Peter C. Bjarkman*
HAVANA TIMES, May 16 — At least for awhile Villa Clara’s post-season fortunes seemed to mirror perfectly the rest of their up-and-down National Series #48 campaign—quick starts and just as rapid backsliding. Last December the Orangemen looked very much like the toast of the league under new manager Eduardo Martin, after reeling off fourteen straight wins and taking early command of the Oriental League.
But after the six-week World Baseball Classic suspension of league action, the once potent Villa Clara club was anything but intimidating, losing regularly down the stretch and eventually sliding well behind division pacesetters Ciego de Avila and Santiago de Cuba.
At the outset of the seemingly predictable quarterfinal match between the tainted Orangemen and defending champion Santiago, few around the island expected much from Martin’s seemingly wounded club. But Villa Clara and Santiago have staged some memorable topsy-turvy post-season battles in recent years and this one would prove no exception.
Villa Clara shot out of the gate, just like they did last December, by reeling off a pair of surprising victories (8-3 and 3-1) on foreign turf. This eye-catching start set Antonio Pacheco’s favored Wasps back on their heels and lifted the inconsistent Orangemen into the driver’s seat. Santiago quickly rebounded, however, with two easy road wins in Santa Clara, and it appeared for awhile like Martin and company would again find a way to squander some early successes.
Yet in the end Villa Clara refused to wilt as they had in the latter stages of regular season competition. In a seventh game for all the marbles, right hander Freddy Asiel Alvarez (7-2 in NS #48) shut down Santiago bats for the third time in less than two weeks and thus punched his ticket as the obvious hero of the entire tense series, as well as the 5-0 shutout clincher. In his three neat post-season outings to date Alvarez has now worked 17-plus innings, allowing but 13 hits and 4 total runs against one of the league’s most highly touted offensive machines.
Villa Clara’s gritty triumph has now promised a new and rather fresh look to the Cuban League championship picture. Of the four ball clubs now moving on to the semifinal round, none have reigned as league champions during the current fast-fading decade. Only two (Pinar and Villa Clara) celebrated as title winners in the 1990s, while neither Habana Province nor Ciego de Avila has ever reached the coveted winner’s circle in the quarter-century featuring present-format post-season competitions.
Ciego de Avila’s Best Season Ever
Ciego de Avila, in fact, has never before made it out of the opening quarterfinal round. This is a league hardly known for its competitive balance, since only Holguín back in 2002 has ruined the relentless Santiago-Industriales stranglehold on the league trophy over the past ten full seasons. Nonetheless, we are now guaranteed to see some new blood on the top of this year’s post-season pile.
While the exciting see-saw series between the two traditional eastern powers went all the way to the wire, upstart Ciego de Avila (this year’s league pacesetter with 64 triumphs) made quick work of pesky but outmanned Holguín. The Ciego win came via a most efficient if not very dramatic four-game sweep.
Only the tight opener was a nail-biter—a 2-1 pitcher’s duel between ace southpaws Máikel Folich and Aroldis Chapman. Isaac Martínez and Yoelvis Fiss each slugged a pair of homers for the winners in the truncated four-game series, and while the Tigers of Roger Machado never quite blew Holguín off the field (three runs was the widest margin of victory) they were also never seriously threatened either.
Out in the western sector of the country, things were almost as one-sided as they were in Ciego and Holguín. Habana Province displayed surprising batting power to supplement their always tough pitching while knocking off decided underdog Isla de la Juventud. There was hardly anything surprising here, since Isla was the only playoff club sporting an overall losing record.
Don’t Take the Western Teams Lightly
Occidental League runner-up Pinar del Río had a much easier time than many expected during their own route to the semifinals, needing only five matches to eliminated Sancti Spíritus—the league’s hottest club during the post-WBC stretch run. Sancti Spíritus was widely expected to put up severe resistance with its vaunted attack built around national team sluggers Freddie Cepeda and Yulieski Gourriel. As many feared, however, it was the shaky Gallos pitching that proved to be the biggest chink in the orange and blue club’s rather porous armor.
Habana Province bats have been a much bigger story so far in this post-season than have the talented arms of the likes of Yadier Pedroso, Yulieski González, Jonder Martínez, Miguel Lahera and company.
Last spring the Cowboys under manager Esteban Lombillo were victimized by Sancti Spíritus in the opening round, despite their league-best 61 wins. The clear reason for that earlier collapse was the lack of any kind of offensive production, a weakness that hardly seemed in evidence this time around. Juan Carlos Linares and Ernesto Molinet, carried the load against Isla, the former with timely RBIs in three contests, and the latter with a game-winning blast in the opener and two round trippers in the same inning during the 19-5 game-five lopsided clincher.
Pinar’s Vegueros have also been quietly serving notice in the far west that they are about to duplicate the strong playoff run of a year ago that took them all the way into a finals showdown with eventual champion Santiago. Sancti Spíritus self-destructed early against the Tobacco Growers when normally reliable starter Ismel Jiménez (13-5 in NS #48) was bombed of five runs in the opener.
Pinar’s five homers also stamped a quick exclamation mark on game two. The Gallos did pull off a mild surprise while upending Pinar ace Yunieski Maya back on home turf during game three. But that was little more than a single brief uprising, before Yosvani Torres (aided by a game-winning ninth-inning blast from Jorge Padrón) and Pedro Lazo (two wins in the series) ultimately closed the door in the final two matches.
Quarterfinal play in the end went pretty much just as predicted, with Habana Province and Pinar rubber-stamping their season-long domination of the west, and Ciego and Villa Clara beating back challenges from Holguín and Santiago out east. If there was a surprise, it was the solid play of the Orangemen who bent but never cracked against the defending champions. There is now little doubt that Ciego de Avila is indeed a true championship contender, for the first time ever in its rather spotty thirty-three year history.
There is also plenty of reason to believe that neither western challenger can be taken lightly—both Habana and Pinar own a sufficient blend of slugging and talented mound work to battle either Ciego’s Tigers or the rebounding Orangemen both tooth and nail.
With the dust settled from quarterfinal action and defending champion Santiago’s dream of a three-peat now lost by the wayside, there is no longer a clear favorite to wear the crown as new league champion. My own early prediction of a Pinar-Santiago finale has now been sabotaged. But my bold call that the Vegueros would this year finally celebrate their first pennant since the heyday of Omar Linares, a dozen years back, is still for the moment a most promising prospect.
*To read more from Peter C. Bjarkman on Cuban baseball check out:http://www.bjarkman.com
For a look at how the regular Cuban baseball season concluded including the standings and top batters and pitchers see: http://havanatimes.org/?p=8128