*D1 Dispatch: A Visit To The Riviera For The Return Of French Baseball

Let the games begin (Credit: B. Witte)

NICE – The first pitch in France’s thrice-delayed, top-division (D1) baseball season may have been thrown in Paris, where Paris UC hosted Stade Toulousain on Saturday, but Le Baseblog – because… porquoi pas? – decided that a nice place to begin covering the new campaign would be… well… Nice!

Pardon the tired pun.

Better known for its kilometers-long Promeande des Anglais, or as the former stomping ground of famed artists like Henri Matisse and Marc Chagall, this departmental capital on the Côte d’Azur is also home to a plucky baseball and softball club, Nice Cavigal, whose roots go back to the early 1940s.

Newcomers to the D1 in 2019, when the league expanded from eight to 12 teams (there are currently 11), the club got off to a rough start that year, going just 1-19 in the regular phase of the season. But in the subsequent playdown period, they bounced back with a more encouraging 9-11 record.

A “Nice” day for a double-header (B. Witte)

They also showed some real promise in last year’s French Summer League, finishing third in the mixed-level competition, which the French Baseball and Softball Federation (FFBS) cobbled together as a replacement of sorts after cancelling the D1 and D2 seasons due to the COVID-19 crisis.

Putting on a show

It was with hopes of continued progress, therefore, that Nice Cavigal took the field Sunday against a hungry Montpellier Barracudas sqaud that features two of the league’s top starting pitchers: lefty Kevin Canelón of Venezuela and Team France veteran Owen Ozanich.

Led by their flamboyant catcher/pitcher Jonathan Montas of the Dominican Republic, and Naoki Teramura, a right-hander fresh off the boat from Japan, Nice managed to hang tough early.

Nice’s Jonathan Montas has some entertaining quirks (B. Witte)

On the very first pitch he saw from Canelón, Montas smashed a deep double off the center-field fence, behind which loom the silos of a stone-crushing facility that may or may not have provided the gravel that covers the club’s dusty terrain.

The Dominican – whose antics at the plate include a ritual bat kiss and are pure gold, from an entertainment standpoint – collected another hit off the Montpellier starter in his next at-bat, letting it be known that “he fears no pitcher, only God,” as he later told Le Baseblog.

“Whichever pitcher they put out there, that’s the pitcher I’ll face,” Montas added. “I do my job and he does his.”

That having been said, Canelón kept Nice from scoring on both occasions, and in eight innings of work, only gave up one other hit.

A sensation in 2019, his first year in the D1, the former New York Mets and Cincinnati Reds prospect posted a ridiculous, league-best 0.49 ERA. On Sunday he picked up where he left off, serving up a 14-strikeout performace with no walks or runs allowed.

Cavigal’s Teramura performed well too, keeping Nice Cavigal relatively close (they were down 0-3 when he left after seven innings) and striking out an impressive 15 batters. But the difference maker, ultimately, was Canelón’s mastery on the mound.

Nice finally got on the board in the bottom of the 9th, when Montas walked and later scored off reliever Noah Enrione, but by then it was too little too late. Final score: 4-1 Barracudas.

Back on the bump

Not to be outdone by his talented teammate, Montpellier’s other star pitcher put together a gem of his own, throwing seven scoreless innings in the second game of the double-header.

Ozanich, a Franco-American righty who spent a number of successful seasons with the Rouen Huskies, joined the Barracudas following the 2019 season, meaning that because of last year’s COVID-cancelled campaign, this was, believe it or not, his long-awaited first official start for the club.

He didn’t disappoint, although his depature from the contest came with the score a bit too close for comfort (Montpellier was up just 1-0). That put the pressure on relief pitcher Kenny Esposito, who came through big for the Barracudas, pitching two scoreless innings to protect the shutout and pick up a save.

Led by young guns Fabian Kovacs and Ismail Pontiac, who picked up three hits a piece in the contest, Montpellier’s lineup did its part too, breaking out in the top of the 8th with six runs to put the lead out of reach.

“I feel great,” the manager of the Barracudas, Jean-Michel Mayeur, told Le Baseblog earlier in the day. “We can’t wait to play. The last game we played was in August of 2019 against La Rochelle, so it’s true that we’re really excited but also motivated, because we have a team that’s really seductive.”

“We’re still waiting form some players to arrive,” he added. “But to have a team that’s incomplete and yet seems like it can already peform is pretty cool.”

Around the league

The two-victory day puts Montpellier atop Pool B in the young D1 season. But they’re not there alone.

As expected, the star-studded Sénart Templiers are looking strong as well after a pair of easy wins (9-1, 15-0) against the Clermont-Ferrand Arvenes. And in La Rochelle, the Boucaniers are also undefeated, thanks to a pair of Sunday victories – the second in a 4-3 nail-biter of a match – against the visiting Metz Cometz. New recruit Ramiro Milar from Argentina had a big debut for the Boucaniers, going a combined 4-for-8 with 4 RBIs.

La Rochelle had it rolling at home (Credit: Alonso Almedo Castro**)

The weekend results also make for an interesting situation in Pool A, which has just five teams, meaning that one – in this case the Savigny Lions – didn’t play. The other four teams, in the meantime, are all 1-1 now after splitting their respective series.

Paris UC won its season opener against Toulouse in a tight 7-5 game. French pitcher Lucas Khemache picked up the win, throwing nearly six innings in relief, and José Marte, a Dominican and former San Francisco Giants prospect, earned the save (in addition to going 3-for-3 at the plate).

Stade Toulousain bounced back in their Sunday rematch with a hard-fought 3-2 victory. Euri Garci picked up the win, and Mathias Lacombe a Pôle France academy graduate who plans to attend Cochise College in Arizona this autumn – went 2-for-3 and also pitched four innings, allowing just one hit and picking up the save.

The Montigny Cougars won their first game of the season, beating the defending champion Rouen Huskies 6-2. Pitcher Yorfrank López of Venezuela had a monster day on the mound, pitching a complete game and striking out 16.

The Huskies turned things around in the afternoon game, however. Third baseman Gabriel Harrison and designated hitter Dylan Gleeson had three hits a piece to help power an 11-1 victory for the champs, winners of the last five D1 titles. Pitcher Esteban Prioul, who gave up just two hits and zero runs in six innings pitched, earned the win, and Thibault Mercadier picked up the save.

*This is the first a series of D1 field reports that Le Baseblog plans to produce over the course of the season. Tune in next week, when we’ll pop up (pun intended) in a different French baseball town.

**Special thanks to Alonso Almedo Castro for allowing us to use his photo. To check out more of the photographer’s work, visit his Facebook page and Instagram account.

For full, up-to-date scores and schedule info, go to the FFBS stats page.

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