For a couple of days (games number 3 and 4 in Villa Clara) it looked as though Victor Mesa’s veteran Naranjas (Orangemen) team might make the eastern sector semifinals interesting against defending champion Santiago de Cuba. Yet when the dust had finally settled in Santiagio’s Guillermon Moncada Stadium on Friday night, the juggernaut Wasps (Avispas) were headed back to the finals in grand style on the heels of a knockout 8-inning 16-6 thrashing of an outmanned Villa Clara ball club that permitted double-digit uprising in all four of their defeats. It was the second straight season, in fact, that Villa Clara pitching suffered a huge meltdown (allowing 10 or more runs) in each of the final two semifinal series contests against Antonio Pacheco’s slugging Wasps nine. This time around the clincher came courtesy of a 19-hit onslaught paced by long-balls off the bats of Alexei Bell (the season’s home run leader), Jose Julio Ruiz (league leader in base knocks), and normally light-sticking shortstop Luis Nava. Reinier Roibal hurled 6.1 quality innings out of the bullpen (in relief of shaky starter Osmel Cintra, who lasted less than two frames) to pick up the crucial series-ending victory.
The two semifinal series appeared to be equally one-sided affairs in the early going. Both Santiago and western sector leader Sancti Spiritus sweeping opening two-games sets on home turf in their respective showdowns with Villa Clara and Pinar del Rio. But Villa Clara surprisingly bounced back in the Oriente by taking two straight (by scores of 7-3 and 6-3) when the eastern series shifted to Santa Clara Province. And Pinar del Rio did the same once the Occidental matches moved on to Pinar’s Capitan San Luis Stadium. Sancti Spiritus — a surprise opening-round winner over Group B champ Habana Province — got off to a fast start thanks to some fine starting pitching in the pair of lid-lifters at Jose Huelga Stadium. In the western opener Angel Pena (with late-inning relief help from Yasnier Sosa) shut down the reputed Tsunami Verde (Green Tidal Wave) offense of Pinar on only three hits and bested career victories leader Pedro Laso in the process by a surprising 5-0 count. Game two found Ismel Jimenez going the route (and scattering seven hits) in a tight 2-1 win over the still-silent Pinar attack. But the Group A champs (inconsistent all season with a 45-45 break-even record) bounced back at home to earn 6-4 and 6-3 series-knotting victories, the second coming on a complete-game effort by the veteran Pinar ace Pedro Lazo. But then in game five Juan Castro’s gritty Sancti Spiritus Gallos (Roosters) came from behind to seize the advantage with a crucial 10-6 road victory that put them only one win away from only their third trip ever to the championship round. The vital (and potentially series-turning win) was keyed by a brilliant six-inning relief effort from veteran Noelvis Hernandez (pictured here) — the game three starter who had lasted less than two frames in his earlier failed outing.
Santiago’s six-game romp over Villa Clara was one of the most one-sided in recent Cuban playoff annals, despite the two series-prolonging Villa Clara wins in Augusto C. Sandino Stadium. The opening two matches in Guillermon Moncada were 13-2 and 23-12 laughers and both ended in the seventh inning due to Cuba’s 10-run knockout rule. That opening pair of games witnessed Mesa’s beleaguered pitching corps yielding 34 base hits to a Santiago offense that boasts the league leaders in homers (Bell 31), hits (Ruiz 126), runs (Bell 96), RBI (Bell 111), total bases (252), slugging (Bell .722), and stolen bases (Ruiz 32). After Villa Clara had managed to even up the series and raise a few false hopes around the circuit that Santiago might indeed be vulnerable, the Wasps bats exploded once again in the final two matches for 12-6 and 16-6 margins, with the final bashing representing the third “knockout” of the wild hit-happy series. Although Santiago’s victories did not come thanks to much brilliant mound work on the part of its own normally solid staff (the Wasps mound corps yielded a total of 39 runs and 65 hits in 47 innings of rather shaky work), one of the big stories of the Oriente series was nonetheless veteran Santiago ace Norge Vera. The slim righty captured two games and stretched his 2008 playoff mark to a perfect 3-0. As reported in an earlier blog entry on this site, Vera (pictured here) has this season tightened the gap on former Industriales ace (and current New York Mets stalwart) “El Duque” Hernandez as Cuba’s all-time winning percentage leader. Vera (who first name rhymes with “Porgy” and not with “forge”) was the author of seven excellent relief innings during the Team Cuba romp over the Baltimore Orioles at Camden Yards way back in May of 1999.
Santiago now seems poised for a second consecutive title, a third in four years, and an eighth overall in the league’s 47-year history. There will be no surprises with a Wasps repeat title, since Pacheco’s club has largely dominated the current record-breaking Cuban League season from the opening salvo. Bell’s offensive explosions not only set a slew of new league marks (he is the first-ever 30 homer and 100 RBI man on the island) but dominated most headlines in a season that also saw Pedro Lazo bust the career pitching victories mark and Habana Province lefty Yulieski Gonzalez ringing up an unprecedented perfect 15-0 regular season mark. There will of course be one surprise in next week’s showdown finale and that will be Santiago’s eventual rival. Few fans or prognosticators gave either Pinar del Rio (with a .500 regular season ledger despite a slim lead in the Group A pennant race) or Sancti Spiritus (third place finisher behind favorites Habana Province and Habana Industriales) very much chance to survive in the Occidental half of the league’s playoff wars.