By Jose A. Rodriguez
HAVANA TIMES – I dare to say that almost nobody wanted the Cuban baseball season to end with such a final. Granma takes on Las Tunas starting Saturday.
It is not to belittle either teams, but especially because Las Tunas was against the wall against Havana’s Industriales and managed to win the last two games, to make possible the first 100% all eastern province final series.
I say that almost nobody loved it, because it is about two teams that, although they have their fans, these are basically limited to their provincial borders. Such isn’t the case of Industriales, the most beloved and hated team of the Cuban league, and this year sporting the most disliked manager in the country. Let’s take a look at what happened in the semifinal match ups.
Granma seeks to repeat
Let’s start with Granma, the defending champions, who managed to advance to the discussion of the throne in only five games. Playing in Matanzas, Granma did not do well on the first day of their semifinals: the defense failed, the pitchers did not enjoy their usual control, and their offense was dominated by left-hander Yoanny Yera, who tried to take off the little sign that he does not win in the postseason, and in good measure he succeeded.
However, the next day the Granma hitters produced as usual, although the relief pitching almost wasted an 11×2 advantage.
The action then moved to the stadium in Granma, and it seemed that the damage was already done, because Granma proved to be once again the demolishing machine of last year and sweep three games to win the series 4-1 and ensure themselves as defenders of the throne.
The battle horse in the box, Lazaro Blanco, did not go wrong in his second outing, as expected, and the rest of the staff was immeasurable, while Granma’s traditional offensive power was felt strongly in games two and three, and timely in games four and five.
All this despite the fact that Granma’s clean up hitter during the entire season and leader in home runs, Lazaro Cedeno, had only one official at-bat, in the most criticized decision for manager Carlos Marti.
The defending champions managed to recover from the fact that the best Cuban player (Alfredo Despaigne) was in a poor physical state, that the best slugger of the regular season was sitting on the bench almost all the time, and that they lost the first game with Blanco their top hurler on the mound.
For their part, Matanzas won many praises because very few considered them capable of surviving after losing the manager who took them out of the basement and several important players. They not only managed to advance to the second stage of the season but also finish in first place.
However, after finishing first, more was expected of them, but it is clear that the pressure of the postseason takes its toll on more than one. Called third strikes outs that weren’t and top hitters unable to deliver in the clutch were the main reasons and that cannot be blamed this time on Víctor Mesa (who managed Matanzas in recent seasons). The tide seemed to have irreversibly turned in game two, in which they managed to tie the score after being down 11-2, with a 9-run sixth inning and then did not know how to finish the job and lost 12-11.
Las Tunas over Industriales
In the other semifinal, something similar happened with Industriales, but the other way around, after the bullpen was unable to avoid defeat (9-7) in the first game after going ahead 7 to 3, with a good start by Freddy Asiel Alvarez.
The recipe was repeated in games four and six, with a historically effective pitcher like Vladimir Garcia totally ineffective.
Several were the questionable decisions of Industriales manager Victor Mesa in those defeats. In Game 4 he delayed too long in taking out Garcia, after having brought him in with the game tied.
In the second failure, he intentionallywalked Jorge Jhonson to face Danel Castro, the most dangerous player on the Las Tunas roster, when there was a man on third and he was ahead in the score. Unexplainable in any situation, but even more so when Jhonson was hitting below .200, all the more reason to try to dominate him than to try to do it with a veteran of a thousand campaigns, accustomed to pressure inside and outside of Cuba.
To make matters worse, Mesa decided to bring in last minute addition Yoandry Cruz of Pinar del Rio, instead of appealing to those who performed those functions more regularly during the season. Maybe it would not have worked, but it seemed the most logical.
Then in the sixth game, there were two situations related to bunts that were clearly mistaken. In the first inning with a man on second with no outs, Víctor Mesa sent his best batter, Juan Carlos Torriente, to bunt, despite him being a specialist in directing the ball to the right side. Then, in the seventh, after opening with hit, instead of bunting he tried a hit and run with a batter of much less tact.
Anyway, that didn’t seem like a game for Industriales, because all the little details went against them. The bottom line is that once again Victor Mesa leaves something to be desired, and probably won’t be managing again for a good while.
On the contrary, the Las Tunas coaching staff had much patience with several of their best hitters, while not hesitating to move them around in the batting order, but kept them in the line up against all odds. They needed more than 20 at-bats to wake up, but in game six and seven they did, and to a large extent this is due to the blind faith of their manager.
Las Tunas manager Pablo Civil also showed total confidence in the reliever who helped him the most to reach this point, even if it went wrong. That show of gratitude towards Diego Granado, despite not having been reciprocated with impeccable performances, says a lot about the strategist from Las Tunas.
Las Tunas never gave up, even before the imposing fans of the Latin American stadium in the capital, who were left with the desire to see their team again in a final.
The grand finale of Cuban baseball will begin this Saturday in Las Tunas; After game two on Sunday, there will be a rest day before heading to Bayamo, home of the Granma team for games 3, 4 and 5. If needed, games 6 and 7 will be in Las Tunas.