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65th Caribbean Series: Cuba returns with a bang beating Curaçao in extremis - Game 1 Analysis

—Analyzing the keys to Cuba's success against Curaçao





After three editions of absence, Cuba's Agricultores beat Curaçao's WildCats KJ74 3-1 in the 65th Caribbean Baseball Series this Thursday. It was in front of an enthusiastic crowd at the Stadium Jorge Luis García Carneiro in La Guaira, Venezuela, claiming the first victory of the 2023 Caribbean Series.



In the end, it was a game controlled by pitching effectiveness and defensive efficiency by both teams. It took Curaçao seven innings to make its competitive debut at the Caribbean Classic under the hegemonic and tenacious repertoire of 29-year-old American right-hander Cody Mincey.


WildCats KJ74 led 1-0 until the most sensational of hits appeared: the home run. In La Guaira, Andrés de La Cruz raised his arms, gazed towards the dugout and celebrated after hitting a fly ball to deep left field. This ball exceeded the stadium's limits.


It was in the eighth inning, after two outs, when De La Cruz hit a panoramic home run that barely missed the sixth pitch from reliever Shairon Martis, giving Cuba a 1-1 tie.


The outcome of the game would rest on the effectiveness of both bullpens following a seven-inning pitching duel between Cody Mincey, Curaçao, and César García, Cuba. Mincey's pitching performance had been virtually flawless before De La Cruz tied the score at 1-1 with one swing. Mincey was a colossus on the mound with just 78 pitches — an average of 11.1 per inning— and fine command that allowed him to record strikes at 76.9%: he struck out six of the seven batters who started the inning, started ahead in the count against 17 of his 24 opponents, walked none of Cuba's batters.


On the other hand, for Cuba, César García's presentation exceeded expectations and, above all, dispelled the doubts surrounding his pitching mix, which had succumbed to a disconcerting .483 average (29-14) against 31 rivals from Portuarios in the last final of the Cuban Baseball Elite League. It was César who maintained control of the game against a fortified lineup from Curaçao (AA) National Champions KJ74. The most complicated situations came from the second matchup against the Curaçao lineup, led by the "3-4-5" hitters: Roger Bernadina, Jonathan Schoop and Wladimir Balentien, all with MLB experience at various levels.


In spite of forcing Bernadina to ground into a double play at the end of the fourth inning, García walked Schoop and Balentien, putting a WildCats runner in scoring position. As a result, César did not push himself and closed the inning after dominating Juremi Profar in fly ball to left field. After that, César only allowed one run, which could have been prevented if the defense had been able to complete the double play on Darren Seferina's leadoff grounder.


In the bottom of that eighth inning, after the score was tied, Agricultores' manager, Carlos Martí, sent Habana's reliever, right-hander Andy Vargas, to the mound to stop the WildCats offense. During Vargas' first two innings, he retired six of his seven opponents, allowing Agricultores to break the tie in the tiebreaker.


The game was decided in the top of the tenth inning with the so-called "courtesy batter" rule for extra inning games. Rafael Viñales was at second base, when Guillermo Avilés with one swing erased his 0-for-3 day, including a strikeout. Martí chose to "play the rally" instead of bunting with one of the sluggers that has been key to Alazanes de Granma's recent Cuban National Series championships.


In a 3-2 count, Guillermo Avilés delivered a go-ahead single in the top of the 10th against reliever Sharon Martis. Following 42 batters going to the plate in the colorful park of the Tiburones de la Guaira of Venezuelan Professional Baseball, Agricultores led 2-1 for the first time. Then Martis issued Curacao's first walk of the game to load the bases, and then reliever, Wendell Floranus, walked Yuniesky Larduet to allow Cuba's third run.


Right-hander Andy Vargas pitched the final three frames for Cuba, including a 1-2-3 bottom of the 10th to close it out.



Cuba 3, Curacao 1/Final in 10 innings: A review


Game MVP: César García, who dominated for seven innings and allowed just one run. Without his quality start, Andrés De La Cruz's home run would have happened in another context. Without Andy Vargas as the first reliever, and Avilés without his redemption at bat.


Final Numbers


Cuba: 3-9-1 (R-H-E)

-BATTING-

2B: Santos (1, Mincey)

HR: De La Cruz (1, 8th inning against Martis 0 on base, 1 Out)

RBI: Avilés (1), Larduet (1), De La Cruz (1)

SH: Da. Peña

GIDP: Viñales; De La Cruz

Team RISP: 2-6 (Yos. Alarcón 1-1, Avilés 1-1, Viñales 0-1, Yor. Alarcón 0-2, Santos 0-1)

Team LOB: 7

-FIELDING-

E: Abreu (1, fielding)

DP: 2 (Yor. Alarcón-De La Cruz-Viñales, García-Yor. Alarcón-Viñales)


Curacao: 1-6-0 (R-H-E)

-BATTING-

RBI: Seferina (1)

SH: Ricardo

GIDP: Balentien; Bernadina

-Team RISP: 1-7 (Bernadina 0-1, Simmons 1-2, Loopstok 0-1, Seferina 0-1, Americaan 0-1, Didder 0-1, Profar 0-1)

Team LOB: 8

-FIELDING-

DP: 2 (Simmons-J. Schoop-Profar, Seferina-J. Schoop-Profar)

Assistances: Bernadina (Yos. Alarcón at 2nd base)


Notable Slash lines: Cuban catcher Yosvany Alarcón went 3-for-4, while Raico Santos (5-2, 2B) and Andrés De La Cruz (3-1, HR) each contributed one extra base.


Performance of pitchers:

-César García: 7 IP, 5 H, R, ER, 3 SO, 3 BB.

-Andy Vargas: 3 IP, 1 H, 0 SO, 0 BB, with an impressive 83% de strikes (20 strikes of 24 pitches).

Strikes/Batters facing on the first pitch: García 17/28; Vargas 6/10

Strikes called-Strikes fanned-Foul balls-Strikes in play: García-15-11-13-21; Vargas-4-5-1-10

Ground balls and lofting balls: García 10-7; Vargas 5-4


The key to success was: Definitely Agricultores' sensational pitching, which left Curacao hitters with only six singles in 34 at-bats. They only got three outs via strikeouts, but allowed 15 ground balls to the infield. Unlike the lousy display earlier this week in a couple of preparation games against the Cuba team that will participate in the upcoming V World Baseball Classic, a few timely adjustments were enough: Andy and César combined consistently executed commands against 23 of 38 opponents to start the innings. That's remarkable!


Furthermore, they also exhibited an efficient rate that revealed another key fundamental on the mound: being less predictable, more aggressive, and diligent, leaving their opponents with a high 13.0% swings without contact. Can you tell me what the average was when they tried to challenge Team Cuba in the two preparation games? It was a paltry 4.8%, with 12 missed swings on 246 pitches. With two arms this time, they were able to do it 19 times out of 181!


(Photos: Aina Cubillos/AP)


How could victory have escaped?: The offense continues to be Cuba's weakest point in Caribbean Series. It is reasonable, since today's National Series offense is overrated due to the decline of pitching at the Cuba national level. There is no doubt that talent is valued, but hitters will have to make quick adjustments in order to compete.


They should make the following adjustment: I think it would be more beneficial if hitters could work on the counts. The Agricultores were 2-for-6 with runners in scoring position during the game. What about leadoff hitters during innings? Aside from the fourth inning, when Rafael Viñales grounded into a double play, they failed to put runners on bases. They gave up the first out of the inning eight times.


Here's a relevant statistic to consider: Three of Cuba's last four Caribbean Series debut games have been victories

2017: Won 4-0 vs. Tigres del Licey

2018: Lost 6-4 vs. Caribes de Anzoátegui

2019: Won 3-1 vs. Charros de Jalisco

2023: Won 3-1 vs. WildCats KJ74


As you can see, two of the last three victories were 3-1. Unfortunately, the Cuban teams have had trouble maintaining winning streaks during previous tournaments. This edition will present a greater challenge.


(Photos: Aina Cubillos/AP)


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