ADAMS, Mass. — It was a week of firsts for Matt Koperniak and for the nation of Great Britain.
For the Hoosac Valley graduate, this month marked the first time he traveled to Europe since he was too young to remember the continent, and on Tuesday, he was "ghosted" for the first time as a professional baseball player.
For the British people, its baseball team was believed to be the first national squad to sing "God Save the King" at a competition. And, most importantly, Koperniak helped the land of his birth qualify for its first appearance in the World Baseball Classic.
Koperniak, 24, played a big role in that last first, scoring the game-winning run in the bottom of the 10th inning of Tuesday's come-from-behind win over Spain at the WBC qualifier in Regensburg, Germany.
The run came on a sacrifice fly to left to score Koperniak, who started the inning as the "ghost runner," a player placed at second with nobody out to start frames in extra innings.
"I don't think I have," Koperniak said this week in a telephone interview after he returned to the U.S. "I don't think I ever ended the ninth [inning] and had to do that. I think that might have been the first time.
"It was a pretty intense moment. I probably made a mistake going to third [on a fielder's choice with one out]. I got caught in a rundown almost and was safe at third base."
Safe after yet another first — a prolonged video replay.
"Thank God for replay," Koperniak said. "This was the first time I ever played with that. Coach made a good call there.
"I was thinking, just because I saw the throw beat me there that I was out. I thought they might have been replaying to see whether one of the fielders got in my way. I was thinking I was out the whole time, but they kept taking longer and longer.
"It felt like an eternity pretty much."
Great Britain's next hitter, Alex Crosby, sent Koperniak from eternity to history with a fly ball to left that scored the former North Adams SteepleCat to put Team GB in March's 20-team World Baseball Classic.
Koperniak, who played DH throughout the tournament and did not have a hit against Spain, it felt like going from being a spectator to being "right in it," when the ball left Crosby's bat.
"The heart rate is up, and you're focusing as hard as you can," he said. "When he hit it, it almost felt like time was slowing down. I had plenty of time to get home. I just wanted to make sure I didn't leave early."
Koperniak left Springfield Cardinals a little early this month to join the British squad. The St. Louis Cards' Double A affiliate was his home most of the summer, except for a brief stint with the Triple A team in Memphis, Tenn.
In Springfield, Koperniak hit .288 in 106 games with 14 home runs, 13 doubles and 59 RBIs as an outfielder. He was the Cardinals' Double A player for the month of August, when he hit .371, including one night where he hit for the cycle.
"For the most part, I felt I did pretty well," he said. "It was the first time playing pretty much a full season — full spring training and 130-some games. I got a full taste of professional baseball.
"It was a battle trying to stay with routines and maintain consistency throughout the year. There are a lot of ups and downs. I had a blast playing with Double A Springfield."
Koperniak said he was first contacted by the British national program more than a year ago but had not traveled to do anything with the club before getting the call this summer to join the roster for the Regensberg, Germany, qualifier.
"We just kept in touch," he said. "I think they just looked around, looked at the the professional leagues trying to find guys that way. I don't think they have tryouts or anything like that."
According to an article this week in the Times of London, just seven members of the 29-player Great Britain squad were born in Britain. Most were there because of their British ancestry, including 13 players who were born in the United States, the Times reported.
Although the British squad included many minor league prospects and a couple of players with Major League experience, none were players whose paths Koperniak had previously crossed, he said.
"It was a great group of guys," he said. "I got to spend a lot of time with them, and we had a lot of fun."
Much of that time was spent playing baseball. A little was spent learning and practicing, "God Save the King," a national anthem that had different lyrics a month ago, when Queen Elizabeth II still occupied the throne.
"It was talked about a little bit in a couple of the team discussions," Koperniak said of Elizabeth's death. "You could tell the coaches definitely felt it a little bit and wanted to honor her.
"You could tell we were playing for something greater from the start. That was emphasized. It helped motivate us to come together as a team."
The Team GB players also got to bond off the field, including with a train ride to nearby Munich to soak in some of atmosphere of Oktoberfest.
"Luckily, we won our first two games [in the tournament], so we had two days off," Koperniak said. "We had a little time definitely to experience Regensberg. It's really old with incredible architecture."
After making his first trip to Europe since he left at age 1 with his family to move to the U.S., Koperniak now will spend his days getting ready for a return to spring training with the Cardinals organization in Jupiter, Fla., in late February or early March.
"I'll probably train up here in the Northeast to get the body ready for next year," he said. "You usually find out about [your assignment to start the season] the last week of spring training in March. You can kind of speculate based on where you ended up last year — either there or the level above.
"The main goal is to make it to the Major Leagues."
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