It’s been three years since Antwerp hosted a group in the last round of European Championship Qualifiers, and the city will again cheer on the Belgian team as they hope for another appearance in the Finals. In 2008, the Belgians beat Austria in two games to earn an appearance in in the Finals in Germany 2010. Once there, the team finished in eighth place, meaning a return trip back to the qualifiers.
They’ll see a familiar face in their group, as Austria returns to Antwerp in hopes of doing that which they were unable to the last time: beat the hosts and return to the European Championship for the first time since an 11th place finish in 2007. It’s a full group this year, with the maximum of five teams taking part. Rounding out the list are Slovakia, Latvia, and Poland,.
The group ranks as one of the widest open of all the qualifiers, despite hosts Belgium being the favorite. Entering the year, Belgium ranked 39th in the world, while Austria (47th), Slovakia (54th), and Poland (55th) are just a stone’s throw away. Latvia, down at the bottom of the world rankings tied for 72nd, maybe be the weakest link, but will play an important role in spoiling some teams’ dreams.
The Hosts are favored to win the group, especially after the team posted the sixth best batting average at the EC last year in Germany. Lead by Steven Delanoy and Dennis Ribbens, the team hit the ball well but couldn’t create runs against Europe’s top pitching. From the mound, Terrence Antonacci was outstanding with a 0.00 ERA, although he was hung with six unearned runs in a loss to France. A lone win over Ukraine in the group stage allowed them to stay out of last place. With the experience of playing teams such as Germany, Czech Republic, and Netherlands, the Belgians have already played at a higher level than any of their competitors in the group. It should translate into two specific advantages for them: first, the lineup shouldn’t be worried about any pitching they will be facing, as they have seen some of the best Europe has to offer. Second, with just four games in the group play before the final, the pitching staff is in a better position to succeed. They allowed 29 free passes to batters over 41.1 IP in the EC, and surely they’ll focus on keeping the ball over the plate against lesser competition. All things considered, baseball fans in Antwerp will most likely see their team in the final on Saturday.
In preparation for their big shot at European Baseball Glory, the Slovakians took part in the Danube Cup and the Prague Baseball Week over the past two months. They overwhelmed Austria and squeaked by Hungary as hosts of the Danube Cup, taking the championship in Bratislava. In Prague, they finished second in their group and beat Austria and Poland, before eventual champions AIST (USA) eliminated them by a score of 5-2. The team should be feeling positive, as they have faced some direct competition and come out on top, and also played some talented squads close. Its better to keep that mindset than for them to reflect on the last qualifier. In 2008, the Slovaks hosted their group, but couldn’t find a way to make the final. Ukraine went on to win the group in a stunner. In that tournament, Jan Jablonka and Tomas Biskorovajny powered the offense, with key contributions from Alex Vaclavik, Lucas Zilavy, and P Marcel Nagy. This year, every team has the same primary goal of beating Belgium, but Slovakia will need their pitchers for the other games in order to make it to the final. If they use too many arms against Belgium and still come up short, they will need outstanding efforts from the starters in the remaining games. It boils down to the matchups against Austria and Poland, and if they are able to take those, then they make it to the Final on Saturday. Slip up against one of the two, and they put their fate in the hands of the baseball Gods.
Baseball in the Alps hasn’t had much to celebrate this year. Attnang hosted a European Cup Qualifier but failed to advance, the Vienna Wanderers travelled to Montpillier for the same tournament and came home empty as well, and the National Team was near the bottom of the pack in the Danube Cup and Prague Baseball Week. The team wants to return to the top tier of European Baseball, and used the latter two tournaments as a de facto tryout, hoping to find some young talent to add to the team. However a look over the roster sees many familiar names from Austrian baseball: Strasser, Tomsich, Ferak, Klinc, Rauch and Cichocki. The first thing on their minds: revenge. Right off the bat, the tournament will have them face Belgium, who defeated them in ’08 for a birth in the EC, and it would be easy to imagine the team has a chip on their shoulder about it. The pitching staff is deep and experienced in international play, and will play a key roll in keeping the team in games. At the plate, the team batted an eye-opening .377 last time in Antwerp, but couldn’t do any damage against the two Belgian starters they faced and struck out 23 times in 17 innings. Three years of experience since then has armed the Austrians with one of their most talented teams ever, but the question remains if it will be enough to knock aside Belgium and Slovakia.
After seeing a harmless Poland squad playing during the Prague Baseball Week, the rest of the group might not offer them a second thought. Those teams should be put on warning, because Poland is in prime position to stun the group and make it to their first European Championship. Armed with a favorable schedule and the possibility of some additional players with longer baseball backgrounds, they could well be sitting on top of the group on Saturday. There are rumblings that the squad will be buffered by players with Polish passports living abroad, making it seem that the team has taken a page out of the playbook from the British national team. Players with experience in the US independent leagues, Belgium, and Germany could make a big difference for Poland. They finished tied for second in their group during the last qualifier, and the only poor performance came against the Czech team. Rafal Kalinski, Piotr Cedzynsky, Marek Deska, and Mariusz Grzanowsky kept the team in contention that year, and put forward good performances from the batters box and pitchers mound, respectively. Since the caliber of competition in Antwerp is grouped together fairly closely, any additions of talent make them a tough team to beat.
Rounding out the group and hoping to play the role of darkhorse is Latvia; a question mark, although not a very big one. The team hasn’t had success in international competition, partly attributed to the lack of participation. They’ll have a chance to see every other team play before they take the field against Austria on Tuesday morning, as the chance to scout and be unscouted may provide an edge for them to cling to. In 2008, they finished last in the same qualifier group as Poland, but were highlighted by Igor Aleksejev’s 5IP and 5K’s from the mound. At bat, the team managed a single extra base hit (by Aleksejev) in four games, while giving up 14. It will take a team effort, and (at least) eight other players will need to come through in order for Latvia to pick up a win this year. It is foreseeable that each opponent will be playing with a shot at first place still in their sights, so Latvia can clear up the picture by knocking one or two of them off.