Playoff baseball is different, at least in terms of atmosphere and big moments. I will argue until the end of time that playoff stats and regular season stats should be rolled together. Most Latin American leagues do this and honestly, the leagues are all the better because of this practice. However, my ranting and raving about the separation of postseason and regular season stats is not the purpose of this article. We’re here to talk about a big player stepping up big time in an important game.
Entering game 5 of the 2019-2020 Serie Nacional de Béisbol finals Toros de Camagüey found themselves down 3 games to 1. Outside of a terrific Yosimar Cousín performance in game 3, they had not been able to find an answer for Cocodrilos de Matanzas’ bats. Right before game time, I read a comment from someone on Twitter about how Toros fans were mistaken if they thought Lázaro Blanco was going to keep the series alive. The basic underpinning of this person’s words was that Blanco’s best days were behind him and the powerful Matanzas lineup would have their way with him.
As a bit of backstory, Blanco is somewhat of a legend in the CNS. He’s been in the league since the 2004-2005 season and along the way, he’s garnered a reputation for coming up big in the largest moments. Some of this is due to his performance in international tournaments, but it’s mostly from CNS play. I’ll admit that I’m not super privy to Blanco’s legend. I’m a relatively new convert to the CNS. Digging through Blanco’s BaseballdeCuba stats page didn’t reveal all that impressive of a stat line. He had one dominant 2017 sandwiched around a collection of seasons ranging from good to truly awful. I had to be missing something for why Blanco was so legendary as to warrant Twitter posts from Matanzas fans yelling that not even the great Blanco could stop them.
To help me better understand Blanco I turned to Ray Otero of BaseballdeCuba. Otero told me that Blanco became a big deal in the CNS around 2011. That season he changed personal pitching coaches and ditched his fourseam fastball in favor of his twoseamer. While this may seem dubious when affiliated baseball has been undergoing a fourseam revolution the last few years. Context matters in this case because according to Otero Lazaro changed his arm angle and that allowed him to get more of a sink on his twoseam fastball. The results were almost immediate, and from that point on Blanco was consistently in the running for best pitcher in the CNS. Fast forward to the present and while Blanco’s numbers have been somewhat affected by various bouts of a fatigued arm from playing in the Canadian American Association during the summer, he’s still considered the best pitcher in the CNS.
Watching the game it became pretty clear early on that my opinion of Blanco’s legendary status didn’t matter all that much. There was palpable tension coming out of the stands and through my television screen the moment Blanco took the mound. With each slow slider and perfectly placed two-seam fastball right on the black, I could feel the crowd growing more and more concerned. The Matanzas fans in attendance in Victoria de Girón Stadium were the same as the Matanzas fans I had encountered online. They had been all talk, trying to convince themselves that Blanco’s best days were behind him. Now that Blanco was actually on the mound they had nothing to say, overcome by his mere presence on the mound.
When Blanco took the mound for the seventh inning he had yet to allow a run. The seventh inning did not go how Blanco wanted or expected the inning to go. He very clearly ran out of steam and loaded the bases with no outs. Pretty soon he was out of the game after having allowed four runs to score, though only two were earned. More importantly, Matanzas fans had hope again. The stadium grew louder, the energy the Matanzas lineup had lacked all game suddenly came back, and Matanzas took a game where they were being routed and made it quite close before running out of innings.
As baseball fans who favor statistics, we tend to look for reasons for this or that. Not having spent time watching Blanco throughout his career I still don’t quite understand his legendary status. What I do know is that in game 5 with his team facing elimination that legend was made real right before my very eyes. There’s no way for me to quantify it or test it, but I know it was true because I watched Blanco slowly sap the lifeforce from a young and hungry Matanzas team. I then watched that team come back as soon as Blanco showed the tiniest hole in his armor. Legends don’t always live up to their billing, but on this day for at least six innings, Lázaro Blanco was every part of the word legend. Game 5 of the CNS final was Blanco’s only chance to shine on the big stage, Matanzas won the championship in game 6. Not the desired outcome, but then again, Blanco has managed to become a legend in Cuba, undesirable outcomes and all.
Lead photo courtesy of Unknown – BaseballdeCuba