LA ROCHELLE — The fourth and final day of the 2021 Challenge de France was a scorcher, and not just because of the si grand soleil that baked Stade des Boucaniers baseball park in La Rochelle all afternoon long.
The Montpellier Barracudas, hoping for their first senior-level title in 15 years, turned up the heat even more in what proved to be a surprisingly one-sided showdown with the perennial powerhouse Rouen Huskies, winners of the last five D1 championships and nine of the 16 Challenge de France tournaments held since the event was inaugurated in 2002.
The task of containing Rouen’s big bats went to lefty Kevin Canelón, whom the Barracudas had kept mostly in reserve for just this occasion. He didn’t disappoint. Locked in from the opening inning, the Venezuelan hurler — a former Cincinatti Reds and New Yorks Mets prospect — had the Huskies on their heels from the get-go.
Pitching a complete game, Canelón gave up just four hits and one run, and struck out 12 for Montpellier. That, combined with decisive, 3.1-inning appearance Friday against the loaded lineup of the Sénart Templiers, netted him the tournament’s MVP honors.
But it wasn’t just on the pitching front that the Barracudas excelled. They also blasted a mind-boggling four home runs off the Huskies — two of them by their speedy leadoff hitter, Paolo Brossier — a feat that’s almost unheard of in French baseball.
Joining him in the hit parade was their dynamic Dominican, Ariel Soriano, who went 3-for-3 in the game with two RBIs and three runs scored, and Clément Le Pichon, who had a three-run blast just two days after tagging the Templiers for a grand slam.
Up 15-1 after seven innings, the game ended there (thanks to the French league’s mercy rules), giving the Barracudas their biggest reason to celebrate since the Challenge of 2006, when they beat the Savigny Lions for their first — and until today — only title in the tournament.
Montpellier hasn’t won a league title since three-peating in the mid 1990s, under the tutelage of legendary Canadian coach Greg Hamilton.
“It’s just so good for the club. So good for the club,” coach Olivier Brossier, struggling to contain his emotions, said shortly afterwards.
Rising to the occasion
The victory is all the sweeter for the Barracudas, 16-2 in the regular season, given how short-handed they seemed coming into the tournament.
A number of their young French players — key contributors like Ismail Pontiac, Fabian Kovacs and Mael Zan — had to ship out just days before to their respective university programs in the United States. And because of tighter rules regarding the number of overseas players allowed for the Challenge, their two American imports, catcher Andy Cosgrove and shortstop Patrick Cromwell, couldn’t be included on the roster.
The Barracudas instead had to rely on a number of their young, home-grown products, and taking the most of the opportunity, the up-and-comers exceeded all expectations.
In their opening match, a tight 4-3 victory over the La Rochelle Boucaniers, 17-year-old Mathis Nayral pitched a phenomenal game, giving up just two runs in 6.1 innings of work. The performance was all the more impressive given that it allowed Montpellier to rest their three strongest pitchers — Canelón, Erly Cassanova, who was lights-out Saturday against Savigny, and Owen Ozanich — for the major moments that lay ahead.
Nayral showed up at the plate as well, collecting two RBIs against Rouen. He did the same the day before against Savigny. Teenagers Kenny Esposito, Pierre Doat, Dorian Bouniol and 20-year-old Nicolas Khoury also had key hits throughout the tournament.
“It hasn’t really sunk in yet: a title game that was so one-sided, where everything clicked form the beginning to the end,” the team’s manager, Jean-Michel Mayeur, told Le Baseblog.
“Even the young guys were great, and that’s just incredible. I’m so proud to have these boys who came up with the club and are such a big part of the team we have right now.”
Also of note in the four-day tournament was the play of Savigny’s Ivan Acuña, who went 9-for-15 overall and earned the “best hitter” award, and Wilce Nieves of La Rochelle, who struck out 18 in 10 innings of work and won the “best pitcher” nod. Both hail from Venezuela.
For more information on scheduling and stats, visit the FFBS website. Special thanks to the La Rochelle Boucaniers and Pitchers de Pineuilh organizations for organizing such a fantastic event, and to the team from Baseball TV France, who live streamed all the games played at Stade des Boucaniers, including today’s final.