ZÜRICH – After a dramatic week of pool play at the B-Level European Championships Zürich pool, the championship match has been set. Undefeated Great Britain, ranked No. 5 in Europe, will take on 3-2 Ukraine (No. 14) for the right to advance to the 2014 European Baseball Championship (EBC) to be contested in the Czech Republic.
Heading into the final day of pool play, only Great Britain seemed like a lock to earn a position in the title match. Bulgaria had been in second place the entire tournament after starting out 2-0, but a tough 6-4 loss to Ukraine on day 3 and nailbiting defeat by the British by the same score on day five sealed its third-place fate.
Ukraine, meanwhile, defeated winless Slovenia to start the pool and then lost to Switzerland, which many considered to be a potential championship threat. After rebounding with the victory over Bulgaria, Ukraine lost 4-2 to Great Britain and had a 2-2 record entering the final day.
Facing Poland, also at 2-2, Ukraine jumped to an early lead, but almost blew the game in the late innings, holding on for a 10-7 victory and a spot in the finals.
Great Britain leads the pool in every major pitching, fielding, and batting category with the exception of stolen bases. The team is hitting .359/.457/.453 and averaging almost 10 runs per game. The pitching staff has combined for a 2.20 ERA and .217 opponents’ batting average, striking out 11.2 batters per nine innings.
Ian Young, a veteran of the national squad since 2000, has a career international average over .300, tying for the batting title at the 2005 EBC and leading the 2013 Zürich qualifier at .571. That number rises to .625 with runners in scoring position during the current tourney. Young is hitting .429/.500/.571 against Ukraine in two career games, handling 27 chances without an error at first base.
Matt Roxburgh, who had a double in seven at bats in the 2012 World Baseball Classic qualifier, is second on the team with .438 line, while Mitch Evans (.400, team leading .650 slugging percentage), Brett Rosen (.400, zero strikeouts in team-high 20 at bats), and Maikel Azcuy (.385/.579/.615) have also swung hot bats. Sam Wiley has been a clutch hitter, driving in eight to accompany a .333 batting mark.
After a rocky start to the tournament, Britain’s defence has solidified, particularly with Young at first base and Brett Rosen and Mitch Evans sharing catching duties. Rosen has thrown out 3-of-6 baserunners attempting to steal, while Evans has nabbed 1-of-2, with one passed ball apiece. The outfield of Roxburgh, Wiley, and Ryan Trask has not committed an error to boost the team fielding percentage to .953.
Nine pitchers have seen action in Great Britain’s five games, with the championship starter unannounced. With the exception of the starters from days four and five, Spencer Kreisberg and Jordan Edmonds, all other pitchers should be available. Kreisberg struck out eight in a dominant eight-inning performance against the blue-and-yellow.
Paul Waterman, who is on the roster for the qualifier, got two outs, both by strikeout, in the two nations’ last meeting. The starter in that matchup, Brian Essery, is now Great Britain’s pitching coach (and hurled five shutout innings for the win).
Ukraine has had a strong tournament at the plate and has the second-best run differential, scoring eight more runs than it has allowed. It is second only to Britain in most hitting categories, with a batting line of .314/.369/.384. It is 15-of-19 in stolen bases, placing the team third in steals, and is also third in fielding percentage at .946. The blue-and-yellow is fourth in most pitching categories, including ERA (3.89), batting average against (.280), and strikeouts (4.7 per nine).
Enver Lyumanov leads Ukraine in hitting at .500, while Ruslan Deikun has been red hot, stroking the ball at a .450/.522/.700 pace and leading the team in RBIs (6), hits (9, tied), and extra-base hits (4). Artem Borshch (.391), Andriy Kubalskyi (.391/.417/.609), Oleksandr Mamontov (.375, team-leading three stolen bases), and Sergii Tykhonets (.300) also fuel the offence.
Only Anatoliy Korolov and Artem Lopata, Ukraine’s starters for the past two games will be unavailable. Five other pitchers have seen action, with Sergeii Makysmov (3 IP, 2H, 0R, 1K) and Ivan Skrynskyi (2.2 IP, 1H, 0R, 2BB, 3K) likely to be the first out of the pen. No starter has been selected in advance.
Several Ukrainian hitters have seen action against the Lions in years past, with Mamontov (1-for-6, 3Ks) and Tykhonets (1-for-7 with two strikeouts) the only with more than one at bat. No pitcher has ever faced Great Britain.
Ukraine’s defence has, at times, been an issue, and will be a key along with pitching if the blue-and-yellow are to pull off the upset. Ukraine’s starting infielders at second, short, and third have combined to field only .918, while runners have been successful on 79 per cent of attempts, though Great Britain is only 5-of-9 in stolen bases.
Since the two nations first squared off in 1997, the all-time record stands at 3-2 in favour of the British. Great Britain is on a run of two consecutive wins, defeating them earlier in pool play and 9-0 in the 2007 European Championship in Spain. Ukraine’s last victory in the series came in the 2005 EBC.
The winner of the game advances to join Belgium, Croatia, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, and Sweden in the 2014 European Championship.