By Yusseff Díaz
The Olympic Qualifier of the Americas was one of the most resounding defeats for the Cuban Baseball Federation not only the field but also in the arena of public opinion. Cuba who has been an Olympic juggernaut in baseball did not qualify for the tournament for the first time in its history. The tournament took place from May 31 until June 5 at Fitteam Stadium in West Palm Beach and Clover Park in Port St. Lucie.
The malediction started only hours after the Cuban team arrived at Miami International Airport. Just minutes after the team arrived at it’s West Palm Beach hotel star prospect César Prieto jump into a waiting car and defected.
Dismal managing dooms Cuba
The curse continued into the first day when Venezuela pounded Cuban ace Lázaro Blanco for three runs via a Carlos Pérez homer with two outs in the first inning. Cuba fell on that day to Venezuela 6-5, but Cuban manager Armando Ferrer was second guessed for not going with young flamethrower Yariel Rodríguez against a Venezuela lineup laden with ex-major leaguers and high level minor leaguers. His decision to sit Cuban League MVP Lisbán Correa was also much maligned especially after the slugger hit a two-out two-run bottom of the ninth homerun to draw Cuba within a run.
Game two against Canada the antilleans fell by the same score and Ferrer’s methods once again came into question. Once again Rodríguez didn’t get the nod on the mound and when starter Carlos Juan Viera did not make it out of the first inning, Rodríguez came in and shined in relief. The Chunichi Dragons hurler pitched 6 ⅓ innings where he gave up four hits, two earned runs and struck out 11. His fastball topped out a 98 mph during the outing.With the loss Cuba was officially eliminated from Olympic contention to the dismay of fans on the island. Cuba left with honor in its last game, a 16-3 shalacking of Colombia.
Ferrer’s roster construction came under a lot of scrutiny. Having four first baseman, three catchers and only ten pitchers was a big blunder because the team was limited when it came to relief.
Snubs,broken promises and injuries
With the Cuban Federation announcing that it would allow defectors not aligned with MLB to play on the national team plenty of talented players began lining up. The most notable star to express his desire was Henry Urrutia citing that, “winning an Olympic medal like his father was his dream.”
Félix Perez also expressed his desire to play for Cuba and was rumored to be the closest to suit up with Cuba, only to be turned down at the last moment. In Henry’s case he spoke to the Federation and contact information was exchanged only to never be contacted again. This proved to be a fatal mistake for Cuba, because the slugger’s big bat would have helped in key situations. Urrutia for the record is hitting over .400 in the Mexican and leads the circuit in homeruns. The lanky left has been named player of the week the last two weeks.
Pitchers such as Raúl Valdés, who led the tournament in strikeouts with 12 for the Dominican Republic and Yoanner Negrín a top Mexican League pitcher with the Leonés of Yucatán also expressed their desire to play with the island and were also snubbed. Alex Guerrero who led the Nippon League in long balls in 2018 was also left in the cold waiting.
Injuries also hurt Cuba’s chances in the tournament. Debilitating hand injuries to the island top third baseman Yurisbel Gracial and top catcher Ariel Martínez really left holes in the lineup for the national team.
Nuestro @yusseff305 le pregunta al catalizador de la ofensiva cubana en el torneo @Erisbelbarrena como se mantuvo en forma entrenando en la Florida antes del torneo Preolímpico. #pelotacubana #beisbolcubano #PreOlimpico #WBSC #Cuba pic.twitter.com/GYziKbXwqE— Pelota Cubana (@pelotacubanausa) June 3, 2021
Bright spots for Cuba
All wasn’t bad for Cuba, there were a few bright spots. Shortstop Erisbel Aruebarrena was a terror for opposing pitching hitting a robust .538, while leading national team with two round-trippers and six runs batted in. Raico Santos (.556), Roel Santos (.455), Yadil Mujica (.429) and Yordanis Samón (.400) also shined with the lumber.
The pitching staff also had its share top performers. Aside from Yariel Rodríguez’s shining performance in the second game of the tournament against Canada. Havana righthander Bryan Chi won the only game of the tournament for the Cubans and also posted a 1.59 ERA.
Andy Rodríguez also flashed major league stuff in two innings of relief againstVenezuela, an outing that was probably an unofficial showcase for MLB clubs. The flamethrower struck out three batters in two innings of work and his only blunder was a homer given up to ex-major leaguer Hernan Pérez.
A litany of defections
Aside from the César Prieto defection a few other players decided to leave the delegation after the tournament. The first to jump ship was the team’s psychologist Jorge Sile the day the team’s scheduled flight back to Havana on June 3. Two days later the team’s ace, righty Lázaro Blanco decided to skip a flight to joins México’s Saraperos de Saltillo. This made him the third defection.
Just yesterday reliever Andy Rodríguez decided not to make his flight and rejoin the SoftBank Hawks making him the fourth defection. A Source within the organization tells me that the young hurler might be put on the restricted list if he fails to report to Fukuoka.
A tournament that started out with optimism for the Cuban squad ended up being the “Other Big Red Machine’s” biggest defeat in its history to date.