Cuba Strikes Gold with its First Caribbean Series Crown in More Than a Half-Century
A spirited 2014 Cuban National Series champion Pinar del Río ball club, reinforced with some of the Caribbean island’s biggest stars, staged a rather stunning comeback in San Juan on the final weekend of Caribbean Series #57 and thus made history in the process. The inspired win erased the deep disappointments of last year’s long-awaited return to Caribbean Series competition, where the country had not appeared since a 1960 title by the professional league Cienfuegos Elefantes closed out the First Stage of the annual winter league championships. This year’s Cuban victory breaks a stranglehold on the Series by Mexican Pacific League entries that had claimed three of the four most recent titles. But perhaps most significant of all, Pinar’s final weekend championship surge also ended a lengthy and increasingly desperate international championship drought for the once seemingly invincible Cubans who had not claimed a major title since their 2005 IBAF World Cup triumph over South Korea in The Netherlands eleven years earlier. And to spice the victory, this year’s long-overdue heroics were accomplished in the most dramatic and unlikely fashion.
The past ten-year span has indeed been a rough and somewhat barren one for Cuba’s baseball forces. After four decades of dominating the international arena against largely amateur league or university-level squads, victories suddenly became harder and harder with the introduction of professional players in IBAF events (including big leaguers) with the 1999 Pan American Games. There were admittedly many highlight performances during the opening decade of the new millennium, but a string of “no cigar” second-place finishes in such showcase events as the 2000 Sydney Olympics, 2006 inaugural World Baseball Classic, 2008 Beijing Olympics, and three straight final IBAF World Cup events (2007, 2009 and 2011) left little satisfaction for Cuban baseball boosters who once gloried in 156 consecutive individual tournament game victories (1987-1997) without a single setback. The low point seemed to come last winter in Venezuela with a disastrous return to Caribbean Series action that saw the outmanned Cubans (represented by league champion Villa Clara) capture but a single match in four outings and depart in disgrace as the first club eliminated from title contention.
It seemed like it would be more of the same during the opening days of this year’s San Juan tournament as the Cubans quickly fell to Mexico and the Dominicans, both losses marked by a severe lack of clutch hitting and a string of uncharacteristic defensive collapses. Primed for redemption, the Cuban Federation had stacked this year’s Pinar roster with 18 reinforcements headed by top sluggers Freddie Cepeda, Yulieski Gourriel and Alfredo Despaigne, plus the island’s top hurlers Freddy Asiel Alvarez and Norge Ruiz Luis. But the vaunted Cuban bats were silent against solid if not spectacular pitching from Mexican and Dominican minor league hurlers while aces Alvarez and Ruiz were each victimized by costly mistakes from a surprisingly porous Cuban defense. With its best two arms already spent in defeat and the favored Venezuelans and hometown Puerto Ricans still waiting in the wings, it appeared that a reprise of last year’s debacle was again in the offering since the Cubans had once again dug themselves a hole too deep to climb out of.
Early on-field losses were not the only adversity plaguing manager Alfonso Urquiola and his staff. Two players abandoned the squad in mid-week, on the eve of a crucial third contest with Puerto Rico that found the team facing possible early elimination. The loss of 2014 National Series rookie-of-the-year Vladimir Gutierrez was especially disruptive since it meant an already thin pitching roster would be even further weakened. And the flight of middle infielder Dainer Moreira also left the club with only one able-bodied and trustworthy shortstop. The “defections” were also largely unprecedented since players have rarely left a Cuban squad mid-stream in a major tournament, the only recent case being one involving of second baseman Aledmys Díaz who departed camp on the eve of the title game during the 2012 Haarlem Baseball Week.
But this year’s Cuban entry would prove to be an outfit defined by remarkable cohesiveness and a rare not-to-be-denied fighting spirit. With their backs against the wall Urquiola’s team quickly rebounded with a gutsy performance against a host Santurce club supported by a rabid capacity crowd that rocked Hiram Bithorn Stadium for ten tense see-saw innings. Yosvany Torres pitched admirably through four-plus frames and left with the game knotted at two runs apiece. Erlis Casanova provided adequate middle relief until eventual hero Héctor Mendoza took over in the seventh. Mendoza escaped desperate threats in both the bottom of the eight, when he stranded the lead runner at third, and ninth, when he again escaped a bases-loaded rally by striking out Yadiel Rivera. Roel Santos would provide the eventual “golden hit” in the bottom of the tenth after catcher Frank Camilo Morejon had opened the frame by reaching second on a costly throwing error. Wednesday’s dramatic affair meant that Cuba would live on, but the road was still a rocky one since help would be needed from the Dominicans who fortunely provided it the following evening by upending Mexico and thus eliminating winless Puerto Rico from any playoff possibilities. A 6-2 Cuban loss to Venezuela in the finale of opening round play meant little in the standings, but it did suggest that momentum was still not entirely on Cuba’s side since once more Urquiola’s club was sunk by a single big-inning enemy outburst marked by a number of costly defensive lapses.
The raw statistics were definitely not on Cuba’s side entering the final weekend of championship showdowns. Pinar had scored the fewest runs (6) and allowed the most tallies (17) of any team in the field. And they entered the semifinals with a slim pitching arsenal – two quality starters and an already taxed four-man bullpen – even if the two aces were now primed for reuse. As so many times in the past, a looming question remained why the Cubans had risked bringing a short roster only nine pitchers to the week-long event in San Juan. But it seemed to be a different Cuban team that faced undefeated Venezuela in the semifinals and defending champion Mexico in the finale. The Cubans fell behind early against the Venezuelans with Freddy Asiel surrendering three runs in the third and one in the fourth before Norge Ruiz had to be pressed into emergency service one day early. The tide nonetheless quickly turned with the slugging heroics of Freddie Cepeda, whose three-run triple in the sixth and bases-clearing double in the seventh proved all the comeback offense that would be needed. Cuba’s acknowledged top international star showed up precisely when most needed in what may well have been his grandest moment among so many stellar performances down through the years on an international stage.
The top-level professional seasoning experienced by Cepeda, Gourriel and Héctor Mendoza in Japan this past summer again seemed to pay huge dividends on the final evening. Cepeda once more launched Cuba into the lead with an RBI single in the first, Gourriel’s late-inning clutch homer proved vital, and Mendoza was once more the savior out of the Cuban bullpen. The tense championship finale mirrored the competitive quality of the entire week-long event. The Mexicans failed to wilt under Cuba’s early two-run lead and fought back into contention with a brief outburst against a tiring Yosvany Torres in the fifth. Gourriel struck perhaps the biggest blow of the week with his solo homer in the top of the eighth which provided a 3-1 late-game cushion. And then Mendoza again closed the door on the opposition, surviving a major threat by stranding the potential tying and winning runs on second and third in the eighth and setting the side down in order in the ninth to clinch the heroic victory. The ice-water-veined nineteen-year-old Mendoza played loomed large in all three Cuban wins, logging one victory and posting two vital saves.
The defections in the end were a minor distraction for the Cubans who were handicapped perhaps more by nagging minor injuries to third baseman Yander las O and backup shortstop Lourdes Gourriel than by the two vacant roster spots. But the midweek departures of Gutierrez and Moreira were also seemingly a throwback to an older time when reporters at the site seemed far more enamored of stories about players leaving the Cuban squad than they were about the exciting games that were taking place on the field. On the eve of the crucial Cuba-Puerto Rico match the press box was abuzz with false rumors suggesting that three or for more Cubans had departed including scheduled Game 3 starter Yosvany Torres. And there were still mysteries in the air at week’s end when the whereabouts of the two missing Cubans was still unknown and reports surfaced that Gutierrez may have applied for political asylum rather than seeking a third country residence. A further element of intrigue would be eventually added with the absence of shortstop Luis Alberto Valdés from Pinar’s lineup after the victorious club’s return home and the renewal of domestic National Series action.
Cepeda’s vital slugging on the final weekend earned tournament MVP honors as well as a slot on the All-Tournament Team as designated hitter. Three other Cubans also claimed tournament honors with la O tabbed as the all-star third baseman, Gourriel named the best second baseman and Mendoza honored as the top relief pitcher. Future stars seemed to be born with the heroics Mendoza and la O, and Urquiola proved his value in the managerial role, his first at the helm of Team Cuba since the 2011 Panama World Cup Games. The Cuba Federation will now likely have some tough managerial decisions to make with a debate certain to rage concerning the relative merits of steady-handed Urquiola versus the flamboyant Victor Mesa who has held the top post since the 2013 World Baseball Classic.
In retrospect it is easy to assess the considerable impact of Cuba’s surprising championship. The victory was anything but artistic as Urquiola’s Pinar club became only the second champion in the lengthy history of this event to lose three times on route to the title, and the first ever to lose as many contests as it won. But for all the rough spots Cuba is now back at the top of its game with a cherished and much-needed championship performance capable of rekindling sagging fan interest and ballplayer morale back home.
It is not an exaggeration to claim that this victory was every bit as significant as the 2006 charge to the finals of the inaugural MLB Classic. The opposition in San Juan was stacked with numerous top level minor leaguers and even a handful of former big leaguers, and the competition was arguably far more intense than that found in any edition of the World Baseball Classic, where most clubs (perhaps all them outside of the Dutch, Asians and Cubans) are staffed by big leaguers who treat the event as a spring training ritual and thus play with little passion or little obvious dedication to their national team colors. Cuba’s national sport is still staring at an uncertain future with the likelihood of a major shift in USA-Cuba relations now blowing in the wind. But a once-potent Cuban juggernaut now stands at least partially resurrected and after one glorious weekend of triumph in San Juan, the beleaguered ship that is Cuba’s proud baseball enterprise seems to have been at least temporarily righted.
Peter C. Bjarkman is Senior Writer at BaseballdeCuba.com (since 2007), widely recognized as a leading authority on Cuban baseball history (both pre- and post-revolution) and author of A History of Cuban Baseball, 1864-2006 (2007) among numerous other titles.
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