What could be more fitting for a Cuban League campaign that has evolved completely contrary to the expected script? We now have a championship match no one might have expected when this special Golden Anniversary season was launched last November. The normally toothless Tigers of Ciego de Avila (Cuba’s closest equivalent to the old American League St. Louis Browns) are poised to make a first-ever trip to the National Series playoff finals. Only once during its 35-year history (in 2009) has the Ciego ballclub stood among the league’s top three finishers. Pinar del Río’s once-proud but lately lackluster Tobacco Growers are celebrating their own first visit to the island’s biggest series in three long years. After one of the worst Vegueros campaigns in decades, Pinar’s 2010 edition missed out altogether on last spring’s post-season play. Given the prospect of crowning a novel champion for a third time during the current decade – Ciego hoping to duplicate recent feats by Habana Province in 2009 and Holguín in 2002 – it is also a league finale appropriately reflecting a new-found and much-welcomed competitive balance that now seems the rising hallmark of Cuban baseball.
The biggest star of the post-season has not been Abreu, Céspedes, Despaigne or Saavedra – the sluggers who grabbed most mid-winter headlines – but rather a revitalized Vladimir García. Despite losing his opening start in game 3 of the quarterfinals, three wins in the second round have left in running head-to-head with Pinar’s Torres for post-season MVP plaudits. While Garcia has been saving Roger Machado’s Ciego outfit, a similar improbable rejuvenated arm has been working wonders for Alfonso Urquiola in Pinar. Yosvani Torres was a rather mediocre hurler across the first several years of an undistinguished career, tossing 8 complete games in six seasons, winning only slightly better than half his decisions (27-24), and boasting a less-than-stellar 4.01 ERA. But with the loss of Maya and the retirement of Lazo, Torres has now made the most of his opportunities and fortuitously filled a huge pitching hole for the Vegueros. García may yet prove the post-season MVP, but Torres certainly has to be the most improved ballplayer of the year. If Cuba offered a “Comeback Player of the Year” award Yosvani Torres would be a lock for this winter’s honor.
The Ciego-Pinar final showdown should provide plenty of drama, especially after the lengthy ten-day hiatus designed to allow tired arms to refresh themselves in both camps. Both clubs are now on an obvious roll and thus brimming with confidence. Ciego might seem to have the better overall talent but only by the slimmest of margins. The clubs split their six regular-season confrontations; Torres appeared once (a 3-0 shutout win in Ciego) but Vlad García never took the hill against Pinar. The Tigers won their division title yet only claimed five more games than the Vegueros; Pinar trailed only Cienfuegos in an arguably far more balanced Occidental Division race. The problem for both teams will likely be the one that faced Villa Clara (with its one superstar pitcher Freddy Asiel Alvarez) in the quarterfinals. Machado can’t use Vlad García every day – although he seemed to be trying to do just that in the Granma series. And Urquiola will have to find someone to fill the gaps between three predicted outings for Yosvani Torres.
As an important sidelight, this concluding series will also likely provide a final rationale for choosing the year’s top manager. The ultimate success of either Pinar or Ciego may go a long way to determining who will inherit the reins of Team Cuba for next summer’s international season and particularly for the showcase September World Cup matches on tap in Panama. Urquiola has worked miracles all winter long by inspiring maximum output from a collection of unheralded role players. By stark contrast Machado has been the recipient of considerable recent criticism for his handling of pitching assignments – especially for his apparent overuse of García and his loyalty to the embattled Maikel Folch as a mainline starter. And yet Machado’s gambles have in the end all paid off and thus clinched his club’s debut trip to the National Series finale. Baseball victory rests far more heavily on the game-day performances of athletes themselves than on the dugout manipulations of their managers. At the same time, Cuban baseball boasts a recent tradition of handing national team responsibilities to the skippers of pennant winning National Series clubs. Given Cuba’s back-to-back losses to the Americans in recent World Cup gold medal clashes, the triumphant manager in next week’s championship round may not have long to celebrate before taking on an even weightier and more tension-filled career challenge.
Having fallen so far off target with my earlier second round-prognostications, do I again hazard a tenuous prediction for the year’s biggest seven-game set? I will indeed once more go out on the proverbial limb here. Yet after being blanked with my semifinal picks I must attach a label of “buyers beware” this time around. Remember that I am an historian and not a soothsayer. My office desk is piled high with reference books and not crystal balls and I do much better with commentaries on the past than with visions of the future. What, after all, is prognostication – especially when it comes to the baseball diamond – other than wild guessing disguised by a transparent layer of often quite lame logic?
All that being said, I will have to cast my vote on the side of Pinar del Río – perhaps in another six-game series. On paper Ciego does have the slight edge of owning home field advantage, but that factor is seemingly negated (if not at least neutralized) by the fact that Pinar somehow plays better on the road than at home in Captain San Luis. The biggest factor on Ciego’s side of the ledger is the Tiger’s league-leading defense – not a small advantage by any means. But for Ciego to stem the tide of the Green Tsunami Maikel Folch must somehow regain lost form and step to the forefront with at least one good outing. And unfortunately for Machado and company the evidence of recent weeks is that Folch is largely finished as a frontline starter. It would be only too fitting, perhaps – in this history-making season laced with so many upsets – to witness a novel champion, one that has never before set foot in the National Series winner’s circle. But I just don’t see it happening, given Folch’s continued ineffectiveness, Pinar’s building momentum, and the uncanny abilities of the Vegueros as an unflappable road team. So how would this be for a surprise ending dimly glimpsed in my now-slightly crack crystal ball? After two seasons in the shadows and after a mostly quiet post-season, Yosvani Peraza slugs the deciding home run in Game Six and thus lifts his Cinderella Vegueros ballclub back on top of the championship heap.
This is a shortened version of my full preview article, which can be found at the following link: http://www.baseballdecuba.com/EngnewsContainer.asp?id=2485