This has certainly been a Cuban League fiftieth anniversary season buoyed by some remarkable offensive displays and at the same time diminished by little in the way of consistent or effective pitching. Three stellar national team figures, in particular, have stood head and shoulders above the crowd with their record-setting and career-defining seasons. Youthful Cienfuegos first sacker José Dariel Abreu has flirted all winter long with the first potential Triple Crown campaign since Orestes Kindelán (.402 BA, 24 HR, 58 RBI) last pulled off the feat more than two decades back during National Series #28 (1989) – a campaign in which separate honors were award in the league’s Occidental and Oriente divisions. Granma’s Yoennis Céspedes has somehow managed to steal the limelight from teammate Alfredo Despaigne (home run leader the past two seasons) and now threatens to obliterate Despaigne’s current single-season mark. But the most remarkable figure of all has perhaps been popular Sancti Spíritus outfielder Frederich Cepeda; Cepeda has also flirted with Triple-Crown-like numbers during the season’s late stages and yet has managed to save his greatest offensive outbursts for a dramatic eleventh-hour push desperately needed to lift his Gallos ballclub into a coveted playoff slot and also a potential second-place finish in the nip-and-tuck Occidental League pennant chase.
Entering the final sub-series of the current campaign (a home field clash versus second-place Sancti Spíritus) Abreu now stands second in homers (30, with but three games remaining) and tied for second in RBIs (with 84); but the towering right-handed swinger has already salted away a batting title with his clearly insurmountable .449 mark. Céspedes now outpaces Abreu in the two remaining Triple Crown slugging categories and with his 32 homers (in 87 games) has already equaled Despaigne’s 2008-09 National Series standard. Abreu for his part has been somewhat penalized in the home run and RBI chases (while at the same time clearly aided in the batting percentage race) by a late-season shoulder ailment (bursitis) that cost him more than two weeks of game action and has now left him more than 100 ABs short of rivals Freddie Cepeda (his closest BA challenger at .403) and Céspedes (his main rival for the home run crown). It is also notable that Despaigne (with 27 round trippers to date) has himself missed three full weeks (23 games) of the season (while traveling with a Cuban delegation to a World Youth Festival in South Africa), and yet the defending long-ball champ still stands within narrow striking distance of joining Abreu as the only two Cuban Leaguers to ever top the milestone 30-homer plateau in consecutive campaigns.
But for this writer at least, Cepeda remains the year’s headline story and also a clear front runner for this Golden Anniversary season’s most valuable player honors. Coming off a controversial and seeming unjustified suspension (the full story will be published soon on www.BaseballdeCuba.com) that left him off the national team roster during October Intercontinental Cup action in Taiwan, the powerful thirty-one-year-old switch hitter has over the past four months racked up numbers in his 14th league season that outdistance any of his best performances in an already brilliant career. Cepeda is batting over .400 (with but half a week remaining) for the first time in National Series play. His 28 homers top by four his career-best 24 of last season, he currently leads the league in runs scored (84), and his 81 RBIs fall only one short of last season’s personal high-water mark. Cepeda’s 233 total bases (better than both Abreu and Céspedes) also remain the top mark of National Series #50 with only one sub-series remaining to be contested. Adding together Cepeda’s RBI and runs-tallied figures (minus 28 homers, since those count in both the runs scored and RBI columns and thus should not be totaled twice) one discovers that Cepeda alone this season has averaged a remarkable 1.6 runs produced in each of his teams 87 games played to date.
All this was topped in the six-game stretch of March 9-16, when Cepeda went on a week-long tear that equaled the long-standing league consecutive-game home run mark. This is a feat not particularly well noted in the Cuban records books. None of the recent annual Cuban League Guides list this category under “Special Individual Records” where the only hitting feats covered are Most Consecutive Base Hits, Consecutive Game Batting Streaks (Base Hits), Home Runs in a Single Inning, Consecutive Extra-Base Hits, RBIs in One Inning and Sacrifice Flies in One Inning. Dutiful research, however, indicates that five Cuban League sluggers have previously strung together six straight games with at least one homer in each, the most recent being Alfredo Despaigne during his record-setting 2009 National Series campaign. The four others include Juan Carlos Millan (Selective Series VIII, 1992), Omar Linares (all during playoff games of the Revolutionary Cup II in 1997), Michel Enríquez (National Series XXXIX, December 1999), and Michel Fors (National Series XLV, 2006). It has sometimes also been reported in the Cuban press that the first to achieve the six-game home run string was Matanzas outfielder Arturo Sánchez during Selective Series VI (1981). But a careful rechecking of the box scores has now indicated that Sánchez in actuality logged his six long balls over a stretch of only five games and not the once-reported six.
The six-game streak recently fashioned by Cepeda is admittedly not an exceptionally rare one by big league standards. The major league mark remains eight games – achieved by both Seattle’s Ken Griffey Jr (July 1983) and New York’s Don Mattingly (July 1987) in the American League and Pittsburgh’s Dale Long (May 1956) in the National League. Two other big leaguers have reached 7 straight – Cleveland’s Jim Thome (June-July 2002) in the junior circuit and San Francisco’s Barry Bonds (April 2004) in the senior circuit. Bonds himself also twice reached a string of six straight home run games (April 2001 and May 2001) and four other National Leagues also posted six straight – Graig Nettles (San Diego, August 1984), Willie Mays (New York, September 1955), Walker Cooper (New York, June 1947), and George Kelly (New York, July 1924). A full half-dozen sluggers have reached a six-game string in the American League – Reggie Jackson (Baltimore, July 1976), Frank Howard (Washington, May 1968), Roger Maris (New York, August 1961), Roy Sievers (Washington, July-August 1957), Lou Gehrig (New York, August-September 1931), and Ken Williams (St. Louis, July-August 1922). None in the big time, however, quite matched Cepeda by pulling off this same feat in the final two weeks of a pennant race, or with their team’s post-season fortunes standing squarely on the line at the time.
Cepeda’s feat of course stands out mainly because of the pressure-packed conditions under which it was achieved. On March 9 Sancti Spíritus stood in fourth place and nursed a slim 2.5 game lead over arch rival Industriales in the tense hunt for a final Occidental League post-season ticket. Added pressure came from the fact that last year’s edition of the Gallos ballclub waltzed through regular-season play with the league’s best record before collapsing dramatically in the opening playoff round in front of the selfsame Blue Lions outfit representing the capital city. Cepeda’s sudden and timely outburst in early March this time around led to five team victories that left his Gallos clearly in the post-season driver’s seat. The six-game stretch also included a phenomenal 19 RBIs and multiple hits in all half-dozen games, during which Cepeda connected safely 15 times in 26 official trips to the plate (.577 BA). There were also multiple RBIs for the veteran slugger in five of the six outings, the first four of which were played on the road in hostile Las Tunas and Camagüey. Cepeda also had hit safely in four previous games, as well as in the March 17 contest when his consecutive-homer string was finally snapped – an 11-game batting outburst in which he slugged at an overall .533 clip (24 hits in 45 ABs). And it all came precisely at the time when victories were most precious as his teammates battled for playoff qualification with the hard-charging defending-champion Blue Lions.
It was a fitting display designed to highlight a truly remarkable season for Cepeda – and perhaps a clear signal of more heroics still to come. The late-season rally by the Gallos has now not only eliminated always dangerous Industriales but also lifted Lourdes Gourriel’s outfit (a team often criticized for lacking heart) into a potentially advantageous position for the upcoming playoffs. A second or third place finish will mean not having to face league pacesetter Cienfuegos in the opening round; better still, a second-place slot will mean first-round home-field advantage. The latter circumstance may prove significant given the fact that Sancti Spíritus this season owns the Occidental League’s best home field record (32-13, .711). Last season the Gallos dominated the league from December through March, then suddenly proved more than mortal in the opening post-season round against an Industriales team that only limped into the post-season on the final weekend. This year might well be a very different story, given the blue and orange team’s sudden revitalization at the very moment when pennant-race elimination again seemed to be written into the script.
Gourriel’s Sancti Spíritus ballclub is arguably the best hitting outfit in a league dominated by slugging and devoid of pitching. Paced by Cepeda, Yulieski Gourriel, Eriel Sánchez and Yenier Bello, the Gallos boast the second highest BA versus rival southpaws (.324, behind a .330 mark owned by Pinar del Río); their 31 homers outdistance runner-up Granma by four. Versus righties their .312 BA trails only Granma and Ciego de Avila, and their 85 homers are bested only by Pinar and again Granma (the team that owns both Céspedes and Despaigne). And if the Gallos pitching can not quite match that of Habana Province, they do possess a solid starting rotation in Ismel Jiménez (first in victories with 13 and third in ERA at 2.56), Noelvis Hernández, and Angel Peña (the 2010 ERA champ). But with Cepeda carrying the load with his impressive numbers, always-clutch performances, and clubhouse leadership, this could easily be the Gallos’ long-awaited year to shine. The league is perhaps more balanced and wide-open this season than ever before, and a new league champion is now a foregone conclusion. What could be a more fitting story than Cepeda’s complete and well-deserved “rehabilitation” underscored by both an MVP season and a coveted first National Series title? This is most certainly a gripping enough storyline for an upcoming post-season that might otherwise seem colorless (especially in the capital city) without either tradition-bound Industriales or Santiago (together winners of 10 of the last 13 league titles) included in the mix. It is an unfolding drama that well deserves the full and rapt attention of every true Cuban baseball fan.