The Mets departed for Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria, on July 31st to take part in the Federation Cup Qualifier hosted there during the first week of August. Upon their arrival, a friendly scrimmage was organized with the Sofia Blues, who were slated to play in the Slovakian pool. This was an opportunity for both teams to prepare for the games to come and also acclimate to the 40-degree heat, a temperature rarely seen in British baseball. This matchup turned out to be quite the foreshadowing event, as both teams would eventually come out on top of their respective pools.
Following another day of practice at the beautiful Porter Field (pictured above), the Mets were ready to kick off their playing schedule.
The Federation Cup Qualifier was structured as a double round robin for pool play with the two winningest teams progressing to a championship game on Saturday, August 7th. Each team played the other teams in the pool twice. For more information about the Federation Cup Qualifier, see this previous article. The Mets schedule was as follows:
Aug 3 - Mets vs Athletic Sofia
Aug 4 - RusStar vs Mets
Aug 5 - Mets vs RusStar
Aug 6 - Athletic Sofia vs Mets
Aug 7 - Championship
The Mets went into the tournament opener against Athletic Sofia with high hopes to set the tone. Mitchell vom Scheidt took the mound and had a dominant year in the domestic NBL. But the road was not going to be straightforward. Callum Vinall, who was slated to start behind the plate for the Mets was a late scratch due to an inflamed throwing shoulder. Sam Sproule stepped up and answered the call, donning his catchers gear just minutes before first pitch.
The Mets didn’t let the last-minute substitution slow them down. With Vinall providing the team with energy from the bench, the Mets' offense won the day. Sproule did an exemplary job behind the plate and led the Mets attack with 3 RBI. The top of the order (Yoshioka, Edmonds, Stroman, Sollecito) delivered a combined 11 RBIs to lead the Mets to a resounding 21-4 victory over Athletic Sofia.
Up next were back-to-back matchups with RusStar Baseball, who had also defeated Sofia on opening day. Mets rookie and starting pitcher Tommy Flaherty gave the team a strong start despite a bit of trouble finding the strike zone. Tommy was supported by the Mets offense taking an early 3 run lead.
RusStar would not be intimidated. Threatening in the 3rd inning, the Russians forced the Mets to turn to the bullpen. Wily veteran Pietro Sollecito entered the game in a no-out, bases-loaded jam. Pietro's first pitch was a gem, resulting in a tailor-made 6-4-3 double play and got the Mets out of the inning relatively unscathed. Pietro went on to throw another 3 innings before turning the ball over to Drake Yoshioka to close it down for an 8-4 Mets victory. The Mets offense was led by power hitter Zach Stroman who had 4 hits including a towering homerun.
RusStar came back strong in game 3 with a gritty performance. Brian Lainoff started on the mound for the Mets and was able to keep the Russian offense at bay through his four inning appearance before turning the ball over to the bullpen.
The Mets offense was initially silenced by German Nurkas, but the Mets bats woke up in the 4th off the back of another Zach Stroman line drive for an RBI. For the rest of the game, the Mets set the tone as the away team, hitting first and scoring two runs in each of the 4th, the 6th, the 8th and the 9th as RusStar responded in kind with offensive production of their own, ultimately just falling short in a 8-7 Mets victory.
With the second win over RusStar, the Mets had secured their spot in the championship game regardless of the result of the final matchup against Athletic Sofia. The plan was to conserve arms where possible but stay competitive to be sharp for the finals.
Sam Sproule again answered the call and, despite battling a sore shoulder for most of 2020 and 2021, took the mound for the Mets. He pitched for three innings and let the Mets offense produce as they had all week. Jordan Edmonds, Callum Vinall, Rory Chandler, and Dylan Baxter combined for a staggering 13 hits on the day, propelling the Mets to a 19-5 victory. Jamie Dix came in for a 3 inning relief effort and did a great job holding off the Sofia batters and securing the victory.
The Mets go on to face RusStar one final time in the championship game on August 7th.