Photo: Ricardo López Hevia

In a short season of only 45 games, starting out at a good pace and maintaining a stable performance are key. A poor start can be costly, as are losses to weaker opponents. With this in mind, all teams have carefully studied their schedules for the 57th National Series, marking key dates, those that could determine their fate for the season.

After taking a look at the rosters announced by the 16 teams competing, we can circle eight with the best chance of qualifying for the second round. They are Pinar del Río, Havana, Matanzas, Villa Clara, Ciego de Ávila, Camagüey, Granma, and Santiago de Cuba, each one with different challenges and advantages in their schedules, which given the characteristics of the series, allow some to have a few more home games - a slight, but important advantage which must put to good use.

Villa Clara, for example, has the privilege of playing four consecutive sub-series at home (vs. Holguín, Isla de la Juventud, Las Tunas and Artemisa), and closes this phase of the season with two difficult match-ups against Ciego de Ávila and Havana's Industriales, which will at least take place in Sandino Stadium, with the home crowd supporting them.

Facing the other side of the coin are Havana's Industriales, who in addition to playing the minimum of seven sub-series at home in the Latino, must travel to locations known for their high temperatures. Their trips to Pinar del Río, Ciego de Ávila, Villa Clara, and Santiago de Cuba are marked in red, also because the teams in these provinces are among their strongest rivals in the race to qualify for the second round. As if that weren't enough, they must play three of these sub-series in a row September 15-25, against the Tigres, Azucareros, and Vegueros.

Another team looking for a comeback after three years out of the play-offs is Santiago de Cuba, which will have the advantage of facing four strong opponents on their home field. (Villa Clara, Industriales, Ciego de Ávila, and the reigning champions from Granma). They will face eight teams on the road in Manager Orestes Kindelán's first year at the helm, so the match-ups against important rivals taking place in Guillermón Stadium could mean success or a shipwreck for his plans.

Pinar del Río, another of the historical favorites, should also get some extra wind in their sails early on, with its longest trip being that to Bayamo, while receiving last year's surprise, Camagüey, and the Isle of Youth's always unpredictable Pirates in the San Luis, where the home crowd can put the pressure on. And later in the season, the team will enjoy fan support in sub-series against Santiago, Ciego de Avila, Villa Clara, and Havana, all classic match-ups.

The defending champions, Granma's Sorrels, are not getting any help from their schedule, while their ace pitcher, right-hander Lázaro Blanco - clearly the team's most valuable player in the first round last year - will not be available until after his season with Quebec ends. They have only seven sub-series at home in the Martyrs of Barbados, and the last three on the road all require long trips.

The Crocodiles of Matanzas face a tough final period, ending their home stand on September 21, to travel first to Artemisa and then on to the Isle of Youth, departing this hostile territory to make a long road trip to Holguín, where they will close the first round of the season.

Ciego de Ávila's route isn't easy either, requiring several weeks of travel to Pinar del Río, Matanzas, Villa Clara, Santiago de Cuba, and the Isle of Youth, this last stop always uncomfortable for any team. In their favor, the Tigers will play eight sub-series at home, and four of their last five will be at the Cepero.

Matanzas is attempting to again qualify as one of the six teams in the second round, and getting some support from its schedule, starting out against Mayabeque, Cienfuegos, the Isle of Youth, and Artemisa, although that means the second half of the season could be difficult, with two trips to the eastern end of the island and just three series at home.

Camagüey's Bulls, who are also looking to repeat last year's success, need to take advantage of their home games against rivals who appear less challenging (at least on paper), like Cienfuegos, Artemisa, Mayabeque, Holguin, and Sanctí Spíritus.