Playoffs I Elite League: The long-awaited resurrection of Centrales
In some ways, it could be said that the postseason has revived the I Elite League of Cuban Baseball.
For many reasons, Game 5 between Centrales vs Portuarios this Monday was one of the most exciting games in these playoffs. Before getting to that point, it is unavoidable to recall each turn during the 213 minutes of gameplay Monday afternoon at Nelson Fernández Stadium in San José de Las Lajas.
Let's start from the beginning, when Centrales appeared to have come together to knock out Portuarios and take a breath of oxygen in the playoff:
It's a game of "hope"
Left-handed hitters were once again Yadián Martínez's nightmare. According to the scouting reports, Armando Ferrer acted as follows:
As leadoff, Yadil Mujica continued his work.
The manager benched Luis Vicente Mateo, who went 2-for-15 over the course of the postseason.
Leftfielder Ariel Sánchez was promoted to the second turn, followed by Danel Castro DH, Pavel Quesada 3B, Erisbel Arruebarena SS, Yusniel Ibáez RF, Ariel Martnez 1B, Andrys Pérez C, and, batting ninth, Magdiel Gómez in center field.
In the first third of the game, the Centrales came out on top, scoring runs in the second and third innings, respectively. Against starter Yadián Martínez, manager Armando Ferrer used a left-handed duo: Mujica singled to rightfield, and Ariel Sánchez hit a double, sending Mujica home from first base.
Centrales 2, Portuarios 0.
Despite using only ten pitches in the first inning, Yadián had to use 25 during the next two innings. His changeup was trying to hit the corners of the strike zone, but Centrales' hitters stopped attacking it.
Also, Yadián's fastball mostly hovered around 83-84 mph, rarely reaching 85-87 mph, but it was precisely the contrast in speeds that generated non-contact swings. It wasn't long before his opponents understood how to attack him based on the first few pitches. But Yadián managed to remain in the game until the top of the sixth inning, when he left the game still ahead 3-2.
Yasniel 3, Centrales 2
After a scoreless fourth inning, the game took an exciting turn. Denis Laza opened the fourth inning getting on base when Javier Mirabal walked him after having mastered the first three innings. It was the first runner getting on base with less than two outs, and that immediately alerted everyone, knowing that the core of the Portuarios' lineup (Santoya-Valdés-González) were ready to come up.
With a fastball clocking 92-94 mph, Mirabal's fastball looked challenging, well above the league average of 84 mph. He used his slider to keep Yasiel Santoya in check, but he hit Oscar Valdés. Then Yasniel González entered the batter's box with two runners on base.
During his first matchup against Mirabal, González hit a powerful liner into Magdiel Gómez' glove in centerfield. It was Yasniel's timing that enabled him to crack another fastball from Mirabal, and that was the next thing that happened in seconds: A smashing swing. Yasniel González put Portuarios on top with a three-run homer.
I'm not sure if you saw it the same way, but Mirabal unprotected his fastball a bit, obviously looking for better control. But to be honest, Yasniel has been able to make good contact with Centrales pitchers all season long. Before Game 5, he was 3-for-3 against Mirabal.
Overall, only three of the 14 Centrales pitchers Yasniel faced have managed to strike him out all season: Alaín Sánchez (2), left-hander Dariel Góngora (1) and Noelvis Entenza (1). In fact, only two pitchers have been able to dominate Yasniel at least four times during the I Elite League, the Villa Clara duo of Freddy Asiel Álvarez-Alaín Sánchez. Against them he went 0-for-4.
After Yasniel hit his second home run in consecutive games — his only two hits in this Semifinal matchup — Mirabal left the game and lefty Dariel Góngora was brought in. Góngora then prevented Portuarios from extending their lead, completing four scoreless innings.
For Portuarios, Industriales' right-hander Andy Vargas relieved Yadián in the top of the sixth inning, and was able to retire eight in a row with a strikeout.
Vargas, coming off a surprising breakout year, turned the ball over to the team's closer, righthander Marlon Vega, in the nineth. Three outs away from advancing to the finals, manager Michael González' plan didn't work out.
After entering Game 5 on Monday with a disconcerting record of just one run scored in the last 25 innings, Centrales still looked subdued. But, after Pavel Quesada walked to start the ninth inning and Vega struck out Arruebarrena for the first out, one of the most unexpected plays occurred. Yusniel Ibáñez hit an easy fly ball to Yoasán Guillén in center, but he misread it at the last minute, causing the ball to drop in nobody's territory. Hope returned to the Centrales team.
With one out, Ariel Martínez was intentionally walked. The bases were loaded and catcher Andrys Pérez came to the plate. Tension! Pérez had already driven in a run, but then he missed two at bats with a pair of fly balls to centerfield. Facing Marlon Vega was difficult for Pérez, even when he has been one of the most efficient hitters (50%) with runners in scoring position this postseason.
Nevertheless, Centrales' manager, Armando Ferrer, trusted his instincts and kept Pérez in the game. And the young catcher didn't disappoint. After Luis Felipe Casañas called a controversial pitch "ball" - which seemed like a "third strike" - Pérez struck an RBI single to tie the score at 3-3.
Centrales' resurrection began with that saving hit. People will always talk about Casañas' count mistake or the review of certain plays during the game, all of them with no consequences to Centrales. But, whatever the case, Portuarios were sentenced to defeat because of defensive errors by second baseman Jorge Enrique Alomá and rightfielder Orlando Lavandera. *
* By the way, if Danel Castro's RBI hit against reliever Juan Xavier Pealver in the nineth inning had been avoided, Portuarios would have evened the score at 6-6. Yes, for Centrales, every run in the six-run rally was crucial.
The real true is that closer and MVP of the last 61 National Series, Marlon Vega, was ineffective, despite controversial pitches and inefficient defensive work at key moments.
In the bottom of the nineth inning, Ferrer needed three relievers to contain Portuarios' bats and get the important win. With the score 8-6 for Centrales and the tying run at first base, right-hander Hermes González struck out pinch-hitter Jorge Luis Barcelán, and retired Yasiel Santoya in a flyball to deep right field to end the game.
When Yusniel Ibáñez got the final out in rightfield, there was a sense of relief on the faces of the Centrales players. After three straight losses, on the verge of being swept on the road, the team finally got a win to send the series back home for Game 6.
Whether this success in Game 5 will generate enough inspiration for a comeback is anyone's guess. Obviously, it depends on what version we will see of both teams: The Portuarios that missed the chance of advancing to the championship series?. Or a Centrales team that came from behind, took advantage of whatever Portuarios gave them, and won a key game to extend the series.?
The only thing we know at the moment is that there will be Game 6. And that is enough to know that the competition has not ended between Centrales and Portuarios.
(Photo: Centrales Team/Osvaldo Gutiérrez)