Baseball de Cuba, Peter C. Bjarkman
Special for www.baseballdecuba.com
It took a mere five days in Taichung and Taiwan for the field of sixteen to be swept clean of all undefeated challengers—with the single exception of two-decade defending champion and perennial international powerhouse Team Cuba. Having escaped the embarrassment of an early loss on opening night—thanks mainly to Freddie Cepeda’s two-out, two-strike long-ball miracle—the road seems to have gotten a bit easier each succeeding day, as Ray Anglada’s team has so far enjoyed consistent pitching and reliable, relentless hitting in sweeping aside Germany, Canada, Korea, and today their Caribbean rivals from Venezuela. Meanwhile the vaunted Koreans (yesterday against Cuba and today versus pesky Australia), the sometimes underachieving Americans (Friday courtesy of an ambush by Italy), and the perhaps-overrated host Taiwanese have all slipped from the ranks of the unbeaten. Chinese Taipei was the last to fall on Sunday when they failed to beat back the charge of a so far ineffective Mexican team; the host Taiwanese where altogether unimpressive as they languished 9-5 before a disappointed packed throng at Taichung’s riotous Intercontinental Stadium.
Cuba struggled on two occasions in Caracas last month during two tune-ups versus the Venezuelans, before finally shellacking the Venezolanos 9-1 in the championship game of a rather chaotic and mismanaged ALBA tournament. But the top Caribbean rivals offered absolutely no mystery at all for Cuba batting or pitching in today’s World Cup match as the game was virtually over when the dusted settled on a six-run Cuban uprising in the top of the second. Venezuelan starter Jackson Paz never registered an out in the second frame, gave up six tallies, permitted only two hits but walked four, and suffered the lopsided defeat. While the bats of Cepeda and Urrutia finally quieted, the offensive charge was taken up today by Yoandry Urgellés (two for three, with a double and his team-leading seventh RBI), Ariel Pestano (two-for-four, two runs scored), Alfredo Despaigne (a double and two runs batted home), Alex Mayeta (the same production as Despaigne), and reliable reserve infielder Rudy Reyes (who scored twice and knocked in one). Reyes was enjoying a rare starting assignment at second that permitted a day of rest for Héctor Olivera.
But despite the hitting barrage and Cuba’s first knockout victory of the week, the big news of the day was diminutive Industriales right-hander Yadel Martí, whose deliberate diet of fastballs and sliders completely handcuffed Venezuelan batsman through 6 2/3 frames of the seven inning contest. Martí was on the doorstep of a rare perfect game when he was finely reached for a harmless if disappointing slap single to right by lefty-swinging third baseman Lino Connell. Once Martí’s magic was ruined, Jonder Martínez was called from the bullpen to mop up the final batter. The substitution was a grand gesture from Cuban skipper Rey Anglada, since it allowed Martí to enjoy a ceremonial hat-tipping exit to a round of cheers from the appreciative if rather small crowd on hand in Shinchuan Stadium.
The perfect game, had Martí achieved it, would hardly have been the first in World Cup history. That honor belongs to Mexico’s David García, who silenced Guatemalan bats in World Cup XVI in Cartagena, Colombia (February 13, 1965). The second World Cup no-hitter (not a perfect game) came in Havana (actually a game played in Pinar del Río) in 1971 (World Cup XIX) and was authored by Colombia’s Nelson García versus Italy. Two more no hit and no run masterpieces followed a mere year later in Managua (Puerto Rico’s Sandalio Quiñonez versus Costa Rica, and Panama’s Ronaldo Montero over Germany). Cuba enjoyed its first World Cup masterpiece in Havana’s Latin American Stadium in 1973, when Juan Pérez Pérez whitewashed none other than Team Venezuela. The World Cup no-hit parade continued in Italy in 1978 where the trick was turned by both Nicaragua’s César Monge (versus Belgium) and Japan’s Yasuyuki Yamamoto (against the same hapless Belgians, who apparently forgot to include any bats in the luggage they brought to with them to Parma). These latter two masterpieces were the first of only seven-innings duration, both games being shortened by the knock-out ten-run rule. Marti’s masterpiece, had it happened, would thus have been the ninth in World Cup history, but only the second perfect game, and only the second no-hit “perfecto” by a Cuban hurler.
Tomorrow (Monday) is a scheduled rest day at the World Cup, with only a single game on the docket—the makeup of an opening day rainout which matches Chinese Taipei and Italy. On Tuesday Cuba returns to action against a hapless Thailand ball club which is only here because the Chinese government chose to make political fodder by not showing up in Taiwan, and which has mustered only 4 runs so far while surrendering a remarkable 78 tallies (18 versus Korea and 26 against Australia) to the opposition. Cuba’s first-round action wraps up on Wednesday with traditional European rival Holland, which will likely be still fighting desperately to secure a spot in the championship playoffs. Cuba is now assured a slot in the quarter-finals and the only issues at stake for Anglada and company are bragging rights atop Group B (still being contested with 4-1 Australia, whose two remaining games are with Germany and Canada), and of course the ever-important factor of continued momentum. So far the only thing that always super-critical Cuban rooters back on the island have had to complain about was the lack of an expected (but hardly necessary) knockout thrashing of Germany. And if the combination of strong pitching and timely hitting continues, it will likely take another “Ben Sheets” game-of-a-lifetime performance by some rival hurler to keep the Cubans from claiming their 26th World Cup crown and their tenth without interruption.
Peter C. Bjarkman’s analyses of Cuban baseball can also be followed on his website at www.bjarkman.com, on his personal blog at www.bjarkmanlatinobaseball.mlblogs.com, and on the Cuban League site found at www.radiococo.cu (English-language page).