MONTPELLIER — The Montpellier Barracudas were supposed to be halfway through France’s top-division (D1) baseball season by now. Instead, they have yet to play a single game, and even scrimmages — like the one taking place this picture-perfect Sunday at Greg Hamilton Baseball Park — have been few and far between.
The problem, of course, is the ongoing COVID crisis, which ended the 2020 campaign before it even began and delayed the start of this season by more than two months. And yet, talking to the players and coaches on this warm afternoon in late May, all those months of disappointment and uncertainty have suddenly given way to a rush of excitement and anticipation. The long wait, it’s finally safe to say, is just about over.
Opening Day is now set for June 13 — less than two weeks from now! And for the Barracudas, even as they scramble to prepare, there’s a sense that things are falling into place, most notably on the pitching end, with the pairing of two of French baseball’s most proven arms: Kevin Canelón and Owen Ozanich.
The team’s undisputed ace in 2019, his first and only season in France, Canelón, 27, is a powerfully built lefty with a wealth of professional experience in both the United States and his native Venezuela.
Ozanich, who turns 32 in a few weeks, has an impressive pitching resume of his own. Born in France but raised mostly in the United States, the crafty right-hander has played in Europe for more than a decade, a span that includes eight spectacular seasons (2011-2018) with the defending D1 champs, the Rouen Huskies.
“It seemed like the season was a long way off, even just a month ago, when we were out here with just like three or four guys at practice. But now everything’s coming together nicely,” the Franco-American pitcher explains.
Don’t call it a comeback
“Three or four guys” is actually a bit of an exaggeration. More often, in recent weeks, Canelón and Ozanich have been the only players out on the field, running sprints, lifting weights, working with elastic bands — anything to get ready for a season in which their success, both individually and as a tandem, will dictate to a significant degree how the team as a whole fares.
The stakes are all the higher for the two pitchers given just how long they’ve waited for this opportunity. For Canelón, it’s now been nearly two years since his debut season with the Barracudas ended, and during that time the Venezuelan has focused most of his energy on trying to make a new life for himself in Spain, grappling with the red tape of the residency process while working whatever kind of jobs he can to make ends meet.
Ozanich, for his part, was forced to put baseball on pause even before that, due to a nasty, mid-season injury he sustained while playing for the Italian powerhouse club Parma Clima in 2019. Last year was supposed to be his “comeback” of sorts, but then came the COVID-19 crisis, and so except for a few innings pitched late last summer with Parma, plus a handful of friendly games this past autumn (against second-tier teams), the veteran righty has yet to really test his stuff.
Still, thanks to the work they’ve put in together since Canelón returned to Montpellier two months ago — following a more than 24-hour bus odyssey from Seville, in far southern Spain, and just before France imposed its third coronavirus lockdown — both players are feeling strong, confident and, more than anything, hungry to finally see some real action.
“After so much time without playing, I asked Jean-Michel [Mayeur, head coach of the Barracudas] to let me come early to so that I could start training. And thanks to God and to the strength coaches, Joan [Bonhaure] and Théo [Simonovici], I feel better. I dropped a few kilos and physically I feel good,” says Canelón. “I’m so so so ready to show what I can do.”
A talented tandem
If what he can do is anything like what he did do in 2019, Canelón’s coaches and teammates will be in for a real treat this year.
Just one season removed from a several-year run in the U.S. minor leagues, Canelón set himself apart immediately upon arriving in France. In his very first outing, the former New York Mets and Cincinnati Reds prospect went eight innings, giving up no runs and striking out 10 in a pitcher’s duel against Stade Toulousian’s James Murrey.
Montpellier won the game 1-0, although the “W,” in that case, actually went to Montpellier’s closer, Antoine Villard. But as the season progressed, Canelón would collect plenty of wins too, ultimately going 11-1, his only loss coming in a nail-biter (1-2) against the league’s eventual runners up, the Sénart Templiers.
The Venezuelan southpaw also struck out 125 over the course of the season, posted a league-best 0.49 ERA, and was no doubt the single biggest reason the Barracudas did as well as they did in 2019, finishing third in the then 12-team league, with an overall record of 24-16.
What the club didn’t have that year was a second, high-caliber starter to help share the load, and that’s where Owen Ozanich comes in. A fixture on the French national team, Ozanich played high-level collegiate ball in the United States and has also pitched professionally in Australia and Italy. But it’s in the D1, as a member of the Huskies, that the Franco-American made what was arguably his biggest impact.
Ozanich joined Rouen in 2011 for what he imagined would be a one-and-done adventure in French baseball, but enjoyed immediate success and quickly developed into one of the league’s top hurlers. As the years went by, the Burlington, Vermont product became even more of a dominant force in the D1, posting a phenomenal overall record of 91-15 during his tenure with the Huskies.
Putting the two D1 standouts on the same team is an experiment in progress, and given how much time both were forced to take off, there are no guarantees. They’ll also have to contend with some fierce opposing lineups. The Rouen Huskies, winners of the past five D1 titles, are always tough to beat, and from the sound of things, clubs like the Sénart Templiers and Savigny Lions are also loading up this year on the offensive end.
Still, provided they can stay healthy, expect Canelón and Ozanich to make quite the dynamic duo, a left-right punch that is all the more of an asset in a league where teams play just two games per week, usually in a Sunday double-header format.
“I think this is going to be a good season, a really good season,” says Canelón. “I think we’ve got a good enough to team to make it to the finals.”
By Benjamin Witte (firstname.lastname@example.org)