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DODDS Europe baseball preview

Tough road ahead for those hoping to topple favorites

Naples' Jonny Bray throws a pitch against Vicenza in an April doubleheader. The unbeaten Wildcats will look to defend their Divsion II title starting Thursday at the DODDS European championships. Jason Duhr/Stars and Stripes

The 2014 DODDS-Europe baseball championship tournament runs Thursday through Saturday at Kaiserslautern Military Community. Here’s a look at the top contenders:

Division I: At this point, the Ramstein-Patch rivalry speaks for itself. The only question is if anyone is capable of interrupting it.

A quick recap: either the Royals or Panthers have won every DODDS-Europe Division I title since the organization launched the sport in 2009. Ramstein won last year, while Patch won the previous three, all at the other’s expense.

There’s no clear favorite this year. The teams played one doubleheader this season, with Patch winning one game 9-6 and Ramstein the other 4-2. Blessed with a strong top-to-bottom batting lineup, a reliable pitching rotation, fundamentally sound fielders and unrivalled positional depth, no other teams play at a level as consistently high as the Panthers and Royals.

But this is the postseason, and consistency isn’t always the decisive factor.

While it’s certainly the most likely outcome, Saturday won’t necessarily bring another installment of the enduring Patch-Ramstein saga.

Vilseck proved as much earlier this season, riding a dominant two-way effort from newly-arrived star Kurt Hall to a 2-0 upset win over the Panthers on April 19. The Panthers ultimately took the season series from the Falcons 3-1, and Ramstein beat the Falcons in both of those teams’ meetings. But the game proved that a transcendent performance, particularly on the mound, can swing a game and, if it happens again this week, a tournament.

Vilseck is the most accomplished candidate to cut in on the annual Patch-Ramstein championship dance. If a lot of variables break their way, Kaiserslautern, Lakenheath or Wiesbaden might be able to hang with the established powers and give themselves a shot at an upset bid.

None of those teams will match the game-to-game standard set by Ramstein or Patch. But in the playoffs, they won’t have to. This week, a seven-inning statistical outlier would work just fine.

Division II/III: How quickly perspectives can change over the course of a year. Last spring, Naples was a rising power eager to establish itself, and Italian baseball as a whole, on the continental stage. One year and one European championship later, the Wildcats have become the new establishment.

Everything about Naples’ 12-0 regular season loudly insisted that the Wildcats are well-entrenched as the team to beat in Division II. Even their scares, like a dramatic 6-5 win over Vicenza in a March 29 rematch of the 2013 title game, seemed to prove their mettle more than their vulnerability. Naples also appears to carry an enormous amount of championship swagger; stoked by that brush with defeat, the Wildcats didn’t win a game by less than nine runs in April or May.

Still, Vicenza has the raw tools to knock off Naples under the right circumstances, and the Cougars aren’t alone.

SHAPE, now two years removed from its own triumphant rise to championship status, has the top-shelf pitching and dangerous lineup required for postseason success. The Spartans have punched well over their weight class this spring, sweeping Division I Kaiserslautern, splitting with Division I Lakenheath and even holding their own for a while against defending Division I champion Ramstein. Naples doesn’t get the chance to play Division I opponents, so it’s hard to use those games as an indicator of how they’ll match up with the Wildcats. But it’s certainly not a bad sign for the Spartans.

Ansbach boasts a similar resume to SHAPE, splitting doubleheaders with Division I Wiesbaden and Vilseck and flirting with an upset of Patch.

The sprawling Division II bracket is loaded with land mines for reigning champion Naples. For everyone else, it’s filled with opportunity.

broome.gregory@stripes.com

Twitter: @broomestripes

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