By Peter C. Bjarkman*
HAVANA TIMES, April 1 – The third and concluding phase of Cuba’s 90-game National Series season has gotten off to a rather blistering start, thanks mainly to some record-pace slugging from Granma’s national team outfield star Alfredo Despaigne.
In his four games since the season swung back into full action last Friday night, Despaigne has cracked five homers, four in the three-game weekend series at Holguin and still another at Wilfredo Páges Stadium (in the Granma pueblo of Manzanillo) Tuesday evening versus Cienfuegos.
The torrid string has upped the 22-year-old right fielder’s league-leading total to 21 and also raised serious expectations that Despaigne may overtake Alexei Bell’s single-season mark of 31 set only last winter.
With 61 games already played and 21 still remaining, Despaigne is on a perfect pace to match Bell’s standard set last season. And the recent surge has also lifted Despaigne’s batting average to a lofty .374 level, fourth in the circuit behind Yorelvis Charles (Ciego de Avila, .391), Yusniel Ibáñez (Cienfuegos, .385), and Giorvis Duvergel (Guatánamo, .380).
The extra-hot slugging surge of the Granma star has also equaled or approached a number of other notable league standards for long-ball hitting.
The four recent Despaigne round trippers in the three-game Holguín series fell slightly short of the top mark of six shared by two earlier Cuban Leaguers. That record was first established by Villa Clara’s Oscar Machado (two in each contest) versus Las Tunas back in January 1995 (National Series #34); it was later equaled by Guantanamo’s Ariel Benavides (one in the first game, two in the second, and three in the third) against Granma in December 1998 (NS # 38).
One small irony to be noted here is that on both occasions the 6-homer series outbursts came against pitchers from teams in the island’s eastern sector, as did Despaigne’s own feat this past weekend.
While Despaigne fell somewhat short of a single-series mark this past weekend, his 21st circuit blast last evening has tied an even more impressive league record of homers in six consecutive ball games. Despaigne’s current onslaught actually began with the final two contests versus Santiago (February 7 and 8) before the six-week hiatus for World Baseball Classic action.
The six-consecutive-games streak which will be on the line tonight when Granma again squares off with Cienfuegos, is now shared with five other sluggers. It was first accomplished by Arturo Sánchez of Matanzas (during the 1981 Selective Series).
Later it was repeated by current Metros manager Juan Carlos Millán (for Habana Province in the 1992 Selective Series), legendary Omar Linares (who homered in each of the six playoff games for Pinar del Río versus Santiago in the Second Revolution Cup championship of 1997), and current national team third baseman Michel Enríquez (for Isla de la Juventud, in the final week of December 2000 -versus first Guantánamo and later Villa Clara).
The six-game string was most recently accomplished for a fifth time by Michel Fors (for Metropolitanos, in the 2004-2005 season against Holguin, Granma and Guantanamo). Despaigne, Enríquez, and Fors are thus the only three to boast six consecutive home-run games during traditional National Series season play.