Czech team makes history

Playing in a part of the world where soccer dominates and the weather is not ideal, just reaching the Little League World Series by the Czech Republic is an impressive achievement.

But while baseball is just catching on in the European country, it has proven to be more than a token Series participant.

These kids, this country can play.

The South Moravia Little Leaguers from Brno, Czech Republic, made a major statement Tuesday at Lamade Stadium, rallying from a three-run deficit and defeating Great Lakes Region champ Grosse Pointe, Mich., 5-3, in a consolation game.

“It’s a very big stepping stone for our growing of baseball,” Czech Republic manager Jan Gregor said. “The first big step was getting here and this is the most important step for us and will be one of the best tournaments in the world the kids ever play in.”

No Czech Republic team had made a serious run at reaching the Series before this season, but the Europe and Africa champion excelled all summer, entering the Series undefeated. It then played perennial power Japan tough, dropping a 7-3 opener, and was eliminated from title contention with a 4-3 heartbreaking loss to Canada.

Trailing 3-0 in the third inning against Michigan, the Czech Republic turned it on. It scored three runs in the third and fourth innings before Lukas Hlouch hit a go-ahead, two-run double. He also earned the save, preserving the win by coming in to pitch in the sixth inning and ending the game with a strikeout.

Hlouch jumped twice with joy. It was a huge moment for him, his teammates and his country.

The Czech Republic did not just come to play. It came to win and the mission had been accomplished.

“I didn’t think about the pressure,” said Hlouch, who only has played baseball for a year and a half. “It felt really good.”

The Czech Republic played a fundamentally-sound game, making only one error, moving runners with good bunts and receiving both strong pitching and timely hitting. Gregor stresses teamwork and saw plenty of it with so many of his players making key contributions.

Like Uganda a year ago, the Czech Republic showed that baseball in the Europe and Africa Region, which so often has struggled at the Series, is getting stronger every year.

And one of the biggest obstacles facing the Czech Republic now has been cleared.

“So many people think this is only a dream,” winning pitcher Robin Vavra said. “Now teams will expect to win because we came here and played very well.”

The Czech Republic knows what to expect in the future. It has played some of the world’s best teams, held its own and now leaves victorious. Rather than Tuesday’s win being an end, it just might be the beginning.

“We’ve learned so much here. It’s like Christmas in the summer,” Gregor said. “Between the TV and the autographs and the media, it really is Christmas in the summer.”

And now maybe the Czech Republic will be celebrating Christmas during many more summers.