After much delay, this Friday February 12th, 2021 we will begin to answer that question? Where will this epic battle between a massive pachyderm and one of the most dangerous reptiles occur? In the Cuban National Series playoffs as the Cienfuegos Elefantes will face off against the Matanzas Cocodrilos.
This is the 60th edition of the top level of Cuban baseball and thanks to Covid has definitely been the most interesting and likely the most meandering schedule in its history. Scheduled to begin in April the first phase of 75 games would determine the 8 teams to advance to the second phase. The second phase would consist of 50 games with teams drafting 4 reinforcement players. This represented an aggressive expansion as typically the docket is 90 games. With the baseball schedule about to begin the world began to shutdown, and Cuba was not immune. The season eventually began in September and all sixteen teams played 75 games.
Regular Season games were played without fans and few hiccups overall. The weather wreaked havoc with the All-Star game pushing it to a Tuesday morning and eliminated the Home run derby. Industriales of Havana had a swath of positive tests for Corona virus in mid December which sent officials scrambling. This led to temporary suspension of their games and caused a rejigging of the handful of remaining games needed to determine playoff seeding, with the Lions themselves being in striking distance of a playoff spot at that time. The depleted Havana squad got hot upon stepping back on the field and cemented the 7th seed and slowly welcomed all the effected players back. Fortunately none of the players showed any ill effects of the Novel Virus.
Delays pushed the start of the playoffs to the original scheduled end date. The four series were played in a bubble setup in the stadiums of Sancti Spiritus and Cienfuegos. Both those teams qualified for the tournament but would play on the road as to eliminate any home field advantage. Increasing numbers of Cubans are playing in non-MLB professional leagues across the world with permission from the Cuban Federation. Many of these players are returning in time for the playoffs after missing much of the regular season. These returns give the playoffs more of a just get in and let the chips fall feel.
The Granma Alazanes are a few years removed from back to back titles, they have lost key players to defection though. Also missed were Ace hurler Lazaro Blanco (Nicaragua) and top slugger Alfredo Despaigne (Softbank Japan) for much of the season and are still without Roel Santos (Mexico) but enter as the second seed. Blanco returned in time to win two games, including game five vs Industriales in a hotly contested series down to the 2-1 final in the ultimate matchup.
The Gallos of Sancti Spiritus entered as the number 1 seed. The first place finish by the youngsters was a surprise. Pinar del Rio however, dispatched them quickly in three games. Pinar saw timely hitting and effective pitching, especially from their lights out relief duo returning from Japan’s NPB in Raidel Martinez and Livan Moinelo. The pair unfortunately will not be available moving forward as they will return to their highly lucrative professional contracts in Japan’s top league.
One semifinal is set as Granma will face Pinar, we have known this since February 3rd. Who will face off in the other semi-final? We don’t know as the other two opening round series have not begun yet. Multiple positive covid tests were reported and they are believed to afflict players for Santiago and Cienfuegos. This has delayed the beginning of these matchups until Friday, February 12th. Or at least for Cienfuegos (6 Seed) and Matanzas (3 Seed) but brings us back to the original question. Matanzas enters as the defending champion and similar to Granma or Pinar have had some key players absent due to professional commitments. It appears that these players including Short Stop Erisbel Arruebarrena (formerly of the L.A. Dodgers), Pitcher Yoennis Yera and young catcher Ariel Martinez (Chunichi Dragons) will all be available.
The Cocodrilos enter as a middle of the pack offence despite hitting a collective .294. Their 55 home runs registered as fourth in the circuit. The upstart Elefantes paced the circuit hitting a robust .325 lead by batting champion 2B César Prieto (.403 Avg) and his double play partner Luis Mateo. Mateo flirted with .400 for most of the year before settling at .361.
The youngsters from the Pearl of the South will need to stampede with their bats. Their pitching underachieved all year to the tune of 5.61 ERA easily the worst of the playoff qualifiers. Matanzas hurlers spun a 4.40 ERA good for fourth best in the circuit. As mentioned they will have key arms returning to a veteran staff. The National Series pitching overall has resembled a throwback or the antithesis to MLB. Older pitchers are going deep into games. Often relying on guile and leading squads as opposed to younger fireballers gassing out in shorter sessions.
The best of 5 should be hotly contested and at the very least both teams will be well rested. Thankfully none of the athletes are apparently showing any serious maladies due to Covid-19. Cienfuegos will be in tough against the championship pedigree of the squad from the city of bridges. Unless their pitching overachieves they might be able to slug out a win or two, otherwise my prediction is Matanzas in four.