VERO BEACH, Fla. -- The championship bar was set high last week for the Atlanta Braves RBI and Cincinnati Reds RBI softball clubs.
Battling frequent weather interruptions at the Jackie Robinson Training Complex, their baseball counterparts snared titles on the hardball diamonds dotted around the legendary facility.
Atlanta claimed the junior division baseball crown (ages 13-15), while the Cincinnati squad earned a title in the senior division (ages 16-18), putting the pressure on their sister teams in softball to replicate the feats and come home with more trophies.
And if imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery, the Atlanta softball team is being as flattering as it can be in the 2021 RBI World Series.
Through two days of pool play on the softball clover behind Holman Stadium, the Georgia-based group -- led by coach Britt Finley -- sits atop play with an unblemished 4-0 mark, including a message-sending 8-4 win over the defending-champion Houston Astros Foundation RBI.
Also owning wins over Harrisburg, Dodgers and Reds, the Atlanta side has positioned itself nicely as the pool’s lone undefeated club.
The Braves’ second contest on Tuesday -- a 16-1 victory over the winless Reds -- came after a brilliant showing against the Astros.
The game was possibly a preview of Friday’s championship game and was led by Atlanta starting pitcher Kendall Smiley, who fired four strong innings to set the tone against the Texas team.
Smiley, a junior from Duluth, Ga., grabbed a liner back to the mound to end the first inning with a runner on third, induced a 4-6-3 double play to end the second and finished the third with a great pickup of a dribbler and flip to first base to keep the Astros off the board.
“Phenomenal,” Finley said of Smiley, who also played shortstop and the outfield. “I expect it from her and the rest of the girls. We can’t get complacent.
“We didn’t say anything about Houston. We just came into it as another game. Our girls hit well, and that’s what I expected from them -- to do their job.”
Smiley said the team hasn’t let the pressure of the baseball title get to them.
“I definitely feel there was added pressure, because during the beginning, people were like, ‘Oh yeah, the Atlanta girls should win because the boys won.’ It is a lot of pressure to bring home the championship,” the right-handed Smiley said.
“But we’ve put the pressure to the side, focused on what’s now and played the game that’s in front of us. Winning [championships] for both the boys and girls would be such a big thing for us and put us on the map. It would show that we have great athletes coming out of Atlanta.”
Taylor Orr came in to work the ninth with an 8-1 lead and gave up three runs as Houston woke up some, but the junior kept Atlanta’s record spotless with a strikeout on a high fastball to end it.
“She’s one of our younger kids,” said Finley of Orr, “and I was proud of the job she did.”
The title-winning task is taller for Cincinnati (0-4), but its struggles have been in pool play, and elimination day -- when the stakes are at their highest -- isn’t until Thursday.
“There was total excitement,” said Reds co-manager Steve Burger when asked of his club’s reaction to the boys winning the senior division last week. “We couldn’t wait to get here and bring it home for the girls. Our programs are built around success, and we can do it.
“They were definitely motivated [by the boys], but they are feeling a little pressure.”
Burger’s team message going forward was clear, saying, “We’re asking them to keep their heads up, stay focused and play their game. We’ve got a lot of hitters, and they just need to go back to what they’ve been doing.”
Co-manager Pat Spurlock said one MLB player would be pretty excited with a softball championship: Cincinnati star Joey Votto.
The Canadian first baseman often shows up at the Joey Votto Training Facility -- a sprawling 33,000-square-foot indoor complex -- where the boys and girls train. Votto has often become involved in and led team practices.
“Joey just has a tendency of popping up. He’s gotten real close to the girls and guys and has connected [with them],” Spurlock said. “He was excited about the boys’ trophy and would be really ecstatic for the girls to win one. He loves kids and really enjoys it.”
Wednesday morning will feature each team’s final match in pool play, with Atlanta trying to stay perfect against Dodgers RBI and Cincinnati facing Roberto Clemente RBI of Jersey City.