Another sign that the quality of Little League baseball in Europe is improving: Tuesday’s semifinals were the lowest-scoring, most competitive in the history of this regional.
Defending champion Russia beat Moldova as expected, but only by a 4-1 count. Germany bettered Austria in the other semi, also as expected, but the final was only 4-0.
The four runs scored in the nightcap are a new single-game low in the regional semifinal, beating the five scored in the first game on Tuesday and in Lithuania’s 3-2 win over Netherlands in 2004. The 9 total runs blew away the previous record of 22, set in 2003.
“More teams are playing better baseball in Europe,” said Germany manager Kai Leiter when asked to explain the competitiveness in this tournament. “Each year, it seems there are fewer and fewer 10-run-rule games. Even the lower-tier teams are better than in past years.”
Austria manager Phil Chapin was happy to be a part of history, wishing of course that he was on the other end of it, but he too was pleased to see how competitive this regional is becoming.
“We all benefit from this,” he said. “We are all closing the gap on Russia a little bit at a time, and it’s not just one or two teams doing it – it’s about a half dozen.”
Still, only one team came to Kutno with bags packed for a month – Russia, which has been to the LLWS in Williamsport four of the previous five years.
Because of the timing between the end of this regional and the start of the LLWS, the European champ leaves directly for the U.S. from here.
“We have played two 3-run games in a row, and that’s a first,” said Russia coach
Andrei Tselikovski, referring to Tuesday’s win as well as Monday’s 3-0 victory over Italy. “What does it all mean? Hard to say, but it’s obvious that the quality of play throughout Europe is getting better.”
What’s his spin on why that is?
“Americans,” he said without hesitation. “America has taken an interest in the progress of European baseball. Financial assistance, equipment, uniforms, clinics, American coaches…it started years ago, and now, apparently, it’s starting to show itself here.”
UMPIRES WIN, FILM AT 11: As has been the case every year, the umpires and grounds crew beat the coaches in the softball exhibition, 56-10, using plenty of creative scoring and defensive trickery.
Umpires coach Russ Ruslender gave me a ball to put in my pocket as I ran out to left field “just in case anyone hits a home run right over your head – just pretend like you caught it.”
Sure enough, right on cue, the first batter, an Italian coach, hit a homer just over the fence. I jumped, came down with the planted ball in my glove, showed it for all to see, and my fellow umpires – who were in on the gag – started jumping up and down to celebrate.
I think there are some people in the stands who actually believe I caught it. Classic.
CHAMPIONSHIP WEDNESDAY: Austria meets Moldova in the third-place game, followed by tourney unbeatens Russia and Germany battling for the right to go to the LLWS. Umpire assignments will be announced at the umpire breakfast Wednesday morning.