Peter C. Bjarkman (*)
HAVANA TIMES, Oct. 15 — The “Pre-Mundial” World Cup Qualifier tournament here in Puerto Rico was been billed from the very outset as a probable stage for still another grand collision between powerhouse Cuban and American national baseball teams. The Cubans have suffered something of a dented reputation in recent years concerning their one-time dominance over American ball clubs, having now lost four of five recent encounters with USA rosters stuffed with top-level professionals. Most painful have been gold medal finale defeats in two most recent IBAF World Cup tournaments (Taiwan 2007 and Europe 2009). For disillusioned Cuban “fanaticos” who especially relish “beating the American at their own game” this was supposedly going to be the impatiently awaited moment for turning the tide back in the right direction. But a funny thing happened on the way to the much-touted revenge match in Hiram Bithorn Stadium. Cuba, for its part, dodged rainy weather and several on-field scares to make it all the way to the tournament climax precisely as expected. But after breezing through two qualifying rounds (9 games) unscathed as the tournament’s only undefeated club the Americans somehow fell flat at precisely the wrong moment—being ousted by an inspired Dominican team in Tuesday’s nightcap semifinal match.
The USA collapse came at the hands of surprisingly motivated if usually inconsistent Dominican nine featuring an appropriate mix of current MLB prospects and ex-big league and Mexican League veterans. Dodgers southpaw prospect Mario Alvarez (6-6 at AA Chattanooga this summer) effectively shut down the host of young American bats for five innings of what remained a tight battle well into the game’s final third. Former big-league all-star Tony Batista broke the game open for the Dominicans in the seventh with a stinging two-run double that provided a two-run cushion at 4-1; slugging first sacker Willis Otanes blasted a two-run shot in the ninth that salted away the upset result. The Americans did slug three triples on the night but were never able to get back into the contest against relievers Juan Pérez and Dario Veras. The surprisingly easy victory for the Caribbean forces again underscored just how difficult it is in the current era to remain unbeaten throughout the entire stretch of these now highly competitive events. Even the best teams (Cuba versus both the Dominicans and Americans this past weekend) hit a flat spot somewhere across a two-week tension-packed stretch and the key to any ultimate tournament successes is not having that moment arrive during the final day or two with gold, silver and bronze medals finally at stake.
Cuba almost stumbled as well at the eleventh hour (a semifinal encounter with Venezuela) yet somehow managed to find a way to survive. In the tournament’s most thrilling, tension-packed and entertaining match-up, Cuban bats remained uncharacteristically silent most of the afternoon against former Chicago Cubs lefty Jesus Yepez and reliever Carlos Mori. Starter Yulieski González received a quick hook from manager Eduardo Martin after yielding singles to the first three batters faced and the Cubans fell into an early 2-0 hole after only a half-inning of play. Although Habana Province teammates Jonder Martínez and Yadir Pedroso shut down the Venezuelans the rest of the way, Cuba was not able to climb pack into the game until the home seventh, when a single by Olivera, a sacrifice by Bell, and a second timely single by Michel Enríquez finally provided the long-awaited equalizer. The ninth inning—with a trip to the finals squarely on the line—provided enough drama for an entire championship week. Venezuela loaded the sacks with only one retired in the top of the frame but Yadir Pedroso somehow wiggled off the hook to keep the game in hand. Cuba then proceeded to produce a trio of base runners in the home half of the crucial frame. Victory was finally at hand when Alfredo Despaigne dumped a soft liner into short center sending Olivera scampering home from third with the precious game winner.
Even thought the ballyhooed Team Cuba showdown with the Americans was not destined to be, the two historical rivals did square off in the late stages of the tournament’s second round on Monday evening in Ponce. Fresh off a 15-3 AA season in the Chicago Cubs organization, hard-throwing righty Chris Archer mesmerized Cuban bats for six full innings, gunning down ten (including the first four Cuban bats he faced) and not permitting a single free pass. Electing to save Yulieski González for a vital semifinal assignment, the Cubans opened with talented prospect Vladimir García and the Ciego de Avila right-hander performed admirably enough for five frames. García nonetheless made one large mistake in pitch selection which resulted in a key two-run double off the bat of Mike Moustakas in the USA home third. The opportunistic Americans padded the lead in the sixth, mainly thanks to a throwing error by second baseman Héctor Olivera. Cuba’s only offensive outburst came when Enríquez delivered a pinch-hit single and Olivera partially atoned with a run-producing triple off American reliever Nick Hill.
Cuba’s one other defeat came at the hands of the same Dominican team they will now face Wednesday night for all the hardware and all the bragging rights. Willis Otanes launched an early five-tally onslaught with a two-run third-inning round tripper off Miguel Alfredo González. Cuba battled back into the game on Pestano’s three-run blast in the home fourth, but Cuba could never come back all the way against Dominican relievers Bartolomé Fortunato (the winner), Juan Pérez and Dario Veras. Also contributing to the loss was some sloppy defense (especially Pestano’s boot during a bang-bang play at the plate in the fourth) and some daring base running by the aggressive Dominicans.
One of the finest games of the second round was the showcase Cuba-Puerto Rico Sunday night matchup in Hiram Bithorn in front of one of the tournament’s most lively (if nonetheless disappointingly small) fan turnouts. In that one Cuba jumped out in front with single tallies against starter Efrain Nieves in three of the first four frames. After its midpoint the contest turned into largely a pitchers’ duel with Yadier Pedroso providing an effective 2.1 innings of relief for starter and winner Freddy Asiel Alvarez. The Cuban offensive charge was headed up by solo blasts from Alfredo Despaigne (fourth inning) and José Dariel Abreu (sixth inning). Despaigne, Pestano, Gourriel and Céspedes also chipped in with a quartet of two-base knocks in the 4-0 whitewashing.
Win or lose tonight, Cuba’s talented club has hopefully silenced most of its outspoken island critics. But of course the debates will continue, especially in Havana where so many rooters seem to be more excited by seeing Industriales favorites in the lineup than by any expected Team Cuba victories. Cuban ball clubs have established a remarkable tradition of reaching the finals of almost every tournament entered over the past half-century; the second edition of the MLB “Clasico” still remains the single exception since the decade of the fifties, including all tournaments featuring frontline Cuban teams. Martin’s forces have once more managed to keep that string intact against very heavy odds here in Puerto Rico. But of course nothing short of complete victory will seem appropriate to Cuba’s millions of baseball boosters. And even if victory comes on Wednesday evening against the dangerous cast of aging former big leaguer veterans representing the Dominican Republic, there will nonetheless be constant critique of apparent missteps. There will be howling about two losses in what are now meaningless games. There will almost surely be further moaning about replacing Olivera with Enríquez, or perhaps about under using Mayeta and Aledmis Díaz. Such is the treacherous territory and mine field of Cuban national baseball.
There were many stars here in Puerto Rico, especially on the talented Cuban roster. The four most notable islanders were Cuba’s selections on the already announced mythical tournament all-star team. The quartet was lead by Alexei Bell (the tournament’s leading batter through second-round play), who shares an outfield all-star slot with American Mike Trout and Canadian Jamie Romak. Veteran hurler Norge Luis Vera (with a still-perfect 0.00 ERA entering tonight’s finale) has been named the top right-handed hurler, while team captain Frederich Cepeda as been tabbed the outstanding designated hitter. Rounding out the Cuban selection was shortstop Yorbis Borroto who has now clearly staked his claim as the legitimate successor to Eduardo Paret. Borroto is joined on the contingent of all-star infielders by first baseman Eric Hosmer (USA), second sacker Oscar Angulo (Venezuela) and third baseman Mike Moustakas (USA). Based on his slugging numbers, Canada’s Jaime Romak (.448 BA, 1.103 SLG, 5 HR, 14 RBI) has been awarded tournament MVP honors, perhaps something of a strange choice (despite his production) since Team Canada failed to reach the round of medal competitions. A more logical and traditional choice for MVP accolades might have been Habana Province right-hander Yadir Pedroso who has been truly spectacular out of the bullpen (especially in yesterday’s semifinals) precisely when his team has most needed his game-closing skills.
One final observation on developments of the past two weeks is in order here. The on-the-field quality of this tournament has definitely surpassed that of last year’s IBAF Europe-based World Cup event, or any other previous IBAF tournaments of past years and decades. There may well have been plenty of problems here in Borinquen with event planning, press facilities, and rain-plagued field conditions. But none have questioned the quality or level of the competitive baseball on display day-in and day-out. I have chatted with more than a dozen MLB scouts, with the Cuban press in attendance, and with several coaches and officials connected with USA Baseball. All are in universal agreement that there are as many as five or six teams here the equal of any of the top contingents that made last fall’s World Cup final round in Italy.
Cuba’s entry here is superior to the one fielded a year ago, if only because of an extended 11-man pitching rotation. Team USA contains a half-dozen young prospects (headed by Mike Trout, Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer) that are sure-fire future big league superstars; the Americans also feature a pair of young arms (flame-throwing Kansas City Royals property Tim Collins—this year’s minor league closer-of-the-year according to Baseball America—and top Cubs minor leaguer Chris Archer) as good as any Cuban club as faced over the years. The Dominican squad that humbled Team USA in the semis features several former big leaguers (Tony Bastista, Alberto Castillo, Bartolo Colón, Juan Pérez, Bernie Castro among others) and a pair of current Mexican League all-stars (ex-Baltimore Oriole Willis Otanes, plus closer Dario Veras). There have already been complaints in the Cuban press about the low quality of teams like Nicaragua and Panama, but both those nines are head and shoulders above 2009 World Cup entries representing Italy or Korea or Japan or even The Netherlands. Team Cuba is now literally playing “in the big leagues” in tournaments that were once dominated by mere collegiate or industrial league all-stars. The Cuban championship run here in San Juan can only be fairly viewed against that elevated level of competition. This Cuba team has been as good and as successful as any from past epochs; to judge it any other way is to totally misunderstand the level of today’s international baseball.
(*) 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 www.BaseballdeCuba.com during the past three-plus years and is currently completing a book on the history of the post-revolution Cuban national team.