MOSCOW — After five days of blowout victories during pool play, Russia qualified for the European Baseball Championship with a 4-1 victory over Belarus. Despite the low-scoring game, in which Andrei Lobanov and Denis Leonov combined for 16 strikeouts, Russia still hit three balls out of the park. Belarus fell heartbreakingly short to qualifying for its first-ever Euros, but considering the nail-biting loss was its first title game in a B-Pool qualifier and a decade ago it posted an 0-4 mark – including two shutout losses to Russia – it suggests the self-funded federation is doing the most with its very limited resources.
Russia 4 – Belarus 1
It appeared after the first inning that the game would proceed as previous contests involving Russia had gone. Yauheni Karalevich led off the game with a rocket over the left center field wall, giving Belarus a 1-0 lead.
Russia’s leadoff hitter, David Castillo, would equal the feat, taking Yauheni Kurhun yard when the ball changed hands. After a strikeout, Geidys Soler and Luis Valiente seized upon pitches they liked, depositing back-to-back bombs to left field.
After the first, however, Lobanov and Kurhun offered very little to hit. Kurhun himself broke up a run of retired batters by Lobanov at 10 in the fourth, while the Belarussian right-hander registered 15 consecutive outs between the second and seventh.
It was in that seventh that Russia became the first of the two sides to put a runner in scoring position, loading the bases on an error and two singles. Kirill Chermoshentsev brought the lead runner home with a sacrifice fly, but that was all for the home side.
By this point, Leonov had taken over for Lobanov, but the results were very similar: three-up, three-down in the eighth. Russia threatened once more in the eight, with Soler beating out an infield hit and moving 90 feet away from the plate after a walk and a hit batter. With Belarus down to its final chance, Kurhun kept the game close, punching out the next three batters.
After two outs to start the ninth, Kurhun made another valiant effort to deliver a victory with a single to left field, but Lobanov went after the next hitter and finished the game with an emphatic K. The victory returned Russia to the top tier of European baseball competition after missing the 2019 Championship, only the second tournament since its first in 1993 that Europe’s easternmost country did not contest.
Breaking Down the Finalists
Kurhun (0-1) struck out 11 in the full eight innings, permitting only six hits and three walks in the loss. He and Soler were the only players with more than one hit, both striking a pair of safeties. Kurhun pitched in three games in the tournament, totalling 14 strikeouts in 11 frames, with only three earned runs and seven hits. The right-hander was undoubtedly the best Belarussian on the mound, as the rest of the pitching staff gave up 28 runs in 25 innings with 31 walks and 25 strikeouts.
Lobanov and Leonov offer Russia the one-two punch they will need to retain a place at the Euros. Lobanov (2-0) struck out the side in the fifth en route to 11 whiffs in 6.1 innings, stingily surrendering three hits without walking a batter. Russia’s left-handed starter sent down 17 on strikes in 10.1 innings between his two starts, with seven hits the only baserunners allowed. Leonov registered five of the remaining eight outs via the K, allowing only a pair of hits. The righty notched 13 Ks and a single free pass in 6.2 innings across two appearances for a Russian squad that compiled a 1.50 ERA and .146 opponents’ average, with 58 strikeouts in 30 innings.
As a squad, Russia hit a whopping 20 home runs in five games, with Soler out-homering 15 of the 16 other countries in the four qualifiers himself. The slugging rightfielder’s six home runs were one of four categories in which he led players at all four qualifiers: hits (11), slugging percentage (1.813), and RBI (18). That latter figure amounted to more runs than five teams scored collectively, and his .688 average ranked second.
Russia hit .421/.519/.895 as a squad, with the 20 longballs and 11 other extra base hits coming in only 152 at bats. Every regular except one hit over .300, and all had an OPS of at least .889. Nine different players homered, with Valiente’s dinger drew him even with teammates Alexander Bolgov and Ian Péres for second in the qualifiers in home runs with three.
Belarus’ Karalevich was one of six other players among the 17 teams in qualification with at least two round-trippers. With the centerfielder and pitcher leadig, the other half of the Union State was now slouch with the bat, either. Karalevich was 8-for-16 with a .619 OBP and .938 slugging mark, leading the team in each category, while tying for first in homers and stolen bases (2). Siarhei Sokal also ripped a pair of big flies, while Kiryl Kazlouski (.429/.467/.643) and Ilya Sladzinski (.417/.563/.417) had strong performances as well. Sladzinski only turns 19 later this month, while Kazlouski is 24 and Kurhun 22. Given this strong core, which went 4-1 in the 2019 qualifier (and is 14-11 in the B-Pool since 2013), Belarus is a team to watch.
Today’s Wraps from the Other Qualifiers
June 29: Belarus 31 – Turkey 2 (5)
June 29: Slovenia 0 – Russia 20 (5)
June 30: Slovenia 8 – Belarus 13
June 30: Switzerland 4 – Russia 19 (6)
July 1: Turkey 7 – Switzerland 30 (5)
July 1: Russia 17 – Belarus 0 (5)
July 2: Switzerland 25 – Slovenia 4 (5)
July 2: Russia 24 – Turkey 0 (5)
July 3: Turkey 2 – Slovenia 18 (5)
July 3: Belarus 8 – Switzerland 6
July 4 (Final): Belarus 1 – Russia 4