Category: Dailies

An Analysis of the 2011 Cuban League Playoff Finals

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.

 

 


VGarciaFinal.JPG 

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

 

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Bjarkman’s Fearless Cuban Post-Season Predictions

It would seem to be the ideal championship matchup made in Baseball Heaven: fence-busting Cienfuegos versus equally explosive Granma, with home runs flying over the outfield fences of 5 de Septiembre and Mártires de Barbados stadiums and Elephant and Stallion pitchers repeatedly ducking for cover. After season-long slugging displays from the twin tandems represented by José Dariel Abreu and Yasiel Puig (50 long balls between them), and Yoennis Céspedes and Alfredo Despaigne (combining for a record 60 round trippers), a Cienfuegos-Granma showdown would seem to promise a most entertaining and thrilling late-April finale. It would be a final act fit for a Gold Anniversary National Series distinguished by unprecedented slugging and marred by surprisingly inept pitching. On paper at least such a Cienfuegos-Granma showdown would be a culminating series most island fans (this writer included) would savor above all others.

 

 


DespaigneFantastico.jpg 

But post-season baseball rarely follows the expected script. This is just as true whether we are taking about the Cuban National Series, the Major League October television spectacle, or even the Mudville Senior Citizen Slow Pitch Softball circuit. Certainly the highly touted Habana Province starting pitching can be expected to have some impact on how this current playoff round unfolds. And we shouldn’t discount the year-long balance of Roger Machado’s always underrated Ciego de Avila Tigers. Villa Clara inevitably boasts a much stronger and more intimating outfit once the playoff action rolls around. Cepeda and Gourriel have proven time and again that they are capable of carrying the often-underachieving Sancti Spíritus Gallos on their backs once the competition is at its strongest. And Pinar del Río’s young and underrated lineup has slowly but surely been making believers of the many who saw little reason to pay attention back in December or January to a Vegueros ball club no longer boasting the talented arms of Pedro Luis Lazo and Yunieski Maya.

 

It will be a strange playoff scene indeed with Cuba’s two most celebrated showcase teams left out of the mix. One has to go back 16 years (National Series #34 in 1995) to find a campaign where neither Industriales (all-time frontrunner with a dozen banners to its credit) nor Santiago de Cuba (eight times a titlist) made it to the post-season fray. Since quarterfinals were first introduced in 1998, both of the traditional island powers have appeared in every single playoff shootout. In the new millennium one club or the other has worn the championship crown every spring but two (Holguín in 2002 and Habana Province in 2009). So while there perhaps won’t be the same enthusiasm for playoff baseball in the capital city or in the most populous regions of the Oriente this time around, the remainder of the island has to be buoyed by the absence of the two National Series bullies. Post-season tradition may be out the window for Cuba’s celebrated fiftieth anniversary season, but the prospect of a brand new face standing in the winner’s circle nonetheless certainly has its undeniable and compensating charms.

 

On the eve of a new and historic post-season what lies in store for Cuban League aficionados? And what are the most likely scenarios once playoff action heats up for real on Friday evening? Here in capsule form is what each of the eight surviving clubs promises to bring to the table.

 

Cienfuegos (1st, 59-31) dominated the Occidental League from start Day One, much like Sancti Spíritus did a year earlier before collapsing in opening round action under the pressures of a late-season charge by Industriales. The Elephants rang up a club-record 59 victories and boasted some of the top slugging and most proficient pitching found anywhere on the island. But history certainly doesn’t seem to be on the side of a team that has never claimed a championship and only once before ever punched its ticket to the post-season dance (back in 2003, when the Elephants were ousted in five first-round games by Pinar del Río). Most attention this winter has been focused on the slugging of Abreu, Puig and catcher Asvaldo Arias, and thus on an offense that smacked 103 homes (a third of those by Abreu) and batted a composite .307 (third in the Occidente behind Sancti Spíritus and also-ran Industriales). But this is also a team with some noteworthy arms in a year when pitching has been indeed scarce everywhere across the league. Veteran southpaw Norberto González turned in a sterling 13-2 ledger and Noelvis Entenza (11-4) held opponents to a miniscule .194 BA. Both worked in excess of 130 innings (fourth and fifth in the entire 16 team league). Better still, workhorse bullpen ace Duniel Ibarra paced the circuit in appearances (40) and set a new league record for saves (27). If Cienfuegos arguably owns the second most productive offense in the Western Division (behind Sancti Spíritus), they also unquestionably own the second best pitching alignment (trailing only Habana Province). The only negatives for the Elephants seem to be youth and a severe lack of playoff experience.

 

Pinar del Río (2nd, 50-39) has been this season’s biggest surprise (that is if one discounts the sub-winning record and playoff elimination of underachieving Industriales). By resurrecting a team that didn’t make the playoffs last time out, and then also lost its heart with Pedro Lazo’s December retirement, Alfonso Urquiola probably deserves the nod as Cuban League manager of the year. There are a numerous new faces in Pinar (especial on the pitching staff) and also a solid mix of veterans in the offensive lineup – namely Yosvany Peraza (recovered from last year’s hand injury), Donald Duarte, William Saavedra, and Norlis Concepción. Despite all the talk of power displays in Cienfuegos, it should be noted that Pinar is the only league club outside of Granma featuring three different sluggers above the 20-homer mark – Saavedra (21), Duarte (21) and Peraza (20). But Lazo is not around, nor is Maya, and the pitching is therefore (at worst) sometimes woeful and (at best) usually inconsistent. Of the eight playoff clubs only Granma registered a higher ERA from its relief staff and only Ciego suffers from a loftier ERA among the starting ptichers. If pitching is what prevails in the post-season – as the old saying has it – then Pinar is in trouble from the opening bell. The matchup with the underachieving Gallos plus home field advantage bode well for a run to the semifinals. But despite all the spirit this team plays with, anything more than four opening round wins would have to be classified a miracle.

 

Sancti Spíritus (3rd, 49-41) boasts only a slightly more impressive playoff history than does Cienfuegos, though the Roosters do own at least one title (earned way back in 1979) and did somewhat surprisingly make the Finals in 2002. No club in the West can boast a better top-to-bottom offensive contingent than the one represented by Mendoza, Gourriel, Cepeda, Sánchez and Yenier Bello. This club hit a division-best overall .312 and boasted 125 round trippers; Cepeda produced a mammoth “career year” with his .397 BA, 28 homers, 25 doubles and league-best 236 total bases. Cepeda can at times carry Lourdes Gourriel’s club single-handedly, as he did during a six-game homer streak in early March. And the pitching isn’t that bad either with Ismel Jiménez carrying the load (13-5, 2.53 ERA) and Lázaro Santana supplementing veterans Noelvis Hernández and Angel Peña. But this same club collapsed completely under playoff pressures last spring (when coming off even greater late-season momentum than this year). Most readers known that this writer’s heart lies with Cepeda, Gourriel and company; but I would have to give that heart pretty wide latitude to hold out much hope for a very deep run from the inconsistent Gallos.

 

Habana Province (4th, 49-41) is all about pitching, with a starting rotation consisting entirely of familiar national team stalwarts (Miguel Alfredo González, Yulieski González, Jonder Martínez and Yadier Pedroso). And the standard wisdom has long been that the best pitching usually wins playoff series, as it did for manager Lombillo two years back (but somehow failed to do one season latter). The positive side here is that this particular edition of the Cowboys has boasted surprisingly good offensive all season long. Shifted to first base, Ernesto Molinet enjoyed a “career season” of his own with 18 dingers and a robust .345 BA; the club batted .294 as a whole; Dayan García logged 118 hits; and Michel Rodríguez belted 23 two baggers. The bad news, however, is that the vaunted pitching is starting to show some wear and tear of late. Jonder lost more games than he won and his usually brilliant ERA (league leader a few years back) soared above four (4.66). Miguel Alfredo (8-5, 3.19) and Yulieski (9-7, 4.00) were not nearly the dominant forces they are normally expected to be. And Jorge Angel García (one win and two saves) is no longer a mainstay in the bullpen. Habana should nonetheless enjoy something of an emotional edge, as the team is now playing its swan song season under its current manifestation. (Most of this roster will play under the banner of Artemisa when two new clubs join the league for NS #51.) Habana will be certainly dangerous in any short series, especially if even two of the big four starters revert to earlier form. But some of the air seems to have been let out of a pitching staff than looked unbeatable only a year or so in the past. Lombillo’s crew has a lot of questions to answer on their final road to a possible title. I for one am not that optimistic about their chances in light of recent history.

 

Ciego de Avila (1st, 55-35) receives very little respect from island fandom, despite winning more games than anyone over the past three seasons. The club has been solid enough in regular season play for several years now. There are a couple big name pitchers here – national team veterans Maikel Folch and Vladimir García – and a sufficient number of solid hitters, including ageless Isaac Martínez and sluggers Yoelvis Fiss (.345, 17 HRs) and Yorelvis Charles. Add to the mix the strong season of center fielder Rusney Castillo, who belted 18 round trippers and paced the lineup with 118 base hits. But Machado’s team can never seem to solve the mystery of Villa Clara in post-season frays. And a further danger signal this time around is the fact that neither lefty Folch (8-6, 5.56), nor righty García (8-4, 6.11 ERA), was a shadow of what they have been in recent league or international seasons. Admittedly this is one of the best hitting outfits in the league, posting the second best offensive numbers against righties and third best against lefties. The strongest suit for the Tigers is defense – with a stellar infield (Charles at first, MarioVega at second, national team shortstop Yorbis Borroto, and Raúl González at third) that commited only 19 errors across the entire 90-game campaign. For the Tigers to finally roar in the post-season, however, Machado will somehow have to find some more acceptable starting pitching to go along with that vaunted offense and glue-like glove work.

 

Granma (2nd, 53-37) has the biggest horses (fittingly for a team called “Stallions”) and this may well be their year to batter all the opposition. There are pitching shortcomings with this team, especially in the bullpen, and the Stallion defense is easily one of the poorest in the league. Most seasons the combination of shaky hurling and a porous infield would equate to a certain early exit from the pressure-packed playoff round. But with the league-wide drought in pitching, this might be a year in which a good offense (let alone an excellent offense) can hope to get by simply by outslugging and outlasting its opposition on the scoreboard. If it is, Granma’s “three musketeers” seem to be the ideal formula. Between them, the trio of Céspedes, Despaigne and Yordanis Samon combined for 81 homers, 274 RBI and 632 total bases. Three other hitters in the lineup topped 15 homers (Ramon Tamayo, Carlos Benitez, Urmaris Guerra). The consistency of mound aces Ciro Silvino Licea (11-5, but with a 4.43 ERA) and Alain Tamayo (9-3, 4.80 ERA) might prove a major factor in any title aspirations for the Stallions. But those elevated runs-allowed numbers for the two top starters only suggest that Licea and Tamayo won consistently not due to their mastery but only because of all the hefty run support they regularly received.

 

Guantánamo (3rd, 51-39) is like a broken record. This team for a couple of years now has been great in December and January, average in February and March, and dreadfully disappointing in April. Shades of last season, what looked like the Oriente’s best outfit at mid-season allowed itself to be overhauled down the stretch by Granma (for second place), and then escaped falling to fourth by only a half-game in the standings. Alexander Rodríguez (1.98 ERA) may be the best young mound prospect in Cuba, posting an 8-3 ledger and doing some extra “closer” duty with 10 saves. Danier Hinojosa can also be brilliant at times, as he proved with international outings in the late summer and early fall (two perfect games versus weak tournament opposition). But manager Lescaille faces the identical problem that plagues Eduardo Martin in Villa Clara – he doesn’t have Rodríguez to plug the gap more than a couple of times in any given series. One of these years the Indians are going to wake up in April and prove to be a legitimate playoff contender. But there is no real reason to suspect that this will be that year.

 

Villa Clara (4th, 50-39) has three major problems. Pestano is still the heart and soul of this team and clearly still the team leader, but Pestano is getting old by most standards for catchers. It also has proven difficult to replace Leonys Martin at the top of the lineup and Ramon Lunar (.282 with 11 homers) has not emerged as the instant star everyone expected only two seasons back. And worst of all perhaps, Eduardo Martin simply can’t pitch Freddy Asiel Alvarez every other day. Alvarez was far and away the best arm in the league this year, topping all rivals with an eye-popping 1.89 ERA. If any pitcher on the island can consistently shut down the opposition in big games it is Freddy Asiel. But Alvarez will need a lot of help from an offense that batted only .281 overall and featured only 58 homers – the fewest on the island and only barely half the number amassed by opening opponent Ciego. The Orangemen will have to shut down the better Tiger offense, but it is not at all clear how that will happen on the days when Freddy Asiel in not available for duty. Misael Siverio won nine games but was hardly stingy with his 3.12 ERA. Last year’s young southpaw sensation Robelio Carrillo posted a losing ledger this time out. But for all these obvious negatives, the fact remains that Villa Clara always seems to transform itself from an unimposing Dr. Jekyll into a potent Mr. Hyde once the post-season pressure rolls around.

 

Quarterfinal rounds are perhaps always the hardest to predict, though home field advantage often looms big between otherwise evenly balanced opponents. Whose late-season momentum will carry over from the late-season sprint to the finish (like Industriales last year)? And whose stream roller will run out of gas (like Sancti Spíritus in the most recent post-season)? If there are dark horses here they have to be Habana Province with all that stellar pitching and Villa Clara with its year-in and year-out psychological edge over Ciego. But the Cowboys looked very beatable in the season-ending crucial series with inspired and overachieving Pinar. And Villa Clara had to struggle over the last month just to reach the “second season” matches. As already said, pitching usually wins in the playoff round. But this year no one in the league has been able to muster enough pitching to win consistently, even with their best arms on duty, and even Habana Province for the first time in years was carried more by their resurrected bats than by their suddenly rather  limp arms. In this “year of the hitter” I will throw my lot with the teams displaying the most firepower. But that said, Ciego vs. Villa Clara is still the hardest matchup to figure and thus also the series most likely to go right down to the wire.

 

Semifinal clashes promise some balanced matchups if only the first round goes according to form. The problem is that Villa Clara of late always seems to throw a monkey wrench into the mixture. Forecasting the semifinal round this far in advance is always nearly meaningless, of course, since everything depends on how the opening week of first-round games plays out. At this stage we don’t even know what the potential matchups might be. But assuming that my crystal ball proves lucid for the quarterfinals – that is, providing that Granma and Cienfuegos don’t explode under pressure like Sancti Spíritus and Guantánamo did last time around – then I have to like those two clubs to reach the big stage. Ciego de Avila with its slightly better pitching likely has far more upset possibilities than does Pinar.  But I watched Machado’s team play two sloppy series in Havana in February (swept by lowly Metros) and March (a series lost to inspired Industriales) and I simply don’t like the way Machado’s Tigers handle big games on the road. And Pinar’s Vegueros (Tobacco Growers) simply don’t have enough healthy arms in the bullpen to slow down the Elephants’ excessively heavy lumber.

 

One thing is already certain – Cuba will celebrate a new league champion at the conclusion of this Golden Anniversary season. And I have a gut feeling the surprise many be even  bigger than anticipated in a season that has already proven full of so many surprises – an Industriales collapse, late-season slugging heroics by Abreu and Céspedes, and the total resurrection of Freddie Cepeda, to mention just a few of the shockers. A final showdown between Cienfuegos with Abreu and Puig and Granma with Despaigne and Céspedes might be the most dramatic if not the most artistic finale in many a year. Two offense-minded outfits battling for their first-ever post-season crown should grip most of the island even if it leaves the Industriales fateful sulking on the sidelines. My intuition says that after lurking in the shadows of teammate Céspedes all winter, Alfredo Despaigne will reemerge to carry the Alazanes on his broad shoulders across a series of high-scoring and nail-biting contests. So let the fireworks and Home Run Derby begin.

 

Professor Bjarkman’s Fearless Picks

Quarterfinals (Occidental League)

Cienfuegos over Habana Province (six games)

Pinar del Río over Sancti Spíritus (five games)

Quarterfinals (Oriente League)

Ciego de Avila over Villa Clara (seven games)

Granma over Guantánamo (four games)

Semifinals

Granma over Ciego de Avila (five games)

Cienfuegos over Pinar del Río (six games)

Championship Finals

Granma over Cienfuegos (six games)

Post-Season MVP: Alfredo Despaigne (Granma)

 

New Records for Cuban Sluggers Abreu and Cépedes

Young and unseasoned pitchers, the economic necessity of playing mostly daylight games, and of course the lively Mizuno 150 baseball – all have conspired to produce an unprecedented outburst of home run slugging across the last three Cuban League seasons. First Alexei Bell pounded out a record 31 round-trippers in 2008, a standard that lasted only a single season before Granma’s Alfredo Despaigne upped the mark by one in National Series #48. Last winter Despaigne fell a single dinger short of duplicating his own standard while edging José Dariel Abreu and Yulieski Gourriel (both with 30) on the final day of the campaign. National Series #49 marked the first occasion on which three different Cuban Leaguers all topped the once-milestone 30-homer plateau in a single campaign. And now landmark Gold Anniversary SN#50 has ended in yet another assault on the record books, with both Abreu and Yoennis Céspedes achieving a record-busting 33 four baggers and a half dozen other prodigious sluggers (paced by Reutilio Hurtado with 30, Joan Carlos Pedroso with 29, Freddie Cepeda with 28, and Despaigne with 27) trailing close on their heels.

 

The recent unprecedented slugging explosion has resulted in eight of the nine individual 30-plus homer campaigns all falling within the three most recent seasons. And certainly more of the same might reasonably be expected in the near future. The only two sluggers to top the 30 barrier in two different seasons, both Abreu and Despaigne notably missed more than a quarter of the just-concluded season. Had Abreu not sat out 23 contests due to nagging shoulder pain (bursitis), and had Despaigne not missed an identical number of games in December and early January (while traveling with a Cuban delegation to the World Youth Festival in South Africa), it is highly likely that both would have approached or even topped the once unimaginable level of 40-plus during the present 90-game campaign.

 

Top Cuban League Individual Home Run Seasons (27-Plus HRs)

33 José Dariel Abreu (Cienfuegos), 2011 National Series #50 (90-game season)#

33 Yoennis Céspedes (Granma), 2011 National Series #50 (90-game season)*

32 Alfredo Despaigne (Granma), 2009 National Series #48 (90-game season)

31 Alfredo Despaigne (Granma), 2010 National Series #49 (90-game season)

31 Alexei Bell (Santiago de Cuba), 2008 National Series #47 (90-game season)

30 José Dariel Abreu (Cienfuegos), 2010 National Series #49 (90-game season)*

30 Yulieski Gourriel (Sancti Spíritus), 2010 National Series #49 (90-game season*

30 Orestes Kindelán (Serranos), 1986 Selective Series #12 (63-game season)

30 Reutilio Hurtado (Santiago de Cuba), 2011 National Series #50 (90-game season)*

29 Joan Carlos Pedroso (Las Tunas), 2011 National Series #50 (90-game season)*

28 Frederich Cepeda (Sancti Spíritus), 2011 National Series #50 (90-game season)*

28 Orestes Kindelán (Serranos), 1988 Selective Series #14 (63-game season)

28 Joan Carlos Pedroso (Las Tunas), 2003 National Series #42 (90-game season)

27 Alfredo Despaigne (Granma), 2011 National Series #50 (90-game season)*

27 Joan Carlos Pedroso (Las Tunas), 2005 National Series #44 (90-game season)

27 Yulieski Gourriel (Sancti Spíritus), 2006 National Series #45 (90-game season)

27 Lázaro Junco (Matanzas), 1993 National Series #32 (65-game season)

27 Alexander Malleta (Industriales), 2011 National Series #50 (90-game season)*

#=Abreu declared 2011 home run champion by league ruling (fewer “official” at-bats)

*=Players who did not win the home run title in that particular season

 

Abreu (who turned 24 in January) began the campaign with a bang and at mid-year seemed a strong bet to log a Triple Crown performance – the first since Orestes Kindelán turned the trick back in 1989 (a season in which separate batting titles were awarded in the Occidental and Oriente league divisions). Abreu’s fast start produced nine long balls in 18 contests and 23 by the mid-season 45-game mark. But mid-season injury left the Cienfuegos first sacker with nearly a month-long dry spell during which he failed to connect between February 9 and March 5 (21 games). Céspedes started much slower but roared down the stretch with a dozen blasts in January and nine in March to assume the league lead with but five games remaining. Céspedes equaled the record et in 2009 teammate Despaigne on March 20 (game #87) and then surpassed it on the season’s penultimate day. Abreu, however, roared back on the final two days of the campaign, smacking round-trippers in both ends of a Tuesday twin bill, and then equaled Céspedes on the final day of play. Abreu also walked off with the batting crown (.453) while Céspedes (with 99) held on for RBI honors. While Abreu and Céspedes now temporarily share the new league high-water mark, the former stands as this year’s “official” slugging champion due to a league regulation recognizing a single titleholder based on fewest overall at-bats.

 

For true aficionados of Cuban League statistics, complete logs for the record-setting home run seasons by Abreu (2011), Céspedes (2011) and Despaigne (2009) are provided below. It is noteworthy that both Céspedes (unlike Despaigne in 2009) seems to have benefited greatly by playing home games in Bayamo’s cramped Mártires de Barbados ballpark. The former wacked 17 of this year’s homers at the batter-friendly Granma stadium, while the latter only logged 10 of his 32 round-trippers in that same facility two years back. Abreu also blasted 16 of his record number in the home park during the current campaign, but Abreu’s home-field shots came in the much more spacious 5 de Septiembre Cienfuegos playing grounds.

 


 
AbreuHR33.JPG 

José Dariel Abreu’s National Series #50 Home Run Log (2010-2011)

HR#

Game

Date

Stadium

Opposing Team

#33

90

Mar 23, 2011

5 de Septiembre (Cienfuegos)

Sancti Spíritus

#32

89

Mar 22, 2011

5 de Septiembre (Cienfuegos)

Sancti Spíritus

#31

88

Mar 22, 2011

5 de Septiembre (Cienfuegos)

Sancti Spíritus

#30

85

Mar 18, 2011

5 de Septiembre (Cienfuegos)

Guantánamo

#29

84

Mar 17, 2011

5 de Septiembre (Cienfuegos)

Santiago de Cuba

#28

80

Mar 12, 2011

Julio Antonio Mella (Las Tunas)

Las Tunas

#27

79

Mar 11, 2011

Julio Antonio Mella (Las Tunas)

Las Tunas

#26

74

Mar 5, 2011

Nguyen Van Troi (Guantánamo)

Guantánamo

#25

53

Feb 9, 2011

5 de Septiembre (Cienfuegos)

Holguín

#24

52

Feb 8, 2011

5 de Septiembre (Cienfuegos)

Holguín

#23

45

Jan 27, 2011

5 de Septiembre (Cienfuegos)

Villa Clara

#22

45

Jan 27, 2011

5 de Septiembre (Cienfuegos)

Villa Clara

#21

44

Jan 26, 2011

5 de Septiembre (Cienfuegos)

Villa Clara

#20

44

Jan 26, 2011

5 de Septiembre (Cienfuegos)

Villa Clara

#19

42

Jan 23, 2011

Mártires de Barbados (Granma)

Granma

#18

41

Jan 22, 2011

Mártires de Barbados (Granma)

Granma

#17

40

Jan 21, 2011

Mártires de Barbados (Granma)

Granma

#16

39

Jan 20, 2011

Calixto García (Holguín)

Holguín

#15

37

Jan 18, 2011

Calixto García (Holguín)

Holguín

#14

36

Jan 16, 2011

Heroes de Mayabeque (Güines)

Habana Province

#13

35

Jan 15, 2011

Nelson Fernández (San José)

Habana Province

#12

33

Jan 13, 2011

Capitán San Luis (Pinar del Río)

Pinar del Río

#11

29

Jan 8, 2011

5 de Septiembre (Cienfuegos)

Industriales

#10

25

Jan 4, 2011

5 de Septiembre (Cienfuegos)

Matanzas

#9

18

Dec 19, 2010

Latinoamericano (Havana)

Industriales

#8

17

Dec 18, 2010

Latinoamericano (Havana)

Industriales

#7

16

Dec 17, 2010

Latinoamericano (Havana)

Industriales

#6

14

Dec 15, 2010

Victoria de Girón (Matanzas)

Matanzas

#5

13

Dec 14, 2010

Victoria de Girón (Matanzas)

Matanzas

#4

9

Dec 9, 2010

Nico Egozcue (Cienfuegos)

Pinar del Río

#3

6

Dec 5, 2010

5 de Septiembre (Cienfuegos)

Isla de la Juventud

#2

2

Dec 1, 2010

5 de Septiembre (Cienfuegos)

Metros

#1

1

Nov 30, 2010

5 de Septiembre (Cienfuegos)

Metros

 

 


Cespedes33HR.JPGYoennis Céspedes’s National Series #50 Home Run Log (2010-2011)

HR#

Game

Date

Stadium

Opposing team

#33

89

Mar 22, 2011

Mártires de Barbados (Granma)

Holguín

#32

87

Mar 20, 2011

Mártires de Barbados (Granma)

Matanzas

#31

86

Mar 19, 2011

Mártires de Barbados (Granma)

Matanzas

#30

85

Mar 18, 2011

Mártires de Barbados (Granma)

Matanzas

#29

84

Mar 17, 2011

Mártires de Barbados (Granma)

Industriales

#28

75

Mar 5, 2011

Victoria de Girón (Matanzas)

Matanzas

#27

74

Mar 5, 2011

Victoria de Girón (Matanzas)

Matanzas

#26

71

Mar 2, 2011

Latinoamericano (Havana)

Industriales

#25

70

Mar 1, 2011

Latinoamericano (Havana)

Industriales

#24

63

Feb 20, 2011

Mártires de Barbados (Granma)

Metros

#23

59

Feb 16, 2011

Mártires de Barbados (Granma)

Isla de la Juventud

#22

59

Feb 16, 2011

Mártires de Barbados (Granma)

Isla de la Juventud

#21

58

Feb 15, 2011

Mártires de Barbados (Granma)

Isla de la Juventud

#20

51

Feb 3, 2011

Calixto García (Holguín)

Holguín

#19

50

Feb 2, 2011

Calixto García (Holguín)

Holguín

#18

47

Jan 29, 2011

Changa Mederos (Havana)

Metros

#17

44

Jan 26, 2011

Cristóbal Labra (Nueva Gerona)

Isla de la Juventud

#16

43

Jan 25, 2011

Cristóbal Labra (Nueva Gerona)

Isla de la Juventud

#15

37

Jan 18, 2011

Mártires de Barbados (Granma)

Sancti Spíritus

#14

36

Jan 16, 2011

Mártires de Barbados (Granma)

Camagüey

#13

33

Jan 13, 2011

Mártires de Barbados (Granma)

Las Tunas

#12

32

Jan 12, 2011

Mártires de Cauto (Granma)

Las Tunas

#11

30

Jan 9, 2011

Guillermon Moncada (Santiago)

Santiago de Cuba

#10

30

Jan 9, 2011

Guillermon Moncada (Santiago)

Santiago de Cuba

#9

28

Jan 7, 2011

Guillermon Moncada (Santiago)

Santiago de Cuba

#8

28

Jan 7, 2011

Guillermon Moncada (Santiago)

Santiago de Cuba

#7

26

Jan 5, 2011

Nguyen Van Troi (Guantánamo)

Guantánamo

#6

19

Dec 21, 2010

Mártires de Barbados (Granma)

Ciego de Avila

#5

18

Dec 19, 2010

Mártires de Barbados (Granma)

Santiago de Cuba

#4

14

Dec 15, 2010

Mártires de Barbados (Granma)

Guantánamo

#3

14

Dec 15, 2010

Mártires de Barbados (Granma)

Guantánamo

#2

14

Dec 15, 2010

Mártires de Barbados (Granma)

Guantánamo

#1

7

Dec 7, 2010

José R. Cepero (Ciego de Avila)

Ciego de Avila

 

 


AlfDespaigne1.jpgAlfredo Despaigne’s National Series #48 Home Run Log (2008-2009)

HR#

Game

Date

Stadium

Opposing Team

#32

90

May 3, 2009

Augusto César Sandino (Santa Clara)

Villa Clara

#31

83

Apr 25, 2009

Cauto Cristo (Granma)

Isla de la Juventud

#30

80

Apr 22, 2009

Mártires de Barbados (Granma)

Pinar del Río

#29

76

Apr 17, 2009

Mártires de Barbados (Granma)

Villa Clara

#28

76

Apri17, 2009

Mártires de Barbados (Granma)

Villa Clara

#27

74

Apr 15, 2009

Mártires de Barbados (Granma)

Ciego de Avila

#26

73

Apr 14, 2009

Mártires de Barbados (Granma)

Ciego de Avila

#25

72

Apr 12, 2009

Capitán San Luis (Pinar del Río)

Pinar del Río

#24

68

Apr 8, 2009

Cristobal Labra (Nueva Gerona)

Isla de la Juventud

#23

66

Apr 5, 2009

Mártires de Barbados (Granma)

Sancti Spíritus

#22

64

Apr 3, 2009

Mártires de Barbados (Granma)

Sancti Spíritus

#21

61

Mar 31, 2009

Wilfredo Páges (Manzanillo)

Cienfuegos

#20

60

Mar 29, 2009

Calixto García (Holguín)

Holguín

#19

59

Mar 28, 2009

Báguanos (Holguín)

Holguín

#18

59

Mar 28, 2009

Báguanos (Holguín)

Holguín

#17

58

Mar 27, 2009

Calixto García (Holguín)

Holguín

Six-Week Break for World Baseball Classic

#16

57

Feb 8, 2009

Guillermón Moncada (Santiago)

Santiago de Cuba

#15

57

Feb 8, 2009

Guillermón Moncada (Santiago)

Santiago de Cuba

#14

56

Feb 7, 2009

Guillermón Moncada (Santiago)

Santiago de Cuba

#13

54

Feb 5, 2009

Nguyen Van Troi (Guantánamo)

Guantánamo

#12

49

Jan 30, 2009

Wilfredo Páges (Manzanillo)

Camagüey

#11

40

Jan 20, 2009

Mártires de Barbados (Granma)

Habana Province

#10

39

Jan 18, 2009

Latinoamericano (Havana)

Metros

#9

38

Jan 17, 2009

Latinoamericano (Havana)

Metros

#8

37

Jan 16, 2009

Latinoamericano (Havana)

Metros

#7

36

Jan 15, 2009

Victoria de Girón (Matanzas)

Matanzas

#6

24

Dec 28, 2008

Mártires de Barbados (Granma)

Holguín

#5

19

Dec 23, 2008

Mártires de Barbados (Granma)

Guantánamo

#4

13

Dec 16, 2008

Julio Antonio Mella (Las Tunas)

Las Tunas

#3

6

Dec 7, 2008

5 de Septiembre (Cienfuegos)

Cienfuegos

#2

4

Dec 4, 2008

José Antonio Huelga (Sancti Spíritus)

Sancti Spíritus

#1

4

Dec 4, 2008

José Antonio Huelga (Sancti Spíritus)

Sancti Spíritus

 

Several additional notes might be added here about this season’s batting explosion. With his 99 RBIs, Céspedes posted the third highest total in National Series histories, trailing only Alexei Bell’s record 111 (2008) and Yulieski Gourriel’s league-leading 105 of last winter. Céspedes and Frederich Cepeda together paced the circuit in Total Bases with 236, while Cepeda barely missed hitting .400 (falling to .397 on the final day). Runner-up to Abreu in batting was Isla’s Michel Enríquez who finished strong at .401 (his third career season over the .400 mark). Enríquez in the process raised is 14-season lifetime mark to .367, which now leaves him a single point shy of Omar Linares as Cuba’s lifetime batting leader. With his third season of 27-plus homers, Joan Carlos Pedroso (Las Tunas) raised his career total to 270 and lengthened his margin as Cuba’s lifetime leader in homers hit in the wooden-bat era (264). And Céspedes and Despaigne now become the first pair of teammates to combine for sixty round trippers in a single campaign.

 

And one final observation is in order concerning José Dariel Abreu. It has often been claimed in Cuba that the island’s greatest slugging feat was the 30 homers blasted by Orestes Kindelán in a 63-game Selective Series campaign back in 1986, though it might well be argued that Kindelán’s performance was somewhat illegitimate due to the use of aluminum bats. Note, however, that despite the current 90-game National Series framework, this season Abreu only appeared in 67 games and reached the fences 33 times (three more than Kindelán). Kindelán’s 30 homers in 1986 came in 233 ABs which resulted in an average on one dinger every 7.77 official at-bats. Abreu this year struck 33 homers in 212 ABs for an incredible 6.42 HR/AB ratio. This home run frequency easily now makes Abreu the most productive single-season long-ball threat in league history, if one only discounts some of the shorter seasons played by Kindelán who enjoyed the incomparable advantages of aluminum bat-era competitions. The below chart will shed some final light on Piti Abreu’s current miraculous season.

 

Cuba’s All-Time Most Proficient Single-Season Home Run Sluggers

Batter                                      Series                      Team                       Games    AB           HR           Frequency

*Orestes Kindelán                  NS#27 (1988)          Santiago                  48            140          22            6.36

José Dariel Abreu                   NS#50 (2011)          Cienfuegos              67 (90)    212          33            6.42

*Orestes Kindelán                  NS#28 (1989)          Santiago                 48            164          24            6.83

*Lázaro Junco                         SS#x8 (1982)          Henequeneros         48            179          25            7.16

*Antonio Muñoz                     SS#5 (1979)            Las Villas                 59            180          25            7.20

*Pedro José Rodríguez           SS#4 (1978)            Las Villas                 60            217          28            7.75

*Orestes Kindelán                  SS#12 (1986)          Serranos                  63            233          30            7.77

*Orestes Kindelán                  NS#26 (1987)          Santiago                 48            136          17            8.00

*Lázaro Junco                         NS#32 (1993)          Matanzas                65            217          27            8.04

*Romelio Martínez                NS#31 (1992)          Habana                    48            159          19            8.37

*Orestes Kindelán                  SS#14 (1988)          Serranos                  63            239          28            8.54

*Pedro José Rodríguez           NS#19 (1980)          Cienfuegos              51            158          18            8.78

Antonio Muñoz                       NS#15 (1976)          Azucareros              39            116          13            8.92

*Pedro José Rodríguez           NS#18 (1979)          Cienfuegos              51            171          19            9.00

*Romelio Martínez                SS#21 (1995)          Habana                    45            149          16            9.31

*Lázaro Junco                         NS#28 (1989)          Henequeneros        48            190          20            9.50

Alfredo Despaigne                  NS#50 (2011)         Granma                   67 (90)    261          27            9.67

*=Batters using aluminum bats

 

Cuban League Playoff Quarterfinals Schedule Now Set

The schedule is now available for the opening quarterfinals round of this year’s Cuban League playoffs. In the Occidental League Cienfuegos (1st Place) squares off with Habana Province (4th Place), while Pinar del Rio (2nd Place) clashes with Sancti Spiritus (3rd Place). In the Oriente League it is Ciego de Avila (1st) versus Villa Clara (4th) and Granma (2nd) colliding with Guantanamo (3rd). All quarterfinal series are best-of-seven affairs. The complete schedule is provided below, along with information about the Cuban television broadcast schedule. All games will also be carried on Radio Rebelde. In the below scheule the first listed team is the home club. For detailed coverage of the Cuban post-season see the special post-season page that should be available on www.BaseballdeCuba.com sometime later this weekend.

 

Cuartos de final

Fecha

Hora

Equipos

Canal de TV

Fri Mar 25

17:00

GRA vs. GTM

CE-2

20:00

CAV vs. VCL

TR

Sat Mar 26

17:00

CAV vs. VCL

CE-2

17:00

PRI vs. SSP

TR

20:00

GRA vs. GTM

CE-2

20:00

CFG vs. HAB

TR

Sun Mar 27

14:00

PRI vs. SSP

TR

14:00

CFG vs. HAB

CE-2

Mon Mar 28

17:00

VCL vs. CAV

CE-2

20:00

GTM vs. GRA

TR

Tues Mar 29

17:00

GTM vs. GRA

CE-2

17:00

HAB vs.-CFG

TR

20:00

VCL vs. CAV

TR

20:00

SSP vs. PRI

CE- 2

Wed Mar 30

17:00

VCL vs. CAV

CE-2

17:00

SSP vs. PRI

TR

20:00

GTM vs. GRA

TR

20:00

HAB vs. CFG

CE-2

Thurs Mar 31

17:00

HAB vs. CFG

TR

20:00

SSP vs. PRI

TR

Fri Apr 1

17:00

GRA vs. GTM

CE-2

20:00

CAV vs. VCL

TR

Sat Apr 2

17:00

CAV vs. VCL

CE-2

17:00

PRI vs. SSP

TR

20:00

GRA vs. GTM

TR

20:00

CFG vs. HAB

CE-2

Sun Apr 3

14:00

CFG vs. HAB

TR

14:00

PRI vs. SSP

CE-2

 

 

Cepeda’s Recent Consecutive-Game Home Run Mark

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.

 


CepedaBatsL2.jpgAll 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.

Anthony Bourdain and “No Reservations” Visit Havana

Cuban baseball fans are in for a real treat when an upcoming episode (filmed in March and likely to air in June) of Tony Bourdain’s blockbuster Travel Channel show features an inside look at the world of Cuban baseball. This author guides Tony on a worldwind tour that opens with a stop at a Havana city youth league champion game and also includes a visit the Parque Central “Esquina Caliente” where we debate the island’s national pastime (photo below) with some of Havana’s most passionate and opinionated fans. The baseball segment of the episode culminates with a visit to Latin American Stadium where we interview Industriales manager German Mesa and enjoy an on-the-field chat with veteran outfielder Carlos Tabares. And finally we take in a thrilling league game between the island-favorite Industriales ballclub and Oriente League pacesetter Ciego de Avila. It is definitely a must-see episode for all fans of winterball, or also for anyone craving an inside look at Cuba’s hidden baseball scene. (And the rest of Tony’s visit, as he samples Havana’s food and culture, is equally entertaining.) Stay tuned for exact broadcast dates.

PCB-Tony-PenaSm1.JPG