VILNIUS, Lithuania – France has been one of the leaders in the spreading of baseball5 globally and, today, its efforts paid off as Les Bleus became the first Baseball5 European Champions. A dramatic championship series sweep over hosts Lithuania wrapped up the tournament, which also saw Russia defeat Italy for the bronze. On the final day, three of the 14 games ended via a walkoff hit, two in extra innings, as the 14 European participants announced baseball5 as a thrilling, passion-inducing sport.
The day began with Belgium thumping Czech Republic twice to take 11th place. The battle for ninth was similarly lopsided, with a strong Bulgarian side easily besting Estonia. Bulgaria has twice hosted the Balkan Baseball5 Open and the experience from those tournaments was obvious in the Baseball5 Euros, with the southeast European nation finishing 6-5. It was one of six teams with a winning record.
Israel and Romania squared off for an exciting three-game set for seventh place. Romania pipped Israel 6-5 in the opener before Israel walked off in Game Two, 4-3, in six frames. This set up a final game and Israel took an early lead and rode out a 5-1 win.
A Fifth Place Nail-Biter
The best series of the final day might well have been Netherlands and Belarus for fifth place. Neither nation is accustomed to fighting for fifth in a European bat-and-ball sport, but take the bat away and the sides are much more equal.
In Game One, the Netherlands had a 4-3 lead going into the final frame, but Belarus scored one to send it to the sixth. The two squads both added two in the next frame, with Belarus repeating the feat in the seventh. Not to be outdone, the honkbal5ers plated a pair of their own to send it to the eighth. Belarus put itself in a good position once more, plating three to take an 11-8 lead. The Netherlands loaded the bases in the bottom half though, before a hard-hit ball caromed around the field to score three. A sacrifice hit to the right side then gave the Dutch a walkoff victory. The dramatic Dutch victory tied two world baseball5 records: longest game (8 innings) and most runs scored in a loss (11 by Belarus).
Game two was just as thrilling, with the two sides see-sawing back-and-forth before Belarus claimed a 6-5 victory. With two long games, the series was moved to the second indoor field to allow the bronze medal game to start at nearly its scheduled time. The movement did not take away any drama, however, as Belarus and the Netherlands exchanged runs to the tune of a 4-4 draw going into the final frame. The Orange hitters scraped together one more run and claimed fifth place with a 5-4 victory.
Russia Makes WBSC Europe History
The best defensive performance of the tournament thus far had come from Russia, which was competing in its first international baseball5 tournament. It had allowed only nine runs in six pool play games, surrendering just 11 more in four playoff games. Meanwhile, it faced off against an Italian side that had scored an even 100 runs, most in the tournament, through two days.
In the end, it was Russia’s D that held sway, while its offence continued its heightened performance from Day Two in a 13-3 first-game victory. After walking off in the mercy rule win, Russia then turned up the pressure and concluded with a five-run shutout of Italy to claim the bronze.
It was the first time in any sport that WBSC Europe governs that Italy had failed to win a medal at a European championship, while the bronze for Russia was its first medal in any of the confederation’s three sports since a softball bronze in 2007. Russia allowed only 23 runs in 12 games, by far the best in the Euros, scoring 93 runs, for the tournament’s third-best mark. Italy scored 103 runs, the event’s second-best mark.
France Wins an Historic Title
The day concluded with one final question: Could France hold back a Lithuanian national team that had a noisy crowd behind it and a series of impressive performances? Game One of the championship series would provide plenty of drama in partly answering that query.
Both teams plated a pair of runs in the first, but France took an early lead, holding Lithuania scoreless in the second and plating five. The hosts then scored three to start the third. A great defensive play by Lithuania’s middle fielder, who flipped a ball struck off her foot ended the bottom of the frame, but France had tacked on two more.
Needing a big inning to keep pace with France’s relentless offence, Lithuania took the lead on an absolute rocket up the middle that bounced off the walls and a player, scoring three. The green-shirted hitters left a runner on third that at the time seemed pivotal. However, a single run would have made no difference, as France bashed 11 runs in the bottom of the fourth to claim a 20-10 mercy rule victory. The game set an all-time baseball5 record for runs scored by two teams.
With the pressure heightened, Lithuania struggled to wrap up a lethal volley of hard-hit balls from France in game two and made several defensive miscues as well. The end result was another big win for Les Bleus, who celebrated on the court after the 12-1 victory in four.
It was the first-ever gold medal for France in a WBSC Europe sport and only its second medal ever after the 1999 Baseball Euros bronze. France scored, by far, the most runs in the tournament (129) and had its second-best defence (43 runs allowed). Lithuania finished in a tie for fourth-most runs, but let in 43 runs in its six playoff games.
The two clubs will travel to Mexico in December to contest the Baseball5 World Cup, where they will join the host nation, which has an automatic bid. Three other nations from the Americas will join, plus two each from Africa and Asia and a final country from Oceania. Only the Asian Baseball5 Championship has been announced, with competition set for April 9-12 in Kuala Lumpur.
Eight nations made their baseball5 international debuts and, in fact, two appeared to have participated in their first official baseball5 event: Russia and Belarus. A total of 15 European countries (the tournament field and Serbia) have now formed a mixed senior national team, more than double the rest of the world combined (seven nations in the Americas have fielded national teams).
For a first continental championship in the sport, the tournament was well-hosted by the WBSC. The fields were appealing and well-marked, the officials were well-trained and maintained the pace of the game well, and the quality of the streaming was high. There were quite a few problems with the feeds, but these were usually resolved quite quickly. The only main issue as baseball5 develops is to prevent injuries caused by fielder obstruction, of which there were several. All in all, there were far fewer issues than one might expect for such a young sporting discipline.
Yesterday’s action at the Baseball5 European Championship produced the two nations qualified for the Baseball5 World Cup and a number of thrilling games [Link]. This came a day after eight nations claimed their first-ever international baseball5 victory on Day One [Link].