By Jose A. Rodriguez
HAVANA TIMES – The regular phase of Cuba’s National Baseball Series has concluded in its 57th edition and everything is ready for the postseason, although we will have to wait until the New Year for the final battles for the title to begin.
At the end of the second half of the 2017-2018 season, Matanzas (60-29), Las Tunas (59-31), Industriales (51-38) and Granma (49-39) won the right to play the most coveted crown of Cuban sports, thanks to their good performances throughout the campaign.
The performances of Matanzas and Las Tunas stood out, the latter with their best result ever, while the team from the capital (Industriales) took advantage of their good first half, because in the second they lost more than they won.
Industriales fell into a prolonged slump, but ultimately they achieved their goal. Now is the moment of truth for manager Victor Mesa, who always does well in the regular season but not so in the postseason. After numerous appearances in the playoffs he still seeks to raise his first championship trophy as a manager, despite having already almost 20 years leading different teams.
Finally, Granma managed to sneak into the semifinals quartet with a rebound in the final phase of the regular season, and is now in a position to defend the throne achieved last year.
Pinar del Rio was the big disappointment of the second half, as it finished third after the first 45 games, but fell into losing rut in the last phase exasperated with injuries to several of its pitchers that ruined its aspirations to enter the postseason again.
Artemisa achieved the feat of sneaking into the six that played the second round, but really did not have enough weapons to advance much more. In any case, for the Artemisa fans it was also a historical result, and they managed to at least avoid the basement, finishing in fifth place ahead of Pinar del Río.
Individually among the highlights were the hermetic performance of Matanzas pitcher Royd Hernandez, leader in ERA, his teammate Yoanny Yera, first in strikeouts, and Yoalkis Cruz of Las Tunas the top winner.
Yera and Cruz are experienced pitchers, but the case of Royd, the son of Rolando Hernández Surbiaurt, was a big surprise because he returned after missing a campaign due to injury and did wonders with his low pitching on the corners, very difficult to connect for the rivals.
As to batting, Jorge Jonson, lead the league in hitting, and Rafael Viñales was the leader in home runs and RBIs, both from Las Tunas. In addition, the veteran Frederich Cepeda, was above a .400 average for most of the season. He played the second phase of the season with Pinar del Rio, managed by Pedro Luis Lazo, his former teammate on the Cuban National Teams.
A critical issue during this season has been the repeated problems with the lighting in several stadiums.
The Artemisa stadium debuted with LED lights on July 26th, but in the first TV broadcast an outfielder lost a fly due to the darkness in that area. Likewise, the fields of Matanzas and Las Tunas have suffered with this and in the second half of the season stopped holding night games, unable to resolve the problem.
All of this is supposed to be resolved for the postseason, but nobody knows. There was also talk of a giant screen of the Latinoamericano stadium in Havana, announced for December, but at this point workers are still trying to erect the structure that would support it.
Looking ahead to the upcoming postseason, it is difficult to predict because new reinforcements are planned, three per team, which could change the panorama considerably.
It is assumed that each team will reinforce their pitching corps, and for that there are coveted figures in the eliminated Artemisa and Pinar del Rio teams, while Cepeda would be an interesting piece for any offensive lineup.
Completed this step, scheduled for December 28th, there will be a recess until January 4th, when the best of seven semifinals between Matanzas-Granma and Las Tunas-Industriales begin in Matanzas and Las Tunas.
Whether the games will be played by day or night is still a mystery.