Starting today, the squads of Ciego de Avila and Pinar del Rio will be chasing the crown of the 55th season of the Cuban Baseball League. The former to defend the title, the latter to retake it.
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Five years ago, in the so-called Golden Series, marking the 50th anniversary of Cuba's national baseball championship, Ciego de Avila and Pinar del Rio faced off in a veritable struggle for the title.
The same protagonists meet again in the 55th National Series, winners of their respective semi-finals – the Tigers of Ciego de Avila that swept Havana's Industriales in four games, while Pinar played a dramatic full seven-game series vs Matanzas.
If you believe the statistics, there is no question that Ciego de Avila is the stronger team. Their offense batted .340 against Havana in the semi-finals, led by shortstop Yorbis Borroto, with a .471 average, two homeruns and six runs batted in, while the team's pitchers dealt Industriales a shutout, winning the series 4-0, and limiting them to an earned run average of 2.31.
Pinar del Rio's stats in the semi-finals tell a different story. They reached the fifth game down 2-3 in the series, facing two final games on the Cocodrilos' home field, Victoria de Giron stadium in Matanzas. The Vegueros have a history of rising to the occasion, and showed it on April 2, winning 9-7, holding off a powerful Matanzas comeback in the ninth inning, and the following day came away with a 3-2 victory thanks to a homerun by catcher Yosvani Alarcon in the last inning. For the second consecutive year, Matanzas was eliminated in the semi-finals on their own home field.
NO EASY PREDICTIONS
Baseball is a complicated sport, and predictions are a dangerous business. Taking a chance on naming a winner in this final is risky. Best to stick with a brief analysis of each team's strengths.
Ciego de Avila made 49 hits and scored 30 runs in four games against Havana's weak pitching staff, while Pinar del Rio made 45 hits and 69 runs – including ten homeruns - facing a Matanzas bull pen full of quality pitchers. In the second round of the National Series season, Ciego de Avila was second in batting, but Pinar del Rio has since acquired reinforcements like Yosvani Alarcon and its line-up is now much stronger.
Pinar del Rio's pitching staff is, in the opinion of many, the best in Cuban baseball, with four great starters - Yosvani Torres, Vladimir Baños, Erlis Casanova and Yaifredo Dominguez - and the best closer, left-hander Livan Moinelo, reinforced for the playoffs with another left-hander, Wilber Perez.
Ciego de Avila is not far behind with a national team pitcher like Vladimir Garcia, plus Dachel Duquesne, who delivered seven strike-outs in the semi-finals, and Yennier Cano, a fastball closer who also has international experience. Add to this reinforcements of the caliber of Lazaro Blanco and veteran Alberto Bicet, and the current national champions who defeated the Isle of Youth last year in seven passionate games, are in good shape. Only in defense is a notable difference evident, since the Tigers are the only team in the league with an average over 980.
Looks like we can expect a close championship series that could go for six or seven games. / By Sigfredo Barros Segrera - Granma.