Cuba’s Surprising New Baseball Champs

Peter C. Bjarkman*

Yander Guevara

HAVANA TIMES — Cuba’s National Series finals provided a few mild surprises, but none bigger than the emergence of Roger Machado at the top of the island’s current list of managerial success stories.

Celebrated fan-favorite Industriales not only lost this year’s championship shootout, but was beaten badly, dropping an opening pair of games on home turf, briefly staying alive with a gripping extra-inning victory on the road in Ciego, but ultimately  surrendering another two consecutive crucial road games – including both a 10-2 drubbing and a climactic second overtime thriller.

If proud Industriales rebounded admirably this season under rookie skipper Lázaro Vargas, this edition of the Blue Lions was clearly not cut from championship cloth.

More surprising perhaps than the early Industriales surrender was the fact that Ciego ace Vlad Garcia ultimately failed in his attempt to join an elite pitching circle he certainly seemed poised to enter.

After notching his overall nineteenth win in the rain-delayed opener, Vlad appeared on the verge of an historic 20-win season when he entered the ninth frame of Game 3 cruising along behind a seemingly safe a 3-1 cushion.

But it was not to be as the Lions rallied to knot the count (in a knuckle-whitening game that provided their only series win) and therefore sabotage Garcia’s once-promising prospects for a place in the record books.

The short five-game series would mean that Machado’s top ace would never return to the hill for a final shot at an elusive victory that might have equaled the 20-win campaigns (post-season games included) earlier posted by both José Ibar (1998) and Carlos Yanes (1999) at the close of the 20th century.

One small irony of this year’s final series was the fact that neither of the top staff aces – Garcia with Ciego de Avila and Odrisamer Despaigne for Industriales – would emerge as the ultimate pitching star.

Not that either failed to deliver what was expected of him. Garcia for his part enjoyed two solid nine-inning outings and left the scene with both a victory and a no-decision. Despaigne (18-9 on the year) lost the tense opener but only two games later survived nine frames in his rematch with Garcia to register his club’s only triumph.

Yet the obvious hero of this final series was Ciego’s previously unheralded Yander Guevara (10-7 entering playoff action) who mopped up the Game 2 victory with four scoreless relief innings, was the snake-bitten losing pitcher in Game 3 (but only after surrendering an unearned tally in the tenth), and then came back on short rest to start the fifth contest and provide 10-plus brilliant innings in the season’s finale.

Guevara was not the pitcher of record in the most important game in Ciego team history (the win ultimately went to Lázaro Santana who knocked off the final two Industriales batters in the visitor’s eleventh). But the slender right-hander’s masterful elongated start placed his team in position to earn the historic clincher in the eleventh frame.

Guevara and not Garcia thus inherited the workhorse role as both starter and reliable reliever for Roger Machado this time around and filled the assignment in truly admirable fashion.

Machado has often been criticized in the Cuban baseball press for leaning too heavily on a single pitcher, and he took that risk yet again this time around in the ball club’s biggest series ever – but with Guevara (who worked three of the final four contests) and not with his usual favorite trump card Vladimir Garcia. Guevara’s post-season MVP performance was nothing short of spectacular and now stands as yet another strong measure of Machado’s recent managerial genius.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of all in the end was the fact that the island nation is now celebrating a novel champion for the first time in a decade and only the second time in more than a quarter-century.

Eliminating the first two seasons of National Series play (for obvious reasons since first-time winners were inevitable), all Cuba’s first-time champions save five came in the first fifteen years of play (six alone during the decade between 1967 and 1976).

During the quarter-century (starting in 1986) that the league has utilized post-season play, only Holguín (back in 2002) has ever captured a first-time title.

The rarity of novel winners in this league of course has much to do with the domination of four ball clubs over the past three decades – Industriales (seven titles earned in post-season competition), Santiago de Cuba (also seven), Pinar del Río  and Villa Clara (both with three championships over the same 25-year span).

Cuba’s First-Time National Series Champions

Year National Series # Team (Manager)
2011-2012 National Series #51 Ciego de Avila (Roger Machado)
2001-2002 National Series #41 Holguín (Héctor Hernández)
1978-1979 National Series #18 Sancti Spíritus (Candido Andrade)
1977-1978 National Series #17 Vegueros (José M. Pineda)
1976-1977 National Series #16 Citricultores (Juan Bregio)
1975-1976 National Series #15 Ganaderos (Carlos Gómez)
1974-1975 National Series #14 Agricultores (Orlando Leroux)
1969-1970 National Series #9 Henequeneros (Miguel Domingüez)
1968-1969 National Series #8 Azucareros (Servio Borges)
1967-1968 National Series #7 Habana (Juan Gómez)
1966-1967 National Series #6 Orientales (Roberto Ledo)

There were other heroes this May in the Ciego de Avila camp and some of them were equally as surprising as Yander Guevara. Little-noted outfielder Ricardo Bordon stroked the biggest hit of the season with his game-winning eleventh-inning smash to the right-field corner off rookie Julio Montesino; the blast plated Yorbis Borroto with the final tally of the campaign and the run that will surely live on for decades in the collective memory of all Tigers faithful. Borroto reemerged as a lynchpin on the ball club, performing brilliantly on the defensive side at shortstop and twice reaching base to launch crucial late inning rallies in the deciding game. Garcia pitched admirably in his two final-series starts and thus cemented his grip on the title of 2012 National Series MVP pitcher.

Yorelvis Charles (four hits in Game 4), Yoelvis Fiss (a pair of doubles and three RBIs in the finale) and Isaac Martínez (a trio of RBIs in Game 2 and a homer in Game 4) – the veterans in the middle of the lineup – all made major contributions. Third sacker Raúl González launched the final round with a crucial game-winning RBI in the nip-and-tuck series opener. And in the end emerging superstar Rusney Castillo (three homers and 8 RBI for the series) underscored his rank as perhaps the island’s best all-around ballplayer.

Ciego has steadily emerged step by painstaking step over the past half-dozen seasons and has especially caught fire during the five-year reign of former national team backup catcher Roger Machado. Last season the Tigers came ever-so-close when they reached their first-ever finals only to fall in six games to Alfonso Urquiola’s Cinderella Pinar del Río outfit.

The only surprise this season was how close Machado’s crew actually came to not even qualifying for the post-season dance.

But the Tigers put it all together when they had to and roared down the post-season stretch after sneaking into the playoff picture of the final afternoon of regular-season play.

Castillo, Charles, Fiss and company showed surprising offense potency against Granma in the semifinals – winning games by lopsided 20-0, 13-2 and 11-1 counts. They established several league records for final-round offensive production. And they were clearly the better team when the championship finale rolled around.

Ciego has almost without notice emerged as one of the league’s best teams over the past nine seasons – a complete turnaround from a lethargic early club history that produced only five .500-plus campaigns in the first two decades and not a single post-season appearance until the club’s 21st outing.

The Tigers have now averaged above 50 victories per year since 2004 (something no other league club has done), missed the playoffs only once (2007) in nearly a full decade, and in the last four seasons under Machado finished third, fourth, second and first in the circuit. No other league team has enjoyed the same successes over this most recent stretch in league annals.

Ciego de Avila’s Long and Slow Climb to the Top

Winning Seasons (.500-plus) in Boldface

Series Year Record/Playoffs Final Position Post-Season Results
NS#17 1977-1978 26-23 9th No Playoffs Held
NS#18 1978-1979 26-25 9th No Playoffs Held
NS#19 1979-1980 18-33 14th No Playoffs Held
NS#20 1980-1981 19-32 16th No Playoffs Held
NS#21 1981-1982 22-29 13th No Playoffs Held
NS#22 1982-1983 25-26 7th No Playoffs Held
NS#23 1983-1984 25-48 17th No Playoffs Held
NS#24 1984-1985 31-44 13th No Playoffs Held
NS#25 1985-1986 24-24 8th Did Not Qualify
NS#26 1986-1987 26-22 8th DNQ
NS#27 1987-1988 20-28 12th DNQ
NS#28 1988-1989 26-22 9th DNQ
NS#29 1989-1990 17-31 15th DNQ
NS#30 1990-1991 20-28 13th DNQ
NS#31 1991-1992 21-26 11th DNQ
NS#32 1992-1993 20-45 15th DNQ
NS#33 1993-1994 18-44 15th DNQ
NS#34 1994-1995 18-47 16th DNQ
NS#35 1995-1996 19-46 16th DNQ
NS#36 1996-1997 20-45 15th DNQ
NS#37 1997-1998 57-33 (0-3) 5th Eliminated in Quarterfinals
NS#38 1998-1999 41-49 11th DNQ
NS#39 1999-2000 46-44 9th DNQ
NS#40 2000-2001 35-55 14th DNQ
NS#41 2001-2002 42-48 11th DNQ
NS#42 2002-2003 37-53 14th DNQ
NS#43 2003-2004 55-33 (0-3) 5th Eliminated in Quarterfinals
NS#44 2004-2005 54-36 (0-3) 6th Eliminated in Quarterfinals
NS#45 2005-2006 53-37 (1-3) 7th Eliminated in Quarterfinals
NS#46 2006-2007 48-42 9th DNQ


NS#47 2007-2008 53-37 (2-3) 7th Eliminated in Quarterfinals
NS#48 2008-2009 64-26 (5-4) 3rd Eliminated in Semifinals
NS#49 2009-2010 49-40 (5-4) 4th Eliminated in Semifinals
NS#50 2010-2011 55-35 (10-9) 2nd Runner-Up (Lost in Finals)
NS#51 2011-2012 54-42 (12-6) 1st National Series Champions

What started out as – and long seemed destined to be – the magical season of Victor Mesa and Matanzas in the end actually turned out to be the redemption year for Roger Machado and Ciego de Avila.

Over his five seasons at the helm Roger has already built one of the top managerial records in league history. When Machado came on the scene back in 2007, the Tigers could boast but four playoff appearances over the 22 years of National Series post-series tradition.

The overall playoff record for the also-ran outfit was a single victory in 13 games and four straight quarterfinal-round eliminations.

Reversing ball club history overnight, Machado has had his charges in the post-season ever year of his tenure, has reached the semifinals twice and the finals twice, and now boasts an overall post-season record of 34-26 (.567).

It is a ledger that puts him comfortably in the company of such successful league managers as Rey Anglada, Higinio Vélez and Antonio Pacheco.

Machado has now joined that illustrious trio – plus legendary skipper Jorge Fuentes – in the select group of Cuban managers who have achieved a .600 career winning percentage while sitting at the end of the bench in 500 or more games.

And he has done it all with a team that boasts nothing of the tradition and legacy of Anglada’s earlier Industriales outfits or the Santiago clubs of Pacheco and Vélez. And if he still trails the others in post-season titles and overall playoff performance, it is well to remember that Roger after five seasons only just now seems to be getting started.

Comparison of Outstanding Recent-Era Post-Season Cuban Managers

Won-lost Records include National Series, Selective Series and Post-Season play, but championship titles listed are only for National Series play

Manager Series Titles National Series Team Won-Lost Record
Jorge Fuentes 38 5 Pinar del Río, Vegueros 1517-901, .627
Higinio Vélez 24 4 Santiago de Cuba 965-617, .610
Rey Anglada 10 3 Industriales 675-249, .609
Antonio Pacheco 8 3 Santiago de Cuba 442-285, .608
Roger Machado 5 1 Ciego de Avila 309-206, .600

It is a safe bet that colorful Victor Mesa remains the top choice of many for this year’s league manager of the year honors. Victor admittedly deserves all the plaudits possible for breathing new life into a near-moribund baseball scene in Matanzas Province and thus rekindling fan enthusiasm in one of Cuba’s most traditional baseball regions.

But baseball like all sports is ultimately about winning and not just about ranking a colorful third or surprising fourth. Thus the vote in this corner will definitely go to the undervalued and under-celebrated Roger Machado as this year’s top Cuban League manager.

(*) Peter C. Bjarkman is author of A History of Cuban Baseball, 1864-2006 (McFarland, 2007) and is widely recognized as a leading authority on Cuban baseball, both past and present. He has reported on Cuban League action and the Cuban national team for during the past five years and is currently completing a book on the history of the post-revolution Cuban national team