Croatia is hosting its second consecutive European Qualifier, although the last one took place in Karlovac. This year, its baseball in the capital, as the hosts try to reclaim a spot in next year’s EC in front of their home fans for the second consecutive time. The group is one of the more balanced qualifiers, with Croatia being the highest ranked at just 30th. The middle of the group checks in the bottom half of the standings but close together; Romania and Slovenia are at 52 and 53, respectively, while Bulgaria is right behind at 60. Serbia, at 70, brings up the bottom of the group.
Although the hosts are a slight favorite, they have two advantages. First, they will have a good crowd on hand for each game, as the home team each evening. Second, with the group relatively equal, they can suffer an upset and still look forward to coming in first, as all the teams will be beating up on each other. As long as the hosts can get lucky and face a team they beat in group play, they should move on through the final on the weekend even if it takes two games. The rest of the group will be a free-for-all for the remaining spot on Saturday’s final. Slovenia, Bulgaria, and Romania will take their positive results from 2008 as a sign of their chances, as each team finished second in their group in the previous edition of the qualifier.
Last time they hosted, the hosts took advantage of a weak group of opposition in addition to the home field advantage, and swept their way to the European Championships. This year looks to be a lot closer, competition wise, as they’ve been paired with three teams that finished second in their group during the last qualifier. In order to repeat, they’ll need key contributions from the players who shined in Germany at the European Championships. Ivan Racic and Benjamin Goldstrom lead the way on offense, with important AB’s coming from Bobo Gales (5 RBI) and Filip Berecka (.400 OBP). On the mound, Danijel Levak showed the best stuff in Germany, picking up a win against Greece and a 3.52 ERA in 7.2 IP over two appearances. The deep bullpen should stand to benefit from their experience, when each of them gave up more than a few runs to the top teams in Europe. With that extra experience, they stand the best chance to shut down their opponents late in the game and seal some victories.
Slovenia nearly snuck through to the European Championships last qualifier, when they came just two runs away from winning their group. After blowing out Latvia and Belarus, they struck hard against hosts Czech Republic, but lost 3-2 in extra innings. The next day, they fell by the same score to Poland, and had no momentum going into the final against the Czech team. In what was truly a team effort, nine players hat three or more hits in the four games. Alex Mravlje had multiple extra base hits and five RBIs, ,while Uros Rudolf had a few steals and lead the team in runs. On the mound, it was a small team doing the damage. Francesco Miani worked 15 innings, giving up just three runs. Luka Kreitmayer, Mirko Kucinik, and Rok Vadas were nearly as outstanding, as the rotation allowed a tiny 0.76 ERA. To win the group this year, the Slovenians will again need a team effort to win the important games against the middle of the pack to advance to the final.
Bulgaria likely has a circle around the matchup on Friday, when they get another shot at Croatia. The team nearly beat the hosts last time, losing 7-6 in a tense matchup, before losing the tiebreaker for another chance at the hosts. After a stunning loss to Lithuania, they know they have to remain focused each game if they want to make it to the final. Offensive leaders include Yasen Nedelchev and Teodor Dimitrov. Dimitar Nassapov can spark the offense with some power as well. The battery of Nedelchev and Nassapov will need to be impressive against whoever they are chosen to start against, as they have a limited number of arms in the pen. Defense will also be a key: in a group where each team struggles to post a fielding percentage over .900, the Bulgarians could hold an advantage.
Demonstrating how deep the group is, Romania also had a shot at the European Championships during the last qualifier. After sweeping group play, they lost two to the Ukraine on the last day, and went home empty handed. Will this be the year they overcome, and make a name for themselves on the European baseball scene? Dan Panaitescu, Andrei Lucaciu, and Gabriel Constantinescu will provide the wood for the fire on offense. The team isn’t especially deep or hard hitting, but holds their own. On the mound, they rely on Mihai Burlea, whos 22 K’s in 19 innings were key to his success in two starts. The team doesn’t walk many, another big plus for a team that struggles on defense. Keeping runners off base will keep them from scoring runs on errors. While on base, they need to take advantage of the other teams errors for extra bases to create runs.
The men on the Serbian national team were outmatched in the last qualifier, losing each game because of their inability to field. They racked up an astounding 33 errors in four games, overshadowing the fact their pitchers still kept them in a few games. Vlastimir Arandelovic had three doubles at the plate, and scored three runs, Borko Milankov and Danijel Kozjak also were strong at the dish, each with three hits in their limited chances. Kozjak was also a workhorse on the mound, pitching a third of the teams innings and appearing in each game. The final say on their chances is that in a group as balanced as this, they could win a few shockers during the week and find themselves in the final on Saturday. How could the accomplish that? Improve on their .800 fielding percentage, and cut down on the 1-in-4 strikeout ratio.