Defending champion Draci Brno continued its winning ways with a sweep of Jablonec, as did city rival Hrosi in the opening weekend of the 2021 Czech Extraliga season. Newcomers Sokol Hluboka announced its presence in the top flight by taking all three games against a young Eagles Prague squad, but the club was found to have violated a rule concerning the number of foreigners allowed on the field at one time and will have to forfeit two of its victories.
The race for the TOP6 will be exciting to watch this season, but so will the results at the bottom of the standings. The Extraliga currently consists of ten teams, but from 2022 onwards only eight clubs will feature in the top division.
Draci Brno vs. Blesk Jablonec (2-1, 13-1, 5-1)
The defending champions from Brno opened the season on strong footing, with solid pitching leading the way to a sweep of the newcomers from Jablonec. Draci lost key pieces from last season’s championship squad, most notably Czech national team catcher Petr Cech, but import Michael Varga proved to be a quality replacement in his first weekend of action for the club, going 4-for-7 with two walks and two RBI at the plate.
Despite losing all three games, the first contest under the lights in Brno on Friday was a tight one. Jablonec led until the bottom of the 6th inning and the game ended 2-1. With five walks and three errors, Jablonec will need to avoid the small mistakes going forward, but being competitive against a top club like Draci has given the club from the country’s north confidence. “We played great baseball,” said Jablonec pitcher Jiri Hikl. The 19-year-old threw five solid innings against Draci in Friday’s opener, allowing two runs, just one earned, while striking out two.
“Draci are hard to play and it is all new for us, but we started two games really well,” Jan Vybora added. “We lost the series, but we have something to build on.”
Hrosi Brno vs. Olympia Blansko (11-1, 6-4, 13-9)
Hrosi‘s new manager Alexander Derhak had high ambitions heading into the season, and the opening weekend sweep of Olympia is just step one in the club’s goals for the 2021 season. “The goals for the season are to make the TOP6, make the TOP4, and then win the championship. We are going to be prepared to play every game,“ Derhak said.
Import Kellen Croce will need to deliver in order to make Derhak’s plans a reality, and on the opening weekend, he did just that, going 7-for-12 at the plate with three extra base hits. He also picked up two saves.
His teammate Jakub Ondracek contributed four doubles over the course of the weekend.
Olympia Blansko, which finished the 2020 season just outside of the TOP6, have more limited goals this season. With an eye to the future contraction of the Extraliga, manager Ivo Kucera is hoping to lead a squad that consists mostly of domestic talent out of relegation danger. “I think this year will be very tough, the newcomers are also very strong,” he said.
Tempo Prague vs. Kotlarka Prague (14-1, 4-1, 2-6)
Tempo won both Saturday games at Kotlarka’s home field and in doing so won the season’s first Prague derby. The first game in the series was dominated by Czech national team pitcher Marek Minarik, who threw a seven inning complete game, striking out six and allowing just four hits and one run (unearned). At the plate, he provided all the offense he needed, going 2-for-5 with two homers and three RBI.
The second leg of Saturday’s doubleheader again featured strong Tempo pitching, this time with Israel national team pitcher Joey Wagman responsible. He allowed just three hits and one earned run over six innings of work, striking out eight in the process.
The tables were turned on Sunday, with Kotlarka’s Frantisek Novak and Jiri Vavrusa combining to allow just four hits and two runs (both unearned). Vavrusa pitched five innings of shutout relief, allowing just two hits.
Kotlarka’s player-manager Scott Mulhearn knew the season would be a challenge after the roster was weakend by key defections: “The league is going to be very strong this year. We still have high expectations. I think both Hluboka and Jablonec are going to be really strong, especially Hluboka will surprise a lot of teams. Unfortunately we lost Jan Novak, Martin Muzik, and Vojtech and Matej Vlach who [went] to Hluboka.”
Sokol Hluboka v. Eagles Prague (2-1, 4-2, 7-0)
Extraliga newcomers Hluboka got their 2021 campaign off to a fairy tale start with a sweep of a young Eagles Prague team. Hluboka‘s last stint in the Extraliga came in 2004, but the Bohemian club has perenially been one of the top clubs in the second division. The signings of Wesley Roemer, Czech international Jan Novak, and Novak’s national team colleague Martin Muzik, among others, had already set the league on notice that the newcomers intended to make themselves comfortable in their new home. After the opening weekend’s sweep, anyone who had doubts now knows that Hluboka is a force to be reckoned with.
For the Eagles, who finished the 2020 season in fourth place, the results were disappointing, but not unexpected. Manager Vladimir Chlup entered the season with a younger squad and was aware that the pitching in the league would be stronger in 2021 than it had been the previous season when coronavirus restrictions kept clubs from signing imports. The Eagles struck out a combined 37 times in the series, with Novak striking out 12 of those batters in a dominant six innings on Friday.
That youth movement and the headaches to which it can lead were evident in Friday night’s opener, when the Eagles threatened in every inning from the sixth onward, including loading the bases in the eighth, but only managed one run. The Eagles finally got on the scoreboard in the ninth inning and had the tying run on third and the winning run on first, but a costly base-running mistake cost them the lead runner and sealed the defeat.
Unfortunately, it was determined that Hluboka had three foreigners on the field for two of its games, in violation of an Extraliga rule allowing only two on the field at one time. As a result, the club will forfeit two victories.
Arrows Ostrava v. Trebic Nuclears (17-16, 12-6, 0-4)
The series started with a wild game that took nearly four hours to play and featured 32 hits, 19 walks, and nine home runs. Arrows prevailed 17-16 despite the Nuclears’ import Ryan Johnson hitting two longballs and compiling a perfect 5-for-5 performance at the plate. Over the series, Johnson went a combined 7-for-9 with three home runs, three doubles, and five RBI, and he picked up the save in Sunday’s 4-0 home win, the Nuclears’ first win against Ostrava since joining the Extraliga in 2017. His teammate Anthony Cipolla went 8-16 over the weekend, with three home runs.
2020’s losing finalists in the Czech Series, Arrows took two of three from Trebic without an import on its roster. The club did add Czech royalty over the winter, however, with legend Petr Cech (5-for-8 on opening weekend with five RBI) and reigning MVP Matej Mensik (5-for-11, one home run, and six RBI), coming aboard.