The first round of 2008 Cuban League post-season play has been filled with several surprises and some eye-catching individual performances–not so remarkable perhaps on the heels of a record-setting National Series #47 that was one of the best Cuban League seasons of the past two decades. Surprise number one was the three-games-and-out performance of the island’s most popular team, the Havana Industriales Blue Lions. Industriales was last season’s runner-up to defending champion Santiago de Cuba and has been the league title holder in three of the past five seasons. But this time around The Blue Lions were easily sweep by Group A champion Pinar del Rio (the former team of both Jose Contreras and Alexei Ramirez) by 24-0, 6-5, and 5-4 counts. The series opener was the most one-sided post-season contest in league annals and in the process launched a new nickname in the Cuban press for the explosive Pinar ball club, which was suddenly being referred to everywhere as the “Tsunami Verde” (Green Tidal Wave). National team closer Pedro Luis Lazo (who became Cuba’s all-time leader in pitching wins during the just-concluded season and is pictured here) earned the victory in the opening-game laugher and also the save in the deciding game-three match.
In a second rather surprising opening-round quarterfinal series played in the country’s western sector, Group B third-place finisher Sancti Spiritus upended this year’s Cinderella ball club, Habana Province, which had raced home first in Group B on the strength of a remarkable pitching staff headlined by Yulieski Gonzalez (15-0, the best-ever single-season mound record) and Jonder Martinez (13-2, league-best 1.55 ERA, plus a rare no-hitter). The Habana Province offense unfortunately went dormant against Sancti Spiritus and the weak-hitting Cowboys dropped three of four to the Gallos (one of my own pre-season favorites, but a team that had seemingly sleep-walked throughout the regular season campaign). This series also did some record-setting of its own when Sancti Spiritus eked out a 2-1 17-inning victory in the lid-lifter–the longest post-season match in Cuban League history.
In the country’s eastern sector things went more as predicted, with Santiago eliminating Las Tunas in three straight, and Group C winner Villa Clara climbing over Ciego de Avila three games to two. The resulting best-of-seven semifinal series, which both open this Friday, will pit Pinar against Sancti Spiritus and Santiago de Cuba versus Villa Clara (in a rematch of last spring’s hard-fought Oriente semifinals). The surprising results in the Occidente (west) have been a most pleasant turn of events for this author, of course, as I was the only member of the Habana Radio COCO website staff to call a Pinar del Rio upset triumph over Industriales. And I had earlier also prognosticated a strong year for Sancti Spiritus, a pick based perhaps more on sentiment than science (since I am a long-time fan of the Gallos and their all-star left fielder Freddie Cepeda). Santiago is still the clear-cut favorite to repeat its title of 2007, but if opening round action provides any indication, then more surprises may yet loom around the corner as we approach the home stretch of one of the most memorable Cuban League season of recent memory. All the action (including selected televised games and radio broadcasts of most others) is available on our USA-based Cuban League website at www.baseballdecuba.com. And for more detailed summaries of the Cuban quarterfinals the reader is directed to my recent playoffs summary column found at http://www.baseballdecuba.com/newsContainer.asp?id=673.