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José Dariel Abreu Equals Cuba’s Rare Consecutive-Game Home Run Record

by Peter C. Bjarkman

March 30, 2012

José Dariel Abreu has now entered the Cuban League record book with his recent six-consecutive-game home run streak.
All winter long the Cuban League headlines have been focused on Granma’s Alfredo Despaigne and his pursuit of a league home run mark set last season by Cienfuegos star José Dariel Abreu and Despaigne’s former Granma teammate Yoennis Céspedes. Until the last dozen games or so it looked like Despaigne was not only a lock for the new record but also a solid bet to reach the once-unthinkable plateau of 40-plus round trippers. But suddenly things have changed and it is now Abreu who has taken over the task of wearing out Cuban hurlers. While Abreu still trails Despaigne by 8 dingers with merely 15 games remaining on the schedule, the recent surge by the Elephant’s giant first sacker has now made things more than just a little interesting. Despaigne is still the odds-on favorite in the chase for a new home run record, but it is now also Abreu who is again rewriting pages in league record book.

With his fourth-inning smash off a delivery from Sancti Spíritus southpaw Yamichel Pérez in José Antonio Huelga Stadium on Monday afternoon Abreu equaled the existing league mark of home runs in six consecutive games, a feat last accomplished by Freddie Cepeda precisely one year ago and also achieved in the spring of 2009 by Despaigne during his own then-record 32-homer season. Abreu thus becomes the seventh Cuban Leaguer to share this odd standard and only the fourth to turn the trick during National Series play. Like Cepeda’s string last March, Abreu’s came under the pressure of a tight pennant race with Cienfuegos (thanks mainly to Abreu’s bat) now suddenly breathing down the necks of both Industriales and Matanzas in the tussle for the Occidental League lead. And by moving within a mere half-dozen of pacesetter Despaigne in both the home run and RBI chases, Abreu (who tops the league in hitting with his current .386 average) has also reawakened talk of a possible Triple Crown. So far no Cuban Leaguer has ever led the National Series with Triple Crown numbers (most homers, most RBI, and highest BA) and it was Abreu himself who came closest only last winter when he lost the RBI crown to Céspedes by the narrowest of possible margins (99 to 98).

A mere day after Abreu’s latest streak was halted in Sancti Spíritus Despaigne jumped back into the spotlight with a pair of round trippers struck off Artemisa right-hander Miguel Lahera. The blasts were Despaigne’s 32nd and 33rd and thus equaled the league high shared last winter by Abreu and Céspedes. They also brought him within a mere three of the career 200 plateau.

About the only spectacular feat that Alfredo Despaigne himself has missed during his latest headlong rush toward a new league home run standard is breaking or again equaling the long-standing and frequently tied National Series consecutive-games long ball mark. Despaigne has nonetheless come close. In games number 38 through 42 (January 22 – February 1) the Granma stalwart poked one out of the park in each of five straight outings. Like his earlier six-game run back in 2009, this string was again slightly odd due to quirks in the league schedule. An imbalanced league calendar leaves one team idle during each three-game stretch, as well as a number of open dates with no league action. What therefore resulted was a five-day inactive stretch between the first and second games of Despaigne’s most recent streak. Abreu’s similar run this past week also involved three “rest days” and was therefore accomplished over a nine day stretch (as compared with Despaigne’s eleven-day span for a five-homer string).

Despaigne’s small share of the record back in 2009 involved a most unusual set of circumstances that may have in large part aided his streak (or then again perhaps made it somewhat more difficult) due to a quirk in the National Series #48 season schedule. That particular campaign was interrupted by an odd six-week, mid-season furlough in league action designed to allow for training and participation of the national team in MLB’s second World Baseball Classic. Despaigne slugged three homers (numbers 14, 15 and 16) at Santiago de Cuba’s Guillermón Moncada Stadium in the final pair of weekend contests before the halt in league play (team games number 56 and 57). After the long delay he continued the interrupted onslaught by stroking five more in the four games that opened the season’s second half. The scheduling irregularity meant that the string stretched from the end of the first week of February all the way to the final day of March.

Michel Fors owns the strangest Cuban consecutive home run streak, since his string of six represented half his season total.
Cepeda’s more recent streak of last winter (March 9 to March 19, 2011) also had its special features – most importantly the fact that it came in the heat of a torrid pennant chase and thus under considerable additional pressures for the star Sancti Spíritus slugger. Cepeda’s feat in fact stands out mainly because of the pressure-packed conditions under which it was achieved. On March 9 Sancti Spíritus stood in fourth place and nursed a slim 2.5 game lead over arch rival Industriales in the tense hunt for a final Occidental League post-season slot. Added pressure came from the fact that the previous year’s edition of the Gallos ball club had waltzed through regular-season play with the league’s best record before collapsing dramatically in the opening playoff round in front of the same rival Industriales club. Cepeda’s sudden and timely outburst in early March 2011 led to five vital team victories that left his Gallos club clearly in the post-season driver’s seat (in the end Sancti Spíritus and not Industirales would reach the plyoffs, thanks in large measure to Cepeda’s late-season rampage). The six-game stretch also included a phenomenal 19 RBIs and multiple hits in all half-dozen games, during which Cepeda connected safely 15 times in 26 official trips to the plate (.577 BA). (During his own string this past week Abreu rang up 14 RBIs and batted at a .478 clip.) There were also multiple RBIs for the veteran Sancti Spíritus slugger in five of the six outings, the first four of which were played on the road in hostile Las Tunas and Camagüey. Cepeda also had hit safely in four previous games, as well as in the March 17 contest when his consecutive-homer string was finally snapped – an 11-game batting outburst in which he slugged at an overall .533 clip (24 hits in 45 Abs). And it all came precisely at the time when victories were most precious as his teammates battled for playoff qualification with the hard-charging defending-champion Blue Lions from the capital city.

The six-game uninterrupted long-ball strings most recently fashioned in Cuba by Abreu, Cepeda and Despaigne are admittedly not exceptionally rare by big league standards. The major league mark remains eight games – achieved by both Seattle’s Ken Griffey Jr. (July 1983) and New York’s Don Mattingly (July 1987) in the American League and by Pittsburgh’s Dale Long (May 1956) over in the National League. Two other big leaguers have reached 7 straight – Cleveland’s Jim Thome (June-July 2002) in the junior circuit and San Francisco’s Barry Bonds (April 2004) in the senior circuit. Bonds himself also twice reached a string of six straight home run games (April 2001 and May 2001) and four other National Leagues also posted six straight – Graig Nettles (San Diego, August 1984), Willie Mays (New York, September 1955), Walker Cooper (New York, June 1947), and George Kelly (New York, July 1924). A full half-dozen sluggers have reached a six-game string in the American League – Reggie Jackson (Baltimore, July 1976), Frank Howard (Washington, May 1968), Roger Maris (New York, August 1961), Roy Sievers (Washington, July-August 1957), Lou Gehrig (New York, August-September 1931), and Ken Williams (St. Louis, July-August 1922). None of these big leaguers, however, quite matched Cepeda by pulling off this same feat in the final two weeks of a pennant race, or with their team’s post-season fortunes standing squarely on the line at the time. Nor are any of the big league strings quite as odd as Despaigne’s interrupted run – separated by six weeks smack in the middle. It also might be noted that such a string might be more likely in the majors, where the season is much longer and were the existing individual record for homers (72 by Bonds) is more than twice as hefty as the Cuban record of 33 dingers in a single campaign.

The record in question is a feat not particularly well noted in the Cuban records books. None of the existing annual Cuban League Guides list this category under “Special Individual Records” where the only hitting feats covered are most consecutive base hits, consecutive game batting streaks (base hits), home runs in a single inning, consecutive extra-base hits, RBIs in one inning, and sacrifice flies in one inning. Dutiful research, however, indicates that Abreu was indeed only the seventh Cuban League slugger to have strung together six straight games with at least one homer in each. The earliest four include Juan Carlos Millán (Selective Series VIII, 1992), Omar Linares (all during playoff games of the Revolutionary Cup II in 1997), Michel Enríquez (December 2000), and Michel Fors (National Series #44, 2005). It has sometimes also been reported in the Cuban press that the first to achieve the six-game home run string was Matanzas outfielder Arturo Sánchez during Selective Series VI (1981). But a careful rechecking of the box scores has now indicated that Sánchez in actuality logged his six long balls over a stretch of only five games and not the once-reported six.

There are a number of obvious oddities that surround these consecutive-game home run streaks in Cuban League action. A number of these have been treated in the Cuban press during the past week, especially by Juventud Rebelde columnist Luis López Viera. An initial oddity is the fact that it was actually Juan Carlos Millán (and not, say, Omar Linares, Orestes Kindelán or perhaps Cheito Rodríguez) who first accomplished the feat in Cuba, and also that Isla’s Michel Enríquez would be the first to ring up such totals in National Series play. Neither Millán nor Enríquez stand out among the most memorable Cuban long-ball hitters, although Millán did smash 222 homers over his 12 seasons and Michel (who hit 19 in NS#40) still remains the career RBI leader for national team tournament games. The other two early streaks are also oddities, since Linares poked his homers during a six-game post-season series capping the second Revolutionary Cup special season, and the six homers rung up in one week by Fors in 2005 were nearly half his entire season’s total.

Isla’s Michel Enríquez in the final week of December 2000 became the first for homer in six straight National Series games.
Millán’s pioneering achievement of late March and early April, 1992, deserves a closer look. Juan Carlos slugged a total of eight long balls during his six-game rampage (as did Despaigne in 2009). After being shut down in an April 4th twin bill he smacked another the following day against Matanzas which gave him nine in nine games. Despaigne during his long-interrupted (and thus somewhat unorthodox) string in spring 2009 did even better, collecting a dinger in Granma’s 54th game before launching his own rampage that lasted from game 56 to game 61. Thus Despaigne actually poked nine in eight games – although those games were spread out over an exceptional long period.

There are other noteworthy oddities as well. One is the incorrect earlier attribution of the initial record to Arturo Sánchez. The five-game feat by Sánchez is in reality not now a record of any kind, since Villa Clara’s Oscar Machado would later bang six homers in a mere three-game series versus Las Tunas (January 1995); Granma’s Ariel Benavides would then duplicate the six homers in three games by Machado only three seasons later (December 1998). Machado’s feat is especially remarkable since his six (two in each of three games) were blasted in only two days – the last two games being part of a Sunday doubleheader.

Even Machado’s four homers in a doubleheader is not a Cuban League record, since Lázaro Madera (Pinar del Río) first smashed five homers in a twin bill versus Las Villas during 1986 Selective Series action (the precise date was February 16, 1986). Later that same calendar year (November 9, 1986) Holguín rookie Jorge Luis Dubois also socked five in a doubleheader, and his trio in the nightcap made him only the second Cuban League rookie to smash three in the same contest. The first to accomplish that oddity had been Habana’s Ismael Scull who turned the trick way back on February 5, 1983 at Las Tunas (in Julio Antonio Mella Stadium).

In my most recent column I emphasized the fact that an apparent elevated level in this year’s Cuban League home run slugging is anything but a rarity and actually only continues a long-standing tradition in island baseball. We can now see here again that this week’s six-game string by José Dariel Abreu is also not quite the aberration in might appear to be to those not closely following free-swinging and action-packed Cuban League baseball.

Peter C. Bjarkman is author of A History of Cuban Baseball, 1864-2006 (McFarland, 2007) and is widely recognized as a leading authority on Cuban baseball, both past and present. He has reported on Cuban League action and the Cuban national team for www.BaseballdeCuba.com during the past five years and is currently completing a book on the history of the post-revolution Cuban national team.