By Victor Shestopalov
May 30 was the final day of the first leg of the Russian baseball championship. A field of 10 teams, divided into two groups, played the single round-robin tournament over five days on the main field at the RusStar Arena baseball stadium, just west of downtown Moscow.
The defending champion RusStar did not meet any serious opposition as it breezed through Group A with a perfect 4-0 record. Moreover, three out of four victories (25-0, 16-1, 22-0) were knockouts, with the lead so big that team manager Vladimir Timakov often did not give any base-stealing signs with men on base. The offensive game plan was not to pull the ball and try to get as many opposite field hits as possible. During the four-game stretch, Cuban-born players Geidis Soler and David Castillo led the RusStar offensive onslaught with 11 and 9 RBI, respectively.
The games were much more competitive in Group B, however. The best one took place on May 27 between RusStar’s top challengers: 2019 Russian champion Moskvich and the upstart Moscow Wolves. The latter features one of the best pitchers in Russia, Andrey Lobanov, who started the contest. The crafty 6’ 4’’ lefty has been the staple of Team Russia pitching the last couple of years since returning from US, where he played minor league ball in the Minnesota Twins farm system. Relying on the deadly combination of plus-speed fastball, sharp curveball, and occasional “Bugs Bunny” change-up, Lobanov usually makes a short work of his opposition on the domestic level.
It was not so easy for Lobanov this time, though. Without any offensive help, Lobanov shut out the Moskvich attack in the first three innings, but started to unravel in the fourth. All in all, he gave up four hits, three earned runs, and three walks over six innings of work, and the Wolves ended up losing the game, 11-1. The hero from the Moskvich side was the game’s starter and eventual winner in Maxim Makarkin (6.1 IP, 4H, 1 ER, 10K), whose primary position is not even pitcher, but catcher. However, Moskvich’s manager decided to use his ace Denis Leonov (aka “the Russian Shohei Ohtani”) only as a DH in the match-up, thus clearing the way for Makarkin’s heroics.
The schedule for the second leg of the Russian Championship is yet to be decided as the federation is preparing to host the European championship qualifier, starting June 29, at Moscow’s RusStar Arena. The second leg will presumably be schedule for July, with the third round of games expected to be scheduled for late August / early September.
Victor Shestopalov is the editor-in-chief of the Russian Baseball Federation site (http://baseballrussia.ru), as well as an advanced scout for the Russian National Baseball Team. He will be contributing coverage of Russian domestic baseball and the Russian National Team. This piece has been lightly edited.