BELGRADE — In a surprisingly even title game that was full of ups and downs, during which every Serbian rally seemed to be answered by Ukraine, a bigger second inning for the latter delivered a 9-5 victory and qualification for the 2021 European Baseball Championship in Italy in September. Ukraine returns to Europe’s top tier of baseball competition after an impressive comeback. It has climbed two levels in only three opportunities, winning the 2018 C-Pool II, losing the 2019 B-Pool I final, and now adding another tournament title.
It is the seventh trip to the European Baseball Championship for Ukraine, which took part in six-of-eight continental tournaments between 1995 and 2010, but has languished at the lower levels since. The Black Sea nation’s world ranking fell all the way to No. 48 in 2012 after it dropped out of regular action at the Euros, but had its best-ever rating – No. 31 – in the WBSC’s late-June poll. Perhaps most importantly, it has risen while relying entirely on homegrown players.
Serbia came achingly close to advancing to the highest level of competition in Europe for the first time. However, two close games – with the second highest-ranked team in the four qualifiers – show how much Serbian baseball ha relievers advanced. Serbia only moved up from C-level play in 2017 and was 4-27 all-time through 2015, improving since to 12-12.
Ukraine 9 – Serbia 5
The home side batted first in the final contest from Belgrade and took advantage, piecing together two runs in the top of the first. Sava Dupor worked a full-count walk and then stole second. A sacrifice bunt moved him to third, but Predrag Kukoleca ensured Serbia’s leadoff hitter could amble home, roping a double down the left field line. A fielder’s choice would swap Kukoleca with Vlastimir Aranđelović, with the latter going to third on a Nikola Ignjatović single. With two out and two on, the Ukrainian battery mixed their signals, and a passed ball gave Serbia a 2-0 lead.
Ukraine put two on against Stefan Živić in the bottom of the first but failed to score. Andrii Boiko looked more comfortable in the second, as Ukraine got to work in the bottom of the frame. Back-to-back bases on balls to start the frame put Serbia in a hole, and a sac bunt meant two runners in scoring position. Once again, the sacrifice was unnecessary, as Kostiantyn Chukhas stroked a three-bagger to right to tie the game.
Vladyslav Kosenko drove Chukhas home with a bounder through the left side, with Denys Brechko duplicating the feat after a second out.
Up stepped Illia Velykyi, who took two pitches outside of the strike zone before devouring the 2-0 pitch, mashing a three-run tater over the wall in dead center. Christian Bokich would enter to stop the bleeding, but the damage had been done.
Now pitching with a four-run lead, Boiko settled into a steady rhythm, which was matched by Bokich. The Ukrainian right-hander, who had not yet pitched in the tournament, retired nine in-a-row into the fifth. Serbia finally broke through against Boiko in the follow inning, putting two men on with one out. Danilo Cvijović doubled the first runner home, while a fielder’s choice plated the second.
With the score now 6-4, Serbia’s ace set headed back to the mound having set down 10 consecutive hitters. The first out came easily via an overpowering strikeout, but a single was followed by an error two put two on. Bokich dutifully recorded what would have been the third out, but Kostiantyn Boiko took advantage of the extended inning by bouncing a ball up the middle to score one, only his second hit of the qualifier. It was then Ukraine’s turn to score a run on a costly balk, making the lead 8-4.
Fighting for their lives, the top of Serbia’s order worked its magic once more. With Sergii Shtapura now toeing the rubber, Dupor once more got the Balkan nation started. The second baseman dropped a one-base hit to center and moving to second after his antics caused a wild throw from behind the plate. A ball to the infield sent him racing to third yet again and, once more, Kukoleca drove him home, settling for one base this time. Shtapura gave up another single, but bore down to escape the jam with only one run across.
Showing the sort of resolve it will need against Europe’s baseball superpowers in Italy this autumn, Ukraine immediately responded. On the first pitch in the lower half of the seventh, Velykyi perambulated to first the hard way. The next offering from Bokich was deposited in deep right by Dmytro Limarenko, and Velykyi sprinted home as Limarenko coasted into second. Ukraine’s rightfielder would remain there, but the ninth run was like a dagger to Serbia.
Shtapura and Bokich would trade 1-2-3 innings in the eighth, and the Ukrainian reliever would then punch out two in the ninth to nail down the victory. Boiko earned the win with six solid innings (6H, 3ER, 2BB, 2K), while a save was credited to Shtapura, who struck out three in three innings and did not walk a batter.
Breaking Down the Finalists
Bokich was excellent for the second time this tournament, sending down seven on strikes in 6.1 innings and allowing only one earned run (although two were recorded) on a single free pass and three hits. The graduate from D-II baseball power Lee University whiffed 17 in 14.1 innings in Belgrade, allowing only five hits and five walks. His shutout of Bulgaria on Day One was the only loss for Serbia’s neighbors and earned him the Best Pitcher Award. Serbia had a 2.90 ERA collectively and allowed opponents to hit only .177/.271/.274, but the only home run it surrendered – to Velykyi – turned out to be a tournament-changer.
Serbia left seven men on base and out-hit Ukraine 9-8, striking out only five times. Kukoleca was the only hitter with a pair of safeties, though Dupor and Ignjatovič each walked and singled. Kukoleca hit .556/.692/1.000 in the tourney, taking home Tournament MVP and Best Hitter honors. Bojan Ninić, who sat out the game, was next best in average, going 4-for-8. Six other Serbians eclipsed the .300 mark, with the team hitting .299/.408/.386.
Kostiantyn Boiko topped Ukraine with a brace of hits, while Limarenko was the only other hitter to reach base twice. Limarenko hit safely in every game, finishing with a .429/.467/.500 mark, a very similar line to Yevhen Zhantalai (.429/.429/.571), who sat out the final. Kosenko led the team – and was second across all qualifiers – with seven swipes and hit .308, while Serhii Tykonets stole five bases without the luxury of a single hit. Although Ukraine mustered merely a .240/.351/.344 line, it was this skill on the basepaths (22 stolen bases) and an ability to make contact (only 16.2% of plate appearances ended in a K) that played a key role in its qualification. Continued solid pitching – 3.00 ERA, a .248/.296/.344 line by the opposition (and no hit batters or balks, with just one wild pitch) – will also be a key to success in Italy.
Today’s Wraps from the Other Qualifiers
July 1: Estonia 1 – Ukraine 11 (7)
July 1: Bulgaria 0 – Serbia 7
July 2: Ukraine 3 – Bulgaria 6
July 2: Serbia 15 – Estonia 0 (6)
July 3: Estonia 2 – Bulgaria 17 (6)
July 3: Serbia 1 – Ukraine 6
July 4 (Final): Serbia 5 – Ukraine 9