HAVANA TIMES — It didn’t take long for the Cuban baseball forces to regain the momentum and fully atone for last summer’s embarrassing whitewashing on North American soil versus the USA Collegiate All-Stars. In a renewal five-game set that proved even more one-sided than last year’s blanking by the Americans, the youth-studded Cuban squad swept to five straight wins, including a trio of classic one-run-margin gems, and in the processes regained full control of the mid-summer showcase “Friendly Series” now in the third year of its present incarnation.
With this year’s romp the Cubans now hold a commanding 9-3 overall lead (the 1991 affair ended in a six-game split) and a 39-28 individual game victory margin.
The complete reversal of last summer’s embarrassing five setbacks comes as something of a surprise since this time around manager Alfonso Urquiola and technical director Victor Mesa featured a squad of hopefuls entirely devoid of the big name stars of recent years. There were only three holdovers here from the 2013 World Baseball Classic roster (catcher Frank Camilo Morejon, outfielder Guillermo Heredia, and infield José Miguel Fernández) and 20-year-old Norge Luis Ruiz was the only returnee from last summer’s Friendly Series mound staff.
But given a shot at first-time national team glory a number of front line prospects proved their potential – not the least of which were pitchers Julio Alfredo Martinez (Pinar del Río), Yasiel Sierra (Holguín), Yunieski García (Artemisa), and 19-year-old Rookie of the Year (for the 2013-2014 season) Vladimir Gutiérrez (Pinar del Río). The showing of these talented young arms indeed bodes well for the future, and the impressive victory also reverses a recent string of lamentable setbacks that included an early exit by league champion Villa Clara from last winter’s Caribbean Series in Venezuela.
This year’s key for the Cubans was stellar pitching, although sloppy American defense (12 errors) played no small role in the ultimate outcome. In the opener the host team took a 4-1 lead into the seventh inning in Matanzas on the strength of six solid frames by Norge Ruiz (reprising his brilliant outing during a 1-0 defeat last summer), then barely hung on for a 4-3 nail-biting triumph. Ramón Lunar’s two-run single in the fourth provided the eventual margin of victory and Chis Okey smacked the only homer of the entire series for Team USA in the seventh.
After a Game 2 Thursday rainout in Matanzas, the series moved to Pinar on Friday for what proved to be the series-defining match. A pair of hometown Pinar aces (starter Julio Alfredo Martinez for seven frames and closer Vladimir Gutiérrez for two) authored shutout mastery and catcher Frank Camilo Morejón paced the offense with a pair of hits and 2 RBIs in the impressive and tone-setting 5-0 whitewash.
Saturday’s day-night doubleheader wrapped things up for the Cubans with a series-clinching 2-1 daytime lid-lifter sparked by a four-man pitching rotation that yielded only four hits (Yunieski García picked up the victory). The deciding moment unfolded when a wild throw by outfielder Bryan Reynolds escaped the USA cutoff man and allowed Guillermo Heredia – who had tripled to deep right – to scamper home on the error with a deciding tally. Defensive woes continued for the Americans in the nightcap when they posted four miscues for the second straight game and fell 7-3 in the process. Yadiel Hernández was the Cuban hitting star with a double and a trio of RBIs (the exact margin of victory). Yoanni Yera continued the showcase pitching for the Cubans with a solid 7-inning effort that yielded but five hits and a pair of earned runs. The Cuban’s 4-0 series led at the end of Saturday’s action set up the surprising scenario of a second straight host-team five-game sweep.
The USA-Cuba “Friendly Series” – initiated back in 1987 on the eve of the Indianapolis Pan American Games (in which the two clubs would meet in an unforgettable finale) has a brief but intriguing history and has featured matchups much closer that the 9-3 overall Cuban lead might suggest. Cuba’s first pair of victories were earned by single-game margins (see the below summary) and the first “sweep” did not come until the third edition. There have now been five whitewashings, two falling in favor of the Americans in 1995 and again last summer.
The first two events were single-country affairs but between 1989 and the 1993 the squads traveled back-and-forth for home-and-away games in the same year. It all came to an end with the 1996 matches on U.S. soil just before the Atlanta Olympics, due in no small part to the “defection” of star Cuban hurler Roland Arrojo on the eve of the Atlanta Games.
Under the continued efforts of USA Baseball executive director Paul Seiler, the dormant series was finally revived when the two squads met in Havana three summers back before both moving on to the Haarlem Baseball Week in Europe. That 2012 renewal saw the Cubans take the series 3-2 on the strength of Freddy Asiel Alvarez’s Game 4 pitching gem, then also oust the Americans in the Haarlem semifinals before moving on to a Gold Medal victory over Puerto Rico.
This year’s final game in Pinar on Sunday afternoon might have appeared anticlimactic (if viewed from afar), but it indeed held a good deal of significance. A Cuban victory would mean a 3-2 margin in “sweeps” and also a huge dose of redemption for last summer’s meltdown in Iowa, Nebraska and North Carolina. Sunday’s winner would also hold a boasting-point 8-7 edge in total games won during the current three-year renewal phase. Starting hurlers Yasiel Sierra (4 hits, no runs, 7 Ks) and Kyle Funkhouser (2 hits, 1 run, 8 Ks) both worked brilliantly through identical 5.2 inning stints. The slim decisive margin for the Cubans came in the sixth frame when Yadiel Hernández singled sharply to left off reliever A. J. Minter to send Pinar’s David Castillo scampering home from second with the day’s only marker.
Nay-sayers will quickly point out that this year’s USA squad was not as potent as a year ago (the earlier team featured big-league-bound hurlers like Carlos Rondon and Luke Weaver), but the same might be said about last year’s Cuban squad headlining Yulieski Gourriel at third, Freddy Alvarez on the mound, and recent defectors Erisbel Arruebarrena, Rasiel Igelsias and Yasmani Tomás also in the fold.
This year’s American squad was 18-3 coming into these games and fresh off a 7-1 record and Gold Medal win at the Haarlem event. Cuban League baseball may indeed still be suffering from a recent noticeable player drain (Jose Abreu, Arruebarrena, Iglesias, Tomás, Alex Guerrero, Rusney Castillo, etc.) but this past week’s emergence of a corps of impressive young pitchers has to send out positive signals for a still-bright future.
Cuba-USA Friendly Series Historical Summary
Winning Years for USA in Boldface
1987 Cuba (Havana, Artemisa) Cuba 3, USA 2
1988 USA (Millington, Indianapolis, Virginia, North Carolina) Cuba 4, USA 3
1989 Cuba/USA (Millington, Havana) Cuba 6, USA 0
1990 USA/Cuba (Havana, Millington) USA 2, Cuba 1
1991 Cuba/USA (Millington, Santiago) Cuba 3, USA 3
1992 USA/Cuba (Holguín, Denver, Minneapolis, Millington) Cuba 5, USA 2
1993 Cuba/USA (Wichita, Millington, Sancti Spíritus) Cuba 4, USA 3
1994 USA (Millington) Cuba 2, USA 0
1995 USA (Millington) USA 4, Cuba 0
1996 USA (North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia) Cuba 3, USA 2
2012 Cuba (Havana) Cuba 3, USA 2
2013 USA (Iowa, Nebraska, North Carolina) USA 5, Cuba 0
2014 Cuba (Matanzas, Pinar del Rio) Cuba 4, USA 0
Cuba Totals: 9 series wins, 38-28 (.578) overall record
USA Totals: 3 Series wins, 28-38 (.424) overall record
Series Sweeps: Cuba 2 (1989, 1994), USA 2 (1995, 2013)
(*) PETER C. BJARKMAN is author of A History of Cuban Baseball, 1864-2006 (McFarland, 2007, 2014) and is widely recognized as a leading authority on Cuban baseball, past and present. He has been reporting on Cuban League action and Cuba’s national team as Senior Writer for www.BaseballdeCuba.com  for nearly a full decade and is currently writing a groundbreaking book (The Yanqui in Cuba’s Dugout) detailing his two decades of travel throughout Cuba and his adventures covering the Cuban national team abroad. His work as a “Cuban baseball insider” has also been featured on Anthony Bourdain’s Travel Channel episode of “No Reservations Cuba” (2011) and with a 2010 front page profile in the Wall Street Journal.