Santiago Returns as Cuban League Champion

Norge_vera_aVeteran Norge Vera authored a stellar performance to tip the scales in Game Five of this year’s Cuban National Series final playoff series.

Santiago de Cuba’s red-clad Avispas (Wasps) rode a late-season offensive outburst to earn their seventh overall National Series championship and second league crown in the past three seasons as Cuba’s National Series #46 wound down in the final days of April. Behind manager and former national team star Antonio Pacheco, Santiago survived a dramatic seven-game semifinal series versus Villa Clara with impressive 16-3 and 18-8 knockout victories in the final two games, then opened the best-of-seven title round by clubbing defending champion Havana Industriales 19-6 on home turf. Industriales and Santiago have now alternated as champions for the past five seasons.

This year’s championship match-up also had some historic overtones, with final round games in both Santiago’s Guillermon Moncada Stadium and Havana’s Latin American Stadium being streamed live on the internet to the U.S. and the rest of the wider world via Cuba’s Radio COCO website. If the novel internet access (which came with a technical assist for the Havana-based Japanese Embassy) rekindled Cuban league interest stateside, emotions ran especially high in the island’s two largest cities as fan support for the National Series post-season reached a level not previously seen during the past decade.

Despite its one-sided knockout of Industriales (via the Olympic 10-run rule which stops lopsided games at the end of seven frames) in the title-round opener, Santiago’s championship was in the end won mainly with clutch pitching. The series turned on a stellar game-five hurling performance by veteran national team ace Norge Vera (12-5). Vera broke the back of a two-game Industriales rally in Latin American Stadium, logging 5.2 strong innings of a crucial 6-4 tie-breaking victory on enemy soil. Santiago closed out the series back home in Guillermon Moncada in game six with an 8-2 romp also keyed by Alberto Bicet’s (10-1) strong 7.2-inning scoreless relief stint.

Silvino_liceaThe Santiago-Industriales post-season showdown capped a Cuban League campaign that also featured a pair of noteworthy individual performances by Las Tunas outfielder Osmani Urrutia (below) and veteran Granma right-hander Ciro Silvino Licea (pictured right). National team right-fielder Urrutia continued to establish his substantial credentials as one of the best hitters in any league by posting a National Series record sixth batting title in seven years. During his 2001-2005 string of five consecutive hitting crowns Urrutia amassed a composite .422 average and is now Cuba’s career BA leader with a .370 lifetime mark. Urrutia’s run to another batting crown (.370, matching his career mark) was aided, however, by the surprise suspension of last year’s leader Michel Enriquez (.368 at mid-season) after an altercation with a veteran umpire put the starting national team third baseman on the sidelines for the season’s final full month. Licea, for his part, nearly pulled off the rarest of feats by leading the league in both ERA (1.15) and innings pitched (132.2) simultaneously. (Has such a thing ever happened in the big leagues?) Licea missed the rare double when he missed out on the top spot in innings logged by a mere 2/3 of a frame.

Bjarkmancoverhd3 Readers wanting seasons’ recaps for every Cuban League "amateur" season and post-season stretching back to inaugural National Series I (1962)–along with all the post-1962 shorter Selective Series and Super League campaigns and all the professional pre-1961 seasons as well–can find them all, and much, much more in my new book, A History of Cuban Baseball, 1864-2006, which has stood at the top of the McFarland Publishers best-sellers list for the past three months. Those seeking the book should visit either amazon.com or the McFarland Publishers website.

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