by Ronal Quiñones
HAVANA TIMES — Cuba returned to the Caribbean Baseball Series in February of 2014, represented by Villa Clara. A year later, Pinar del Rio made it to San Juan hoping merely to improve on the terrible image offered by its predecessor…and ended up taking the throne. Now, it’s Ciego de Avila’s turn to represent Cuba, but, unlike on previous occasions, it bears all of the pressure that defending the title secured by Pinar del Rio entails.
This involves a degree of responsibility that, on previous occasions, has spelled excessive pressure on Team Cuba players and coaches, a situation that has led to failure in the majority of cases, causing mistakes out on the field and major acts of misjudgment at the helm.
Looking at the roster, this new team from Ciego de Avila seems a lot better than the squadron from Pinar del Rio that tasted victory in Puerto Rico. In addition to having a good group of players, it beefed itself up with the best talent currently playing in Cuba, in the positions where such extra help was most needed.
Manager Roger Machado told Havana Times he is happy with the players under his command, whom he was able to select without any external pressure, and confident he will be able to retain first place in the series.
“I spoke with all the boys some time ago and told them not everyone would be able to go to the tournament, as the team must represent Cuba. They knew they wouldn’t be able to go if they hadn’t accumulated enough batting or pitching experience. This is why we kept those who gave us the title, and reinforced our weak points. Ariel Borrero and Yeniet Perez, from Villa Clara, are also on the team. They were reinforcements we used in the Cuban league last year and we asked for them again this year. I don’t count them as reinforcements for the Caribbean Series because they’re practically from Ciego de Avila.”
Certainly, including batters such as Yuliesky Gourriel, Yordanis Alarcon, Stayler Hernandez, Yordan Manduley, Alfredo Despaigne and others of their stature gives Ciego de Avila’s Tigres (Tigers) greater versatility. Similarly, bringing in pitchers such as lefties Wilber Perez, Livan Moinelo and Yoany Year, a closer such as Jose Angel Garcia and starters like Miguel Lahera, gives the team a solid pitching staff, and the weapons needed to face talented batters on either side of the plate.
The only question that remains is how to handle all of this talent and, in this connection, Machado doesn’t exactly have all the answers. At the most important opportunity he got as head of the national selection, during the 2015 Pan-American Games held in Toronto, his decisions left a lot to be desired. In addition to isolated plays where other decisions should have been made, we were left with the sense that the discipline needed to execute the instructions coming from the bench was lacking.
All of this must have taught the coach from Ciego de Avila a thing or two, and he is currently Cuba’s only alternative to the polemic Victor Mesa, who has yet to secure truly positive results, both in Cuba and abroad.
What the fans have to say
Expectations are high among Cuban aficionados, even though very little is known about the rivals (as very little information about them has been divulged).
Rogelio Guedes, a computer engineer, told Havana Times he is confident the Tigres will win. “There isn’t a better team in Cuba today. If they don’t win, no one can. I think this team is even better than the one that played at the Pan-American Games.”
“How could you say that, my friend?” Josue asks. “Freddy Asiel Alvarez and Yosvany Torres played in Toronto, and they’re the best openers in Cuba right now. They’re not playing now because of injuries. They also had Hector Mendoza, Cuba’s best closer, and he’s not playing now either. Also, you shouldn’t limit yourself to Ciego de Avile. Maybe it’s true you can’t put together a better team now, but the other teams are also doing their thing. Who knows, maybe next year, with a worse team, we can win because the rivals aren’t as strong. Look at what happened with Pinar del Rio.”
“What happened with Pinar del Rio was a miracle,” Pablo Miguel interjects. “They won only one game during the first phase, and ended up winning in the semi-finals and final, with Freddy Asiel, to second you with respect to what Ciego de Avila needs. Vladimir Garcia is a fierce competitor here in Cuba, but, whenever he pitches abroad, he messes up. We just have to wait and see whether he’ll be up to the occasion this time around. He hasn’t impressed me much when playing on the Cuban National selection.”
“I agree with you,” says Yunior. “This is his last chance to demonstrate his talent internationally. He’s got everything he needs to be Cuba’s number one pitcher and he just doesn’t come through when he has to. Yander Guevara is far less talented than he is but he’s more courageous when he goes out there, those are the types of pitchers we need at these tournaments.”
“The one I’m most worried about is Roger Machado,” says Carlos Manuel, “because the other day he said he was going to have Borrero, Yuliesky and Despaigne bunting if needed, and that’s crazy. Do you remember when Victor Mesa did this with Eriel Sanchez at the World Baseball Classic? That’s outrageous. You could count the number of batters on one hand who can bunt the ball properly when needed. Sometimes, you win or lose by a run against those teams and you need to bring it home.”
“That’s been Cuba’s big problem in recent years,” says Reynaldo, “the pitchers come through most of the time, but batters don’t have the patience, they don’t hit a fly ball when needed, they don’t bunt when needed, they don’t bat behind the runner, they don’t do what’s needed at a given moment. In short, you can’t win that way. When you tell a true professional “to hit a fly ball,” that’s what they do. That’s what Holland did at the last World Classic Tournament.”
The Caribbean Series is only hours away and this is more or less what the fans are feeling right now. All questions will be answered at Quisqueya Stadium, in the Dominican Republic.
During the qualifying round robin play, Cuba has a bye on February 1 and begins its play against Mexico on February 2 at 3:50 p.m. local time. The second contest comes on February 3 at 7:50 p.m. vs. Puerto Rico.
Cuba plays its third game against Venezuela at 3:50 p.m. on February 4 and closes against the host Dominicans at 7:50 p.m. on February 5.
The playoff round takes place on Feb. 6-7.