Peter C. Bjarkman*
Special from Haarlem, Netherlands
HAVANA TIMES — Neither the faultering Cuban team nor the ill-tempered weatherman has painted a very pretty picture here in Haarlem so far this week. Heavy rain washed out both scheduled games on Monday’s calendar and thus created the distasteful scenario of back-to-back triple headers on Tuesday and Wednesday.
And it hasn’t been a very reassuring start for a favored Cuban ball club that has suffered back-to-back early defeats marked by uncharacteristically impotent offense and highly troublesome inconsistent pitching – an almost certain formula for defeat in any baseball venue.
Facing a trio of former Puerto Rican minor league hurlers, the Cuban bats could muster only five tame hits (the most productive being a two-run double by Freddie Cepeda in the home fourth) and let several rather golden opportunities for late-inning victory die on the vine.
A disastrous pitching breakdown in the seventh frame of Game Two (an inning in which Victor Mesa used six different hurlers) gave away a game to the Americans on Sunday that has now put the red-clad islanders in a rather deep whole as the tournament moves into its late first-round stages.
The islanders must now capture at least two of their final three matches two reach the playoff round. A three-game sweep might even be necessary (depending on the fates of other teams) – a tall order against perhaps the most balanced field ever assembled in twenty-six editions of the Haarlem Baseball Week competitions.
Cuba’s second defeat was certainly not as dramatic or as one-sided as might be indicated by a casual glance at the box score. Nonetheless there were a couple of embarrassing innings that worked to seal the team’s fate. An early hole was dug in the bottom of the third thanks to a rare and ill-timed fielding miscue that allowed the American’s to grab a lead they would never surrender.
Speedster Trea Turner opened the frame for Team USA with a ringing double to left off Freddy Asiel Alvarez and immediately stole third. Johnny Field went down swinging for what should have been the second out. But Frank Camilo Morejón dropped the strike-three delivery and when Field sprinted towards first, Morejón compounded the miscue with a wild heave over the head of first sacker José Dariel Abreu that not only nullified the strikeout but also brought Turner scampered home from third.
Despite those negatives Mesa’s team did fight back gamely Sunday night and even managed to put itself in a late-inning position to win. A second infield miscue in the fourth (Aledmis Díaz missed the bag while covering first on an attempted sacrifice) set up another early and serious American scoring threat. But a brilliant double play cutting down runners at third and first erased the looming onslaught.
Freddy Asiel effectively worked out of several jams in the middle innings to keep the game close and Alfredo Despaigne delivered a game-tying homer in the top of the sixth to seemingly turn the tide back in Cuba’s favor. In the same inning Abreu struck a blow that was corralled again the right field fence and might well have completely reversed the game’s momentum.
But all suddenly went by the wayside with a colossal pitching meltdown during a nightmare home half of the seventh inning. Klye Farmer was plunked by a Freddy Asiel errant delivery and Trea Turner again doubled (this time off reliever Dalier Hinojosa) to open the USA rally. A string of four relievers (Hinojosa, Vlad García, Norberto González and Pablo Fernández) were unable to stem the tide. Kris Bryant’s single to left and a sacrifice fly by José Trevino provided the two runs adding a cushion to the American’s 5-2 lead. Leandro Martínez finally squelched any further damage when he finally induced Austin Cousino to foul out to catcher Ariel Pestano.
Team Cuba did in fact manage to give itself a final chance to snatch escaping victory from likely defeat in the ninth when a two-out rally loaded the bases against reliever Bobby Wahl.
The game then ended with a bang when Yulieski Gourriel smashed a drive to deep left-center off a delivery from closer Mike Lorenzen that was hauled down on the warning track by centerfielder Austin Cousino.
Gourriel’s smash likely would have left the yard in almost any other park for a lead-producing grand slam; but the heavy, wet air here in Haarlem is quite sufficient to knock down most soaring outfield flies. Home runs truly need to be crushed here in Pim Mulier Stadium to have any chance of clearing the fences.
It should be noted here that all six USA-Cuba matches this month (the first five coming two weeks ago in Havana) have gone down to the final wire as nip and tuck affairs. Although the islanders captured the series in Havana by sweeping the middle three contests, one Cuban victory came via a miraculous three-run uprising in the bottom of the ninth.
And the most recent USA victory here that evened the extended series to three wins apiece might have again been salvaged by the Cubans had Gourriel’s late blast traveled only slightly farther or drifted only slightly more toward left-center. A rematch if it occurs in the playoff round might well still favor Cuba since momentum has regularly and rapidly continued to shift between these two evenly matched ball clubs.
Cynics back in Cuba and elsewhere will pobably crow that the tradition-rich Cubans have now dropped three of six recent games against a young American collegiate all-star club. “But they are now even losing to university teams!” is the hue and cry on the street corners of Havana. But there is nothing truly new or novel here: a top-flight USA collegiate all-star squad featuring future quality major league hurlers Stephen Strasburg and Mike Minor twice defeated the Beijing-bound Cuban squad here in 2008; that USA team was perhaps only a tad better than the current edition headlining top MLB pitching prospects Jonathon Crawford and Carlos Rondón. And what is so easily forgot by the Havana mobs is that all those world champions amassed by the Cuban forces in the decades of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s were also collect against university all-star outfits.
No one was complaining that the opposition was collegiate all-stars and not MLB professionals back in the era when Cuba was collecting all of those earlier coveted trophies.
It may not look like it on the standings board, but somewhat miraculously Team Cuba is still very much alive in this tournament. Win or lose in a much-anticipated and ballyhooed Wednesday night world championship rematch with the host Dutch, Cuba must defeat both Asian clubs to secure the final playoff spot and thus keep title hope alive in an event that the islanders have not won in a full dozen years. The too toughest teams are now out of the way for the Cubans.
A victory over Taiwan on Tuesday morning will eliminate the winless Chinese Taipei squad from further contention. As long as Japan loses to either the Netherlands (Tuesday night) or Puerto Rico (Wednesday morning), they will at best deadlock with Cuba after a Team Cuba victory in the final match on Thursday.
By owning a victory over the Japanese the Cubans would hold the tie-breaker advantage and thus a ticket to the semifinal round. Once in the playoffs Mesa’s club would enjoy a second shot at top rivals Puerto Rico, Team USA and The Netherlands. Two straight losses to either of these clubs seem a most unlikely scenario.
There might be dozens of plausible (or at least imaged) explanations conjured up for the slow start here in Haarlem – especially among the sporting press and fan base back in Havana. As something of a necessary balance, let me offer my own views directly from the scene here in Haarlem.
There is no question that Cuban pitching is not as dominant as in recent years and recent decades. There is no longer an unhittable Pedro Lazo to hand the ball to in each pressure-packed late-inning scenario. The demise of Yulieski González and Maikel Folch and the obvious aging of Norberto González have created a vacuum among southpaw hurlers. The recent departure of strong-armed Miguel Alfredo González has also weakened any potential starting rotation. Both starting assignments and bullpen crews are now manned by several inexperienced newcomers and this sudden thinness of Cuban pitching is not surprisingly being exposed here in Haarlem.
But most of the problems this week have come on the offensive side and this is also not an entirely unexpected development. I have reported earlier on my recent conversations with a number of the top Cuban sluggers who complain to me of the effects of spending most of the National Series season taking hacks at far-lesser-quality Cuban League hurlers throwing at top speeds never reaching 85 mph.
Now matched up with top MLB prospects (Crawford, Rondón, Trevor Williams) and their 92-95 mph “heat” the Cuban bats are struggling to make an adjustment.
Another huge negative for Cuba has been the cold weather, soggy field, and (above all) dense and wet air that works to limit the flight of any balls stroked into the outfield. The most professional hitter in the Cuban arsenal, Freddie Cepeda, has made an immediate adjustment and therefore continues to swing the bat from both sides of the plate with normal authority.
But all week long Abreu, Gourriel and especially Despaigne have continued to swing from the heels with little success. Cuban bats may yet come alive, but a shift in plate strategy seems now to be the primary order of the day.
Editors Note: Cuba managed a 2-1 win over Chinese Taipei on Tuesday and was to play The Netherlands on Wednesday but the game was rained out and rescheduled for Friday. Cuba plays Japan on Thursday, weather permitting.
(*) Peter 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 as senior writer for www.BaseballdeCuba.com during the past five years and is currently writing a book on the history of the post-revolution Cuban national team.