After an absence of 64 years, Cuba is returning to the Caribbean Baseball Series for the third consecutive time since its return appearance in the February 2014 edition with national champions, Villa Clara. Two years ago, the Villa Clara team exited the tournament held on Venezuela’s Margarita Island in fifth and last place, with just one victory over Puerto Rico, in a marathon length game which ended 2-1 after 11 innings.
Last year saw Pinar del Río, winners of the 54th National Series, travel to the competition where it fought hard to reach the semi-finals, knocking out Puerto Rico’s Cangrejeros de Santurce team on home soil.
However, the squad from Cuba’s westernmost province, made a strong comeback eliminating Venezuela’s Caribes de Anzoátegui in the semifinals and the Mexican selection, the Tomateros de Culiacán, in the final. The Pinar del Río team’s win constituted Cuba’s eight in the history of the tournament, and first since the Elefantes de Cienfuegos claimed the title in 1960.
Beginning February 1, the champions of Cuba’s 55th National Series, Ciego de Ávila, will have the expectations of the entire country on its shoulders, as the squad takes to the field in this year’s edition of the Caribbean Series, in Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic, where the team will go as favorites to win the 56th National Series, a bitter pill to swallow for its predecessors from Villa Clara and Pinar del Rio.
Baseball is a passion in Cuba and a squad’s lineup is always the topic of intense debate among citizens. Neither Pinar del Rio or the current selection and its manager Roger Machado have been able to escape the opinions of a people who boast about being experts on the sport. The hottest debates center on the number of national championship players absent from the line-up going to the Caribbean tournament, and the number of pitchers in the announced selection.
A look back at Cuba’s last two appearances in the regional competition shows that the Villa Clara squad visited Margatira Island with a roster of 22 players from its national championship team, while Pinar del Río arrived with 12 of its own athletes, the same number of players chosen from the current national title holders, Ciego de Ávila.
Selecting a line-up of players from different national clubs is standard procedure, with Mexico, Venezuela, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic doing the same, sometimes to replace key players, and at others to create a team with greater potential. In order to strengthen teams, various changes to the line-up are made before the final selection even reaches the Caribbean Series. Although it can’t be said that this practice is decisive, in Cuba’s case, the national squad has always done better with a mixed roster.
In my opinion, they should have decided on 12 pitchers instead of 11, the most crucial element of the Cuba-Ciego de Avial roster, but Machado believes that its more important to have a fielder and first baseman like Guillermo Avilés, given that “our starting line-up is well above the average age of the group, which is 28, and we must avoid any possible risk.” Fans have also been protesting the exclusion of young Luis Robert, considered to be one of the top Cuban baseball talents of the moment: “You don’t have to tell me, I’m his manager, but he hardly played in the series that saw us win the national championship,” noted Machado.
The truth is that the team has various options for line-ups against left and right handed pitchers, a well prepared defense to face any batting arrangement, speed, tact, and a strong offense. What is more, as previously stated, everything will depend of the pitching roster, which if able to quell the considerable power of its rivals, could see Ciego de Ávila and Cuba realize its ultimate dream of keeping the trophy at home for another year.
A BRIEF ROUND-UP
The Dominican Republic, which for the 10th occasion will receive baseball teams from the region to decide the new Caribbean champions, is the country to have won the most tournaments. But of its 19 crowns, only five have been won at home, two by the de Leones del Escogido. The fact that Cuba and Venezuela are the only two visiting teams yet to win the tournament on Dominican soil - Puerto Rico (Santurce and Ponce) and México (Culiacán and Hermosillo) have both triumphed in Quisqueya – represents a potential disadvantage for the island.
This year will be Cuba’s fifteenth appearance in the competition, with a total of eight victories, six as the away team. Although it can’t be said that Cuba has participated in eleven finals – the Caribbean Series format changed just as Cuba returned to the tournament, from a “round robin” system to a "knock-out" phase consisting of a semi-final round and then the final - it can be said that the island’s team has featured among the top two teams this number of occasions.
Puerto Rico places second on the country trophy chart with 14 victories; followed by Mexico and Cuba with eight wins each; Venezuela has reached the top spot on six occasions and Panama, absent from this year’s competition, has won once, in the second edition of the games in 1950, hosted by Puerto Rico.
Regarding the teams, Tigres del Licey of the Dominican Republic has won the most trophies, with a total of 10 - although it has been 15 years since their last victory - followed by its compatriot Águilas Cibaeñas and Puerto Rico’s Cangrejeros de Santurce, with five wins each.
LOOKING TO SANTO DOMINGO
Given the performance of Caribbean league teams, playing their finals this week, Ciego de Ávila will face stiff competition. Judging by what we have seen during Venezuela’s post-season, whoever wins out of Tigres de Aragua and Navegantes del Magallanes, will have an outstanding offence as their main credential, while either Águilas de Mexicali or Venados de Mazatlánm of Mexico will be able to boast first rate pitching.
As well as having the advantage of being hosts, the Dominican Republic’s two teams Leones del Escogido and Tigres del Licey are both strong all-round squads, which are also known for being aggressive on the bases. Considered the underdogs of the competition are Puerto Rican’s candidates Indios de Mayagüez and Cangrejeros de Santurce whose national championship tournament is one of the least demanding.
For Ciego de Avila the work of its pitchers will be vital, with opposition batters having to adjust themselves to specialist pitchers as well as ones able to easily make 90 mile per hour throws. That is to say, the team’s strategy is to use several pitchers in a game, with starting pitchers working between five and six innings, and relief pitchers throwing a few pitches.
Thus, Caribbean baseball festivities are fully underway and February 1 will see the first games between Puerto Rico and Venezuela, and Mexico and the Dominican Republic.