2021 Season Preview (Part II): Focus On The D1

The countdown in own, COVID-19 permitting (Credit: B. Hauger)

Of all the competitions in France’s smörgåsbord of baseball, softball and Baseball5 offerings, the D1, with a season that usually runs from April through August, is the main course.

The semi-pro, elite-division men’s league is a showcase for the country’s top homegrown talents and a magnet for experienced, high-caliber recruits from across the globe. And its absence in 2020, cancelled outright because of the coronavirus pandemic, was deeply felt. 

It’s to the 11-team D1, therefore, that we turn our focus for the second part of Le Baseblog’s (way too) early 2021 season preview. And based on what we know so far — starting with the timetable — the upcoming season promises plenty of excitement and intrigue.

The schedule

Tentatively set to kick off the weekend of April 3/4, the league will be divided into two pools, with five teams (Rouen, Savigny, Montigny, Paris UC and Toulouse) in one group and six (Nice, Metz, La Rochelle, Sénart, Clermont-Ferrand and Montpellier) in the other.

During a 10-week regular phase of the season, teams will only play opponents within their respective pools. After that, the top two finishers in each group will move on to a playoff round in which the top seed in each pool plays the other group’s second place finisher in a best-of-seven, semi-final series.

The two semi-final series are scheduled to take place over the weekends of July 17/18, July 24/25 and, if necessary, Aug. 7/8. The winners then face off in a best-of-seven championship series — the French Series — that will begin Aug. 14/15 and continue the following weekend, with games 5, 6 and 7, if necessary, on Aug. 28/29.

The Challenge

Also during the season, the top eight clubs from the 2019 campaign — Rouen, Sénart, Montpellier, Savigny, Montigny, La Rochelle, Metz and Toulouse — will meet April 29-May 4 in La Rochelle and Pineuilh for the Challenge de France tournament.

The mid-season tournament doesn’t count toward the standings. But it does serve as an early heat check for the D1’s top clubs, offers plenty in the way of bragging rights, and earns the winner a place in the following season’s CEB Cup, one of Europe’s two cross-continental club tournaments.

There’s also a chance, depending on how things play out in this year’s CEB Cup (in Lieusaint, south of Paris), that the Challenge could even land the winner a place in the 2022 Champions Cup, the other and more elite of the two Europe-wide club events.

(More about that at the end of the article…)

The champs

What we can’t know, obviously, is how the D1 season will play out, although if history is a guide, expect the Rouen Huskies to once again make life difficult for the rest of the league, especially if they re-sign Venezuelan ace Yoimer Camacho.

Currently with the Leones del Caracas in the highly competitive Venezuelan Winter League (also known as the LVPB), Camacho was a monster on the mound in the 2019 season, helping lead Rouen to its fifth straight D1 title (and 14th in 15 seasons) by going a ridiculous 14-0 with a 0.73 ERA and a league-leading 160 strikeouts.

Camacho was Cam-azing in 2019 (Credit: B. Witte)

For the first time since their amazing run began, the Huskies won’t enjoy the services of infielder Luc Piquet, a D1 legend who has a staggering 15 league titles on his resume but decided, after the 2019 season, to retire.

But they do have plenty of up-and-coming talent, room on the roster, perhaps, for a few more foreign recruits, and a championship DNA that has brought the club success year after year and could very well lead them to yet another D1 title.

The contenders

Not that the league’s other top teams are ready to roll over and let that happen without a fight. The Montpellier Barracudas, third place finishers in 2019, have their own ace-up-the-sleeve with pitcher Owen Ozanich, who joined the club prior to the lost 2020 season and is chomping at the bit to finally see some real action.

A righty with years of experience in both the D1 and on the French national team, the Franco-American went 91-15 with the Huskies (2011-2018) before taking his talents to Italy’s Serie A, where he played stints in both 2019 and 2020 with Parma Clima.

Ozanich is hoping to give the Barracudas a big boost (Credit: B. Witte)

Backing Ozanich up on offense is a core of young, homegrown players, a number of whom (guys like Paolo Brossier, Mael Zan, Luc Polit and Julien Monks, among others) are expecting to play college ball in the United States this spring but are likely to be back for the tail-end of the D1 season and could be difference makers if the Barracudas reach the semi-final round.

Another team with title hopes in 2021 are the Savigny Lions, led by the dynamic duo of Ivan Acuña, the league’s reigning batting champ (.409) among players with at least 100 at-bats, and Jacques Boucheron, a D1 veteran who was named offensive player of the year in 2019 after batting .397 with 46 hits, 25 runs and 20 RBIs in 29 games played.

A third Savigny player to watch out for is Axel Amoros, who batted .476 during the short-lived Suzanne Bricaud Challenge, this past autumn, and posted the club’s best on-base percentage at .577.

Further west, the La Rochelle Boucaniers are also looking to make waves in 2021. With solid pitching from starters Pablo Ossandon and Rayner Oliveros, and timely offense from a talented lineup that mixes both French and American players, the club went a perfect 8-0 in the recent French Summer League (FSL), giving themselves a nice momentum boost for the year ahead.

Baker had a stellar D1 debut in 2019 (Credit: B. Witte)

Catcher Jesse Baker, a former All-American from Florida, is as solid as they come on both defense and in the batter’s box. Player-coach Forrest Crawford missed the 2019 season due to injury but is back and played well in the FSL, and the club will also have the services again of Texan Chris Buitron, who batted .296 in 2019 and also pitched in a handful of games, recording 11 strikeouts in 11.2 innings.

The favorites?

With Opening Day about three months away, there are plenty lot of unanswered questions still, particularly with regards to recruiting. Expect some fun surprises from all of the teams mentioned above.

But there is one D1 club that has started to show its hand, and given the names involved, it’s easy to imagine the group as an early favorite for the league crown. We’re talking about the Sénart Templiers, runners up in the 2019 campaign and the only team not called the Huskies to win a D1 title (2014) in the past 15 years.

Going into the 2020 season that never was, the Templiers didn’t make any recruiting announcements until February, when they let it be known that the talented Léo Cespedes, a Cuban-born French national, would be joining the club.

This time around, in contrast, the club has already made three big-time recruiting announcements (not counting Cespedes, who’s still on board, apparently). And given that all of the new players have European passports and aren’t subject, therefore, to quota rules for foreigners, the Templiers may well bring on some non-EU recruits as well.

What we know so far is that dynamic Dominican infielder Ariel Soriano will be joining Sénart after a sizzling season in Italy, where he hit .456 with two home runs and a team-leading 25 RBIs for Nettuno Baseball Club 1945.

The former Rays prospect came to Europe in 2018

The former Tampa Bay Rays prospect previously played for La Rochelle, in 2018, and Rouen the following year, posting averages of .411 and .369 respectively.

Better news still for the Templiers is that Soriano will be coming with one of his Nettuno teammates, Oliver Van der Wijst of the Netherlands, a former Houston Astros prospect who hit .391 for the Italian club in 2020.

And it doesn’t stop there. Sénart let it be known too that French phenom Andy Paz, a catcher and French national-team member with minor league experience of his own, will also join the team. Keep in mind that the squad already has wily veterans Felix Brown and Alex Perdomo, plus a cadre of young, French-born players. So yes, the Templiers look like they’ll be loaded this year.

A ‘what if’ scenario…

If the recruitment bonanza puts Sénart in contention for the D1 title, it also favors their chances in the 2021 CEB Cup, which the Templiers happen to be hosting (May 25-30). All of this raises an interesting possibility:

It’s a big if, obviously, but should Sénart win the eight-team club tournament, France would then be given two spots (rather than just one) in the following year’s Champions Cup, or “A Cup,” as it’s also known.

Sénart’s Felix Brown, taking a swing for Team France (Credit: Scott Stevenson)

That, in turn, gives potential new significance to the mid-season Challenge de France, the winner of which could end up earning a spot not, as is usually the case, in the lower-tier CEP Cup, but in the Champions Cup, against Europe’s best of the best.

That’s a lot of moving parts to consider, but hey, crazier things have happened. In the meantime, be safe everyone. Wash those hands. Wear those masks. And have a very Happy New Year!

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