Final I Elite League: An historic comeback — Agricultores champions!
In Game 4, when Portuarios won 8-5 and moved 3-1 ahead in the Finals, Agricultores, the most consistent team in the First Elite League of Cuban Baseball, had only one option: win, win and win.
A 3-1 playoff deficit against the Portuarios, who emerged as the surprise team of the day, seemed impossible. However, the Agricultores started the comeback with a 19-5, 9-1 victory to force Game 7 and prove why they were the "team to beat" during the regular season.
A powerful lineup of players and dynasties like the Alazanes de Granma (four out of six Cuban National championships won, including the last two) proved unstoppable once again under the pressure of the postseason. While the Portuarios fought like hell, the offensive attack they received was relentless.
Having the final back at Mártires de Barbados also helped the Agricultores, who were eager to finish the comeback in front of their home fans. Before the voice of playball was heard on a sunny Sunday afternoon, Portuarios manager Michael González knew what was at stake when he carried out what he might call the 'hope strategy': he bet on giving Pavel Hernández another chance as a starter instead of José Ignacio Bermúdez or Raymond Figueredo.
Pavel had thrown only four innings in three starts this postseason, so there were doubts. His most challenging situations in the box were not related to his main command problems. During those four innings, his rivals were 14-for-27 with a .519 average.
He was ineffective because of the vulnerability of his pitches and the ease with which opponents anticipated them. As impressive as his 92-93 mph fastball looked, he struck out just three opponents and walked one before starting Game 7. Carlos Mart selected veteran left-hander Leandro Martínez to start game seven for the Agricultores. During postseason games 7, Marti was undefeated as a manager.
As a result, the fight for the LEBC title began. During the first third of the game, Agricultores maintained their winning trend: 4-0 in the second inning of Game 4, 8-0 at the end of the third of Game 5, and 2-1 after a third of Game 6. It was suffocating for Pavel Hernández. Yuniesky Larduet started the game with a single, advanced to third base on Pavel's fielding error, and then scored on Yordanis Alarcón's sacrifice fly.
Singles by Andrés de La Cruz and Alexquemer Sánchez put runners on the corners in the second inning. This was after centerfielder Roberto Acevedo jumped over the fence and robbed Guillermo Avilés of a potential home run. The key was aggressive base running, as De La Cruz reacted instantly after Alexquemer's ground ball was caught by Alexander Pozo.
The mischief running the bases led Dailier Pe'a to hit a sacrifice fly to left center to score Farmers' second run. Pavel then committed his second error of the game in the following inning, letting Osvaldo Abreu's bunt escape from beneath his legs after walking Larduet. The current situation? Agricultores led 2-1. There were no outs, runners on first and second, and Yordanis Alarcón was at bat. Portuarios' manager, Michael González, had lost hope of seeing Pavel recover, and it was time to go to the bullpen.
As the first reliever, Andy Vargas had been hit in his previous appearance during Game 6. Again, he got his opponent within two strikes, but Yordanis hit a powerful liner that was caught by third baseman Lázaro Martínez. Then, Andy Vargas forced Yosvany Alarcón to ground out into a double play with the bases loaded. The first third ended with Agricultores leading 3-1, after Rafael Viñales recorded the last out.
Every time the Agricultores batters took the field, they generated a tremendous amount of pressure that gave them complete control over the game. Despite Portuarios' attempts to battle, they were never able to take the lead. With left-handed Leandro Martínez replaced prematurely by right-handed Yoel Mogena at the start of the third inning, Portuarios only managed to tie the score at 3-3. After two outs, Oscar Valdes' well-timed single in the top of the fifth was short lived. Due to this lack of productiveness in clutch situations, Agricultores rallied for almost a decisive victory at the end of inning 5.
Following a walk by Larduet, Abreu was struck by a pitch. Yordanis hit an RBI single to right field and his brother Yosvany swung at a pitch in the lower and inner zones. Then Rafael Viñales hit another RBI single with a line ball to center field.
Agricultores 6, Portuarios 3. The advantage is doubled!
Game 7 appeared to end with that three-run inning. In fact, it lasted from the fifth through the eighth innings. In every case, Yuniesky Larduet and Osvaldo Abreu produced the desired results: reaching bases, leading the offensive pieces in run-and-hit plays, advancing runners, and putting the ball in play.
For Martí that gear was ideal. Additionally, Las Tunas outfielder Dailier Pea performed well when he was given the opportunity to start. What can you do to avoid being crushed by the Agricultores' lineup? Whenever Yordanis Alarcón is dominated, or gets on base, his brother Yosvany follows, or Viñales, then De La Cruz, and finally Avilés - despite the fact that he had been silenced during the last two games -.
For the Portuarios pitchers, dealing with this lineup was incredibly stressful. This might be the reason Michael González did not replace Andy Vargas, who was only battered once in the fifth inning. If we combine the offensive contributions of all of the aforementioned hitters, here are some amusing numbers:
Agricultores' first to seventh batters put the following numbers in this Final:
.386/.445/.662/1.107, scoring 58 runs (85.3% of the entire team), hitting 12 home runs (85.7%), and driving in 58 RBIs (87.9%).
Even after Mogena had dominated nine of their next 10 opponents since allowing the tying run in the fifth, Portuarios was still not giving up. As the score remained unchanged in the sixth, seventh, and eighth innings, Portuarios players felt that a comeback was unlikely. Despite this, Oscar Valdés' sensational double to left and two RBIs from Yasniel González and Pozo helped level the game at 6-6. As he did against Yasiel Santoya, Alberto Pablo Civil tried to surprise Oscar with an inside pitch, but failed. That was a memorable moment!
The score was tied after Portuarios came back unexpectedly, but Agricultores prevailed. With Marlon Vega far from his dominance in the postseason, the championship decision was made. A walk to Dailier Peña was crucial. A controversial bunt - by Larduet -, which was reviewed on video, put Peña in scoring position. After that, Osvaldo Abreu hit a golden single to centerfield. A 7-6 win in Game 7 and a comeback! Agricultores are champions!
When Dailier Peña slid into the plate following Yordanis Alarcón' single, the excitement of the Agricultores players was irresistible. It was the favorite team that won the game, the absolute leader and the team that had the highest chance of completing a comeback after being down 3-1 in the series.
Despite the appearance of "apparent pitching improvements" with the use of Teammate-120 baseballs, disrespectful offense dominated the playoffs. The insertion of Teammate-190 baseballs pointed out the pitchers' deficiencies, although emotional play was evident in each match between Portuarios and Agricultores. Although the pitching was poor, the offense was prolific, and the crowd was drawn to the rivalry.
Portuarios' teamwork, led by manager Michael González, had plenty of heart, but lacked a final touch. It was impossible for pitchers to stop the Agricultores' relentless attack. With a core of players who are accustomed to touching the glory of Cuban baseball, the disciples of Carlos Martí demonstrated their strength.
Ultimately, the I Elite League was saved by these seven games: Agricultores, champions!
(Cover Photo: Osvaldo Abreu/I. S. Carrillo/CMKX Radio Bayamo)