by Peter C. Bjarkman
July 9, 2009
What is the Cuban baseball brain trust going to do with emerging young prospects like Yoilan Cerce in September?.
Middle-of-the-week action in Rotterdam saw Cuba keep its unbeaten string intact, despite having a perfect récord marred by a rare schedule-induced tie game with Chinese Taipei. First up came an all-too-easy 10-0 knockout win over slumping Japan on Wednesday afternoon, a game that featured one-hit five-inning shutout pitching from Miguel Alfredo González (who has yet to permit a run—earned or unearned—and yielded only three hits in his two victories). That contest followed a rain-induced and unanticipated open date after an evening downpour cancelled a Tuesday match with Chinese Taipei. Thursday morning’s makeup of the postponed Taiwan game thus required an unscheduled twin bill for the two squads that were already scheduled to meet in the afternoon affair. Such three-games-in-a-day scenarios are not a rare occurrence here in The Netherlands, where late summer and early fall rains combine with overly tight venue scheduling to necessitate such usually awkward adjustments in original tournament programs. Cuba was also forced into a similar morning-afternoon twin bill with Japan during last July’s Haarlem Olympic-tune-up tournament.
Perhaps the week’s most interesting action thus took place Thursday morning and afternoon with a pair of hard-fought Cuba-Taiwan contests that meant little to the Cubans (in the overall standings at least) but carried considerable import for the Taiwanese. With three games slated for the day (10 am, 2 pm, and 8 pm), tournament officials had agreed beforehand that no extra innings would be played—a departure from usual baseball protocol which in this case is aided by the tournament procedure of assigning two points for wins and one point for ties when determining team standings. While an unorthodox arrangement, it is at least somewhat better than the recent Olympic tweaking of the rules that allowed free base runners starting in the eleventh frame in an effort to shorten any extra-inning contests.
Thursday’s morning match provided a nail-biting pitching duel between Maikel Folch (relieved by Vladimir García for the final two frames) and a trio of equally effective Taiwanese hurlers. The Asians grabbed an advantage in the top of the third when an ugly two-out rally (a single, a walk, and a throwing error by Folch) resulted in a lone unearned tally. Cuba bounced back in the bottom of the sixth to knot the match when Leonys Martin opened with a double and was finally plated by a two-out single off the hot bat of Yoelvis Fiss. That was the way matters would finish, when a double play in the eighth (off the bat of Rolando Meriño) erased Cuba’s other lone scoring opportunity.
The afternoon contest offered more exciting see-saw action. Cuba’s Freddy Asiel cruised into the bottom of the seventh frame nursing a 2-1 advantage (thanks to a bases-loaded walk and a sacrifice fly from Fiss again) before disaster struck. A pair of singles and a hit batsman tied the count before Freddy Asiel was replaced by Miguel Lahera. Lahera immediately threw some gasoline on the fire by balking the two inherited base runners into scoring position and then yielding a two-run single to Chung-Chun Wu. But Lahera quickly worked out of the mess by striking out the final two hitters of the inning. In the top of the eighth Cuba struck back for three runs of their own (Eriel Sánchez doubled home a pair and scored himself on Duvergel’s game-winning single) to retake the advantage. Lahera almost self-destructed yet again in the eighth but managed to escape further damage only thanks to a base-loaded inning-ending twin-killing.
Cuban national teams (especially across the recent decade) always seem to maintain a perfect balance of exciting youth and dependable veteran experience. The recent WBC roster was anchored by standbys like Cepeda, Pestano, Paret, Gourriel, Enríquez and Lazo but also debuted a new generation of international stars in Yoennis Céspedes, Leonys Martín, Miguel Lahera, Vladimir García, and the now-departed Aroldis Chapman. This has been the key over the years to such consistent year-in-and-year-out championship performance in the biggest international venues. But it is also a delicate balancing act back home for the top Cuban baseball officials. How do you reintroduce fresh blood into so many already successful Cuban lineups without alienating established veterans or frustrating talented prospects blocked by few available coveted roster openings?
Seasoned veterans struggling for perhaps their final national team opportunity in Rotterdam have already played a major role in this past week’s successes. Eriel Sánchez, Giorvis Duvergel, Rolando Meriño and Ariel Borrero have all come up big on several occasions. The first two among these fading stars were heroes in today’s game-saving eighth-inning rally that pulled a seemingly lost game out of the fire in most dramatic fashion. Sánchez—owner of one of the heaviest bats on the island—has been the biggest surprise of the current tournament for this particular writer. The Sancti Spíritus backstop is likely now more highly motivated than ever by having been left at home during the recent March Classic. Meriño enjoyed his own big moment in the opener with Holland (the game-winning base hit from the DH slot) but has faded over the past week and in now batting a tame .250 (despite five runs scored). Duvergel is again super motivated—like Eriel Sánchez—by his World Baseball Classic snub and is competing head to head with the much younger Leonys Martin for a September assignment. Duvergel and second-base prospect Yoilan Cerce both labor in the dim shadows with the unheralded also-ran Guantánamo ball club, which is more or less the Cuban equivalent of living in hinterlands of North Dakota or Indiana. Villa Clara’s veteran first sacker Ariel Borrero has also been a welcome surprise this week (.364 BA, 8 hits including a homer, eighth place in the tournament batting race), after largely disappearing from the international scene on the heels of his several first base starts during the inaugural 2006 World baseball Classic. And yet Ariel Borrero’s prospects for September don’t actually seem all that bright, given all the other booming bats in the current Cuban camp.
Admittedly the spotlight for the most part this week has fallen on Cuba’s notable youth movement, especially Ciego de Avila infielders Adonis García and Yorbis Borroto. Adonis has been the big star of the tournament, still pacing the field in most offensive categories, along with a third Ciego teammate, Yoelvis Fiss. Nonetheless García’s national team prospects for the immediate future remain clouded by the likes of Yulieski Gourriel and Michel Enríquez. Leonys Martin and Yoelvis Fiss have also made their presence felt, especially on the offensive end. Martin can play almost anywhere and is likely to earn a slot on the September squad if only as a utility man. He was recently voted to the year-end league all-star squad in precisely that capacity. Fiss is no true youngster, at 29 and with eight island seasons under his belt, but he also has plenty of time left to shine at home and abroad. And Fiss has hit a ton both in Rotterdam and during the last two National Series seasons. And then there is the question of Yoilan Cerce, a top prospect who some might argue is the most overlooked youngster anywhere on the Cuban scene. Cerce had a monster season this winter (his .375 average was the sixth best in the league) and was just this week named to the National Series #48 year-end mythical all-star squad. His only problem is the continued presence of Héctor Olivera (and possibly Yulieski Gourriel, if Michel Enríquez remains at third) lodged ahead of him at second base. This is not a small problem, of course, but it is nonetheless possible that Cerce could soon replace Luis Navas as an all-around utility infielder on the talent-rich Cuba A squad.
But the biggest story of the Cuban youth movement has been effective pitching. It is precisely pitching where Cuba has lately faltered somewhat, most especially last August in Beijing during crucial showdown matches with the Koreans. Pedro Lazo and Norberto González (the heart of the Cuban bullpen) are obviously both nearing—or perhaps have already moved a full step beyond—their career’s end. But now valuable help indeed seems to be on the way in the form of at least Miguel Alfredo and Freddy Asiel. And Maikel Folch (14 innings, 11 Ks, and a single unearned run permitted) has made the loudest possible statement about the apparent folly of leaving him off the World Baseball Classic roster (in deference to rival southpaw Aroldis Chapman). Vladimir García is the heir apparent to Lazo as closer and his use this month with Cuba’s B squad in Rotterdam was almost certainly a calculated effort to provide the promising 19-year-old with some additional valuable innings of international experience. Miguel Lahera also continues to shine in both middle and late relief (despite today’s struggles versus Taipei) and also has to be considered seriously when the Cuban brain trust mulls over its potential September World Cup roster.
The week will now be played out with several games that mean little to Cuba but everything to the three rival clubs. A pitched battle now looms for a second slot in the finals, and Cuba will definitely play a major role in determining the eventual showdown opponent. Japan and Holland squared off on Thursday evening with the winner (it would prove to be the rebounding Dutch) set to move one point ahead of Taiwan in the standings and the loser doomed to remain a single point behind the Chinese contenders. Taiwan now holds the slim advantage of being finished with the Cubans. But tonight’s dramatic 4-3 walk-off Dutch victory over Japan has also handed the hosts an opportunity to seize the upper hand with an all-important Friday upset of the leading Cubans. For the Dutch fans and Dutch team the final regularly scheduled contest with Machado’s forces will now carry far more than just the normal load of national pride.
Manager Róger Machado now enjoys the luxury of perhaps a little experimenting with lineups in the final two round robin contests with the host Dutch Friday night and Japan on Saturday afternoon. Machado already altered his lineup somewhat against Taiwan on Thursday afternoon, largely because this was the second of two games on the day. With Giorvis Duvergel going to the bench and Yoelvis Fiss moving from left to center, Leonys Martin was bumped up to the leadoff slot. Duvergel, interestingly, returned to center for the bottom of the seventh as a defensive replacement and then knocked home the winning tally in the top of the eighth frame. Yulexis la Rosa spelled Eriel Sánchez behind the plate for the afternoon contest, with hot-hitting Sánchez (who also proved the key two-run double to tie the contest in the eighth) remaining in the lineup as the DH. Other small changes saw José Dariel Abreu spelling Ariel Borrero at first and Roberto Ramírez earning some valuable experience as the starting shortstop.
With the pitching staff reduced to eight by Chapman’s departure, we can likely expect to see Yaumier Sánchez (victor in the second game with the Dutch), and Noelvis Entenza (coming off his unimpressive earlier outing against the same Orangemen) eating up considerable innings over the next two days. The likely starting rotation would have Yaumier opening once more against Holland and Miguel Alfredo working a final time versus Japan, leaving Maikel Folch for the Sunday title match. But there is also now an option of starting Yadier Pedroso in the meaningless (for Cuba) contest with Japan and thus having both Folch and Miguel Alfredo ready for action in the all-important Sunday finale. Skipper Róger Machado certainly has some options available when it comes to managing his truncated but so-far highly effective corps of talented hurlers.
Regarding current tournament individual statistics, Cuba (now batting .329 as a team through seven games and also featuring a combined-staff ERA of 1.62) not surprisingly continues to dominate in this phase of the game as much as in the overall team standings. Five of the top ten batting averages belong to Cubans, who lead in eight of nine major individual offensive categories and four of eight pitching categories. On the team standings board (which awards two points for a win and one for a tie—soccer style—and uses the differential between runs scored and runs yielded as an ultimate tie-breaker) Cuba outdistances the field with the only winning récord; with two remaining games for Taiwan, Japan and Holland, only a pair of points (one win) separates the remaining crowded trio of contestants for a slot in Sunday afternoon’s showcase finals.
World Port Tournament Standings (July 9)
Team, Record (Runs For and Against as Tie-Breaker)
Cuba 6-0-1 (44-12) 13 points
Netherlands 3-4 (23-29) 6 points
Chinese Taipei 2-4-1 (20-29) 5 points
Japan 2-5 (22-29) 4 points
Top Ten Tournament Hitters (July 9)
Adonis García (Cuba) .520 (.600 slugging average)
Yoelvis Fiss (Cuba) .500 (.786 slugging average, 2 homers, 12 RBI)
Bas de Jong (Netherlands) .450
Eriel Sánchez (Cuba) .409 (.636 slugging average)
Eugene Kingsale (Netherlands) .393
Bryan Englehardt (Netherlands) .375
Sydney de Jong (Netherlands) .370
Ariel Borrero (Cuba) .364
Yukinori Osonoi (Japan) .294
Leonys Martin (Cuba) .290
Batting Leaders (July 9)
Batting Average: Adonis García (Cuba) .520
Slugging Average: Yoelvis Fiss (Cuba) .786
On-Base Percentage: Adonis García (Cuba) .538
Home Runs: Yoelvis Fiss (Cuba) 2
RBI: Yoelvis Fiss (Cuba) 12
Stolen Bases: Yohei Yamamoto (Japan) 4
Base Hits: Yoelvis Fiss (Cuba) 14
Runs Scored: Ariel Borrero (Cuba) 6
Runs Scored: Yorbis Borroto (Cuba) 6
Total Bases: Yoelvis Fiss (Cuba) 22
Pitching Leaders (July 9)
Wins-Losses: Miguel Alfredo González (Cuba) 2-0
ERA: Maikel Folch (Cuba) 0.00 (14.0 innings)
Innings Pitched: Diegomar Markwell (Netherlands) 15.2
Game Appearances: Chen-Hua Lin (Taiwan) 4
Strikeouts: Maikel Folch (Cuba) 11
Strikeouts: Yu-Ching Lin (Taiwan) 11
Walks: Freddie Asiel Alvarez (Cuba) 6
Shutouts: Syogo Suenaga (Japan) 1
Complete Games: Syogo Suenaga (Japan) 1