On Sunday, Europe crowned its first-ever Under-23 Champion, the Netherlands, after a thrilling 10-9 win in 10 innings over the Czech Republic. The Orange came back from a 5-1 deficit and led 8-6 going into the bottom of the ninth, but the host nation showed why it is a force with which to be reckoned by mounting a comeback in the ninth and another in the tenth, just falling short of the title.
Those two teams emerged from a pool of 16 nations battling for the title, which came with a place at the 2018 U23 World Cup. Europe is guaranteed two spots at the global tournament next year, and the Czech Republic will join the Netherlands at the second rendition of the event, which Japan won in 2016. The new age category was created as an Under-21 grouping by the World Baseball Softball Confederation when it amalgamated the world governing bodies for baseball and softball, and transitioned last year to Under-23.
The Netherlands (the No. 9 team in the global rankings), of course, is the 22-time European champion at the adult level, including the last two, whereas the Czech Republic has never come closer than fourth with its senior national team. It has, however, won the last U21 tournament (2014), as well as recent titles in the U15 (2016) and U12 (2015) categories, while the Netherlands took the most recent U18 title (2016).
The Czech Republic (rated No. 13 in the world) joined Austria (No. 32) in the last U23 World Cup, making the former’s qualification for 2018 the second in a row. Over the next few days, we will inspect Europe’s U23 Championship more closely, examining the top performances that led to the continent’s first medals in the age group. For more on the Under-23s and future European editions, we broke down the available information in a recent article (link).
While these two dominated the headlines, there were several surprises along the way, led by a bronze medal for Belgium (No. 31), which upset Germany (No. 20) in the quarterfinals and beat Spain (No. 23) in the third-place game. Germany and France claimed the fifth and sixth spots, which come with automatic qualification for the 2019 U23 Championship.
The other 10 teams were all relegated to a qualifying tournament, with Great Britain at the top of the pack. Austria, who only last year played in the World Cup, though without a qualification process, finished a surprising 13th. Lithuania, which won this year, for the first time, a national team B-Pool, was two places lower, a disappointing finish for a country well on the upswing.
Only one nation, however, went winless, and that was Georgia, the lowest rated country in Europe (No. 69), which has only twice sent teams to any continental competition in the last decade (2011, 2016). It was the first-ever appearance by Georgia at any other level than for senior national teams.
It is worth noting as well that two of Europe’s most active baseball-playing nations declined to send teams. The strangest omission was Italy, ranked No. 12 in the world, and recently winning medals at Europe’s U18 Championship in 2016 (silver) and 2015 (gold). The second is Sweden, which may be less surprising, but the Blue-and-Gold have been one of Europe’s most consistent federations in terms of competition and competed in the 2015 and 2016 Under-18s. Slovenia, Romania, Greece, and Bulgaria round out other teams that did not compete.
Tomorrow we take a closer look at several of the most exciting games, including the title bout, with future entries looking at the exception pitching and hitting performances throughout the tourney.