The just-completed 47th Cuban National Series was definitely “one for the record books” which saw better than 125 new individual and team records set. These included marks for both regular-season and playoff action, and also featured some of the most noteworthy achievements in Cuban baseball annals. Heading the list of new standards were the individual home run and RBI records set by National Series MVP Alexei Bell (pictured) of league champion Santiago. Also of top significance were the career mark for pitching victories established by Pinar’s Pedro Lazo, and the career playoff victories record rung up by Santiago’s Norge Vera. A summary of some of the top marks established in the various major record book categories are as follows:
National Series (Regular Season) Single Season Records:
Home Runs: Alexei Bell (Santiago de Cuba) 31
RBI: Alexei Bell (Santiago de Cuba) 111
Consecutive Pitching Victories: Yulieski Gonzalez (Habana) 15 (15-0)
National Series Lifetime Records:
Career Batting Average: Osmani Urrutia (Las Tunas) .368
Career Pitching Wins: Pedro Luis Lazo (Pinar del Rio) 237
Career Pitching Losses: Carlos Yanes (Isla de la Juventud) 223
Playoffs Lifetime Records:
Games Played: Rolando Merino (Santiago de Cuba) 146
Career Wins: Norge Vera (Santiago de Cuba) 31
Career Games Started: Ormari Romero (Santiago de Cuba) 44
Career Games Pitched: Pedro Luis Lazo (Pinar del Rio) 68
Playoff One-Season Records:
RBIs: Rolando Merino (Santiago de Cuba) 24
Hits: Rolando Merino (Santiago de Cuba) 28
Runs: Hector Olivera (Santiago de Cuba) 22
Special Career Records:
Most Seasons Managed: Carlos Marti (Granma) 25
Most Seasons Played: Carlos Yanes (Isla de la Juventud) 25
Most Hits in a Single Inning: Alexei Bell (Santiago) 3 (versus Villa Clara)
This listing of records was compiled by webmaster/columnist Yasel Porto at Havana’s Radio COCO baseball website. A complete listing of the 100-plus records set this season can be found on the Radio COCO site at http://www.radiococo.cu/cocobeisbol/serie%20nacional/coment-not/records-47series.htm.
April 23, 1921 marks the birthdate for Hall-of-Famer and renowned southpaw Warren Spahn. A hero of my own baseball youth spent in Hartford, Connecticut, Spahn was the smoothest looking lefty I ever witnessed–that is, until I had the chance a half-century later to watch Faustino Corrales.
For more on the Spahn birthday tribute the reader can turn to: http://rksbaseballbookshelf.wordpress.com/.
For more on Faustino Corrales you will have to wait for my publication of Who’s Who in Cuban Baseball, 1962-2008 (due out from McFarland sometime next spring).
April is indeed the cruelest month–at least for the fans of baseball’s most colorful spectacle–and inevitably another Cuban League season has now wrapped up and shut down for the summer months. But not without a considerable bang and a final hurrah. Santiago’s powerful offense swept to a fourth straight win over Pinar del Rio last night to claim a second straight league title and eighth in club history. The championship run by the offense-minded Wasps (Avispas) tacked a final exclamation mark on National Series #47–a record-breaking campaign that witnessed some of the most impressive individual performances in recent league annals. Over the course of the 90-game season Pedro Luis Lazo (Pinar del Rio) finally claimed a new standard for lifetime pitching victories (236), Santiago’s Alexei Bell set new marks for single-season homers (31) and RBIs (111), southpaw Yulieski Gonzalez (Habana Province) rang up an unprecedented 15-0 pitching mark, Isla veteran Carlos Yanes also climbed over the 200 level in career wins, and Granma outfielders Alfredo Despaigne and Yoennis Cespedes became the first pair of teammates to log a total of 50-plus homers between them. But in the end the big story was again Santiago, and fittingly it was “Player-of-the-Year” Alexei Bell who knocked home the deciding run (off Pedro Lazo) in last night’s tight 2-1 finale.
Santiago de Cuba’s Eight National Series Championships
1980 Manager: Manuel Miyar
1989 Manager: Higinio Velez (current Cuban League commissioner)
1999 Manager: Higinio Velez
2000 Manager: Higinio Velez
2001 Manager: Higinio Velez
2005 Manager: Antonio Pacheco
2007 Manager: Antonio Pacheco
2008 Manager: Antonio Pacheco
2008 Championship Series Recap (National Series #47)
Game 1 – Santiago de Cuba 8, Pinar del Rio 2 (Guillermon Moncada Stadium)
Veteran ace Norge Vera cruised through a complete-game effort with plenty of support from his teammates’ 12-hit attack. Catcher Rolando Merino and outfielder Alexei Bell (above) both homered (Bell’s long-ball number 34 on the year) while national team second baseman Hector Olivera went 3-for-5 with a run-producing double. The game was put away with a seven-run fifth inning uprising against Pinar starter Yosvani Torres.
Game 2 – Santiago de Cuba 9, Pinar del Rio 2 (Guillermon Moncada Stadium)
Santiago’s relentless hitting was the story for the second straight day as timely offense dispatched Pinar ace Pedro Lazo. Merino and Bell (two for the latter) again both homered. Santiago starter Alberto Bicet suffered a quick hook from manager Antonio Pacheco in the opening frame, but young bull pen stud Yaumier Sanchez performed brilliantly with 8.2 effective relief innings.
Game 3 – Santiago de Cuba 10, Pinar del Rio 4 (Capitan San Luis Stadium)
All the Santiago scoring this time came in two innings (a 4-run third and 6-run seventh) as six Pinar pitchers failed to slow the Wasps’ championship express. Pedro Poll smacked two doubles and Merino knocked home three runs to lead still another impressive offensive charge. Osmany Tamayo was the winning Wasps pitcher, allowing but a single harmless hit in four wrap-up relief innings.
Game 4 – Santiago de Cuba 2, Pinar del Rio 1 (Capitan San Luis Stadium)
The most competitive match of the short series was broken open by Bell’s clutch single off the relief delivery of Lazo in the top of the eighth. Ronnier Mustelier’s solo shot in the third accounted for the other Santiago run. Middle reliever Reinier Roibal worked five effective innings after replacing starter Osmari Romero. Game 1 starter Norge Vera earned the championship save with a three-and-out ninth inning flawless performance. Pinar’s Yunieski Maya also hurled 7.1 strong innings yet suffered the ill-deserved loss when Lazo couldn’t retire Bell in the crucial eighth frame.
Cuba’s version of the MLB World Series kicks off tonight (April 16) in the eastern port city of Santiago de Cuba, with the defending champion Santiago Avispas (Wasps) seeking their second consecutive crown and third in four years under manager (and former national team star) Antonio Pacheco. The opposition will be provided by eastern section champion Pinar del Rio in a seven game set stretching through next Thursday (if it lasts the full duration). The full playoff schedule is as follows:
April 16 (Wednesday 8:00 pm EST) at Santiago (Guillermon Moncada Stadium)
April 17 (Thursday 8:00 pm EST) at Santiago (Guillermon Moncada Stadium)
April 20 (Sunday 2:00 pm EST) at Pinar del Rio (Captain San Luis Stadium)
April 21 (Monday 8:00 pm EST) at Pinar del Rio (Captain San Luis Stadium)
April 22 (Tuesday 8:00 pm EST) at Pinar del Rio (Captain San Luis Stadium)
April 24 (Thursday 8:00 pm EST) at Santiago (Guillermon Moncada Stadium)
April 25 (Friday 8:00 pm EST) at Santiago (Guillermon Moncada Stadium)
Tonight’s opening action in Guillermon Moncada (above) will feature a pair of starting righties: Santiago’s Norge Vera (9-2, 2.89) and Pinar’s Yosvani Torres (8-2, 3.29). The veteran Vera (at 145-54) owns the second-best career won-lost mark in Cuban League annals. The defending champions, who dominated the league offensively all season long, seem the overwhelming favorites over a Pinar club that won its division yet played only .500 baseball (45-45) throughout the regular campaign. But the gritty Pinar team has been the true surprise of the post-season so far with its upsets of both Industriales and Sancti Spiritus in the early rounds; certainly the Pinarenos can not be counted out in any short series–especially since they boast the pitching of national team stars Pedro Lazo and Yunieski Maya and the hefty bat of catcher Yosvani Peraza (29 homers).
All the playoff action can be followed on radio (Radio Rebelde) or television (Cubavision International) via links provided on our Cuban League website at www.baseballdecuba.com. If you have never experienced the excitement and color of a Cuban League game it might be well worth having a look. Full commentary on the championship series will also be provided starting tonight with my own columns (English) and those of webmaster Ray Otero (Spanish)–all available on the same www.baseballdecuba.com website.
In one of the wildest semifinal series of recent memory, Pinar del Rio was twice able to climb out of deep holes on the road in Sancti Spiritus this weekend. With their tandem comeback miracles the Group A champs were thus able to salvage a berth in the Cuban League championship series that opens Wednesday night in Santiago’s Guillermon Moncada Stadium. Needing back-to-back road wins to survive elimination, Pinar took advantage of crucial home club errors on two successive days and twice came from behind in late innings to somehow snatch victory from the apparent jaws of defeat. On Saturday night, trailing 3-2 in the seventh, Pinar railed when the door was opened by shortstop Raikel Morales’s second bobble of the night. The fatal boot put Rafael
Valdes on base and permitted Yosvani Peraza to reach the plate. Peraza then belted a game-deciding 400-foot blast over the centerfield fence, his 29th homer of the campaign.
On Sunday afternoon Pinar seemed to be coasting in the late frames of the deciding Game 7 match when homers by Freddie Cepeda and Yulieski Gourriel keyed a five-run late-inning comeback that finally knotted the affair in the bottom of the ninth for the hometown Gallos. But then a key throwing error by Gourriel on the back end of an apparent inning-ending twin killing gifted the opportunistic Pinarenos with the winning margin in the tenth. The wild finale didn’t end quitely, however, as Pinar still had to weather one final bases-loaded storm in the bottom of the extra frame. Details of the two wild and woolly semifinal games this weekend in Jose Huelga Stadium will be provided in greater detail in articles published tomorrow on our Cuban League website. at www.baseballdecuba.com. That same site will also carry TV and radio feeds for the best-of-seven title series beginning this coming Wednesday.
For a couple of days (games number 3 and 4 in Villa Clara) it looked as though Victor Mesa’s veteran Naranjas (Orangemen) team might make the eastern sector semifinals interesting against defending champion Santiago de Cuba. Yet when the dust had finally settled in Santiagio’s Guillermon Moncada Stadium on Friday night, the juggernaut Wasps (Avispas) were headed back to the finals in grand style on the heels of a knockout 8-inning 16-6 thrashing of an outmanned Villa Clara ball club that permitted double-digit uprising in all four of their defeats. It was the second straight season, in fact, that Villa Clara pitching suffered a huge meltdown (allowing 10 or more runs) in each of the final two semifinal series contests against Antonio Pacheco’s slugging Wasps nine. This time around the clincher came courtesy of a 19-hit onslaught paced by long-balls off the bats of Alexei Bell (the season’s home run leader), Jose Julio Ruiz (league leader in base knocks), and normally light-sticking shortstop Luis Nava. Reinier Roibal hurled 6.1 quality innings out of the bullpen (in relief of shaky starter Osmel Cintra, who lasted less than two frames) to pick up the crucial series-ending victory.
The two semifinal series appeared to be equally one-sided affairs in the early going. Both Santiago and western sector leader Sancti Spiritus sweeping opening two-games sets on home turf in their respective showdowns with Villa Clara and Pinar del Rio. But Villa Clara surprisingly bounced back in the Oriente by taking two straight (by scores of 7-3 and 6-3) when the eastern series shifted to Santa Clara Province. And Pinar del Rio did the same once the Occidental matches moved on to Pinar’s Capitan San Luis Stadium. Sancti Spiritus — a surprise opening-round winner over Group B champ Habana Province — got off to a fast start thanks to some fine starting pitching in the pair of lid-lifters at Jose Huelga Stadium. In the western opener Angel Pena (with late-inning relief help from Yasnier Sosa) shut down the reputed Tsunami Verde (Green Tidal Wave) offense of Pinar on only three hits and bested career victories leader Pedro Laso in the process by a surprising 5-0 count. Game two found Ismel Jimenez going the route (and scattering seven hits) in a tight 2-1 win over the still-silent Pinar attack. But the Group A champs (inconsistent all season with a 45-45 break-even record) bounced back at home to earn 6-4 and 6-3 series-knotting victories, the second coming on a complete-game effort by the veteran Pinar ace Pedro Lazo. But then in game five Juan Castro’s gritty Sancti Spiritus Gallos (Roosters) came from behind to seize the advantage with a crucial 10-6 road victory that put them only one win away from only their third trip ever to the championship round. The vital (and potentially series-turning win) was keyed by a brilliant six-inning relief effort from veteran Noelvis Hernandez (pictured here) — the game three starter who had lasted less than two frames in his earlier failed outing.
Santiago’s six-game romp over Villa Clara was one of the most one-sided in recent Cuban playoff annals, despite the two series-prolonging Villa Clara wins in Augusto C. Sandino Stadium. The opening two matches in Guillermon Moncada were 13-2 and 23-12 laughers and both ended in the seventh inning due to Cuba’s 10-run knockout rule. That opening pair of games witnessed Mesa’s beleaguered pitching corps yielding 34 base hits to a Santiago offense that boasts the league leaders in homers (Bell 31), hits (Ruiz 126), runs (Bell 96), RBI (Bell 111), total bases (252), slugging (Bell .722), and stolen bases (Ruiz 32). After Villa Clara had managed to even up the series and raise a few false hopes around the circuit that Santiago might indeed be vulnerable, the Wasps bats exploded once again in the final two matches for 12-6 and 16-6 margins, with the final bashing representing the third “knockout” of the wild hit-happy series. Although Santiago’s victories did not come thanks to much brilliant mound work on the part of its own normally solid staff (the Wasps mound corps yielded a total of 39 runs and 65 hits in 47 innings of rather shaky work), one of the big stories of the Oriente series was nonetheless veteran Santiago ace Norge Vera. The slim righty captured two games and stretched his 2008 playoff mark to a perfect 3-0. As reported in an earlier blog entry on this site, Vera (pictured here) has this season tightened the gap on former Industriales ace (and current New York Mets stalwart) “El Duque” Hernandez as Cuba’s all-time winning percentage leader. Vera (who first name rhymes with “Porgy” and not with “forge”) was the author of seven excellent relief innings during the Team Cuba romp over the Baltimore Orioles at Camden Yards way back in May of 1999.
Santiago now seems poised for a second consecutive title, a third in four years, and an eighth overall in the league’s 47-year history. There will be no surprises with a Wasps repeat title, since Pacheco’s club has largely dominated the current record-breaking Cuban League season from the opening salvo. Bell’s offensive explosions not only set a slew of new league marks (he is the first-ever 30 homer and 100 RBI man on the island) but dominated most headlines in a season that also saw Pedro Lazo bust the career pitching victories mark and Habana Province lefty Yulieski Gonzalez ringing up an unprecedented perfect 15-0 regular season mark. There will of course be one surprise in next week’s showdown finale and that will be Santiago’s eventual rival. Few fans or prognosticators gave either Pinar del Rio (with a .500 regular season ledger despite a slim lead in the Group A pennant race) or Sancti Spiritus (third place finisher behind favorites Habana Province and Habana Industriales) very much chance to survive in the Occidental half of the league’s playoff wars.
With both the Beijing Olympic Tournament (perhaps the last-ever Olympic baseball venue) and the second edition of MLB’s World Baseball Classic (March 2009) looming on the horizon, IBAF organizers are reportedly considering a complete revamping of format for next year’s renewal of the World Cup baseball competitions. This tournament — the sport’s most historic and legitimate world wide championship — has been a fixture of the international sports scene since the early 1940s and has been dominated by Cuba over most of its half-century life span. Held every second year during the last couple of decades, the event drew more than normal attention last November when Team USA captured its first title since the mid-seventies (and its first ever in the IBAF-sanctioned version of the event) and in the process ended Cuba’s incredible run of nine straight titles stretching back to the 1984 event in Havana. During its near-quarter-century uninterrupted title skein, the Cubans won a total of 92 individual ballgames while dropping a mere two contests. (Readers wishing to review a capsule history of Cuba’s successes in past IBAF World Cup events are directed to my www.baseballdecuba.com recap found at http://www.baseballdecuba.com/newsContainer.asp?id=419.) Over the long course of the Cuban success run the IBAF showcase tournament has undergone two major cosmetic overhauls. The August-September 1988 matches in Northern Italy (World Cup #30) welcomed a name change from the former designation as Amateur World Series. And the July-August 1998 matches (World Cup #33) a decade later in the same venues marked the important demarcation from purely amateur to at least partially professional play with the introduction of wooden bats and with MLB-affiliated pro athletes competing on most squads outside of Team Cuba.
With Team USA’s upset gold medal triumph over the favored Cubans in Taiwan last November, the 2009 World Cup matches were due to have at least one new look — for the first time in 25 years Cuba would not be the defending champion. But now the IBAF has proposed unveiling an entirely revamped event with far more than just a cosmetic face-lift. And, as with everything “baseball” these days, the motivations appear in large part to be driven by financial and marketing concerns. The September 2009 IBAF event had originally been targeted for Havana, but that plan went by the wayside once a new format aimed at attracting a larger world audience and potential television revenues came to the table. What now appears to be on the docket is a month-long multi-venue affair featuring several tiers of elimination rounds and looking very much like the highly successful MLB WBC event. As proposed, the 2009 World Cup will run from September 9-26 and will open in five European locations, with a preliminary round featuring 20 countries. Those opening elimination matches would be held at the following five sites: Barcelona (Spain), Paris (France), Regensburg (Germany), Prague (Czech Republic), Moscow (Russia) and Stockholm (Sweden). With only four teams eliminated in this opening play-down, the remaining 16 countries would then pass two a pair of 8-team second round matches held at multiple sites in Italy (Parma, Rimini and Bologna) and The Netherlands (Rotterdam and Haarlem). A final championship round of eight clubs would then be staged at month’s end in the Italian capital of Rome. Since few baseball fanatics can be expected to show up for games in diamond wastelands like Paris, Prague or Stockholm, organizers are clearly counting on drawing attention to the event through a European television package such as the one utilized with stadio.tv (France) for the recent 2007 Chinese Taipei-based World Cup. Gone will be the days when the individual follower of international baseball will be able to plan a trip to a single location to enjoy first-hand the game’s biggest international spectacle. And it was likely the proposed made-for-television format that left the Cuban Baseball Federation on the sidelines with its plans for hosting the September 2009 games.
One top Dutch baseball website (Marco Stoovelar’s excellent “Grand Slam Stats & News” at http://home.wxs.nl/~stoov/) is also reporting a second proposal being floated by the IBAF which seems directly connected with the 2009 World Cup plans. This would be the creation of a European Professional Baseball League aimed (as reported by Stoovelar) at: 1- increasing the level of continental baseball competition, 2 – increasing Europe-wide television coverage of local baseball, and 3 – increasing corporate sponsorship for the Europe-based version of the diamond sport. Of course there have been long-standing and moderately successful pro leagues in both The Netherlands (the crown jewel of European baseball) and Italy. The rumored plan would maintain the existing leagues but stage an eight-team (eight-country) short season either before (spring) or after (fall) Dutch and Italian League play. The timetable for this second plan appears to be as follows: finalization of long-range plans in 2008, location of corporate partners and setting up a league schedule in 2009, holding qualifying tournaments to select six countries (to join Italy and Holland) in 2010, and beginning competition (inaugurating the European League) in 2011.
Both the revamped 2009 European World Cup and the 2011 European League are clearly very much still in the working stages, and yet both seem to represent a firm commitment of the IBAF to move in a new direction in upgrading (or at least drastically altering) its showcase events in the face of increased competition from MLB and its WBC inroads into international baseball. Marco Stoovelar is reporting that further details for the September 2009 World Cup plans are likely to be revealed in a public forum before the end of the current month.
The first round of 2008 Cuban League post-season play has been filled with several surprises and some eye-catching individual performances–not so remarkable perhaps on the heels of a record-setting National Series #47 that was one of the best Cuban League seasons of the past two decades. Surprise number one was the three-games-and-out performance of the island’s most popular team, the Havana Industriales Blue Lions. Industriales was last season’s runner-up to defending champion Santiago de Cuba and has been the league title holder in three of the past five seasons. But this time around The Blue Lions were easily sweep by Group A champion Pinar del Rio (the former team of both Jose Contreras and Alexei Ramirez) by 24-0, 6-5, and 5-4 counts. The series opener was the most one-sided post-season contest in league annals and in the process launched a new nickname in the Cuban press for the explosive Pinar ball club, which was suddenly being referred to everywhere as the “Tsunami Verde” (Green Tidal Wave). National team closer Pedro Luis Lazo (who became Cuba’s all-time leader in pitching wins during the just-concluded season and is pictured here) earned the victory in the opening-game laugher and also the save in the deciding game-three match.
In a second rather surprising opening-round quarterfinal series played in the country’s western sector, Group B third-place finisher Sancti Spiritus upended this year’s Cinderella ball club, Habana Province, which had raced home first in Group B on the strength of a remarkable pitching staff headlined by Yulieski Gonzalez (15-0, the best-ever single-season mound record) and Jonder Martinez (13-2, league-best 1.55 ERA, plus a rare no-hitter). The Habana Province offense unfortunately went dormant against Sancti Spiritus and the weak-hitting Cowboys dropped three of four to the Gallos (one of my own pre-season favorites, but a team that had seemingly sleep-walked throughout the regular season campaign). This series also did some record-setting of its own when Sancti Spiritus eked out a 2-1 17-inning victory in the lid-lifter–the longest post-season match in Cuban League history.
In the country’s eastern sector things went more as predicted, with Santiago eliminating Las Tunas in three straight, and Group C winner Villa Clara climbing over Ciego de Avila three games to two. The resulting best-of-seven semifinal series, which both open this Friday, will pit Pinar against Sancti Spiritus and Santiago de Cuba versus Villa Clara (in a rematch of last spring’s hard-fought Oriente semifinals). The surprising results in the Occidente (west) have been a most pleasant turn of events for this author, of course, as I was the only member of the Habana Radio COCO website staff to call a Pinar del Rio upset triumph over Industriales. And I had earlier also prognosticated a strong year for Sancti Spiritus, a pick based perhaps more on sentiment than science (since I am a long-time fan of the Gallos and their all-star left fielder Freddie Cepeda). Santiago is still the clear-cut favorite to repeat its title of 2007, but if opening round action provides any indication, then more surprises may yet loom around the corner as we approach the home stretch of one of the most memorable Cuban League season of recent memory. All the action (including selected televised games and radio broadcasts of most others) is available on our USA-based Cuban League website at www.baseballdecuba.com. And for more detailed summaries of the Cuban quarterfinals the reader is directed to my recent playoffs summary column found at http://www.baseballdecuba.com/newsContainer.asp?id=673.