It’s Game On For The 2021 Challenge

As hosts, the Boucaniers brought plenty of energy (Credit: B. Witte)

LA ROCHELLE — The Challenge de France, a showcase event featuring the D1 league’s top eight teams, began Thursday with a bang — more precisely a blowout!

First up in the tournament, which is being held this year in La Rochelle and Pineuilh, was a showdown between the powerhouse Sénart Templiers and the one team that has actually managed to beat them this year, albeit just once (and barely): the Metz Cometz.

In this particular meeting, however, there would be no David-beats-Goliath ending. Jumping all over Metz pitcher Elian Aubry, the Templiers — the defending Challenge champs (2019) — wasted no time showing why they’re again the favorite to win the tournament and with it, earn a bid in next year’s inter-league CEB Cup.

Scoring three runs in the first inning, Sénart’s loaded linup exploded for 11 more in the third, putting the game out of reach early for the outgunned Cometz. They ended up putting 16 on the board compared to just one run for Metz — a solo home run by American import Thomas Joyce of Massachusetts — before the umpires put an end to the game after the sixth.

Sénart’s Felix Brown was locked in against the Cometz (Credit: B. Witte)

Leading the charge for the Templiers was veteran infielder Felix Brown, who was perfect at the plate, going 3-for-3 with two walks, three RBIs and three runs scored. More good news for Sénart was that their starting pitcher, Sam Belisle, only had to stay in for three innings, meaning he’ll be fresh to go again later in the tournament.

Slug-fest in Pineuilh

There were also plenty of fireworks in Pineuilh, where the Savigny Lions had the unenviable task of playing their opening match against the red-hot Montigny Cougars.

Winners of six of their last seven regular-season games, the Cougars came up just short, nevertheless, of making the playoffs. The team that snuck in just ahead of them? The Lions.

The stage was set, in other words, for a real catfight, and the two squads didn’t disappoint. Montigny drew first blood, and was up 3-1 after two innings. Savigny scratched back with another run in the fourth, but gave up two in the fourth, another in the fifth, and two more in the top of the sixth.

Down 2-8 at that point, the Lions refused, nevertheless, to throw in the towel, and stormed back with four runs in the bottom of the sixth. From there the two teams continued to slug it out, but thanks to a late-innings surge, Savigny ended up pulling ahead and won the shoot-out by a final score of 13-10.

Lefevre goes deep

Later in the afternoon, the defending D1 champion Rouen Huskies took the field in Pineuilh against Stade Toulousain, and after notching a run in the opening frame, led throughout, eventually dispatching the Tigers 9-5.

Rouen’s Maxime Lefevre sent one deep (Credit: B. Witte)

Gabriel Bracamonte picked up two hits for the Huskies, and in the eighth, veteran Maxime Lefevre blasted a three-run homer that sealed the deal for Rouen, which finished 12-4 in the regular season and, like Sénart (17-1) and Savigny (10-6), will be participating in the upcoming D1 semi-finals.

For the losing side, Jossue Mendoza had two hits in the game. Pitcher Franklin De La Rosa performed well too, giving up three runs while striking out eight in five innings of work.

Ozanich to the rescue

The fourth and final playoff team, the Montpellier Barracudas, also took the field Thursday, in La Rochelle, and against the host team, the Boucaniers.

Even though both teams opted to go with reserve pitchers — in order to save their strongest arms for later games — the matchup was a low-scoring affair until the shorthanded Barracudas, who are missing a number of key offensive players, busted out in the sixth with four runs on three hits.

Mathis Nayral had a rare and solid start for Montpellier (Credit: B. Witte)

Down 1-4, La Rochelle quickly bounced back, however, picking up two in the seventh to trail but just a single run. But from there Montpellier turned to one their most trusted arms, D1 veteran Owen Ozanich, who pitched a commanding 2.1 innings (he didn’t allow a hit or a walk) to pick up the save.

Ariel Soriano collected two hits for the Barracudas, and Kevin Canelón, their lefty ace, got a key two-RBI hit while making a rare appearance as the team’s DH. A tip of the hat also to La Rochelle pitcher Nicolas Antoine, who lost the game but pitched very well, giving up six hits while striking out six in eight innings of work.

The Challenge de France action continues Friday, when Metz takes on La Rochelle, Montigny plays Toulouse, Sénart goes to battle with Montpellier, and Savigny faces off against Rouen. For more scheduling details — and results — visit the FFBS site.

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