two more runs back in the top of the eighth inning as they continued to close the gap.  Jamie Ratcliff walked two batters and hit a third and was pulled from the mound and replaced by Dennis Grogan.  But Sam Rounce singled to drive in Phill Eriksen, with Adam Ramsey also scoring on the throw to make it 10-7.

Then, in the top of the ninth and with their backs to the wall, Richmond played things one base at a time to get themselves going.  Cade Thune singled and Nicolo Montori was hit by a pitch, after which Osmel Vazquez drew a walk to load the bases.  Phill Eriksen singled to score Thune, and Richmond drew within one after the next batter, Adam Ramsey, was hit by a pitch to force in Montori. 

Leo Suarez then singled to tie the game and Chris Brown also singled to give the Knights their first lead.  And Richmond wasn’t done.  Sam Rounce came up again and doubled to right field to put Richmond ahead by three.  Michael Daykin was hit by a pitch and though Cade Thune flew out into a double play, Rounce scored and the Knights had come back from the dead to lead 15-10.

Michael Daykin then pitched a three-up, three-down bottom of the ninth and Triple-A Champions Richmond celebrated a stunning comeback win.

DOUBLE-A CHAMPIONSHIP FINAL

Leicester Blue Sox 9, Tonbridge 4

This final was in doubt until Leicester pulled away in what became a nightmare top of the ninth inning for Tonbridge, but in truth, this game was the Rikson Martina show.

The mercurial Leicester star, who was a live-wire catcher in Saturday’s semi-final win over the Latin Boys, took the mound in this game and threw the full nine innings and 139 pitches, giving up only three hits and five walks while striking out five.  Tonbridge had baserunners in seven of the nine innings, but Martina used his curve ball to good effect and got 13 infield ground outs.

“I didn’t want to go more than 140 pitches,” Martina said after the game.  “And I beat it by one!”

But that was only half of Martina’s contribution; the rest came with the bat.

Martina had four hits in five trips to the plate, including a triple, a double and three RBIs, plus two stolen bases and two runs scored.

If Tonbridge never see Rikson Martina again, it will probably be too soon.

Neither side scored during the first three innings, and to begin with, it was Tonbridge starter Cristian Secareanu who held down the Blue Sox.  But Secareanu had pitched the full game during Tonbridge’s semi-final win on Saturday, and he left the mound with one out in the Leicester third inning, replaced by Sorin Puiu.

Puiu finished off the third inning without difficulty, but ran into trouble in the top of the fourth as Leicester opened the scoring with three runs.  Rikson Martina’s triple was the big blow, but three Tonbridge errors helped the Blue Sox cause. 

Leicester stretched the lead to 4-0 with a run in the top of the fifth inning.  Rob Seward singled, stole second, and came in, inedvitably, on Rikson Martina’s double.

But in the bottom of the fifth the Tonbridge offense finally got going and cut the deficit to 4-3 on singles by Matt Styles and Laurence Hodgkins plus two Leicester errors.

Over the next three eventful innings, each team had plenty of chances but could only add one run each, and so Leicester held a slender 5-4 lead when they came to bat in the top of the ninth inning, knowing that Tonbridge would have the final turn at the plate.

But everything that could go wrong for Tonbridge did so in a long and painful half-inning.  Leicester had three hits, and none of them left the infield.  Sorin Puiu committed a balk that sparked a long argument that got Tonbridge Manager Amanda Murphy ejected.  There was also a hit-by-pitch and a throwing error by Puiu when he had a Leicester runner dead to rights between second and third.  The result of all this mayhem was four big runs for Leicester that took the wind out of the Tonbridge sails.

A tiring – and no wonder – Rikson Martina walked pinch-hitter Gen Edwards to open the bottom of the ninth inning, and Ben Carter followed with a single.  But Leicester’s good fortune continued.  Laurence Hodgkins hit a soft liner to Giedrius Janulevicius at third, and even though Janulevicius threw the ball into right field trying to double off Gen Edwards, Leicester got the out anyway when the ball was returned because Edwards had never tagged up.  

When Martin Barker hit a one-hopper back to Martina, Rikson held the ball for a second in silent celebration, then fired to first to end the game and cue the real celebrations, with Leicester players forming a mass on the mound.

“We definitely played to our strengths,” Leicester Manager Alan Edington said afterwards, “and micro-managing the players today gave them the freedom to do this.  Cool heads prevailed – at least most of the time!  And Rikson Martina telling me he wanted to pitch the whole game made things easier – I just had to let him do it!”

SINGLE-A CHAMPIONSHIP FINAL

Norwich Iceni 16, Guildford Millers 12

In some ways, this was a typical Single-A game between two of the better practitioners of the art.  There were lots of runs, lots of hits, a bunch of walks, a few hit batters, some passed balls and wild pitches and 16 errors – and stolen bases were pretty much there for the taking.

But all this made a game played in great spirit both unpredictable and exciting, with the outcome in some doubt until the end.

Tetsuro Shinkawa, the hero of Guildford’s comeback semi-final win against the Northants Centurions on Saturday, had pitched the last five innings of that game.  Today he started and pitched the full nine innings, visibly tiring towards the end.

Norwich jumped on Shinkawa early, with a pair of runs in each of the first two innings to build a 4-0 advantage.  Tom Thornhill smashed a line drive into the right field corner with Adam Ray aboard in the top of the first inning for an inside-the-park home run, and RBI hits by Ariel Soriano and Adam Ray produced the two Norwich runs in the second inning.

But Tetsuro Shinkawa held the Iceni scoreless in the third and fourth innings, facing only seven batters, and in the meantime Guildford took the lead against Norwich starter Adam Ray.

In the top of the fourth inning, Ben Stobart walked and Tim Bawden singled to get things going.  Stobart then scored on a groundout and Bawden on a single by his brother Lewis, and the Norwich lead had been cut in half.

In the top of the fifth inning, the Millers swept ahead with a four-run outburst that featured two walks, three Norwich errors and a two-run single to left field by Ben Stobart.

But the Norwich answer was immediate and brutal.  They sent 11 batters to the plate and scored seven runs in the bottom of the fifth inning on four hits, a hit batter and four Norwich errors – one of those innings that seems to the team in the field that it might never end.

This gave Norwich an 11-6 lead, and for the rest of the game, the Millers were playing catch-up.  And they did a pretty good job of it.

Two runs in the top of the sixth inning on consecutive hits by Brett Lowery, Matt Friend and Tetsuro Shinkawa made the score 11-8, and two more in the top of the seventh, both driven in on Matt Friend’s single, tightened the noose and made the score 11-10.

Once again, however, Norwich had an answer.  This time it was a five-run outburst in the bottom of the seventh inning, capped by a three-run inside-the-park home run to centre field by the powerful clean-up hitter Phil Walmsley.

Guildford never stopped fighting.  They scored a run in the top of the eighth inning on an error, a stolen base and an RBI groundout by pinch-hitter Luis Padron, but were still trailing 16-11 when they came up again in the top of the ninth.

By now, Chris Bell was on the mound for Norwich, and the Guildford dugout began to stir when Will Frawley reached on an error and Bell hit Lewis Bawden with a pitch.  Two groundouts followed, however, one of which produced the last Millers’ run of the game.

The agony was prolonged when Bell walked Tetsuro Shinkawa and Laura Bailes, which brought the tying run to the plate.  And Guildford captain Ben Stobart had a go, hitting the ball sharply up the middle.  But Chris Bell stuck out a glove and snared the line drive, and the Iceni had completed an amazing season.

As the Norwich players wandered around the field with their trophies after the game, it sunk in that they had gone through the entire season, including the playoffs and the National Championships, undefeated in their first year playing in a BBF league.

But Norwich’s Mike Smith wasn’t that surprised.  “We’ve picked up a lot of experienced good players living in Norwich who wanted to get involved in baseball, and starting our team enabled them to do it.  Some of them came from the successful University of East Anglia team, but others came from outside the university  

“The key is,” Smith added, “that we love playing together – and we’re a really good team!”

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