Co-Favorite Cubans Dodge Weather & Canadian Pitching

Peter C. Bjarkman

Alexei Bell

HAVANA TIMES, Oct. 10 — The biggest obstacle to date for the Cuban forces here in Puerto Rico has been the unrelenting soggy weather and resulting daily shifts in tournament venues. One game in Mayagüez (with the Netherlands Antilles) was postponed over the weekend, complicating the schedule but hardly slowing down the Cuban victory parade. All teams have waited through a handful of schedule adjustments and a second rainout in Mayagüez (Dominican Republic versus Aruba) eventually required two Thursday makeup games in San Juan and Carolina on what was supposed to be the date for round two openers. But none of the administrative adjustments have derailed either the untouched Americans or unbeaten Cubans (at least through Saturday afternoon*) on their apparent collision course heading toward an expected championship showdown next Wednesday.

The weather disruptions of the original planned schedule have now carried over as well into the second round agenda. With the playing field and dugouts flooded in Ponce, three games were staged Friday at Hiram Bithorn Stadium, an adjustment that pushed Cuba’s round-two opener with Panama from mid-day to late afternoon. Today (Saturday) there will be four games staged here at Bithorn, with Panama and Canada opening festivities in a rare 9 a.m. time slot and Cuba playing the Dominicans at 4 o’clock in the afternoon.

With only Team USA also boasting three or more victories, a seventh straight Team Cuba win on Saturday (resulting in a 5-0 second-round record) would guarantee a spot in the top four finishers and thus a ticket to the semifinals. All eight round-two teams have carried over their round-one results (wins, losses and runs permitted) versus teams that have not yet been eliminated. That leaves Cuba and Team USA (both 4-0) atop the pack at the end of Friday action, with Venezuela (3-1) and the Dominicans (2-2) in hot pursuit. No other club owns more than a single victory.

Cuba’s round-two opener was another virtual cake walk, this time against Group A fourth-place Panama. Veteran Norge Luis Vera enjoyed a second solid outing, cruising through six-plus frames while half a dozen teammates got into the act on offense. Vera struck out six, issued no free passes, allowed five scattered hits, and yielded a single enemy tally in the third. Olivera and Bell continued to come through with a volley of timely hits (three apiece), Bell stroked a triple in his final at-bat, and Yulieski Gourriel socked a pair of doubles (as did Cepeda) and drove home three in the process. Alex Mayeta was the only Cuban starter held hitless, while Olivera, Bell, Gourriel and Cepeda all enjoyed multi-hit games.

Over in Group A, Team USA has been breezing through the competition as expected. Led by a handful of top big league prospects, the Americans have hardly broken a sweat in taking their first six outings, most by wide margins. This American team features several likely major league stars of the next decade—especially first baseman Eric Hosmer (Kansas City Royals), slugging 19-year-old outfielder Mike Trout (Los Angeles Angels) and third-sacker Mike Moustakas (Kansas City). Trout has swung the heftiest bat so far, belting two homers in the first week and adding a pair of doubles in his best outing versus Colombia. The only sign of vulnerability for Team USA came with a few defensive lapses during the 13-6 rout of Colombia in Carolina last Monday. But the Americans clearly provide the largest roadblock to any Cuban aspirations of reaching the tournament winner’s circle.

Heading into the final day of round-one play, only one second round slot remained at stake. That involved the fourth qualifier in Group B and was ultimately decided by Nicaragua’s head-to-head triumph over surprisingly pesky Argentina in Mayagüez. The Nicaraguans have failed to live up to expectations in losing four of five opening-round outings, but they did suffer some tough luck in their rain-soaked opener with Canada. Venezuela has been perhaps the tournament’s biggest surprise, coming home second in Group B after running the field in the wake of an opening night thrashing by Cuba. The other qualifier and third-place finisher from Group B is Canada, earlier a victim of both Cuba and the Venezuelans. Trailing the Americans in Group A are the Dominicans, host Puerto Rico and the Panamanians, all posting identical 3-2 ledgers. The order of placement in that group had to be settled by the complicated tie-breaker rule which involved the number of runs allowed divided by the number of innings played. It was on that basis that Tam Panama earned the inhospitable task of opening qualifying competitions versus the long-time rival and heavily favored Cubans.

Cuba’s journey toward the second round was highlighted by the tense match with Canada at Ponce on Tuesday evening. These same two squads (Cuba with almost the identical personnel) earlier celebrated a similar nail-bitter last fall in Florence which lifted the islanders into a World Cup finals match versus the Americans at Nettuno. This time out the Red Machine was completely stymied for fully half the game by masterful pitching from starter Phillippe Aumont. The A-level minor league right-hander (Philadelphia Phillies) struck out seven including the first four hitters in the Cuban lineup. Aumont was also helped to an early lead in the fourth when Jaime Romak’s two-out, two-run double off Yulieski González swung matters temporarily in Canada’s favor.  Cuba battled back in the same frame, however, with Céspedes lining a two-out single to center that looked for the moment like the equalizer. Despaigne scored but Cepeda was thrown out at the plate on a strong heave from Adam Stern and Aumont had temporarily dodged a lethal bullet.

Eduardo Martin’s Cuban forces finally found their opening when Aumont was replaced by Henry Mabee to start the sixth. With two outs the opportunistic Red Machine rallied with a large boost from Alfredo Despaigne’s dramatic infield single.  The onslaught opened when Bell walked and then stolen second; Despaigne next beat out a hard shot to third by diving headlong into the first base sack. After Cepeda also walked to load the sacks, Céspedes delivered his second big blow of the night, a ringing bases-clearing double over the head of Adam Stern in center. And that was it for the night, at least as far as the Cuban offense was concerned. Yulieski worked into the seventh, departing with ten strikeouts after a solid if not spectacular outing. Yadir Pedroso escaped a small jam in the seventh (inducing an inning-ending double play) and then cruised through the last two frames to record the save.

One night earlier in Carolina Cuba experienced a surprising offensive drought through the first two thirds of the contest at the hands of Nicaraguan starter and former minor league prospect Elvin Orozco. The stout Nicaraguan righty allowed only four hits (while also walking four) and left unscathed after five and two-thirds. But the explosive Cuban bats could not be held in check through a full nine frames and the tourney favorites manufactured a slim two-run lead in the top of the seventh, thanks mainly to a run-scoring infield single by Michel Enríquez. The game was finally blown wide open in Cuba’s half of the eighth, when a series of singles and several walks produced half-a-dozen tallies without benefit of a single extra-base blast. Freddy Asiel worked a solid five-plus as the starter and Jonder Martínez (the winner) and Dalier Hinojosa were untouched in relief. The Cuban ninth was also entertaining as it produced one of the strangest moments this writer has witnessed on a baseball diamond. With two out and two aboard Michel Enríquez (apparently experiencing stomach problems) failed to appear for his turn at bat. Suddenly manager Martin was caught with no bench reserves available for pinch hitting chores; the only remaining non-pitcher, Yulexis La Rosa was occupied warming up Danier Hinojosa in the bullpen. The impatient home plate umpire consequently ordered the Nicaraguan hurler to deliver a first pitch to an empty batter’s box, which resulted in a confused Héctor Olivera being immediately picked of first base.

Eduardo Martin’s team returned to Carolina on Thursday to complete the opening round with an early afternoon makeup of the earlier cancelled Netherlands Antilles match. The Red Machine forces put the game away early with tallies in four of the first five frames, then sealed the match with a five spot in the eighth, highlighted by Bell’s thrilling three-run inside-the-park blast off the right field fence. La Rosa in his second start behind the plate flashed brilliance with a four-for-four day and three runs knocked home, while Despaigne crushed his second mammoth homer of the week (a towering blast to left in the third). Vladimir García, Ismel Jiménez and Danier Hinojosa each hurled rather routine three-frames stints, each giving up a pair of earned runs with Jiménez picking up the team’s fifth victory.

The schedule has now been fixed for round two and not surprisingly it contains a major alternation in what was assumed early-on to be the agreed-upon tournament format. Group B pacesetter Cuba will now square off with the four teams of Group A between Friday and Monday evening, culminating with the much-anticipated USA match in Ponce. The order of matches will also pit the Cubans first against the Group A fourth-place squad (Panama on Friday), then against Group A number two Dominicana on Saturday, and versus third-place Puerto Rico on Sunday night. The new scenario then has the first and fourth place round two finishers playing in one semifinal encounter on Tuesday, while numbers two and three in the second round square off in the other semi final. The gold and bronze medal games would then be held on next Wednesday evening, both in showcase Hiram Bithorn Stadium. Under this revised scenario it is now possible that Cuba and Team USA could potentially square off in the semifinals instead of the finals, although that would only happen if they don’t finish in the expected one and two round robin slots. Altogether this is a major departure from the original plan that had the two group champions meeting for the title (with no semifinals)—a format that had almost guaranteed a USA-Cuba finale. Whether intentional or not, the new plan in effect does increase the possibility that host Puerto Rico could yet sneak into the championship match against either the Cubans or the Americans.

While Cuba continues to impress here on the field, controversy continues to rage back home in Havana. The team that has been so successful in sweeping its first six matches is apparently one—as always—that seems to satisfy very few critics on the island. There are large elements in the Cuban fandom and even in the Cuban press that seemingly would rather have a club stacked with their own personal favorites (in most cases the players from Industriales) rather than a ball club best designed to win in the special circumstances of highly competitive international tournaments. One problem is that most of those fanatics and commentators have not enjoyed the privilege of experiencing these top flight international events first hand and thus don’t quite appreciate the formula required for winning night in and night out in Olympic, Pan American or World Cup events. And further, their perspective is too often colored by an earlier history of unlimited Team Cuba successes across several decades when the competition was nothing more than weak amateur and collegiate clubs hastily pasted together in North America, Japan or Taiwan. With the arrival of top-flight big-league affiliated professionals the arena of these IBAF-sponsored tournaments has literally become “an entirely new ballgame.”

A perfect example of such uninformed criticisms of Team Cuba is found in the recent article published by Daniel de Malas on the pages of De Malas argues energetically that the backup catcher on the current roster should under no circumstances be Yulexis La Rosa, since La Rosa is the number two backstop on his own Villa Clara club and by no measure one of the top three or four Cuban National Series receivers. De Malas takes pains to elaborate the statistical superiority (especially on offense) of such candidates as Frank Camilo Morejón (from his own favorite Industriales club) and also Yosvany Alarcón (Las Tunas). The author argues just as passionately that rather that featuring eleven pitchers the Cuban roster would have been better served with another left-hand-swinging pinch hitter in the figure of Yoandry Urgellés (also from his Industriales home club) or perhaps even Giorvis Duvergel (Guantánamo). Both these complaints reveal much about De Malas’s limited understanding of both the character of modern-era tournament play and the processes surrounding the selection of a competitive and effective Team Cuba.

Cuba failed to bring home gold last September in Nettuno largely because the club ran out of effective and well-rested arms by the time they squared off with the offense-minded Americans in the World Cup finals. Norberto González was absent from a Cuban team carrying only nine hurlers and Lazo had already been overused earlier in the week in games (with Australia and Canada) the team needed to capture to reach gold medal pay dirt. The memorable result was an inability to slow the Team USA slugging during the final fateful encounter.

These tournaments are all about pitching and carrying ten or eleven fresh arms is therefore of the highest importance; games are most often won by teams able to supply a relentless supply of fresh and effective arms. Using up a slot to have Urgellés languishing on the bench makes almost no sense. Who would he pinch hit for—Borroto, La Rosa, Pestano? Those three at the bottom of the Cuban batting order have already proven again this week to be every bit as effective in clutch situations as Urgellés or Duvergel might ever have been. Admittedly the Cuban lineup is heavily right-handed; but the argument for lefty swingers is totally short sighted. The only largely ineffective batsman so far for Cuba has been lefthander Alex Mayeta who (despite his towering grand slam in Mayagüez last Sunday) is now hitting an anemic .111 overall in his nine plate appearances. Despaigne, Céspedes, Enríquez, Bell, and the rest of the Cuban sluggers, swing about eighty percent of the time against right-handers during a Cuban National Series season largely devoid of effective southpaws. It is lefthanders and not righties that give Cuban batters fits. Thus spare hurlers like Hinojosa and Ismel Jiménez carry a far greater value in these short-schedule tournament events than spare bench swingers like Urgellés and Duvergel, or any possible third catcher performing only bullpen duties.

And back to the issue of catchers. It is in denigrating the presence of Yulexis La Rosa that commentator De Malas is most clearly misguided. Of course the Villa Clara backstop is not one of the three or four highest rated receivers on the island; but that line of reasoning carries no water. Team Cuba is not an honorary all-star selection which exists (like mid-season major league all-star squads) to honor the top performers at each position. The Cuban baseball brain trust effectively selects a squad most capable of winning in the international playoff environment; they put together a cohesive blend of finely tuned parts and not a collection of superstars that might fail (despite all the individual talent) to provide a proper winning formula. La Rosa is the ideal bullpen catcher; he is also a hardened and mentally tough competitor capable of clutch performance when pressed into service (six hits and four RBI in nine plate appearances versus Argentina and Antilles). Morejón and Alarcón may have the National Series numbers; La Rosa has the perfect psychological makeup for this “whole different ballgame” of pressure-backed tournament action. That is way La Rosa is here, and so far Team Cuba has benefitted heftily from his presence.

Cuba will almost certainly lose some games here before the week is out. But when they do it will be a result of simply being outplayed on a given night in a sport where any team’s fortunes ebb and flow with regularity. It will not be because a few more Industriales favorites were not included on the home club roster.

*Cuba suffered a first tournament defeat at the hands of the Dominican Republic by a 9-6 score on Saturday evening. That game and other second-round action will be reported on in a forthcoming column.

(*) Peter C. Bjarkman is the 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 during the past three-plus years and is currently completing a book on the history of the post-revolution Cuban national team.