Monday, June 18, 2018


Monterrey Sultanes outfielder Leo German
Leo German launched a two-run homer off Tijuana reliever Daniel Moskos in the bottom of the eighth inning to give Monterrey a 6-5 lead they'd hold until the end of Saturday's Mexican League North Division championship series Game Six to win the set, 4 games to 2.  Thus, the Sultanes advance to the Serie del Rey for the first time since 2013 by knocking off the defending champs in the third consecutive LMB North title showdown between the two teams.  Chris Roberson also homered for Monterrey while Corey Brown and Roberto Lopez went deep for the Toros as setup man Nick Struck won his third game of the series.  A full house of 21,909 were on hand for the third straight sellout at Estadio Monterrey in a well-attended LMB North finals, during which 113,732 aficionados attended the six encounters for an average of 18,955 per opening.

The Toros had taken a 2-games-to-1 LMB North title series lead last Tuesday with an 11-5 win at home as Rodriguez' bases-full triple keyed a six-run fourth inning for the (Pedro) Mere Men of Tijuana.  The Sultanes came back to take the next two contests at Estadio Gasmart: a 4-3 Wednesday win when Chris Roberson doubled and came in on Guty Murillo's single in the top of the eleventh followed by a 6-5 Thursday triumph in which Murillo came in from third on Yadir Drake's bases-loaded single in the top of the ninth to score the tiebreaker.

The LMB South championships will go to a seventh and deciding game on Monday night.  Quintana Roo took a 2-games-to-1 lead in the set last Tuesday by beating Yucatan, 6-1, in Cancun as Javier Solano gave up one run on five hits before being replaced by Derrick Loop with two out in the eighth.  The Leones responded Wednesday night with a 6-2 victory over the hosts as starter Yoanner Negrin went seven strong innings, allowing one run on three hits.

Then the rains came and washed out Game Five both Thursday and Friday nights and delaying Saturday's contest by nearly seven hours.  The Leones won that one, 8-6, in a game marked by two big innings as the Tigres scored five times in the bottom of the fifth to break a scoreless tie before Yucatan posted six runs in the seventh as Everth Cabrera doubled in two runners and later scored on Art Charles' two-bagger.

The Tigres roared back to take Sunday's Game Six, 5-2, thanks to a three-run homer by Alonzo Harris in the top of the sixth off Yucatan reliever Jose Manuel Lopez to break a 2-2 deadlock.  Harris, who hit .301 with eight homers for Quintana Roo in 48 games, is a former Mets prospect who spent two years playing indy ball with St. Paul before batting .315 with 23 homers for York in the Atlantic League last summer.  Venerable Pablo Ortega took the 2-2 tie into the fifth before he was replaced by Javier Solano with two out and the bases loaded.  Solano induced Leo Heras to ground out sharply to C.J. Retherford at first to end the threat and went on to hurl three more scoreless frames to take the win in relief.  Although it was Lopez who gave up Harris' homer, predecessor Carlos Frias was charged with the go-ahead run and thus the loss, his second in the series.

Game Seven is set for Monday night at 7PM Eastern in Merida's Parque Kukulcan.  Manager Roberto Vizcarra will send Yoanner Negrin to the mound for the Leones while TIgres skipper Tim Johnson counters with Jesse Estrada.  The contest will be streamed live at the LMB En Vivo page on Facebook.  En espanol, por supuesto.


A total of 56 players will converge on Merida at the end of June for the annual Mexican League All-Star Game, set for June 29 at Parque Kukulcan, the 14,917-seat home of the Yucatan Leones.  The game had originally been scheduled for Mexico City's Estadio Alfredo Harp Helu but was shifted to Yucatan earlier this year when construction delays on the Diablos Rojos' new ballpark pushed the facility's opening back to the 2019 season.

Both the North (managed by first-place finisher Monterrey's skipper Roberto Kelly) and South (headed by Yucatan helmsman Roberto Vizcarra) division rosters will include 28 players apiece, half of them pitchers.  Kelly will have Monclova's wins and strikeouts champ Josh "The Mayor" Lowey, wins co-leader Carlos Hernandez of Tijuana and Jorge Reyes, who was the Liga's ERA leader for Kelly's Sultanes, to choose from for the North's starting pitcher.  Vizcarra has plenty of starting material on the South roster, including Quintana Roo's Henderson Alvarez, Yucatan ace Yoanner Negrin and Octavio Acosta of Mexico City.

There are even a  pair of sentimental choice in Campeche's Francisco Campos and Pablo Ortega of Quintana Roo.  Campos, 45, is in his 24th season pitching for the perennial also-ran Piratas, spending some time on loan with Monterrey in 2006.  While his 2-2 record and 5.16 ERA are so-so at best, an All-Star Game without the beloved Pancho Ponches would be almost unthinkable (this is his 14th).  The venerable Ortega (in his 20th LMB campaign at age 41) has shown he can still pitch by going 3-2 with a 3.13 ERA in seven regular season starts for the Tigres and turning in a complete game win over Mexico City in the LMB South semifinals earlier this month.

A day ahead of the All-Star Game, there'll be the ubiquitous Home Run Derby plus a new competition featuring double play combinations.  The Home Run Derby will feature three longballists from each division:  Aguascalientes' Francisco Perez, Ricky Alvarez of Monterrey and Monclova's MVP Jesse Castillo will represent the North against Puebla's Daric Barton, Luis Juarez of Yucatan and former MLB shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt, now with Oaxaca.  The Double Play Derby will feature five keystone combinations being timed on turning two outs:  Moises Gutierrez and Javier Salazar (Durango), Ramiro Pena and Ramon Rios (Monterrey), Maxwell Leon and Isaac Rodriguez (Tijuana), Rolando Acosta and Carlos Gastelum (Quintana Roo) plus Walter Ibarra and Everth Cabrera (Yucatan).

Here are the rosters for both All-Star squads:

Pitchers (14) - Anthony Carter (AGS), Linder Castro (AGS), Maikel Cleto (LAG), Tiago Da Silva (DUR), Carlos Hernandez (TIJ), Josh Lowey (MVA), Josh Lueke (MVA), Rafael Martin (SAL), Nestor Molina (LAR), Wirfin Obispo (MTY), Roman Pena (LAG), Jorge Reyes (MTY), Marco Tovar (MTY), Raul Valdes (MTY).
Catchers (2) - Jose Felix (MVA), Isidro Pena (DUR).
Infielders (7) - Jorge Cantu (TIJ), Jesse Castillo (MVA), Dustin Geiger (DUR), Agustin Murillo (MTY), Ramiro Pena (MTY), Isaac Rodriguez (TIJ), Saul Soto (AGS).
Outfielders (5) - Yadir Drake (MTY), Desmond Jennings (MVA), Maxwell Leon (TIJ), Enrique Osorio (LAR), Chris Roberson (MTY).
Manager - Roberto Kelly (MTY).

Pitchers (14) - Octavio Acosta (MXC), Henderson Alvarez (QR), Francisco Campos (CAM), Dustin Crenshaw (LEON), Barry Enright (QR), Adrian Garza (TAB), Chad Gaudin (YUC), Arcenio Leon (OAX), Dallas Martinez (LEON), Yoanner Negrin (YUC), Juan Pablo Oramas (TAB), Pablo Ortega (QR), Pedro Rodriguez (CAM), Jose Samayoa (YUC).
Catchers (2) - Sebastian Valle (YUC), Hans Wilson (TAB).
Infielders (6) - Emmanuel Avila (MXC), Daric Barton (PUE), Yuniesky Betancourt (OAX), Alberto Carreon (PUE), Carlos Gastelum (QR), Alexei Ramirez (MXC).
Outfielders (6) - Carlos Figueroa (MXC), Leo Heras (YUC), Luis Juarez (YUC), Junior Lake (LEON), Ivan Terrazas (MXC), Jesus Valdez (YUC).
Manager - Roberto Vizcarra (YUC).

New Mazatlan catcher Sebastian Valle

The Los Mochis Caneros and Mazatlan Venados have swung a major Mexican Pacific League offseason trade, with the Caneros sending catcher Sebastian Valle to the Mazatlan Venados for second baseman Esteban Quiroz.  In the 26-year-old Quiroz, Los Mochis brings in one of the top second sackers in a country with several good ones (including Manny Rodriguez, Isaac Rodriguez and Ramon Rios), a nice blend of batting with extra-base power and good range afield.  In the 28-year-old Valle, Mazatlan gets one of Mexico's top catchers, a one-time Phillies prospect featuring solid defensive skills and some pop at the plate, if not necessarily a high average.

New Los Mochis second baseman Esteban Quiroz
Both are members of the Mexican National Team who've had their careers harmed by injuries.  Quiroz was placed on the 7-day DL April 30 by the Boston Red Sox with a leg injury suffered when the 5'7" sparkplug nicknamed "El Pony" was hitting .302 with 4 homers and 13 ribbies over 15 games for AA Portland.  He had .264/0/21 numbers in 59 games for Mazatlan last winter.  Valle hit just .203 with 6 homers in 36 games for Yucatan of the Mexican League this Spring (he's currently batting .381 after six games against Quintana Roo for the LMB South championship) after a .184/6/12 LMP season with Los Mochis in 2017-18

Veteran second baseman Paul Leon is expected to take Quiroz' place in new Venados manager Joe Alvarez' everyday lineup while former Padres farmhand Ricardo Valenzuela will battle 32-year-old Humberto Sosa (a current teammate of Valle in Yucatan) for the Yaquis catching job next winter.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Cabrera hero as Leones tie LMB South title series

Yucatan Leones shortstop Everth Cabrera came up big
Former San Diego Padres shortstop Everth Cabrera capped a two-run comeback for Yucatan in the bottom half of the ninth inning with a walkoff single that scored Ruben Sosa from second base, handing the Leones a 6-5 win over Quintana Roo Sunday in Game Two of the Mexican League's South Division championship series in Merida.  The victory knotted the Leones-Tigres catfight at one game apiece as 13,147 spectators looked on at Parque Kukulkan.  Cabrera, Sosa and Jesus "Cacao" Valdez each had three hits for the winners while C.J. Retherford belted a pair of homers (one of them a three-run bom) for the Tigres, who won Saturday's opener, 4-1, behind the complete game pitching of Henderson Alvarez.

As Cabrera was performing his heroics in Yucatan, the defending champion Tijuana Toros were delivering a 15-2 beatdown to the Monterrey Sultanes to tie the LMB North title series at one gabe apiece.  Dustin Martin cracked a grand slam in the top of the second off Sultanes starter Felipe Gonzalez to highlight a five-run inning that gave the Toros a lead they would widen as the game went on.  Martin finished the night with six RBIs, Cyle Hankerd contributed a three-run homer to the cause and batting champion Isaac Rodriguez went 4-for-6 with three runs scored and two more driven in for manager Pedro Mere's men.  TJ starter Kyle Lobstein pitched six pressure-free innings, allowing one run on three hits while striking out five batsmen to send 21,909 fans at Estadio Monterrey home disappointed.  Sultanes reliever Gonzalo Ochoa had a nightmarish appearance in the seventh frame, allowing six runs on five hits (including Hankerd's roundtripper) and a walk before being pulled by skipper Roberto Kelly with one out remaining, which Marcos Rivas mercifully recorded.

Yucatan and Quintana Roo both reached the LMB South finals by dispatching Leon and Mexico City, respectively, in five games.  Sebastian Valle's two-run homer gave Leones starter Jose Samayoa (6 innings, 1 run) all the support needed in Yucatan's 5-1 win over the Bravos last Monday in Leon while Jason Bourgeois' single drove in Angel Erro with the game winner in the bottom of the tenth in the Tigres' 6-5 win over the Diablos Rojos the same night in Cancun.  The victory had to be doubly sweet for Tigres owners Fernando and Linda Valenzuela, who've had their own well-chronicled issues with the Red Devils organization over the past year.

Monterrey had to go the extra mile to win their LMB North semifinal series over Monclova in six games.  The Acereros outlasted the Sultanes, 7-6, last Monday at home with the aid of four homers, including a two-run shot coming off the bat of former Yankees outfielder Ruben Rivera, now 44, who hit .385 for the series.  Monterrey wrapped things up two nights later by a 6-3 count over the Steelers as veteran third baseman Agustin Murillo had a big night for the Sultanes, socking a pair of homers (one of them a three-run dinger off Acereros starter Mauricio Lara in the bottom of the fifth.  The 39-year-old Lara had sailed through the first four frames without being scratched for a run before running into trouble in the fifth.  Tijuana had earlier eliminated Aguascalientes in a four-game sweep, giving the Toros a week to rest before opening their series with Monterrey Saturday.

Both division championship series will resume Tuesday night after Monday's travel day, as the LMB South title set shifts to Cancun for Game Three while Tijuana will host Game Three in the LMB North series.

Bravos late with payment, lose SS Amadeo Zazueta to Dos Laredos

Former Leon Bravos shortstop Amadeo Zazueta
Your friendly bank officer issuing a foreclosure notice has nothing on the Monclova Acereros, who waited just one week for a late installment check from the Leon Bravos before reclaiming shortstop Amadeo Zazueta from the Guanajuato team and immediately trading him to the Dos Laredos Tecolotes.

According to Puro Beisbol editor Fernando Ballesteros, the Bravos agreed to a series of payments to Monclova as part of an offseason deal that sent the 32-year-old Culiacan product to Leon after batting .341 for the Steelers last summer, socking 9 homers and driving in 64 runs over 101 regular season contests in 2017.  The trade surprised many Mexican League observers at the time, but the Acereros were committed to Puebla Shuttle passenger Alberto Carreon and LMB veteran Kevin Flores, who spent three years with Yucatan after nine summers with the Quintana Roo Tigres before arriving in Estadio Monclova as a free agent last winter.

Instead, Carreon never got untracked with the Acereros and was shuttled back to sister team Puebla during the Spring 2018 season while Flores ended up playing just 27 of 57 games, batting .320 with 7 RBIs.  And Zazueta?  He became one of the faces of the Leon franchise by batting .356 with 5 homers, 9 steals and a team-high 46 runs scored while adding some adventurous defense in the 6 spot with 10 errors in 55 games.  Despite being one of the Liga's more troubled franchises, the Bravos have managed to reach the playoffs in each of their first two seasons and Zazueta was a key member of this Spring's squad.

However, Zazueta apparently wasn't so important to either the Leon front office or Arturo Blanco, the Potosinos transportation company majordomo and one of the MXL's wealthier owners.  Ballesteros reports that Monclova allowed a week for the Bravos' June installation check to arrive before taking Zazueta back for a nanosecond prior to shipping him off to the Tecos in exchange for pitcher Jose Pina, a useful righty who's gone 45-37 with a 3.52 ERA in six seasons pitching for mostly dreadful teams in Tabasco, Veracruz and Dos Laredos (he was 4-5 with a 4.07 ERA this Spring for the Tecos, who had the worst record in the Liga at 18-39.  The two-time All-Star is a much better pitcher than even his decent stats would indicate and the 6'2" Dominican will finally give Acereros star Josh Lowey a decent complement in the starting rotation.  While their moves were definitely draconian, it's hard to blame Monclova for making them after a second straight first-round playoff exit.  Owner Gerardo Benavides has proven that, if nothing else, he is a hands-on guy who'll make a move at the drop of a hat to improve his hometown team (often at the expense of his Puebla franchise).

But what of the Bravos?  This would be embarrassing to any self-aware ballclub seeking to build credibility among an already-skeptical fan base.  Manager (as of this week) Luis Rivera will likely move Niko Vasquez (.341/10/36) back to his natural position of shortstop with little drop-off in production, but he's left with former Diamondbacks prospect Joe Munoz, a 2014 Midwest League all-star, at third base for Fall 2018 after Munoz played just seven games for Tijuana and Leon in Spring.  The bigger question mark may be regarding what credibility the Bravos have with Leon baseball fans after letting one of their best players leave with nothing in return but even more egg on its face after yet another front office snafu.

One more note worth passing along.  Ballesteros reports that Zazueta may choose to not report to Dos Laredos, one of the few franchises more rudderless than the one he was reclaimed from.  This may all end up in the lap of Liga president Javier Salinas, who certainly doesn't need any more problems in what has been a tough first year for the former Liga MX soccer marketer after replacing Plinio Escalante at the top of the circuit last September.

Managerial firings: Firova out in Monclova, Sandoval canned in Oaxaca

Former Monclova Acereros manager Dan Firova
After showing remarkable restraint throughout the Spring 2018 season, Mexican League owners are using June to make some corrections of their dugout bosses.  Two more managers lost their jobs over the past week after only one midseason firing in Dos Laredos, when the Tecolotes cut Eddie Castro loose last month.  After Tabasco fired skipper Alfonso "Houston" Jimenez in a rather puzzling move, given that Jimenez spun some silk from a sow's ear of a roster (Castro will be Jimenez' replacement n Villahermosa), Oaxaca severed ties with first-year manager Jose Luis "Borrego" Sandoval, a 2008 MVP shortstop for Mexico City during his playing days and a favorite of Diablos/Guerreros owner Alfredo Harp Helu, but the most surprising firing would have to be Dan Firova's reported ouster in Monclova.

 Owner Gerardo Benavides has proven with both the Acereros and Puebla that he has an affinity for hiring managers with Major League Baseball backgrounds such as Wally Backman, who was brought in to Monclova for a disastrous term last despite the former Mets second baseman only having enough prior experience speaking Spanish to order off the menu at Taco Bell.  Hired last December, Firova was seen as a compromise choice of sorts, possessing a less-extensive MLB background but also a Mexican-American who'd both played and managed successfully in the Liga in past years (winning Manager of the Year laurels in 2000 with the Quintana Roo Tigres).  Language and experience in baseball south of the border were not concerns with the former catcher from Texas.

The Acereros finished a disappointing 29-27 in the Spring 2018 regular season, coming in fourth in the LMB North before a first-round playoff exit at the hands of Monterrey.  While fault for failing to meet expectations may lie more with a dissension-ridden clubhouse of transient ballplayers yo-yoing between Monclova and Puebla (star second baseman Manny Rodriguez left the team and was subsequently traded to Quintana Roo) or a pitching staff that allowed more men to reach first base than Stormy Daniels (Josh Lowey notwithstanding), but it's easier to scapegoat a manager and that appears to be what may happening with Firova.  His firing, which has been reported in the Mexican baseball media, had not been officially confirmed by either the Acereros or MXL offices as this story was written and no replacement has been announced.

The firing of Sandoval in Oaxaca was not so surprising.  The 49-year-old Los Mochis native spent 14 seasons between 2000 and 2013 with Mexico City and remained as a coach or manager in the Diablos system before owner Alfredo Harp Helu send him to manage the billionaire's other Liga team in Oaxaca this year.  The Guerreros serve a similar, if not as direct, role to the Diablos that the Kansas City A's used to serve as the New York Yankees' de facto Class AAA affiliate in the American League (which both teams conveniently played in).   Sandoval took Oaxaca's perennial red-headed stepchild team to a last-place finish in the LMB South at 22-35.  While he had more talent than Castro in Dos Laredos or Jimenez in Tabasco had to work with (including such notables as Yuniesky Betancourt, Adan Munoz and Erick Rodriguez), Sandoval's roster reflected the old wartime song, "They're Either Too Young or Too Old," and sank out of contention early.

Sandoval will be replaced at the Guerreros helm by Cuban Jose Alvarez, the former Durango manager who was recently hired to manage Mazatlan this winter in the Mexican Pacific League.  Alvarez won two Gulf Coast League rookieball pennants and one Class A Florida State League title between 1986 and 1990 managing in the Dodgers system.  He spent 2017 as the helmsman in Durango, keeping the newborn Generales at .500 while the team played their first month on the road while their ballpark at home was being readied, but the team ran out of steam the rest of the season as players missed paychecks as the schedule played out (many were traded to save costs) and Durango missed the playoffs.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Toros complete sweep of Rieleros, advance to LMB North finals

Tijuana Toros right-handed pitcher Manny Barreda
The Tijuana Toros punched their ticket to a fourth consecutive berth in the Mexican League North Division championship series by sweeping Aguascalientes in four LMB North semifinal games last week.  Manager Pedro Mere's men beat the Rieleros, 6-3, Sunday in Aguascalientes to clinch the series after league batting champ Isaac Rodriguez slapped an RBI single and a Jose Vargas fielding error at third base resulted in two more Toros runs to give the defending champions the lead for good.
Tijuana won last Wednesday's opener at home, 3-2, with pinch-hitter Maxwell Leon's RBI single in the bottom of the ninth ended the game.  The Toros took Game Two on Thursday, 5-3, behind Kyle Lobstein's 5.2 innings of two-run pitching before prevailing in Saturday's contest at Estadio Alberto Romo Chavez, 4-0, with starter Manny Barreda contributing 5.1 frames to the shutout.  Tijuana also defeated the Railroaders (in six games) to win their division semi set last August.
All three of the remaining division semifinal series have teams one win away from advancing to the second round.  The other LMB North matchup has Monterrey leading Monclova, 3 games to 1, following Sunday's 10-8 Sultanes road win.  Arturo Rodriguez belted a three-run homer for the winners while former Yanks prospect and NPB infielder Ramiro Pena collected four hits, including a homer.  Monclova won the opener last Wednesday, 7-0, behind Josh Lowey's seven strong innings (1 hit, 5 strikeouts and no walks) but the Sultanes have since won the last three.  Marco Tovar hurled five scoreless innings in Thursday's 6-3 Sultanes triumph as Agustin Murillo added three hits, a homer, two runs and three RBIs. Roberto Kelly's troops won Saturday in Estadio Monterrey, 7-3, behind Jose De Paula's seven frames of one-run pitching and Sebastian Elizalde's two-run roundtripper.  Game Four is Monday night in Monterrey as Lowey returns to the mound for the Acereros against Sultanes starter Jorge Reyes.
In the LMB South, Yucatan has Leon on the ropes with a 3-games-to-1 lead and Game Four scheduled Monday night in Merida.  The Leones won the first game, 5-0, in Leon Wednesday as starter Jose Samayoa lent six innings to the whitewash effort. The Bravos came back one night later for a 3-1 win with Cedric Hunter hitting an RBI double and later scoring himself to give Alejandro Soto (7.2 IP/1R) a 2-0 lead before throwing his first pitch.  Yucatan then copped wins in two games at Parque Kukulkan over the weekend, winning a 10-4 contest Saturday as Sebastian Valle's three-run bomb in the fifth lent support to Yoanner Negrin, who allowed three runs in seven frames. On Sunday, Art Charles socked a two-run dinger while Valle and Jesus Valdez combined for six hits and three ribbies in a 6-4 Leones win.  Monday night's game will see Samayoa back on the hill for Yucatan to face the Bravos' Bryan Evans.
Quintana Roo has archrival Mexico City on the brink of elimination in the other LMB South semifinal, leading by a 3-1 margin.  The Diablos won last Wednesday's Game One, 7-6, as Alexei Ramirez went 4-for-5 for the winners with a run and two RBIs. Alonzo Harris swatted two homers for the Tigres, who've come back to win the next three games, starting with Thursday's 12-4 drubbing in Estadio Fray Nano in which they scored five runs in the top of the first and pulled away.  Francisco Cordoba pounded two homers for Q-Roo before homering both Saturday and Sunday in Tigres wins. Saturday saw skipper Tim Johnson's crew take a 9-2 Game Three win over Mexico City in Cancun with ageless wonder Pablo "Padre Tiempo" Ortega (41, to be exact) going the distance and allowing two runs on four hits. Javier Solano then tossed seven innings and struck out eight for Quintana Roo in a 2-0 shutout Sunday as Cordoba hit his fourth homer in three games.  Barry Enright will get the Game Five start Monday night for Quintana Roo while Mexico City sends out Octavio Acosta.
Not all Mexican League activity was limited to the playing field last week.  The Tabasco Olmecas rewarded manager Alfonso "Houston" Jimenez for taking a roster that had "cellar dweller" written all over it to a 24-33 record to finish two games behind fifth-place Puebla by firing him.  The Villahermosa team also had a surprisingly robust (for them) first half at the gate as the usually-moribund franchise came in sixth in the Liga attendance derby by averaging 3,432 fans per opening. Tabasco drew 1,437 per night last year, by far the worst in AAA and often with only hundreds in the stands.  Vicente Palacio will succeed Jimenez at the helm of the Olmecas, but it may never really matter who the manager is in Tabasco.
The firing is only the second of the season in the LMB (Eddie Castro was canned in Dos Laredos last month), a show of remarkable restraint among league owners more given to acting like George Steinbrenner than Connie Mack when it comes to letting managers go with the obligatory official statement of thanks for a job well done (but not well enough).

Acereros' Castillo wins second straight MVP award

Mexican League MVP Jesse Castillo
Monclova Acereros slugger Jesus “Jesse” Castillo has been named the Most Valuable Player for the Mexican League’s 2018 Spring season after leading the circuit with 57 RBIs, coming in second with 13 homers and finishing third in batting with a .378 average.  He also was tops among LMB batters with 48 bases on balls and third in both extra-base hits (29) and total bases (128). Castillo, who came to the Steelers from Aguascalientes in an off-season trade that sent second baseman Tim Torres to the Railroaders, was also the Liga’s MVP last summer after posting a .342/20/82 campaign with the Rieleros.
The 35-year-old Mexicali native has spent 15 seasons in the Mexican League, playing in Yucatan, Veracruz and Tabasco as well as Aguascalientes and Monclova after debuting with the Leones as a 21-year-old in 2004 and going 1-for-2 in four games.  The 6’1” first baseman has belted 111 homers with 247 doubles and 689 ribbies for his career to augment a .322 batting average, but his career trajectory has been an interesting one. After never hitting more than nine homers or driving in more than 64 runs through the 2013 season, Castillo caught fire with Aguascalientes in 2014 by socking 17 roundtrippers and knocking in 91 baserunners for the Rieleros that year.  That kicked off a four-year stretch during which Castillo averaged 16.5 homers, 76.5 RBIs and batted .345 over 430 regular season contests.
Besides his back-to-back season MVP awards, Castillo was voted the MVP of last summer’s All-Star Game.  He’s played in seven midsummer classics since 2007 and is expected to make an eighth appearance next month at Parque Kukulkan in Merida, Yucatan.

Will Fernando Valenzuela attend his Salon de la Fama induction?

Who else?
Perhaps the most beloved player in modern Mexican baseball history, Fernando Valenzuela will be inducted into the Salon de la Fama after the new facility in Monterrey is opened later this summer.  But is El Toro himself going to be on hand for the honors?
Puro Beisbol editor Fernando Ballesteros reports that Valenzuela, who now owns the Quintana Roo Tigres of Cancun along with his wife Linda, is so embittered from the Rookiegate scandal, in which five of his Tigres prospects were reportedly transferred to the Mexico City Diablos Rojos while the Valenzuelas were in the process of purchasing the legacy team from former owner Carlos Peralta, that the former Dodgers Cy Young Award winner may skip the ceremonies in which he’ll be honored along with Ricardo Saenz and Daniel Fernandez in the first Salon induction since the old facility (also in Monterrey) was shut down in 2012 after 40 years on the Cuauhtemoc Brewery grounds.
The sticking point, according to Ballesteros, is that Diablos owner Alfredo Harp Helu has also bankrolled the new Salon facility.  While it’s likely that contents in the Mexican baseball HOF would still be in storage without Harp’s financial contributions, the Valenzuelas continue to be outraged over the sleight-of-hand loss of their prospects (two of whom were sold by the Red Devils to the Texas Rangers last summer for a combined $2.7 million) to the billionaire’s team.  
The LMB office has largely adopted a “What-Me-Worry?” approach to the Rookiegate scandal, which has done nothing to mollify the Valenzuelas (who have been reportedly upset enough to consider selling the franchise as a result).  Liga president Javier Salinas, who’s been stronger in his marketing efforts than his leadership of the 13 team owners within the loop, is facing a sticky situation between his richest owner (the two 2018 seasons have been named after Harp) and another owner who is a nationwide baseball icon.  There appear to be no easy solutions.

Monday, May 28, 2018

LMB Spring season ends, Pericos in Leon for play-in game

Estadio Domingo Santana in Leon

The first 57-game regular season of the Mexican League's unique two-season calendar in 2018 has concluded and the results are little different from last year's full 114-game schedule.  Of the eight teams that qualify for the playoffs (which will be a full, three-tiered affair as before), only one newcomer will be appearing in the postseason.  One other thing that hasn't changed is that a play-in game will be required to determine the fourth and final playoff berth in the South Division.

The Monterrey Sultanes had lost six of their previous seven games before pulling it together to win all three games of a weekend series at Monclova, outlasting charging Tijuana and finish first in the LMB North with a 37-20 record, three-and-a-half games ahead of the defending champion Toros.  TJ won their final four games (including a sweep at Dos Laredos) and seven of their last ten to come in second at 33-23, a half-game ahead of 33-24 Aguascalientes.  Monclova ended up in fourth with a 29-27 mark, avoiding a play-in game by coming in five games ahead of 24-32 Saltillo.  Durango, Union Laguna and Dos Laredos will join the Saraperos on the sidelines for the next month as the postseason plays out.  Monterrey will take on Monclova in one LMB North semifinal while Tijuana battles Aguascalientes in the other.

Similarly in the LMB South, Yucatan's season-long grip on first place came to its logical conclusion, with the Leones winning the final two games of a home series with Quintana Roo to wrap up the campaign with a Liga-best 40-17 record.  The Mexico City Diablos Rojos won eight of their last ten contests to finish second in the division at 36-19, three games behind Yucatan, to return to the postseason after a two-year absence as members of the North Division playing with a roster consisting entirely of Mexican players.  Despite dropping two of three in Merida, the Tigres were a solid third in the South at 33-21 and will play their ancient rivals from the capital city in the LMB South semifinals, starting later this week.

The only remaining point of contention is the matter of who will claim the LMB South's fourth and final postseason seed.  Leon stumbled a bit down the stretch, losing six of their last ten games, but still came in at 27-29 to hold fourth place.  However, Mexican League rules require a fourth-place team to finish at least three games ahead of their nearest competitor and 25-30 Puebla came within a game-and-a-half of the Bravos to force a single-game play-in contest Monday night at 8:15 ET in Leon to determine who'll play Yucatan in the opening round.  The Bravos defeated Veracruz in a similar game last August to qualify for the playoffs. 

All four divisional semis will begin Wednesday.

MEXICAN LEAGUE Spring 2018 final standings
North Division: Monterrey 37-20, Tijuana 33-23, Aguascalientes 33-24, Monclova 29-27, Saltillo 24-32, Durango 24-33, Union Laguna 23-34, Dos Laredos 18-39.
South Division: Yucatan 40-17, Mexico City 36-19, Quintana Roo 33-21, Leon 27-29, Puebla 25-30, Tabasco 24-33, Campeche 22-34, Oaxaca 22-35.

Toros' Rodriguez wins batting title, Hernandez wins pitching crowns

Tijuana Toros left-handed pitcher Carlos Hernandez
Although the defending champion Tijuana Toros ended up second in the LMB North after a sometimes-spotty regular season, they did have two individual players who shone brightly enough to finish atop multiple Liga batting and pitching categories in second baseman Isaac Rodriguez and starting pitcher Carlos Hernandez.

Let's start with the 27-year-old Rodriguez, an Hermosillo native who led all MXL batters with a .394 average after going 17-for-38 (.447) over his final ten games.  The Liga's 2016 Rookie of the Year, Rodriguez also led the loop in hits (89) while coming in second with 52 runs (trailing only Mexico City's Carlos Figueroa's 54 tallies) and a career-high 20 stolen bases (also second to the speedy Figueroa's 23 swipes).  The 5'8" 220-pound Figueroa may be more reminiscent of a bulldog than a greyhound, but the fellow Hermosillo product hit .475 with ten runs and six steals over his final ten contests to finish at .351 for the truncated campaign.

Other season champions in batting categories include Aguascalientes first baseman Felix Perez, who homered five times over his final six games to surge past the troika of Jesse Castillo (Monclova), Luis Juarez (Yucatan) and Ricky Alvarez (Monterrey) for the home run title after the troika all remained stuck at 13 homers over the final week of the regular season.  Castillo, who the Cuban-born Perez replaced at first base with the Rieleros this year, did drive in 57 runs in 56 games to top Juarez on the RBI table by three.  Durango's Daniel Nunez sliced 23 doubles to lead in that category while Puebla's Michael Crouse and Ruben Sosa of Yucatan were tied for the lead in triples with five apiece.  Pericos first sacker Daric Barton won three batting-related crowns as the former Oakland starter turned in a .552 on-base percentage, .669 slugging percentage and 1.221 OPS after riding the Puebla-to-Monclova-to Puebla shuttle since February of last year.

Now let's look at Carlos Hernandez.  The 31-year-old Californian, a two-time Texas League all-star while toiling in the Athletics system, followed up a strong 2017 Mexican League debut with Tijuana (10-2 record, 2.67 ERA over a full season) with an equally-solid second year.  Hernandez went 8-2 in eleven starts to tie Monclova's Josh Lowey for most wins in the MXL, one more than Durango's Tiago Da Silva and Raul Valdez of Saltillo.  Hernandez also came in atop the WHIP table with a 1.02 figure, just .02 ahead of Valdez.  Lowey, who has arguably been the best pitcher in the Liga over the past four years, posted 79 strikeouts in 73.1 innings to easily win that crown while tossing one of three complete-game shutouts across the LMB this season, along with Valdez and Quintana Roo's ageless Pablo Ortega. 

Monterrey's Jorge Reyes is listed with the top ERA in the Liga at 1.97 in 45.2 innings pitched over nine starts, but veteran Jonathan Castellanos of Yucatan leads all pitchers with 57 or more frames with a 2.43 ERA for his 63 entradas of work.  The saves title was one by the 17 of Josh Lueke of Monclova, a former Rangers prospect who also spent time with the Mariners and Rays and spent the past two summers with Japan's Yakult Swallows before signing with Durango in the offseason.  Lueke was shipped from the Generales to the Acereros three weeks into the schedule.

Union Laguna considers sitting out 2018 Fall season, will play instead

Although the Mexican League has trotted out a "new look" this year with the two-schedule format, a new team in Nuevo Laredo (and Laredo) and new ownership in Durango, some old problems remain and one of those appears to be reaching critical mass in Laguna. 

The cities of Torreon and Gomez Palacios have had a long history of hosting LMB teams dating to 1940 with pennants in 1942 and 1950.  However, Laguna's Liga franchises have historically been underfinanced and often run with a seat-of-the-pants approach depending on who the owner du jour is.  As a result, the teams have rarely (if ever) been considered contenders and attendance has typically been middling at best while playing in an 85-year-old ballpark considered antiquated even by LMB standards in a Laguna region that is not considered a garden spot among free agents seeking to play ball south of the border.  In short, while baseball has a long tradition in Laguna, it's always been a tough go.  With all that as a background, the current Algodoneros owners were exploring whether to sit out the LMB's upcoming Fall season before issuing a press release last week stating that Mexican League games would be played at Estadio Revolucion between July and September after all. 

The owners of the Algodoneros are brothers Jose Juan Arellano, who also own the Yucatan Leones to rank among three so-called "time share" owners in the MXL, along with Alfredo Harp Helu (Mexico City and Oaxaca) and Gerardo Benavides ((Monclova and Puebla).  While Harp has been relatively benign as owner of the Diablos and Guerreros, Benavides' constant tinkering with his two teams by constantly transferring player after player between the two teams has drawn much derision in the baseball world and making him the poster child for the perils of syndicate ownership.  The Arellanos have fallen somewhat in between Harp and Benavides as meddling owners go, but their problems in Laguna (most of them self-inflicted) have resulted in what is becoming an untenable situation.

It all seemingly started last June when star first baseman Ricky Alvarez, who was leading the LMB in RBIs as the centerpiece of the then-Vaqueros batting order, was traded from Laguna to Yucatan as part of an eight-player swap that left the Vaqueros gutted and their fans enraged.  Laguna had been drawing over 5,000 aficionados per game prior to the deal to rank among the league leaders in attendance, but the crowds plummeted afterward as fans organized a boycott of games in protest.  The franchise has never recovered since, and things were exacerbated when the Arellanos admitted that their top concern is indeed their Merida team.

The current campaign has seen a team name change from Vaqueros to Algodoneros, but that's the only apparent change.  The Cottoneers finished out of the playoffs after never showing signs of contention while the team drew a middle-of-the-pack 3,067 per opening to Estadio Revolucion as disaffected fans continued to find other things to do.  Speculation became rampant among Mexican baseball cronistas that the financially-plagued team, which has been for sale for months, sought to take the second season off for 2018 as the Arellanos tried to either right the sinking ship and make another go of it in 2019 or concentrate on finding a willing buyer.  Such a move would've created a scheduling nightmare with 15 teams necessitating someone ALWAYS having a three-day bye during a ten-week season.  Whether true or not, the Algodoneros front office saw fit to issue a press release late last week bravely announcing that the team would indeed be back on the field in July for another 57-game schedule, but doubts about the franchise's long-term viability continue unabated.

Although the fans of Laguna do not deserve to lose their team due to owners who've determined their team to be a proverbial "red-headed stepchild," the turmoil in Torreon does create an opportunity for a more-moneyed investor to purchase the franchise from the Arellanos.  MXL teams are typically worth US$3-5 million each, a bargain for a AAA franchise in which a similar team north of the border might sell for at least $20 million (Forbes magazine valued the Sacramento RiverCats at $38 million five years ago while six more International and Pacific Coast League clubs were determined to be worth over $30 million).  Remaining in Torreon and its 9,500-seat ballpark built before FDR was elected to his first term in Washington may be unworkable, however, and if potential buyers seeking to buy and move a Liga team to the USA (hello, Tucson) are thinking it might be time to make an offer, it is.