The 2006-2007 Cuban Baseball Season is down to the final four teams about to begin the best-of-seven semifinal playoff match-ups.
In the Western Division, Industriales opens at home on Friday in the capital’s Latinoamericano Stadium against Havana, the team that upset Pinar del Rio in the quarter finals. In the East, Santiago de Cuba plays host Saturday to Villa Clara, which eliminated upstart Las Tunas on Tuesday for the final semifinal slot.
Despite their name, Havana hails from the province that surrounds the capital, with its home in the municipality of San Jose de las Lajas. Villa Clara is in the center of the country and Santiago, on the other end of the island, more than 500 miles east of Havana.
When they can, and transportation permitting, many fans escape the TV battle altogether and head out to the stadium. The cost of a ticket to a Cuban baseball game at the packed stadiums is 4 to 12 cents US, the same price as during the regular season.
With seats on a first come first served basis, many fans show up at the stadiums right after work on weekdays, long before the action starts at 8:00 p.m. On the weekends, it’s not unusual to have the best seats taken by mid-afternoon.
Whether live, on TV or on the radio, non-commercial Cuban baseball is quite a different experience for the few US baseball lovers that brave Washington’s travel ban on Cuba to see the games.
There is no advertising, no blackouts on home games, no paid TV, and no stadium organ players. However, there are plenty of Conga drums, cow bells and horns that play throughout the night, building to a crescendo with fans of all ages not only clapping but moving their hips as the tension mounts.
Alcoholic beverages are not sold at the stadiums but there are roasted peanuts and popcorn, sandwiches and other snacks and soft drinks.
Most Cuban cities also have their “baseball peña”, groups of fans who know the players and stats like the palm of their hands. In high-pitched public discussions, they debate and predict outcomes. In the capital, Central Park has an area that serves as a day-in-day-out peña where baseball theories are put forth, sustained or shot down without mercy. During the playoffs the peñas also take up shop at the stadiums.
So who will win out during the postseason, the soaps or the playoffs? In many homes, a compromise is worked out. During the regular season, the soaps get their hour and the end of the baseball game gets switched on afterwards. During the playoffs, the national sport takes precedence in most.
HOW THEY GOT THERE
The Western Division quarterfinals ended Monday, April 2. Havana blew an early 7-2 lead but still won the tie-breaker of its best-of five-series 8-7 over favored Pinar del Rio, in a dramatic ten inning game.
Pinar del Rio’s veteran right-hander Pedro Luis Lazo, star pitcher of the Cuban national team, had a rare off night and gave up seven runs, six earned, before getting the hook with nobody out in the second.
Three of the hard fought games between Havana and Pinar went extra innings.
Industriales, the defending league champions, split at home 6-4 and 4-6 against Sancti Spiritus and then won twice on the road 11-0 in game three and 4-3 in the fourth match up to win the series.
Timely hitting and a superb five-inning relief performance from right-hander Yadel Marti led Industriales to their final victory. The team managed only five hits but which included a two-run homer from Alexander Mayeta in the first inning. Alden Mesa and Raiko Oliveres drove in the other runs.
Santiago de Cuba suffered a brief slip up in game two, but last year’s runner-ups out classed Camaguey winning its quarterfinal series 5-2, 1-6, 9-1 and 6-4. In the fourth and final game Camaguey jumped off to a 3-0 lead and was cruising behind league leading pitcher Elier Sanchez who had struck out 10 in five innings.
However, Sanchez gave up two hits in the sixth before leaving the game. Reliever Vladimir Perez allowed both runners to score putting the game at 3-3. Later, with the game tied at four, Santiago got two runs in the top of the tenth to win on a double by Rolando Meriño off reliever Luis Campillo.
After winning its opening game 4-2 against Las Tunas, Villa Clara was pulverized by a 12-run inning in game two and lost 16-0. Still seeing stars by game three, they went down 5-1. In the fourth match-up, reliever Yolexis Ulacia held the Las Tunas bats in check during the final three innings to give Villa Clara a 5-2 win to tie the series.
The final game was a seesaw battle that saw the score tied at one, two and three runs. Villa Clara was led by all-star catcher Ariel Pestano, whose solo homer in the sixth tied the game and his sacrifice fly in the eighth brought in the winning run. Once again, Ulacia made the big pitches in relief going 4.2 innings and striking out the side in the pressure packed ninth inning.
PLAYOFF MAGIC POINTS TO INDUSTRIALES AND SANTIAGO
Last year Industriales took the finals four games to two over Santiago de Cuba after defeating Sancti Spiritus 4-3 in the semifinals. Santiago made it to the finals last year by sweeping its four series with Granma.
This season’s team statistics make Industriales and Santiago de Cuba the favorites to once again reach the finals.
Industriales hit .285 (fifth best) and finished second in pitching with a 3.06 ERA. Santiago led the league in batting with a whopping .303 average and was seventh in pitching with a 3.59 team ERA. Havana was fifth in pitching with a team 3.49 ERA and thirteenth in hitting with a .261 average. Villa Clara was tied for last in the league in batting with a .255 team average and fourth in pitching with a 3.20 ERA.
Of the four teams playing in the semifinals Industriales committed 88 errors during the season, Villa Clara 89, Santiago de Cuba 95 and Havana 114. Santiago had the most homeruns with 64 to Villa Clara with 44; Industriales had 38 and Havana 34.
Over the last 15 years five teams have taken the Cuban Baseball League title. Industriales in 1992, 96, 2003, 2004 and 2006; Santiago de Cuba in 1999, 2000, 2001 and 2005; Villa Clara 1993, 1994 and 1995; Pinar del Rio 1997, 1998; and Holguin in 2002.
*Circles Robinson is a US journalist living in Havana. His reports and commentaries can be read at: http://www.circlesonline.blogspot.com