By Peter C. Bjarkman*
HAVANA TIMES, May 26 — This writer has waited out some horrendous weather in ballparks all across Europe and Latin America while following the adventures of the Cuban national team. There was the frigid downpour in an uncovered Haarlem press box during the 2005 World Cup semifinals with Panama—a game highlighted by several bench-clearing near-brawls and a homer by Ariel Pestano that disappeared completely from view once swallowed up by the dense left field fog.
There was the bone-chilling drizzle during a lopsided Cuba-Mexico clash in the opening round of this year’s World Baseball Classic, mercifully ended by Freddie Cepeda’s walk-off knock-out homer. There where hours of soggy waiting during daily rain delays that eventually forced Team Cuba into playing two pool-round qualifying games on the same day last July at Haarlem’s Honkbal Festival.
But this month here in Cuba the normally mild weather has been as oppressive for championship baseball as any I have previously experienced. The Villa Clara-Ciego matches in the Oriente have been especially affected, with three days ultimately required to finish one final thrice-suspended deciding game in Santa Clara. For local fans, television viewers, ballplayers, and press denizens alike, it has not been a very pretty site here in baseball’s tropical paradise.
One of the most memorable semifinal rounds in Cuba’s quarter-century of playoff history finally ended on Monday night much like it had opened little more than a week ago in San José’s tiny Nelson Fernandez Stadium.
Last Sunday’s lid lifter began as a brilliant pitching duel between Pinar del Rio’s Yunieski Maya and Havana Province’s Yulieski Gonzalez that finally tilted Pinar’s way (3-0) on the strength of two clutch hits by Rafael Valdes (one a two-run homer). But the contest’s long-dragged-out conclusion did not finally come until the two teams and a national television audience sat through a four-hour-plus rain interruption that postponed the final outcome of the afternoon contest until almost midnight.
Wild Pitch Was Decisive for Havana
The final game on Monday staged here in the western sector featured just about everything one could ask in the way of titillating drama and home crowd enthusiasms. A packed house of 4,000-plus San José fanatics crammed into Cuba’s smallest provincial stadium hoping to celebrate their beloved ball club’s second-ever trip to the league finals, and in the end they would not be disappointed.
After nearly five and a half hours—with the clock ultimately reading 1:30 am—the Cowboys would at last punch their ticket for a championship showdown versus Villa Clara. Much-delayed victory in the end came thanks to one of the most unorthodox possible scenarios—a wild pitch with the bases jammed and no outs in the home club half of the eleventh producing a 3-2 final count.
But it took much longer than hoped to reach a home club celebration. In what has been a week-long occurrence, the threatening skies would open up at a crucial stage of the contest and cause a one-hour delay in the top of the eighth. At the time of the sudden showers Havana was still leading 2-1, Pinar was threatening with two aboard and a single out recorded, and the possibilities of completing crucial game six seemed suddenly very much in doubt.
Cuban ballparks do not feature the luxuries of state-of-the-art drainage systems, full-infield tarps, or highly trained grounds keepers ready to combat extensive downpours. Once the cloud burst lasted beyond a half-hour, and the infield dirt began to transform itself into thick pasture mud, another suspension of perhaps 24 hours seemed almost inevitable. A fortuitous break in the showers just before midnight, however, plus some expert if crude repairs on the soggy infield, eventually allowed the inning to continue, permitting Pinar to tie the match on a run-producing single by catcher William Otaño.
Tonight’s game was from first to last crammed full of numerous improbable moments. There were missed offensive chances by both sides, some clutch pitching from both starters and relievers, and occasionally even some timely hitting. And of course there was also the dose of bad weather that stretched the vital contest into the wee hours of the morning.
In both the first and third frames Havana starter and league ERA champion Yadier Pedroso struck out Pinar slugger Yosvany Peraza—each time with two aboard—the seventh and eighth times that Pedroso has rung up the dangerous Peraza this season. Havana’s clean-up hitter Rafael Orta—who has gone two years and more than 200 games with a single homer—nearly stroked the biggest hit of the year when he punched home Rudy Silva with what at the time was the potential game-winning tally.
And in the biggest oddity of all, when Orta was moved to a defensive slot in the ninth frame, it meant that Cowboys ace reliever José Angel Garcia would have to bat in what had been the DH slot. Garcia promptly answered the call with a single to center in the tenth, in his only plate appearance of the entire campaign.
Yet the final joyous oddity was reserved for the game-winning tally. With the bases loaded and none out in the eleventh, rookie reliever Raudel Lazo—Pinar’s fifth hurler of the night—uncorked a wild toss over the head of catcher William Otaño, sending fellow rookie Dennis Laza scampering home with a run that set off the perhaps loudest celebration ever witnessed on the Nelson Fernandez infield or in the surrounding streets of the San José pueblo.
The final dramatic twist in the seemingly unremitting drama ended a long evening of frustrations for Esteban Lombillo’s ball club, which had threatened victory in each of their final three at-bats only to be victimized by some clutch relief work from Michel Martínez and a crucial base-running error by the normally reliable Juan Carlos Linares, who was picked off second by Martínez with no outs in the tenth frame.
Asiel Alvarez Wins Fourth Playoff Game
The Occidental League series suffered one cancellation (game two in San José) and two other games punctuated by long delays. But that was nothing compared to the interferences by Mother Nature with the Oriental League clash between favored Ciego de Avila and tenacious Villa Clara.
With Villa Clara needing only one final victory to slam the door on Roger Machado’s Tigers, the originally scheduled fifth contest was washed out on Saturday. When the teams renewed hostilities in the makeup affair on Sunday afternoon they got only as far as the third frame, when rain again forced a suspension of the action. Monday’s second attempt at a replay picked up with the third inning of a zero-zero deadlock and had finally stretched to the ninth—knotted at a 1-1 count—when rain again caused the clubs to seek shelter.
These delays played havoc with manager Machado’s desperate attempts to use his number two starter, Valeri Garcia, who was able to work only several futile innings. The several-hour delay in the top of the ninth on Monday (of a game that originally had begun on Saturday) would set the stage for one of the most dramatic homers ever witnessed in Augusto Sandino Stadium. With action resumed after the three-hour suspension, rookie center field sensation Ramón Lunar quickly settled matters with a towering walk-off blast into the left-field light tower stroked against ace Ciego reliever Valdimir Garcia.
While Lunar launched the final celebration in Santa Clara on Monday, it was ace righty Freddy Asiel Alvarez who again proved the Orangeman’s biggest post-season hero. Entering the game in the third frame before Sunday’s suspension, Freddy Asiel retook the hill Monday night and stretched his 2009 playoff record to a perfect 4-0, with a near-perfect seven innings that were marred only by a solo shot off the bat of Yoelvis Charles. That Charles four-bagger had temporarily put Ciego in front in the top of the fourth. But it was all that the ace Villa Clara righty would allow. Over 30 post-season innings this month the Villa Clara fastballer has struck out 20, given up only 8 runs, posted a 2.40 ERA, and held opponents (Santiago and Villa Clara) to a tame .211 batting average. Alvarez is clearly the key to Villa Clara’s chances versus Havana Province.
Final Series Start Thursday
The championship finals are now set to begin on Thursday evening in San José and the dream match up will likely be the most surprising and potentially the most competitive since the equally unanticipated Holguín-Sancti Spíritus title clash that capped National Series #41 (2002).
Havana returns to the finals for the second occasion in its history and the first time since 2005, when the Cowboys were tamed in six games by Santiago. Villa Clara seeks its first league title since the three-peat under Pedro Jova in the early 1990s and its first return to the finals since back-to-back losses to Industriales in 2003 and 2004. This will also be the first grand finale on the island in half-a-dozen years that will not include either Santiago or Industriales.
This particular final is especially hard to predict with any confidence, since both teams tout their potential advantages heading into the showdown. Villa Clara under Eduardo Martin has unquestionably been the big post-season surprise up to the moment. After starting the campaign with the appearance of the league’s best club, then sliding to third place in the east in the shadows of the World Baseball Classic, the Orangemen failed to fold against heavily favored Santiago and also withstood the challenges of the elements during their series with league pace-setter Ciego de Avila.
But Havana Province, for its part, still has the island’s best corps of pitchers to balance its sometimes pesky but usually weak offense.
After leading the pack from start to finish in National Series #47, the pitching-rich Cowboys faded quickly in last year’s post-season, due strictly to their anemic slugging. But this year the quartet of Linares, Molinet, Orta and Danger Guerrero have provided just enough punch to assure victory.
Villa Clara has its own ace in Freddy Asiel Alvarez and one of the circuit’s best closers in Yolexis Ulacia, but the offense-oriented Orangemen are nowhere near as deep in their starting rotation or available relief corps.
The eloquent Casey Stengel once reminded us that ninety percent of baseball is pitching and the other half is luck. Casey’s philosophy had a leg up on his mathematics. But like Casey I give my vote to the hungry Cowboys with their stellar rotation of Yadier Pedroso, Yulieski Gonzalez, Jonder Martínez, and Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, plus their solid bullpen featuring José Angel Garcia and Miguel Lahera.
This series should offer a lengthy and tenacious struggle, one that may well stretch out for a couple of more weeks if the weather continues to demand its own role in the diamond proceedings.
*To read more on the playoffs from Cuban baseball expert Peter C. Bjarkman click on: http://www.baseballdecuba.com/playoff2009.asp