José Antonio Huelga
José Antonio Huelga (El Héroe de Cartagena)
- Throws Right
José Antonio Huelga is Cuba's leader ERA in the 50+ seasons since the Cuban revolution. Despite that fact, he never led his league in ERA, benefiting from being a consistently good pitcher in an extreme pitcher's era.
Huelga first achieved notice on January 14, 1968, when he tossed a no-hitter against the Granjeros. He was the top performer in the 1968 Cuban All-Star Series. Pitching for the Orientales, he led the Series in wins (2), innings (38 1/3), strikeouts (21) and walks (15). He failed to net a pitching Triple Crown as Andrés Liaño led in ERA. In the 1969 Amateur World Series, Huelga had a 1-0, 0.75 record for the Gold Medal-winning Cuban national team and was 1 for 4 at the plate.
1970: The Big Year
The slender hurler was 11-1 for Las Villas in the 1970 Serie 10 Millones, leading the league in winning percentage as his club captured the pennant. In the 1970 Central American and Caribbean Games, he went 2-0 with a 0.00 ERA on the mound and 3 for 6 at the plate to help Cuba win Gold. He was 1-0 with a 0.00 ERA in the 1970 Amateur World Series. He also had two hits in three at-bats. In game one of the finals against Team USA, he pitched 11 innings to outduel Burt Hooton in a 3-1 decision. The next day, he came on in relief and saved the game for Santiago Mederos to give Cuba the Gold over the US. Fidel Castro dubbed him "El Héroe de Cartagena" (the Hero of Cartagena, which is the site of the Series) for his efforts. He lost Series MVP honors to Abel Leal.
Huelga was back at it in the 1971 Amateur World Series at 2-0, 0.75; he was 2 for 5 offensively as Cuba won another Gold. He was 2-0 with a 1.75 ERA in the 1971 Pan American Games (also won by Cuba). In the 1972 Haarlem Baseball Week, he split Best Pitcher honors with Ronald Briezen. He was 3-1 with a 0.79 ERA in the 1972 Amateur World Series, while going 1 for 10 at the plate. His loss came to host Nicaragua Cuba won Gold, Huelga's 6th and final Gold in an international tourney. He was one win behind teammate Braudilio Vinent for the tournament lead. Also in 1972, he no-hit the Italian national team in an exhibition contest in Italy.
José died in a tragic car accident on the highway near Mariel on July 4, 1974. He was only 26 years and still an active pitcher.
Huelga was 75-32 with a 1.50 ERA and .180 opponent average in 160 games in Cuba. He completed 56 of 91 starts and also saved 14 games. He walked 277 in 871 1/3 innings for a career WHIP of 0.95; he also struck out 722. He is easily Cuba's all-time leader in ERA since the Revolution; Roberto Valdés is second at 1.75. Only four pitchers are in the 1.76-1.99 range (through 2010-2011). Just as he never led the Serie Nacional in ERA, he never was named the Cuban Serie Nacional MVP or Serie Nacional Most Valuable Pitcher. While his ERA would have likely risen had he pitched into a decline phase and in the higher-offense era Cuba was entering, Huelga's winning percentage speaks to his consistently productive play in his homeland. He had batted .194/.263/.252 in domestic competition, a far cry from his solid batwork in many international events. In international competition (including some minor events), Huelga was 17-3 with a 1.27 ERA, .146 opponent average and 159 whiffs in 176 2/3 innings.
After His Death
Huelga was posthumously honored with both a stadium being named for him (Estadio José Antonio Huelga) and a baseball tournament in Cuba (held sporadically since the 1970s).