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Great Britain: Southern Nationals Crowned NBL Champs

Great Britain: Southern Nationals Crowned NBL Champs

By Joe GrayStaff Writer for baseballgb.co.uk
With contributions from Michael JonesAAA 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 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.

NATIONAL BASEBALL LEAGUE

NBL Semi-Final 1

Southampton Mustangs 11 Lakenheath Diamondbacks 12

Team 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 R H E
Southampton Mustangs 0 0 5 0 0 0 1 0 5 11 7 4
Lakenheath Diamondbacks 1 1 0 1 0 3 0 3 3 12 11 1

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.

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.

NBL Semi-Final 2

Southern Nationals 18, Richmond Flames 6

Team 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 R H E
Southern Nationals 0 0 1 0 0 1 0 11 5 18 19 4
Richmond Flames 2 1 0 1 0 1 0 1 0 6 8 1

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.

NBL FINAL

Southern Nationals 13, Lakenheath Diamondbacks 3

Team 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 R H E
Southern Nationals 0 1 4 1 5 2 0 13 12 0
Lakenheath Diamondbacks 0 1 0 0 1 0 1 3 5 5

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.

Visit BaseballGB.co.uk

BaseballGB is a site dedicated to writing about baseball from a British perspective. Read more from Joe Gray, Matt Smith and the team who brings you the top writing about our great game in the United Kingdom.

Photo Courtesy David Ratcliff/BBF.org

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About Eric Bynum
Eric Bynum is Managing Editor here at BaseballdeWorld. He spent three years as an ESL teacher in South Korea, and is now working on his master's degree in history with a focus on baseball and WWII. He has played and/or written about baseball for the past 30 years and is an avid Atlanta Braves fan.

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