A User’s Guide To Post-Season Baseball — Á La Française

TOULOUSE—The first thing I noticed when, about three weeks ago, I attended my first French baseball game, is that hardly anyone shows up to watch. Quel dommage, because the action and the atmosphere of the D1—as France’s 12-team, semi-pro baseball league is known—are fantastic.

It was a Sunday double-header in Montpellier and, except for friends and family of the home team—the Barracudas—the only other spectators of note were a gaggle of girlfriends (I’m guessing) rooting boisterously for the visitors, the Arvernes of Clermont-Ferrand.

Curious to know if the sport generates a bit more buzz elsewhere, I decided this past weekend to check out a second game, this time 250 kilometers due east, in Toulouse. The field here is lovely and lush, in stark contrast with dusty Greg Hamilton Baseball Park, home of the Barracudas. And yet, if anything, even fewer supporters showed.

Too bad for them, because the home team—Stade Toulousain—pulled off a stunner, upsetting the perennial powerhouse Huskies of Rouen, defending champions since 2015, in walk-off fashion.

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Stade Toulousain celebrates a come-from-behind victory over the defending champs

Sadly, the late-innings heroics were too little too late for the Stade Toulousain players, who knew going into the match that they’d already been eliminated from playoff contention. But for any would-be fans out there—readers who may be realizing just now that, ‘Wait, what? There’s baseball in France?’—this is the perfect time to jump on the not-so-crowded D1 bandwagon.

Why? Because after a three-month regular season, the league is about to begin its playoff phase. Only the D1’s better half—the top six clubs—compete, and the action begins this Sunday, June 23. The season’s best baseball, in other words, is yet to come.

But first, a quick primer on how it all works….

Who made the cut?

The D1 is divided into two, six-team pools. After a 20-game regular season, the top three finishers in each pool qualify for a 12-game post-season phase.

In Pool A, the playoff contenders are the Rouen Huskies (16-4), the Lions of Savigny-sur-Orge (16-4) and the Montpellier Barracudas (14-6).

Representing Pool B are the Templiers of Sénart (19-1), the Montigny-le-Bretonneux Cougars (13-7) and the Boucaniers of La Rochelle (11-9).

Who plays who?

For the playoff phase, the qualifying teams compete only against teams in the opposite pool. Rouen, Savigny-sur-Orge and Montpellier won’t, in other words, play each other, but will all have a chance to play the Templiers, Cougars and Boucaniers.

There will be six different meetings between the teams, with two games played on each date for a total of 12 matches. The first double-headers take place June 23, with 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. start times, and feature the following matchups:

*Huskies vs. Cougars (in Rouen)

*Templiers vs. Barracudas (in Sénart)

*Boucaniers vs. Lions (in La Rochelle)

And the winner is?

After the 12-game playoff period, the top two teams overall will advance to a five-game finals series, beginning August 17, to determine the league champion. But here’s where it gets tricky: Selection for the finalists is based not only on playoff records, but also on their head-to-head results from the regular season.

In other words, going into the post-season, the record that each team already has against other playoff contenders counts. The Templiers start off in the best position overall, at 7-1 . Rouen has a 5-3 record against the other five playoff teams, and the Savigny-sur-Orge Lions are 4-4. Montpellier and Montigny, both with 3-5 records, have their work cut out for them, and La Rochelle, at 2-6, begins as the biggest underdog.

Meet the teams

The Huskies—Rouen has dominated the D1 in recent years, winning four straight championships coming into this season and 13 of 14 since 2005. And if things go according to plan, the team could soon add a new trophy to its crowded case.

Led by Ariel Soriano of the Dominican Republic, who is batting .397 with 29 hits, the defending champs boast a team batting average of .305. French outfielder Bastien Dagneau — with a .355 average and a team-high three homeruns in the regular season — adds another dangerous bat to the Huskies lineup, as does first baseman Hugo Blondel (.280), the team’s RBI (runs batted in) leader with 22.

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Hugo Blondel makes a close play at first

Anchoring Rouen’s pitching staff is Yoimer Camacho of Venezuela, who went undefeated in the regular season (7-0) with an ERA (earned run average) of just 0.83. French pitcher Esteben Prioul has also had a strong year so far, with a 5-0 record in 10 appearances.

The Templiers—The Huskies may be the defending D1 champions, but the Templiers of Sénart are looking like the team to beat this year. They have the league’s best regular-season record at 19-1, and in early May beat Rouen to win the Challenge de France, a mid-season tournament that earned them a spot in next year’s European Cup, a kind of champion’s league for the continent’s top teams.

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Catcher Daniel Jackson of the United States leads the team with a hefty .442 batting average and 34 hits. Dominican outfielder Carlos Belonis Heredia had a stellar regular reason as well, batting .390 with 30 hits and 17 RBIs.

The team’s pitching staff is led by the dynamic American duo of Joe Rivera (7-0), with an amazing 0.34 ERA, and Brendan Jenkins (8-1), who tallied an impressive 82 strikeouts in the regular season.

The Lions—The team from Savigny-sur-Orge, just south of Paris, hasn’t won a D1 title since 2004, but brings a potent offense to the playoffs thanks in large part to Ivan Acuña, a Venezuelan who played university baseball in the United States. Acuña has a league-leading .443 batting average and is also the team’s top RBI man, with 23.

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Ivan Acuña is swinging a mean bat for the Lions this season

Fellow infielder Yiexon Ruiz of the Dominican Republic is swinging a hot bat as well, with a team-high 33 hits, as is Jacques Boucheron, who finished the regular season with 29 hits and a .372 batting average.

The Lions have a solid ace in pitcher Spencer Bivens of the United States. The former Rogers State University (in Oklahoma) standout is 8-0 with a 1.91 ERA and 45 strikeouts.

The Barracudas—Montpellier begins the playoffs in a bit of a hole, with a 3-5 record against other playoff teams, but is hoping its mix of Venezuelan pros (all three of the team’s foreign recruits are from Venezuela) and young French talent will provide a much-needed, post-season punch.

The team’s best hitter is shortstop Larry Infante, who finished the regular season on a tear and is now batting an impressive .412 with 28 hits. Fellow Venezuelan Andrés Martínez has been getting into the swing of things as well, notching a team-high 21 RBIs while also putting in some quality time as a pitcher (he’s 2-1 with a respectable 2.50 ERA).

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Montpellier’s Larry Infante and Andrés Martínez

The undisputed ace of the Barracudas, however, is another young man from Venezuela: Kevin Canelon, who whiffed 81 batter during the regular season while going undefeated (6-0) and posting a lights-out 0.54 ERA.

The Cougars—The team from Montigny-le-Bretonneux, west of Paris, has never won a D1 title but isn’t giving up hope for a finals appearance just yet.

The top three batters in the Cougars lineup—Rafael Jimenez of Spain, Swiss infielder Francisco Perez, and Juan Carela, a shortstop from the Dominican Republic—have 82 hits between them and 59 RBIs.

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Image borrowed from http://www.montigny-baseball.com/

Three other Montigny-le-Bretonneux players are also batting over .300, including Gabriel Do Carmo (.343) of Brazil, who hit 22 RBIs in the regular season, tied with Jimenez for first on the team.

The Boucaniers—Considering they weren’t even in France’s top division until two seasons ago, the team from La Rochelle did well to even make the playoffs. But that’s not to say they can’t make a splash.

The Boucaniers have a formidable batter in Jesse Baker, who tied for first in the league with 34 hits in the regular season. The Jacksonville, Florida native played Double-A ball in the United States before bringing his talents to France, where he’s batting a stellar .436 with 19 RBIs.

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La Rochelle also has one of the league’s more unusual mixes of foreign talent. Pitcher Pablo Ossandon is the only Chilean in the D1, and Dimitry Shtykher, the team’s best arm this season, with a 3-1 record and 0.76 ERA, hails from Russia.

Finding the field

France’s various baseball fields tend to be tucked away in hidden corners of their respective cities, but thanks to the wonders of GPS, they’re not that hard to find. Also, since hardly anyone attends the games, parking is usually available.

If you happen to live within driving distance of Rouen (the capital of Normandy); Sénart, southeast of Paris; Savigny-sur-Orge, also near the capital; Montigny-le-Bretonneux, to the west of Paris; Montpellier, in the south; or La Rochelle, on the Atlantic coast, follow the links included here to find the ballpark of your choice.

Cost of admission?

Zero. Ziltch. Nada. Matches are open to the public and free, so now you really have no excuse. Enjoy the the games, because it’s definitely time to take yourself out to the ballpark.

By Benjamin Witte (benjawitte@gmail.com)

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