This winter’s Cuban pennant chase has already provided plenty of seat-gripping drama, a full dose of historic events, and an even-larger-than-usual taste of the truly bizarre. First to unfold was the emotion-packed pursuit of a new all-time base hits record on the part of unsung Metros hero Enriquito Díaz – a chase that had us all enthralled throughout the first two-thirds of the season. Enriquito’s record came against the backdrop of Alfredo Despaigne’s still ongoing pursuit of a new league single-season home run mark. Victor Mesa’s “Cinderella” Matanzas ball club remains in the hunt for a first-ever playoff appearance and perhaps also a most unlikely league championship. The current week has already witnessed an unorthodox game lost by Sancti Spíritus via the strangest of forfeit rules. And now we have not only the first league no-hit, no-run pitching gem for the current year, but also a game that might well qualify for the top slot on almost any listing of the sport’s most historic and unprecedented pitching masterpieces.
Yesterday afternoon in Camagüey’s Candido González Stadium visiting Holguín and home club Camagüey matched up in what might have been anticipated to be the most routine of mid-week contests staged between the Oriental League’s two cellar-dwelling squads. Both teams have been struggling to climb above a breakeven record on the season, and although both starting hurlers (Raimar Navarro at 7-6 and Frank Madan Montejo at 6-3) were about the best their respective club’s had to offer, neither stood among the league’s more notable young arms. Entering the current campaign Holguín’s 19-year-old Navarro boasted a two-season lackluster 5-17 career ledger and an elevated 5.48 ledger; 20-year-old Camagüeyano Montejo was a mere 3-2 with a stratospheric 11.02 over the same career span. No one among approximately 1500 local partisans entering the Candido González ballpark yesterday had any cause to expect witnessing a pitching matchup truly meant for the ages.
But baseball is hardly ever predictable, and what unfolded to everyone’s surprise was just such an unparalleled gem of a game. At the end of a regulation nine frames both young hurlers yet remained on the hill and both had provided sustained mastery if not absolute perfection. The game was still knotted at zero. Navarro had spread eight walks across nine frames and even hit a batter in the first (he had retired the side in order only twice) but still had not yielded a base hit; Montejo had walked only three (he also hit an enemy batsman) and had surrendered but a pair of harmless scratch singles. A no-hit game for Navarro entering extra innings was rare enough excitement in itself, since among 51 previous Cuban League no-hit gems none had ever extended beyond nine frames. But then the quirks of the Cuban League rule book took over to provide an added twist and to up the excitement level still a further notch. For Cuban baseball is now played with the highly controversial “Schiller Rule” – a novel staple of international baseball.
For those not familiar with the IBAF tie-breaker rule a word of explanation would seem to be in order. Incidentally, it was this author himself who coined the phrase “Schiller Rule” (after then-IBAF president Harvey Schiller) at the time of the rule’s introduction at the 2008 Beijing Olympics baseball tournament. The handy term was then picked up by Cuban media and it has been a staple of the Cuban baseball press in subsequent seasons. It works as follows: in the tenth inning (and beyond) teams play by a new set of rules adopted from recreational softball, with each club gifted runners on first and second base at the start of each new inning. In the first extra frame each manager elects where he wishes to start in his batting order and the first two men due up become the base runners. In subsequent innings the batting order elected in the tenth must continue unaltered. The idea behind the regulation was to end extra-inning games promptly and thus avoid scenarios where an endless contest of multiple extra frames might disrupt a day of tournament competition where three or more consecutive games filled a tight schedule. It is baseball’s version of the soccer or hockey tie-breaking shootout, and although there is little rational for its use in Cuban League play it was also adopt of the National Series last season. The Cubans now use it since the whole rationale behind the National Series camapign is to prepare top players for upcoming international tournament competitions.
No ballgame in Cuba or elsewhere had ever entered the Schiller Rule scenario before Tuesday with a no-hit game still on the line. In the top of the tenth Holguín finally broke through with the leading one-run cushion needed by Navarro and his teammates. With gift runners lodged on first and second to start the frame, the single tally was plated via an expected sacrifice bunt (moving both runners into scoring position) plus a weak roller into center field that drove home the single run. Still on the hill and having surrendered only his third softly hit safety, ill-fated Frank Montejo escaped further damage when retired the final two batters on an infield roller and an infield popup.
Now the tension surged as Holguín’s rookie manager Felicio García Sánchez opted to lift his no-hit pitcher Navarro (despite his rare date with destiny) for the bottom of the tenth and replace him with bullpen ace Pablo Fernández, one of the league’s most effective relievers sporting 15 saves and a 1.41 ERA for the campaign. (Fernández was the winning hurler and MVP during the league’s annual All-Star Game in mid-February.) Perhaps most managers operating under normal playing rules might have let any starter cruising with a no-hit masterpiece enter extra frames, but the rule-induced pair of base runners and a slim one-run cushion seemed to dictate an unorthodox strategy. And it was a strategy that paid huge dividends. Fernández slammed the door in short order: the first batter rolled to first, the second struck out swinging, and the third flied harmlessly to right. The no-hit victory was history – and it was indeed “historical” by every standard imaginable.
The list of rarities and “firsts” attached to this truly unique game is considerable. It was the first no-hitter authored during such an extra-inning contest played under the new-fangled tie-break scenario, but it was also much more. This was the first extra-inning no-hitter of any ilk in Cuban League annals, and only the third no-hitter featuring multiple pitchers (with the first two both occurred decades ago in the 1970s). It was only the second masterpiece ever authored by a Holguín hurler, the first being thrown by Osvaldo Fernández during a mercy-rule seven-inning contest (in 1992 versus Metropolitanos). This was also the sixth no-hit game to occur in Candido González Stadium, moving that ballpark into a tie for second place with August César Sandino (Santa Clara) for second on the ballpark no-hitter list (Havana’s Latin American Stadium owns the most with thirteen.) And for a game filled with so many oddities, it should not pass without mention that this was only the second masterpiece in league history to occur when the calendar sat on the unlucky thirteenth day of the month. In brief, this game was truly one for the ages.
For a complete listing of all 52 Cuban League no-hit, no-run contests (1962-2012), link to the Spanish and English-language stories about yesterday’s rare game on www.BaseballdeCuba.com.