Vlad Garcia and Ciego de Avila Stand on Verge of Cuban League History

Peter C. Bjarkman*

Vladimir Garcia was the winning pitcher in game one. Photo: baseballdecuba.com

HAVANA TIMES — Cuban baseball is now only a handful of games away from witnessing another rewriting of the ever-changing league record book.

Having jumped to a one game advantage in Sunday’s finals-round opener, Roger Machado’s Ciego de Avila Tigers are now only three wins short of accomplishing a first-ever championship for a ball club still sporting a lengthy thirty-six season history of ongoing futility.

And after rolling up five straight post-season victories without a single blemish, workhorse Tigers right-hander Vladimir García now seems poised to become only the third hurler in more than a half-century century of National Series action to compile 20 victories during a single campaign (regular season and post-season combined).

García – who turns 24 this Thursday and was once touted as a possible replacement for Pedro Lazo as Team Cuba closer– has bounced back with one of the most productive seasons in league annals, only a handful on months after being a controversial omission from last fall’s IBAF World Cup and Pan American Games Cuban rosters.

This year’s grand finale in Cuban post-season action features a clear-cut clash between the old (Industriales) and the new (Ciego de Avila) guards. Coming off a rare post-season on the sidelines during National Series #50, Havana’s Industriales still tops the list of most frequent champions with a collection of 12 total National Series titles; the Lions are the only league outfit to win a pennant in each of the previous five decades of National Series competition.

Since the league began post-season play back in 1986, the popular Blue Lions have only missed the playoffs on a handful of occasions (1988, 1991, 1995, and 2011). Ciego reached the post-season for the initial time in 2004 (season number 28 in ball club history) and climbed into the finals for the first time ever only one a single season back.

While Industriales has long ranked as Cuba’s most successful post-season squad, and while Ciego has never yet claimed a single league title, both clubs have worn the mantle of “dark horse” during the current season-long title hunt.

Matanzas and Villa Clara appeared the teams to beat all season long – the former edging Industriales by three full games while racing to its first-ever post-season appearance, the latter coasting to a first-place slot in the Oriente and matching Matanzas with a league-best 58 wins. Machado’s Ciego Tigers only edged into the playoffs on the season’s final day (thanks again to Vlad García’s pitching heroics) and thus finished in a tie for third slot with Granma.

And a premature end to the championship dreams of upstart Matanzas also meant that for the second year in a row we have narrowly missed an unprecedented finals matchup between two clubs that have never claimed a league championship banner.

Only last spring eventual kingpin Pinar del Río torpedoed a wished for Cienfuegos-Ciego final round that would have paired clubs with no previous championship history. This year it was Industriales that scuttled hopes for a potential dream match between Victor Mesa’s Cinderella Matanzas Crocodiles and Roger Machado’s resurgent Tigers. Now the intriguing possibility of an “all-also-rans” finale must again wait for some future season.

So far it has been the heavy Havana rains that have provided the main feature of this year’s climactic title series. Monday night’s second match was washed away in the capital city when the grounds at Latin American Stadium were deemed clearly unfit for action.

This delay has now caused a revamping of the original schedule which now pushes the three games in Ciego back to the coming weekend. And a thrilling Sunday opener was itself staged against a backdrop of inclement weather that significantly delayed the showcase game (played before an overflow crowd of more than 50,000) and also played a possible major role in the scoreboard outcome.

Sunday’s opener stretched through six innings of a tense scoreless pitching duel between García and Lions ace starter Odrisamer Despaigne before the skies opened and action was suspended for more than an hour due to the deluge. When the game continued in the top of the seventh Ciego struck quickly for three runs, two of which scampered home on a wild pitch and a passed ball.

The third and ultimately deciding tally came via a Raúl Gonzalez double that produced the Tigers’ only RBI of the afternoon. García bent but never cracked during the final three frames, yielding a pair of RBI singles to Yasmani Tomás. Across the lengthy afternoon’s labor the Ciego mainstay struck out only one enemy batter but also yielded only three walks and three singles (Alexander Mayeta had the third) while picking up the series-opening crucial win.

On the individual front, Vlad García now has a legitimate shot at achieving a rare and only twice-accomplished 20-victory season. His 14-5 regular-season mark was one of the best in the league this winter (the second highest victory total) yet received little attention largely due to Ismel Jiménez, who racked up a stellar 17-5 campaign for Sancti Spíritus.

In late April it looked very much as though Jiménez was indeed the hurler destined to overhaul Braudilio Vinent (19 victories in 1973) and match José Ibar and Carlos Yanes atop the all-time single-season victory column. Ibar had claimed 20 wins in 1998 (extended to 24 in the playoffs) and Yanes managed to climb above 20 during the following 1999 playoff round.

Most Single Season Victories for Cuban League Pitchers**

Pitcher (Team) National Series Regular Season Post-Season Totals
José Ibar (Habana Province) NS#37 (1997-98) 20-2 4-0 24-2
Carlos Yanes (Isla de la Juventud) NS#38 (1998-99) 17-3 3-2 20-5
Vladimir García (Ciego de Avila) NS#51 (2011-12) 14-5 5-0 19-5
Ismel Jiménez (Sancti Spíritus) NS#51 (2011-12) 17-5 2-1 19-6
Braudilio Vinent (Serranos) NS#12 (1972-73) 19-4 None 19-4
José Ibar (Habana Province) NS#38 (1998-99) 18-2 0-2 18-4
Julio Rojo (Habana) NS#7 (1967-68) 18 wins None 18 wins

But it has been the Ciego ace and not the Sancti Spíritus stalwart who has proven himself the “big money” post-season hurler down the stretch – after Jiménez stalled at 19 wins in the final game of his own quarterfinal series in Matanzas.

With Monday’s rainout the big Ciego righty is now guaranteed at least one more start and thus at least one more crack at the rare 20-win record, even if the finals last only the minimum four matches (a rather unlikely scenario). With a long series (as most expect) Vlad will assuredly take the hill twice more, with a shot at not only clinching his club’s first-ever pennant but also entering the charmed circle occupied solely by Ibar and Yanes. The Vladimir García pitching heroics therefore continue to carry almost as large a front-page storyline as the very championship series itself.

Revised Cuban League Finals Series Schedule

All Games can be viewed live via internet on www.BaseballdeCuba.com

Game #1 Ciego de Avila 3, Industriales 2 Latinamericano Sunday May 20, 2012 2:00pm EST
Game #2 Ciego de Avila at Industriales Latinoamericano Tuesday May 22, 2012 8:30pm EST
Game #3 Industriales at Ciego de Avila José Ramon Cepero Friday May 25, 2012 8:30pm EST
Game #4 Industriales at Ciego de Avila José Ramon Cepero Saturday May 26, 2012 8:30pm EST
Game #5* Industriales at Ciego de Avila José Ramon Cepero Sunday May 27, 2012 2:00pm EST
Game #6* Ciego de Avila at Industriales Latinoamericano Wednesday May 30, 2012 8:30pm EST
Game #7* Ciego de Avila at Industriales Lationamericano Thursday May 31, 2012 8:30pm EST

**Note: Similar to major league record keeping, pitching records during regular-season play only are used to determine the individual season leaders (ERA champion, games won and lost, total strikeouts, etc.). Unlike the majors, however, a Cuban pitcher’s added post-season numbers do actually count toward his lifetime statistical line.

(*) 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 www.BaseballdeCuba.com during the past five years and is currently completing a book on the history of the post-revolution Cuban national team.