Great Britain defeated Croatia 4-1 in front of a partisan crowd in Zagreb today to give them hope of qualifying for the second round of the Baseball World Cup.Â The victory means that GB will finish third in Pool D with a 1-2 record.Â They now must wait on other results to see whether their twenty runs conceded is good enough to make them one of the four best third-placed finishers.Â
It will make for a nervous few hours, yet that was the best outcome possible for Great Britain today after they lost their first two games, including a 10-0 defeat by Nicaragua yesterday.Â A win was a must for GB and they earned it thanks to a two-run homer by catcher Chris Berset and some outstanding pitching by Brian Essery and Tom Boleska.Â
Great Britain’s head coach Stephan Rapaglia acknowledged the quality of Nicaragua’s pitching by refusing to make wholesale changes to his batting lineup.Â Two players came into the team, with Tim Collins returning to second base after missing out the day before and Brad Marcelino taking over in centre field from Alex Malihoudis. Aeden McQueary and Evan Romanchuck swapped positions, the former moving back to first base from his role as designated hitter against Nicaragua.
Matt McGraw led off for Great Britain and he started the game positively by getting on base with a single and then stealing second.Â McQueary followed the coaching manual by hitting the ball to the right side of the infield, advancing McGraw to third on the ground out.Â It was the perfect set up for Team GB: getting an early runner in scoring position ahead of their three and four hitters Brant Ust and Sam Wiley.Â However, both struck out to leave McGraw stranded at third and to make British fans fear another day of missed opportunities.
Those fears weren’t helped in the third inning when McGraw once again got himself into scoring position, this time with a two-out double, only for McQueary to pop up to the second baseman Dario Cusak.Â A lead-off walk by Brant Ust in the next frame also counted for naught, but GB’s frustration come to an end in the fifth inning and it was that man McGraw who made the difference.
With two outs already recorded, Chris Falls singled to the shortstop position and then stole second base in front of the hot-hitting McGraw.Â Fresh from helping DOOR Neptunus win the Dutch Major League,Â he made no mistake in cracking a 2-1 pitch from Croatia’s starting pitcher James Summers for a ground-rule double to break the deadlock.Â Â
That run ended a sequence of eleven scoreless innings for Britain’s offense stretching into the shutout against Nicaragua and the long wait was followed by more runs in the sixth.Â Catcher Chris Berset launched a two-run homer over the wall in right-centre to make it 3-0, finally giving starting pitcher Brian Essery a decent lead to work with.Â Â
Essery is considered by many to be GB’s ace and Rapaglia’s decision to hold him back for the third game perhaps gives an indication that the team knew gaining wins against Japan and Nicaragua would be difficult. He was Great Britain’s banker for the Croatia game and he didn’t disappoint.Â The former London Met pitched five scoreless innings, allowing three hits and striking out two batters along the way.Â
Tom Boleska relieved Essery for the sixth inning and quickly found himself in a spot of bother.Â A lead-off walk for Slobodan Gales was followed by a Tim Collins error at second base that allowed Branko Nenadic to reach base.Â The situation brought the best out of Boleska as he proceeded to strike out the next two batters before making Damir Karin fly out to Sam Wiley in right field to end the inning with no damage done.
Boleska continued where he left off by pitching a three-up, three-down seventh inning, by which time Great Britain had increased their lead to 4-0.Â Brant Ust had kept the top of the seventh inning alive with a two-out single and Sam Wiley then added a base knock of his own. The right fielder Nenadic collected the ball from Wiley’s hit and made a throwing error, allowing Ust to come home and Wiley to advance to third.Â Chris Berset was back up to the plate with the chance to knock in another run, but this time he could only line out to the third baseman Karin.
Great Britain could have scored a fifth run in the eighth inning.Â Tom Stack-Babich came into the game for Marcelino and he reached second via a walk and a stolen base, the third of the game for GB.Â However, he didn’t get any further as the Croatian reliever Pereira struck out Sam Whitehead, replacing Collins as theÂ second baseman, and Falls to end the inning.Â
The thought that every insurance run would be vital soon weighed heavily on British minds as Croatia got on the scoreboard in the bottom of the eighth.Â A Nenadic double brought home Gales to make it 4-1 and an Ivan Racic single put runners on the corners with two outs.Â Boleska rose to the occasion once again by striking out Karin to end the threat and keep the three-run lead intact.
The British offense could only manage a single in the top of the ninth, the second hit of the day for Ust, but it didn’t matter with Boleska on the mound.Â He finished the game in the most emphatic style possible: striking out the Croatian side in the bottom of the ninth to make it eight K’s in four excellent innings of relief.Â
Great Britain’s 4-1 victory was complete and Rapaglia’s team at least have one win to savour from their 2009 World Cup adventure.Â All eyes will be on the scores of the remaining first round games this evening to see whether that adventure is going to continue for another seven games.
GB vs Croatia: Official box score and play-by-play.