VIENNA – In a very competitive bracket at the B-Level European Baseball Championship, host nation Austria needed a win on the last day to qualify for the title game, while Russia cruised all week and advanced despite blowing a late lead against Belarus. A win not only qualifies the nation for the top European tournament, but it would raise significantly that country’s international profile.
Russia is ranked No. 13 in Europe, the second-highest of a qualifying team behind Great Britain (No. 5). Russia won its first four games in the Vienna pool of the qualifiers, with wins over Ireland (13-3), Lithuania (6-1), Slovakia (7-3), and Austria (6-4).
On day five, the Eagles of Russia took a 2-0 lead over Belarus through two, but allowed five runs in the middle innings and needed a three-run seventh and another run in the eighth to take the lead. Russia’s neighbours then used a walkoff infield single to win 7-6.
Austria’s profile has been on the rise in recent years, and expectations were high for the tournament despite a No. 18 European rating that put it in the middle of the pack among qualifying teams. Austria won its first three games, beating Slovakia (7-3), Ireland (7-5), and Belarus (10-0), but lost a tight game 6-4 to Russia.
A loss by Belarus on the final day would have guaranteed Austria a place in the final, but it was Russia who took the defeat. Austria then squeaked by Lithuania, 3-2, and earned a place in the championship. Belarus joined the top two nations in finishing 4-1, but had the worst run differential of the three.
Russia leads the pool in hitting at .333/.449/.391, stolen bases (12), and fielding percentage (.973), ranking second in most pitching categories, including ERA (3.14) and opponents’ average (.245). It is third in strikeouts per nine innings (6.1).
Sixteen players have swung the bats for the Eagles, with Victor Samchuk leading the team in batting at .750 (in only 8 AB) and stolen bases (4-of-5) . Other top hitters include Nikita Monakhov (.545/.688/.636) and Viacheslav Vasilyev (.500/.520/.682, team-leading 4 2B and 9 RBI).
Monakhov was 3-for-4 with a double, a walk, a RBI, and two runs against Austria in the tournament, while Vasilyev 3-for-5 with 2 RBI. Maxim Ayzatulin had his best game of the Euros against the Austrians, ripping a single and a double, scoring twice.
Andrey Lobanov will get the start for Russia. The sole southpaw on the roster got four outs in relief against Slovakia, striking out one and giving up only a walk. Pavel Talakin and Kiril Chermoshentev will likely be unavailable after long outings in the past two days, leaving Russia’s coach Miguel Abreu a bit short in the bullpen.
Maksim Shevchenko will be a key arm out of the ‘pen after throwing 2 2/3 shutout frames against Austria two days ago, scattering three hits and a walk and striking out two. Artem Kulik is the only pitcher who has not seen action, with the other remaining arms all having started a game.
Austria is third in average (.281, two points behind Belarus), but second in on-base percentage (.395) and slugging (.350). They have stolen eight bases in nine attempts and are second in fielding (.964). The red-and-white has excelled on the mound, leading convincingly in ERA (2.57), batting average against (.203), and strikeout-to-walk ratio (a superb 2.91).
Peter Ferak leads the club in average at .500, while Felix Zimmerle (.417/.562/.500), Richard Alzinger (.375/.545/.500), Mortiz Hackl (.333/.389/.467), and Ferdinand Obed (.333/.429/.750) have all been hot during the tournament. Obed was 2-for-5 with a two-run homer against Russia, while Zimmerle had two RBI as well. Austria has walked 26 times while striking out 27 times, though that ratio was four and nine versus Russia.
Christian Tomsich takes the hill for his second start after earning the victory against Slovakia. He threw 6 2/3 frames, scattering four hits and three walks and surrendering two earned runs. The left-hander struck out seven and threw 127 pitches.
Six other pitchers have appeared, with only Zimmerle, who threw a gem against Lithuania on day five, unavailable. Michael Harrasser has been a reliable arm in relief, throwing six scoreless frames with seven baserunners and five strikeouts.
The two nations have only faced twice before, including Russia’s victory earlier in the qualifier. The two sides also tangled in the 2007 European Championships qualifying round, with Austria’s only loss coming against the Russians, 12-1.
The win will qualify to join Belgium, Croatia, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, and the winner of the Zürich pool in the 2014 European Championship.