Peter C. Bjarkman*
HAVANA TIMES, March 6 — Including some “Expected” Surprises, an opening week of post-season action has followed close to form and thus brought precisely the results most prognosticators envisioned. Defending champion Havana Province and 2009 semifinalist Ciego de Avila have already cruised on to the second round, and last year’s runner-up Villa Clara is also knocking loudly on the door of a semifinal berth. So things have played out just about as most analysts had earlier projected, with the better pitching ball clubs (especially Havana Province led by Esteban Lombillo and Ciego de Avila under the guidance of Roger Machado) encountering few obstacles in their first-round matches.
Well, almost as projected, that is. There is the matter of the Sancti Spíritus-Industriales series which quickly proved to be an absolute shocker. I wrote one week ago that the Gallos-Blue Lions encounter appeared to be the easiest one to call in advance, with the forces of Lourdes Gourriel seeming to have all the momentum after a terrific 63-win campaign.
But I also did caution (remember?) that this was precisely the series (since it seemed so one-sided at the outset) that might very well provided the league’s biggest upset of the year. And now it turns out that I was absolutely right on at least one count. Unfortunately for Gallos partisans it was my caution and not my original projection that turned out to be most strictly on target.
During the final week of the regular season Sancti Spíritus rolled over Germán Mesa’s Lions in a three-game sweep at Latin American Stadium. Mesa was out-managed at every turn in those three games by his counterpart, Lourdes Gourriel, and the heavy-hitting Roosters seemed to have served clear notice that this was indeed “the year of the Gallos” in National Series play.
However, what a difference a week makes. Industriales somehow managed to catch lightning in a bottle for the rematch series, once the teams were truly playing “for all the marbles.” Mesa appeared suddenly to be making all the correct moves, and once again the Gallos (who last year bowed out in the opening round to Pinar del Río) simply didn’t seem up to handling the pressures of post-season competition. And a heavy dose of timely hitting from veteran Industriales stars Alex Mayeta and Rudy Reyes (a pair of one-time failed national team members) also played heavily into the mix.
The Sancti Spíritus versus Industriales matches got off to a rather riotous start last weekend in José Huelga Stadium in Sancti Spiritus. Saturday’s opener was anything but what might have been anticipated, with the Blue Lions rolling to an easy road 3-1 victory behind the slick starting pitching of Odrisamer Despaigne (6.1 innings with a single tally allowed) and substantial bullpen aid from Frank Montieth (2.2 innings of near-perfect one-hit relief).
Despaigne had started the season fast but closed on the downside and was smacked around by the Roosters only a week earlier in Havana. Sunday’s second game (an 8-1 Sancti Spíritus win) was a truly ugly affair, ending with one of the worst on-field incidents in Cuban post-season history. Brushed back by one ninth-inning pitch and then hit by a second, Industriales catcher Lisvan Correa took matters into his own hands by charging the mound and attempting to club offending pitcher Yaniel Sosa with his wooden bat.
There have been a number of conflicting accounts detailing what actually transpired during the bench-clearing brawl that followed and eventually required police intervention. Later reports out of Havana suggested that local law officers overreacted and unfairly roughed up several Industriales ballplayers. Other versions had offending Industriales athletes initially attacking the local police contingent that was struggling to restore on-field order. Details will likely never be entirely sorted out, but there remains little dispute that the unsavory mess was originally precipitated by Correa’s unsportsmanlike bat-waving kamikaze attack.
There were several immediate fallouts from the regrettable Sunday events and the judgments and suspensions handed out by league officials seemed to carry the clear message that Industriales ballplayers carried the largest blame for what had happened at game’s end.
Lisvan Correa, the initiator of the hostilities with his bat-wielding assault, suffered a six-month suspension from league action. Pitcher Sosa was suspended for the next three playoff games and Industriales outfielder Carlos Taberas earned two games on the sidelines. Three additional Industriales players (Frank Camilo Montieth, Stayler Hernández, Eliut Torres) and two from Sancti Spíritus (reserves Yoani Delgado and José Luis Sáez) were also slapped with one-game penalties.
Baseball’s a Funny Game
Certainly the sanctions seemed to take a big bite out of the Industriales playoffs chances and had all the post-season momentum back to favored Sancti Spíritus. But baseball is a funny game and just the opposite emotional momentum swing would soon transpire.
After a day of rain allowed tempers to cool, Industriales roared back in the Wednesday afternoon contest in Havana. Ironically the suspensions had unaccountably worked in favor of the Lions, especially the removal of starting catcher Frank Camilo, which pressed backup Jokel Gil into emergence service. The sanctions had obviously fired up both the underdog Lions and the highly partisan crowd of better than 40,000 crammed into Latin American Stadium for the opening capital city match.
In true storybook fashion replacement backstop Gil stroked a game-winning three-run homer in the home half of the seventh that seemed to turn the entire series back in the Havana team’s favor. Then on Thursday the Lions roared again, blasting out 13 hits in a one-sided 9-4 victory that pushed the Gallos into a very deep first round hole. First sacker Alex Mayeta, who reportedly had received several blows to the head from overenthusiastic Sancti Spíritus police officers in the melee on Sunday, led the Thursday afternoon uprising with his 4-for-4 batting, 3 crucial RBI, and a game-turning home run that sparked a sixth-inning five-run uprising.
The end came in all-too-typical fashion for a Sancti Spíritus ball club that two years back lost a heart-breaking and controversial seventh-game semifinal match with Pinar on their home turf, and then last year slumped once again against the same Pinar club in an altogether disappointing quarterfinal series.
Their backs against the wall once more, Sancti Spíritus rallied briefly in the final game at Estadio Latinoamericano to grab an early 2-0 lead on the strength of a run-producing single by Yenier Bello in the third frame, and then an RBI double off the bat of Yulieski Gourriel in the fifth. Starter Ismel Jiménez was cruising toward victory until the home seventh when the sky seemingly fell, this time in the unlikely form of yet another five-run Blue Lions uprising (matching the sixth-inning explosion a day earlier).
The fateful blow this time was a dramatic grand slam off the bat of shortstop Rudy Reyes, a memorable blast which sent nearly 50,000 partisans into pure delirium and also sent a reeling Sancti Spíritus club to the sidelines earlier than expected for the third exasperating campaign in a row.
Havana Province Won in Five
My earlier prediction of a quick five-game-series victory for pitching-rich Havana Province could not have been more on the mark. After dropping the tight opener in Cienfuegos (5-4, with Norberto González besting Yulieski González), Cowboys pitching completely took over in what was easily (despite its short duration) the most artistic and well-played series of the opening post-season round.
Jonder Martínez was the big hero in San José de las Lajas where Havana plays out of, first saving game two for Miguel Angel González, again saving game three in relief of Yadier Pedroso, and then returning after one day’s rest to toss a solid complete-game victory (6 hits, 6 Ks, 3 earned runs) in the clincher. But Miguel Angel González—last year’s playoff MVP—and Yulieski González also proved at the top of their game; Miguel Angel launched the victory parade with 6.2 effective innings as the game two starter, and Yulieski rebounded from the opening loss to toss eight shutout frames in his second outing. Yadier Pedroso (five shutout innings as the game-three starter) was also nearly flawless in his one appearance. One key to Havana’s quick victory was the fact that the league’s top mound corps completely shut down the biggest artillery in the Cienfuegos arsenal—José Dariel Abreu—who failed to produce a single extra-base smash during the entire series.
Guantanamo Continued its Skid
Guantánamo was easily the league’s biggest disappointment down the stretch run of National Series #49. What looked like the circuit’s best team in November and December (when they sprinted to a huge early lead over Villa Clara) couldn’t beat much of anybody in February, dropping eleven straight on one road trip and finally handing Santiago three games the final weekend to help lift the struggling Wasps into the playoffs.
If the Guantánamo Indians were without much punch in February, they were just as toothless in early March during the four-game sweep at the hands of Ciego de Avila. Despite a solid 6-inning start by dependable Dalier Hinojosa in the opener, they were shut down 2-1 by Vladimir García in that initial home match.
Folch limited Agustin Lascaille’s club to six hits and two runs in the second outing, and Alien Mora’s one-hitter largely slammed the door in game three. Luckless Hinojosa was again victimized by more effective hurling from Ciego’s Yander Guevara in the 3-1 finale. Three doubles in the opener were Guantánmo’s only extra base knocks during the entire series. And a mere four runs spread across four complete games spells certain defeat in any post-season series.
A highlight of the Ciego-Guantánamo series was the game-three pitching performance of unheralded number three starter Alien Mora, who came within a single pitch of baseball immortality. Carrying a 6-7 mark into the playoffs, Mora completely stymied Indian hitters as he set down 26 straight batters. With two down in the ninth and a 2-2 count on lefty-swinging outfielder Onelkis Escalante, Mora ultimately lost perfection when Escalante slapped a sharp liner into left field for the Tiger’s only safety (and only base runner).
There has never been a no-hit game in the 25 years of Cuban playoffs, and the only perfect game (27 up, 27 down) in Cuban annals is the one pitched by Gallos ace Maels Rodríguez in NS #39 (versus Las Tunas in José Huelga Stadium, December 22, 1999). There has also only ever been one such gem in the big league post-season and that was Don Larsen’s celebrated perfect game against Brooklyn back in 1956. Mora came within a single ninth-inning toss of duplicating Larsen’s celebrated mastery. If I took any personal satisfaction in Escalante’s fateful base knock that ended Mora’s dream, it was only the fact that the dramatic base hit kept alive my earlier prediction that National Series #49 would pass into history without a single no-hit game.
Villa Clara Up to Form
The Santiago versus Villa Clara series has also followed form to a precise tee. Last year’s finalists quickly exploited weak Santiago pitching for two early knockouts, scored in double figures in the first three games, and amassed 35 runs and 41 base hits during that productive trio of victories. Only the strong showing by veteran Norge Vera (a complete-game, six-hit 5-3 victory) in game four has prevented this second Oriente League series from also being a clean sweep.
Leonys Martin has been on fire at the plate throughout the opening round, collecting five hits and 7 RBI and stroking homers (one a grand slam) in each of the first three matches. And long-time national team mainstay Ariel Pestano, after another quiet National Series, has once again awoken with a vengeance once the big games are on the line. Pestano homered and knocked in three in the opener, then drove home six with a second long ball on day two. The veteran backstop then matched Martin with his third straight home run game during Wednesday’s 12-6 rout. Freddy Asiel Alvarez put his mediocre regular season behind him with a nifty complete game (8 innings) 3-hit victory in the opener. Veteran outfielder Reutilio Hurtado has been the single offensive bright spot for Antonio Pacheco’s Santiago ball club, single-handedly winning Thursday’s much-needed match with three RBI on the strength of a homer and a triple.
(After this article was originally written, suddenly resilient Santiago also rallied to capture game five with a 10-0 whitewashing highlighted by Alexei Bell’s eighth grand slam homer of the current campaign. Nonetheless, The Orangemen remain clearly in the diver’s seat with the series now moving back to Villa Clara for the final two scheduled contests.)
What should we now expect from what promises to be an even more entertaining pair of semifinal series looming on the immediate horizon? Is Havana Province unstoppable in the east, or is fan-favored Industriales destined to write this year’s improbable Cinderella story? Will a Ciego-Villa Clara semifinal match bring similar results to last spring, when Ciego could only win a single contest behind Maikel Folch? Assuming, of course, that Villa Clara can now hang on to their currently commanding 3-1(2) series leads, this is what I see playing out in the semifinal round next week.
Occidental League: Industriales versus Havana Province
In San José it is pitching, pitching, pitching, and then more pitching. Lombillo’s team definitely has it all when it comes to the game’s most important department. And one of the sport’s oldest and most oft-proven dictums is that pitching alone wins these short playoff series. That was the story for a Habana team boasting little offense last year, and it will be the same story for the Cowboys despite even less offensive punch this time around.
Industriales will probably have its brief moments of heavy hitting, especially in the games played at Latin American Stadium. But the top four starters for Havana—Yulieski González (11-7, league’s second-best 2.22 ERA), Jonder Martínez (8-4, third-best 2.48 ERA), Miguel Alfredo González (6-6, but a 2.98 ERA) and Yadier Pedroso (league ERA champ one year ago)—are all proven national team stalwarts and probably the best four-man rotation in a half-century of National Series history.
Pedroso and Martínez both work effectively out of the bullpen as long relievers whenever needed. Miguel Lahera (11 saves) and José Angel Garcia (33 relief appearances this year, with 10 saves) are the league’s best tandem of solid late-inning closers. No manager on the island has ever boasted a deeper collection of effective arms than the one Esteban Lombillo directs. And that is by far the most effective weapon for any manager at this time of year.
Bjarkman’s Prediction: Havana Province wins in six games.
Oriente League: Ciego de Avila versus probable rival Villa Clara
This was a great series in last year’s eastern semifinals—one that was a lot closer than the final five-game results might suggest—and it should be a great series once again. Ciego may have a slight pitching edge, especially if Maikel Folch lives up to expectations in his anticipated two starts. Vladimir García (11-4, 2.68) registered a huge success this season in his conversion from the bullpen to a starting role, tying Folch, Yulieski González and Norberto González (Cienfuegos) for the league lead in victories.
But Fred Asiel Alvarez is still much better than his disappointing sophomore 3-10 ledger would suggest, and veteran Luis Borroto (9-1, 3.79) is coming off the best winter of his nine-year career. Villa Clara with slugging youngsters Leonys Martin (.325, 10 HR) and Ramón Lunar (.350, 18 HRs, and now playing at third base), plus veterans like Pestano, Ariel Borrero (.341, 11 HR), and Andy Zamora (.346, 52 RBI), definitely has the hitting edge. The Orangemen should eventually wear down the Tiger pitching in the games when Folch is not out on the hill, unless Vlad García proves to be this year’s post-season surprise. In the end I foresee a repeat of last season’s Havana Province-Villa Clara finale.
Bjarkman’s Prediction: Villa Clara wins in six games.
So there we have it. It should be Havana and Villa Clara back on center stage once the early round dust has finally cleared. Again the Cuban playoffs are living up to their advanced billing in every respect imaginable. Havana Province has displayed the best of its remarkable pitching mastery, Ciego de Avila and Villa Clara have demonstrated once again they are now the most balanced clubs in the east, once again the regular season run-away pacesetter has wilted under playoff pressure—last year Ciego and this year Sancti Spíritus. And perhaps best of all, Industriales has risen from the near-dead to awaken the enthusiastic fandom of the island’s most populous city. When the Industriales Lion roars the most voluminous and enthusiastic fan interest is always aroused.
Those who still think that “March Madness” has something to do with high-salaried collegiate athletes wearing short pants and tossing oversized balls through elevated steel hoops obviously still haven’t discovered the most exciting venue that the sport of bats and balls has to offer. Forget October’s badly misnamed professional “World Series”. (In what sense, after all, does an autumn playoff series between mercenary-filled corporate teams involve anything that might be called “the World”?) For me, true playoff baseball is always about the month of March.
*Peter C. Bjarkman is author of A History of Cuban Baseball, 1864-2006 (McFarland, 2007) and is widely considered a leading authority on Cuban baseball, both past and present. He reports on Cuban League action and the Cuban national team for www.BaseballdeCuba.com and also writes a regular monthly Cuban League Report for www.ibaf.com. He is currently completing a book on the history of the post-revolution Cuban national team.