Baseball. When you hear the word you think America, you think overpriced beers delivered to your seat and nachos in upturned helmets, you think of games being held up for random sing-songs while somebody plays an organ. You might even think of Kevin Costner, or Frank Drebin, or Montgomery Brewster.
But Brits play baseball too, and in 2023 the Great Britain national team will play in the World Baseball Classic for the very first time after their pulsating 10-9 qualifying round victory over Spain on Tuesday secured a trip to the finals tournament.
GB arrived for qualifying in Regensburg as the second-lowest ranked team in Pool A, with hosts Germany, Czech Republic, France and former WBC attendees Spain all seeded higher and even South Africa – ranked three behind Britain in the rankings at 26 – boasting two previous experiences at the main tournament in 2006 and 2009.
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Yet it was a superbly talented British side which burst through the round to secure the first of two qualification spots, with three straight victories truly showcasing the ability of the team.
On Friday they outlasted a stubborn France team managed by three-time former World Series winning skipper Bruce Bochy, transforming a slender 5-3 lead after five innings into a 14-4 mercy-rule win after eight. The following night they led from the off against home favourites Germany, third baseman Justin Wylie crushing a three-run home run to right-centre field in the top of the first on the way to an 8-1 win.
Tuesday’s win over Spain was far less straightforward, with the Spaniards taking a four-run advantage in the first on the way to an 8-3 lead by the fourth inning. But Britain slowly made their way back, with Harry Ford landing a two-run single in the bottom of the fourth and D’Shawn Knowles adding an RBI single in the fifth to reduce the deficit to two. Spain added on in the seventh to lead 9-6, but Knowles slammed a two-run homer to right and then in the ninth Jaden Rudd found the berm in right field to complete the comeback at 9-9.
It took extra innings for GB to get over the line, with Matt Koperniak reaching base on an overturned call then reaching third base after a throwing error by pitcher Rhiner Cruz. He was then brought home by an Alex Crosby sacrifice fly to left field which will go down in British baseball history.
While the world rankings wouldn’t have led you to believe Great Britain had a chance, this is a group which boasts no fewer than 10 MLB club professionals. Catcher Harry Ford leads the way thanks to his status as the Seattle Mariners’ number-one prospect, and his return of 5 for 11 with eight RBI and three home runs in the three qualifying games underlined his supreme ability.
GB will now head to Taichung in Taiwan on March 8 for the finals tournament, but they will be among the outsiders in Pool A up against Chinese Taipei (ranked two in the world), Netherlands (eight), Cuba (nine) and Italy (17). The top two teams in the group then move on to Tokyo the following week to face the best pair from Pool B, with the first and second placed sides in that round heading off for the semi-finals at the Miami Marlins’ LoanDepot Park on March 19 and 20, at which point they could come up against a star-studded Team USA filled with Major League Baseball stars.
*18+ | BeGambleAware | Odds Subject to Change