The 2011 senior British Baseball season came to an end over the past weekend with four teams being crowned as champions of their respective leagues.
The Southern Nationals, Liverpool Trojans, Bolton Robots of Doom and Cambridge Royals all left Hemel Hempstead with trophies and with their hopes fulfilled for the year.
While the rest of the teams competing at the National Baseball Championships (NBC) came away without quite achieving their aim, they can now reflect on their strong seasons that led to them being part of the marquee final event.
There is a full round-up of the weekend’s action on the British Baseball Federation website, including a link to a bounty of photos from the event. You can also read game reports of the Liverpool Trojans’ matches on their website.
A good year for the newcomers
A few eyebrows may have been raised earlier in the year when it was announced that two completely new teams would enter British baseball at the top-tier level. The fact that the NBC final was contested by the Lakenheath Diamondbacks and Southern Nationals was conclusive proof, combined with their regular season performances, that they deserved that lofty starting position.
Neither team was exactly a rookie outfit in terms of the players and coaches. The Diamondbacks are a United States Army Air Force team, while the Nationals club was founded by a group of players with plenty of experience in the British leagues. However, the pressure was on for them to show that they belonged and there’s little doubt that they succeeded.
The Nationals’ success was remarkable considering they were trailing 6-2 to the reigning champion Richmond Flames heading into the eighth inning of the semi-final on Saturday.
An eleven run outburst in the top of the eighth, followed by a five-run flourish in the ninth sent them onto the final in incredible style. It was a tough way for the Flames to see the defence of their title come to an end and their Pool A rivals the Southampton Mustangs also saw their excellent year end in semi-final heartbreak. Five runs in the top of the ninth gave them a late 11-9 lead, only for the Diamondbacks to charge back with three runs in the last chance saloon.
Great Britain junior Jamie Ratcliff took over in the final for the Nationals, pitching a gem as his team ran out 13-3 victors. Their title triumph will paint a big bullseye on their chests and it will be fascinating to see how the Southern Nationals try to build on that momentum in 2012, with the rest of the teams intent on knocking them back down.
Cambridge Royals reign in Single-A
The Cambridge Royals also had a title-winning debut year and they did it in perfect style. They completed an unbeaten season by winning the Single-A final 14-4 over the Birmingham Maple Leafs, with pitcher Brett Curran being the star of the show.
The Royals couldn’t have wished for a better year or a better way to reintroduce baseball to the Cambridge area. The task now is to build on this successful debut and you would have to think that part of this challenge will involve making the step up to Double-A in 2012.
Their southern rivals the Southampton Mustangs II also appear ready to move up a level as well so the AA-South, which contained the largest group of teams (13) of any section this year, looks set to either be expanded or restructured for 2012.
Liverpool Trojans go unbeaten in Triple-A
Joining the Royals in the perfection of an unbeaten season were the Liverpool Trojans.
Their Triple-A triumph must have been particularly sweet after going into the 2010 NBC as favourites and falling at the final hurdle. Liverpool would have been forgiven for shuddering at the news of their 2010 nemesis, the Oxford Kings, being given a second life after losing their playoff to the Essex Redbacks. With the Halton Jaguars and Manchester A’s unable to attend the NBC, the Kings lived to fight another day and they took that second chance by beating the Bristol Badgers on Saturday to make it back to the final.
There they met the Liverpool Trojans – who had beaten the Essex Redbacks 9-6 – once again, only this time it was a Trojans team fuelled by the desire not to let the title slip from their grasp another time.
Liverpool’s excellence raises the question of whether they should get to compete against NBL teams in 2012.
The Trojans certainly have a case for being given the chance, but accommodating it might not be easy. The most recent Northern NBL of 2008 ended with only two teams completing the season – Liverpool themselves had to pull out midway through the year – and the inability of the Jaguars and A’s to make the finals this year casts doubt over whether there is currently enough strength in depth for a re-emergence of a top-tier Northern league at this point.
There might be a case for the first-placed team in the Northern AAA to make it through to the NBC playoffs, but teams competing at a different level in the postseason to the regular season is far from ideal.
Bolton evens up the north/south contest
Bolton Robots of Doom didn’t quite manage an unbeaten season, but they did help the north to gain a split of the four trophies on offer by taking the Double-A title.
Bolton looked odds on to win the title in the regulation nine innings when they entered the bottom of the ninth with an 8-5 lead over the Latin Boys. However, their opponents were not prepared to go down quietly – in more ways than one – and they plated the three runs that were needed to send the final to extra innings.
The Robots could have short circuited after that letdown; instead they went into overdrive by rallying for four runs in the top of the tenth before shutting down the Latin Boys in the bottom of the frame to secure the Double-A crown.
That triumph could encourage Bolton to step up to Triple-A, although any such move will of course be dependent on how the Midlands/North leagues are structured in 2012. Final decisions are a long way off as yet and in many respects that’s no bad thing: let the teams enjoy their 2011 successes for a while before turning their attention to 2012.
Whatever 2012 does bring, it’s sure to provide another good year of baseball.
It should be noted that although the official report states that “the Southern Nationals defied the regular season standings and the predictions of Britain’s online baseball pundits by sweeping through to the 2011 championship title”, I did predict on Sunday morning on Twitter that the Nationals would prevail. In fact, I got all four predictions correct.
I wouldn’t normally be so shameless as to point such a thing out, but bearing in mind my usually terrible attempts at predictions when it comes to MLB, I thought I would enjoy it a little to balance out the normal embarrassment that predictions cause me.
And finally …
Don’t forget that the Youth National Baseball Championships take place this weekend in Richmond. Good luck to all of the teams that are competing.