Barcelona: home of Domènech, Gaudi’s grand designs, Picasso’s early years, and the seat of Spain’s baseball culture. In 2007, the city hosted the European Championship, and the home team rode the wave of excitement to a third place finish and established themselves as one of the top teams in Europe. A few years later some of that prestige was tarnished as the team fell from the top seven in Germany, and now they sit back in the qualifier round. Fortunately, they look set to breeze through their group and qualify for next years EC in the Netherlands. The handful of teams making the trip to Barcelona combine for zero European Championship appearances, meaning an upset of Spain falls somewhere between the ‘unlikely’ and ‘not gonna happen’ categories.
The top challengers are Switzerland and Hungary, who have been active this summer in preparation for the Qualifier. Rounding out the group are Ireland and Finland, who will play an important role in determining who finishes second in the group and earns the second shot at knocking off the winner of the group.
The hosts, ranked 17th, will have more than just home field advantage at the Olympic Stadium in Barcelona: the group has the greatest disparity between teams, with the next closest team in the rankings being Switzerland at 61st. They’ll also have the schedule in their favor, with two games to get into gear before taking on the Swiss, and then an off day on Friday before the final against the projected second best team. Its squad is deep with talent, which is clear from a glance at the 2010 stat sheet from the EC. Daniel Martinez, Emmanuel Febles, Daniel Sanchez, Luis Perez and Marc Carrillo each averaged a hit a game or better. Martinez went yard twice in five games and picked up five walks, for an 1.130 OPS. From the mound, Yoel Hernandez led the way with nine punchouts in his seven innings on the bump. Equally important were the contributions from Antonio Noguera and Ivan Granados, who combined to allow just three earned runs in 10.1 innings, with 10 strikeouts. Fernando Gutierrez didn’t allow a hit in his two appearances out of the pen. The team has a clear talent and experience advantage over the other teams, but will be wearing a target on their backs. They can expect to face each team’s top arm, which could mean closer games than they would hope for, and which could lead to a surprising upset.
While every team is an underdog when playing Spain, the Hungarians have fought their way out of the lower tier of European baseball and should now show the continent just how far they’ve come over the past few years. In 2008’s qualifier, they were unable to provide offensive support to pitcher Zsolt Zalabai’s strong starts against eventual group winner Ukraine and Romania. He also looked strong against Slovakia this year in the Danube Cup and has been dominant for his club team in Austria, which should have teams nervous about facing him. With the schedule in his teams favor, they should be able to use him in the key matchups against Spain and Switzerland early and late in the week, respectively. A more experienced Janos Daroczi will assist with the workload on the mound. The team can capitalize on its speed when it finds its way on base; Gyorgy Nikolits, Jozsef Ando, and Balazs Halmos all had 3+ steals last qualifier to go along with OBP’s near or above .400. Assisting the coaching staff this year is MLB scout Justin Prinstein, who’s experience as a pitcher and knowledge of the Spanish side will be helpful for any chances of an upset.
New Head Coach Andy Fleischacker has a tough first task at the helm of the Swiss team. His boys have been playing well around Europe, using a preseason mini-tournament in Regensburg and a midseason appearance at the yearly Attnang Finkstonball tournament in Austria. Stefan Koller was selected as MVP of the latter. He was also impressive in the national team’s last qualifier in Antwerp back in 2008, where he smacked four doubles and led the team in runs scored. Reto Siegel was also an important player at the plate that year, picking up nine RBI’s and four stolen bases. On the mound, that year’s team relied heavy on Severin Fries. His 21 innings and 18 K’s was key in helping his team stay in the games against Belgium and Austria. With an experienced team and a coach that has helped them put in the time to improve, they are another team with a good shot at making it to the final against Spain on Saturday.
Baseball from the Emerald Isle left the 2008 Qualifier without a win, but plenty of reasons to have hope. Close losses to hosts Portugal and Russia, in addition to a 5-1 loss to eventual winner Greece, were full of positives. Jason Hoye connected for three homeruns in the first two losses, and John Dillion joined Hoye in powering the offense. Sean Finn scattered four runs over eight innings in his start, and the team can look to Nat Angelin, Rouen, and Daniel Woodburne for more solid contributions now that they have more international experience under their belt. Cutting down on walks will be important, as the team gave up 25 in 27 innings. As the team gave up just 21 runs, cutting that number of walks in half could have a huge impact on their win-loss outcome. Just as important will be the team’s offense. Despite hitting just .183 in the group, they posted a .309 OBP. Should they make their improvement known by raising their batting average closer to the .300 mark, their ability to get on base through walks and HBPs will put serious pressure on opponents. A handful of clutch RBI hits during the week could put Ireland through to the final on Saturday.
The Finns left the last qualifier in Slovakia with just three runs and 15 hits in their four games. Bright points were the bat of Jukka-Pekka Kurvinen, who lead the way with four hits, a hit by pitch, and a steal. From the mound, the team relied on a combo of Antonio Munoz, Janne Vartiainen, Peter Nymark, and Timo Liiri. If the defense has improved over the last three years, it will cut down on the unearned runs that hurt the team before. Regardless, they need to have more success on offense to help the staff out. That responsibility will fall to returning starters Olli Tolppanen, Pertteli Salmenpera, and Sergio Fernandez. They each had three hits apiece last qualifier and will be counted upon again to lead the Finland offense.