TOULOUSE — Pulling up to Les Argoulets baseball field on a bright but blustery morning in mid February, I suddenly flash back to my first visit here, nearly three years ago.
I had only just “discovered” French baseball, and had much still to learn. But even then I knew that the home team, Stade Toulousain Baseball — STB for short — were serious underdogs against the visiting Rouen Huskies, the reigning champions in the D1 league.
The team’s manager, Tito Sánchez, remembers that day too. With Keivy Rojas, their Venezuelan ace, on the mound, he liked STB’s chances of stealing one from the champs, and so instructed his players to leave it all on the table in the opener of their Sunday double header.
The group answered the call. Rojas threw a gem, striking out 11 in seven innings to keep the Tigers, as they’re also known, within striking distance. In the bottom of the eighth, with STB trailing 1-2, shortstop Lucas Nagano connected for an RBI double to tie the score. Then, in the bottom of the ninth, the game still knotted, a pair of Toulouse singles, combined with two passed balls by the Huskies, allowed pinch hitter Reece Roussel to race in from third and score the winning run in a walk-off.
The Rouen players looked on in shock as Roussel’s teammates burst from the dugout to form a celebratory scrum around home plate.
It was a magical moment, one that Sánchez, originally from the Dominican Republic, can’t help smiling about still. But the celebration was also fleeting.
In the second game, behind their own ace, the Huskies crushed the Tigers 13-3. Two months later they went on to repeat as D1 champs, winning their fifth title in a row and 14th in 15 seasons. Toulouse finished eighth in the standings that year, out of 12 teams.
Seeing what works
Interestingly, Toulouse repeated the feat last year, splitting with Rouen early in the season. And as the weeks progressed, they managed to win one-of-two on three other occasions, including against the Savigny Lions.
In the end, though, the Huskies and Lions both advanced to the playoffs, while the Tigers, with an overall record of 9-13, again finished in the middle of the pack, seventh this time out of 11 teams.
Therein lies the problem. Yes, there’s something to be said for beating the league’s top squads from time to time. But as Tito Sánchez, himself a former STB player, is the first to admit, it’s not good enough.
What the Tigers really want is to make it to the playoffs themselves, to compete for a championship, and with the 2022 D1 season now just seven weeks away, that, the manger insists, is precisely what the team is focused on right now.
“We’re on the right track,” Sánchez, who signed with the Philadelphia Phillies as a teenager only to see his own dreams of going pro dashed by injury, tells Le Baseblog. “Right now we’re testing different scenarios, seeing which players fit where. We’re bringing in a lot of new pieces and seeing what works.”
One of those pieces is catcher Nolan Soliveres, who played for the Montpellier Barracudas last season after returning to France following several years in the United States, first as a university player and later as a coach in Florida.
Teenager Kenny Esposito, a student at the Pôle France national baseball academy in Toulouse, is another new addition, and both are at Les Argoulets this Sunday morning taking batting practice alongside STB veterans like Jossue Mendoza, who led the team last season with 19 hits and a .352 batting average.
Also on hand is Estarlin Richards, a talented young infielder who also attends the Pôle France, along with pitchers Keivy Rojas — nuestro caballo, Sánchez says — and Jhon Will García, a former Minnesota Twins prospect. Both hail from Venezuela.
“I’m a defensive manager,” Sánchez explains. “I’m less focused on offense, because for me, baseball… Hitting is really hard. And so I really believe in pitching and defense. And we have good pitchers.”
“Everyone knows what Keivy has done in this league,” he adds. “Jhon Will is excellent too. We also have Kenny Esposito. Euri García is a great pitcher too. And Mathias LaCombe [who is currently playing for Cochise College, in Arizona] will be back from the United States in late May. In terms of pitching we’re in good shape.”
Nothing’s official yet, but the team is also in negotiations to bring in a few more foreign recruits, including another pitcher with pro-level experience.
Given how the teams are being realigned for the 2022 D1 season, Toulouse will no doubt need all the help they can get.
No longer grouped with Rouen, Savigny and Montigny, as they were last year, STB will compete in this year’s regular season against Nice, La Rochelle, Montpellier and Sénart. The latter boasted the best record in the league in 2021 and came within a hair’s breadth of winning it all.
“It’s a difficult group, and we have a tough challenge ahead, but I believe in the team we have,” Sánchez says. “I believe in our guys. We can do this. We’re going to fight.”
That confidence is something the coach shares with Arnaud Bonjour, who was just elected president of the club this past Thursday. Together, their goal is to breathe new life into the organization, not only by improving the D1 team in the short-term, but by building toward the future as well.
“We took advantage of [the COVID situation], when we weren’t playing, to really talk. And we talked a lot about how important it is to really speed things up in terms of developing young players,” Bonjour explains.
Bringing on Nolan Soliveres is a key move in that direction, not only because of what he can contribute to the D1 team, but because of the work he’s putting in as a coach for the club’s youth groups.
The 24-year-old, who grew up in Toulouse, also has a coaching post with the Pôle France, and can serve as a valuable liaison in that sense with what stands to be a valuable recruiting resource for the Tigers.
“Nolan’s arrival is excellent,” Sánchez explains. “He adds so much. Even though he’s a young player still, he’s got a lot of experience. He knows French baseball like the back of his hand. He played in the United States. He’s got that mix of being both French and Latino. He’s really knowledgeable.”
The club is excited too about 16-year-old Estarlin Richards. Recently, STB also made an effort to welcome back a pair of Team France stalwarts, Andy Paz and Leonel Céspedes.
Paz, last year’s D1 player of the year, and Céspedes are both taking a break right now from playing, but are formally “reattached” to the Tigers, Bonjour explains, meaning that the door’s open should they change their minds about suiting up.
How all these moves will play out in the months and years ahead remains to be seen, of course. But where there’s a will, as they say, there’s often a way.
“We don’t want to keep finishing in the middle or toward the bottom of the standings,” Bonjour says of Toulouse’s D1 team. “It takes work. It’s not something that changes necessarily from one day to the next, but there’s a real desire to be one of top clubs.”
–Benjamin Witte (photos & text)