By Ronal Quiñones
HAVANA TIMES – The Premier 12 tournament is under way (November 2-17 at three venues), the most serious challenge for Cuban baseball this year, where two places will be distributed for the upcoming Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
Cuba dreams of obtaining a place, the other would be for an Asian team, but that means being ahead of the rest of the squads of the continent, and, being realistic, that really does not seem probable today. The first round games for Cuba in Group C will be on November 6. 7 and 8 in South Korea. The other teams in the group are Australia, Canada and Korea.
What is in the minds of players, coaching staff and fans is to advance to the final round, an arduous task.
The Cuban Federation initially announced a pre-selection in which it accommodated almost all the top players of the current National Series and some historical ones, and left the great majority of fans pleased.
There were only criticisms in the case of the Holguin player Maikel Cáceres, who announced that he intends to retire because he does not feel taken into account by the technicians of the Cuban squad. However, even if he had been included, his role was not going to be protagonist.
Perhaps the only thing more or less surprising was the nomination of Miguel Borroto as manager of the squad, but the disastrous results in the Pan American Games of Lima had practically sentenced Rey Vicente Anglada (and even the National Commissioner, Yosvani Aragón), paving the way for the change.
Anyway, what has been seen in recent years were not managerial problems. Weak pitching, lack of timely offense, errors when executing tactical actions and other small details cannot be attributed to a manager.
The newest part of the current squad is the presence of the players who played this year in Japan, who were not summoned for the Pan American Games of Lima, as well as the players reinstated in the National Series with good results.
Yurisbel Gracial, Livan Moinelo and Alfredo Despaigne were protagonists in the third consecutive crown won by the Softbank Falcons in the Japanese League, and the fans expect them to perform similarly when they wear the Cuban uniform.
However, if we go beyond these names, and that of the manager, the squad is very similar to the one that recorded the worst historical performance of Cuba in continental events.
That justifies the skepticism, although it is fair to say that the changes are important, because the players who were in Japan and the reinstated (Erisbel Arruebarruena, Pavel Quesada and Carlos Juan Viera) strengthen the squad both offensively and in pitching, which remains the great unknown.
Another important addition is that of veteran Fréderich Cepeda, who had a very good first stage of the current Cuban league and is a tested batter in international competitions. Being fit, he should occupy a prominent place in the Cuban lineup.
The batting order could possibly be Roel Santos, Gracial, Cepeda, Despaigne, Yordanis Samon, Arruebarruena, Quesada, Yosvany Alarcon and Cesar Prieto, but we must see if they produce at this level, especially in the clutch opportunities.
The Cubans left on October 24 for Taipei, to play some exhibition games prior to their debut in group C, on November 6 against Canada.
In Premier 12 there are three qualifying groups, one playing in Guadalajara, another in Taichung, Taiwan and the third in Seoul where Cuba will play.
After that first round the top two teams will emerge from each group for the Super Round, in Chiba and Tokyo, which will leave the four finalists. Of those the first two places will qualify for the Olympic games and third place could also qualify if the final two are not between an Asian and American team.
Cuba will debut on Nov. 6th against Canada; plays on Thursday with Australia and one day later it will close against South Korea.
Cuba’s hopes will be put to the test from the very day of the debut against the Canadians, the team that eliminated it by a score of 8-6 in last July’s Pan American Games in Lima.
For their part, the Australians will be almost the same as the last World Classic, two years ago, and in which they lost to Cuba 4-3, thanks to a grand slam by Alfredo Despaigne. Despite the victory, the Cubans did not look good in that game, and another fierce battle is expected.
Finally there is South Corea, which although it formed its collective only with players who work in its professional League, it is the venue and that is always to be respected. It cannot be forgotten that this is the defending champion of these competitions, winning the first event in 2015, in a tournament where it beat the Cuban team 7-2.
In other words, to advance in the round Cuba must beat two of the teams that have defeated it in its last head to head duels and another that gave it a hard time.
All specialists agree that the destiny of the Cubans will be marked by that first meeting against the Canadians, in which there is also an expectation to know who will be the starting pitcher. Lazaro Blanco has been the ace of Cuban pitching in recent years, but his most recent performances have been discreet, and it is speculated that Viera, who returned to Cuba this year after trying his luck at professional ball, could climb to the mound after dazzling opponents in the domestic tournament with Las Tunas.
Group A has already concluded their play and Mexico finished first with a 3-0 record followed by the United States at 2-1. Those two teams will advance to the Super Round.
Beyond the result, the Cuban fans want to see the dedication of their players. They have been aware for years that Cuba is no longer the power of the past, but at least they want to see a good effort.