TOULOUSE – The staggered format of this year’s D1 schedule meant that Sunday was Opening Day all over again, at least for three of the six teams in action. Trop bien!
One of those teams was Stade Toulousain, who are beginning the campaign with new faces and high hopes of rising in the ranks after last year’s 7th place finish (out of 11 teams). And on a glorious spring day at sun-splashed Argoulets field, outside of Toulouse, the Tigers, as they’re also known, were all smiles heading into the competition.
Facing them, though, was one of the league’s toughest draws: The Sénart Templiers, runners up in 2021 and undefeated, at 2-0, coming into the weekend.
With some new players of their own, the Templiers are a work in progress and don’t yet inspire the same fear and respect that they did last year, when they went 18-2 in the regular season. But they’re still a force to be reckoned with, especially when ace Shane Priest takes the mound, which he did in the opener of Sunday’s double-header in Toulouse.
The U.S. import (9-4, 2.70 ERA in 2021) is one of French baseball’s best pitchers, and unfortunately for Stade Toulousain, he proved so once again with a masterful performance.
In eight innings of work, Priest allowed just one hit and struck out 11, bringing his season Ks total to a league-best 22.
The starting pitcher for the Tigers, Jhon Will García, had a decent game in his own right, giving up three runs, two of them earned, and striking out seven. Defensive errors cost the Tigers dearly, though, allowing the Templiers to push their lead to 3-0 after five innings and bounce García, a former Minnesota Twins prospect, from the contest.
The Templiers added a fourth run in the seventh inning off reliever Kenny Esposito, who attends the Pôle France baseball academy in Toulouse. With Priest, in the meantime, continuing to dominate, the home team was never able to mount a rally, losing ultimately by a score of 0-8.
Sénart benefitted on the offensive end from contributions by new additions Thomas Greely of the United States and Héctor Velasquez, a Venezuelan who is making his debut in French baseball but has a decade of experience playing in Europe. The two recruits had four hits and four RBIs between them.
Disappointed, obviously, with the result in the opener, the Toulouse Tigers felt good, nevertheless, about their chances of winning the afternoon game . And for much of the match, they were in a position to do just that.
Sénart’s number two starter (for now at least) is Alexandre Lods, a French player who doesn’t have a tremendous amount of power in his pitches. Toulouse took advantage to score three early runs, and after six innings, had a 3-2 lead.
They couldn’t, however, capitalize beyond that, and in the top of the ninth inning, with the score tied at 3-3, the Templiers erupted with four runs off Stade Toulousain’s Euri García, who pitched a complete game.
Leading the attack again for Sénart was Velasquez, who went 3-for-5 with three RBIs. The 36-year-old “rookie” now has nine hits on the season (tied for first in the D1 with La Rochelle’s Théo Lakmeche). He also leads the league in RBIs, with nine, and is batting a sizzling .600.
Sénart ended up winning the game 7-3 to improve their record to a perfect 4-0 and earn sole possession of first place in Group B. With the two losses, the Tigers start the season at the very bottom of the pool.
Pouring it on
Some 700 kilometers to the north, at Stade Pershing in Paris, Sunday was also Opening Day for a pair of Group A teams: host Paris UC and the Savigny Lions. And like in Toulouse, the visitors walked away triumphant, winning both ends of the double-header by scores of 12-5 and 13-2.
Offense was Savigny’s strong suit last year, when they reached the D1 semi-finals but lost to Sénart. Based on Sunday’s performance, that again appears to be the case.
In the first game, returning stars Tom Dahan and Jacques Boucheron both hit triples. They also had a combined five walks – talk about discipline! Ivan Acuña, one of the league’s most electric hitters, had three walks of his own, plus a hit, and Axel Amoros went 3-for-5 with an RBI.
On the pitching end, Gédéon Coste threw a complete game, giving up five runs (three of them earned) and striking out eight. The losing pitcher, for Paris UC, was Akimasa Yasuda, a Japanese recruit with experience in the Czech Republic’s Extraliga. Yasuda gave up seven runs (just one of them earned) in four innings.
Savingy’s batters continued to shine in the afternoon game. Newcomer Pablo Gonzales, a utility player from Venezuela, had two hits in the contest, as did Acuña, Boucheron and Amorros. And Yeixon Ruíz, a Dominican who is now in his fourth year with the team, had three hits.
Pitchers Hassad Firmin and Evertz Orozco combined to hold Paris UC to just four hits, two of them by teenager Thomas Demory, and with the sweep, the Lions (2-0) quickly positioned themselves in first place in Group A, ahead of the Rouen Huskies and Montigny Cougars (both 1-1).
Last but not least in our roundup of the weekend’s D1 action was a matchup in sunny La Rochelle, where the Boucaniers, 1-1 after splitting the previous Sunday with the Montpellier Barracudas, hosted Nice Cavigal (0-2) in front of a home crowd that’s more than a little excited about their team’s prospects for 2022.
La Rochelle, a middle-of-the-pack team the past couple of seasons, is hungry for more, and proved once again that it may well have the pieces in place to finally take a seat at the table with the league’s top clubs.
With a retooled lineup and solid pitching, the Boucaniers jumped all over Nice in the opening game, taking advantage of some iffy defense to score five runs in the first inning on just two hits. One of the those was a two-RBI single by Théo Lakmeche, who had three hits in the game (and five on the day!).
Led by Jonathan Montas, last year’s D1 batting champion (.478), Nice climbed back in the game with three runs in the third inning. Starting pitcher Franklin De La Rosa kept his cool, however, and kept the visitors scoreless the next two innings before being relieved by ace Wilce Nieves of Venezuela.
In four innings, the former Chicago White Sox prospect, now in his second season with La Rochelle, gave up two runs, none of them earned, and helped his own cause by going 2-for-2 at the plate with an RBI and a run scored.
Outfielder Jorge Suazo also performed well, with two hits on the day, including a two-RBI triple in the fifth inning, when the Boucaniers extended their lead to 9-3. From there they never looked back. Final score: 13-5.
After a quick lunch break, La Rochelle poured it on again in the afternoon game. Brazilian recruit Felipe Lot hit a three-run homer in the third inning, and fellow South American Ramiro Milar of Argentina was 3-for-4 at the plate before Nice Cavigal, trailing 1-13 after five innings, finally decided to cry “uncle” and forfeit the game.
Special nod also to Boucaniers pitcher Nicolas Antoine, who allowed just one hit (and no runs) in four innings of work to collect his first W of the season.
With the win, La Rochelle moves to 3-1 and is currently in second place in Group B behind Sénart. The Montpellier Barracudas (1-1) had the weekend off but will try to gain ground on the leaders when they travel next Sunday for a double-header in Nice.
Rouen and Montigny were also off this weekend, as were the Metz Cometz, who have yet to take the field this year. Weather permitting, they’ll have their long-overdue Opening Day on May 1, on the road against Montigny.