Monday, July 24, 2017

Tijuana win skein at 13; Tigres fire skipper Vizcarra

Tijuana Toros pitcher Horacio Ramirez
Former Diamondbacks prospect Cyle Hankerd scored from third base when Tabasco third baseman Kristian Delgado bobbled Jorge Cantu's grounder in the top of the sixth inning to break a 3-3 tie and the Tijuana Toros went on to post a 7-3 win over the Olmecas Sunday to stretch their season-high Mexican League winning streak to 13 games.  Dustin Martin's three-run homer in the seventh gave TJ their final margin of victory as former MLB pitcher Horacio Ramirez got the win to raise his record to 3-2 in his ninth start of the year after missing ten weeks between April and June due to injury.

The contest was played in front of a cozy gathering of 960 fans at Villahermosa's Estadio Centenario 27 de Februar, where the Olmecas have been plagued by poor attendance and a faulty ballpark lighting system all season.  The 67-28 Toros have the best record in the circuit and hold a three-and-a-half-game lead over 63-31 Monterrey in the LMB North standings with 15 games left in the regular season.  The Sultanes have mostly kept pace with their own six-game win string.  Manager Pedro Mere's Toros have found July to their liking, winning 18 of 20 contests thus far. Tijuana opened the month with a five-game winning streak before losing a pair of games in Monclova, then launched their current run with a 1-0 win over the Acereros July 9 to avoid the sweep.  Since then, they've reeled off consecutive sweeps against South Division weak sisters Campeche and Tabasco, first in a six-game homestand and then another six on the road.

The LMB North's top four teams have made hay in their two weeks of cross-divisional play.  Besides TJ's 12-0 run, Monterrey had a record of 9-3 against Veracruz and Oaxaca, as did Monclova (who played the same two clubs), while overachievers Aguascalientes posted an 8-4 mark against defending champion Puebla and Leon to continue the North's season-long mastery over their counterparts to the south.  Tijuana, Monterrey, Monclova and Aguascalientes are well out in front of the rest of the LMB North pack and all but assured playoff berths.

That dominance has not applied to the Yucatan Leones, however.  The LMB South leaders drew Union Laguna and Durango as their crossover opponents and came away winning 8 of 12 games.  Yucatan has brought in Monterrey coach Juan "Chico" Rodriguez to replace the fired Willie Romero as manager after coach Oswaldo Morejon filled in for a couple games.  Rodriguez was a Salon de la Fama shortstop during his 20-year Liga playing career, mostly with Veracruz and Aguascalientes.  Romero will manage in Navojoa next winter but has not landed with another LMB team yet.  That will likely change for someone with his credentials.  Puebla went 7-5 against Aguascalientes and Saltillo so it wasn't a total wash for the southern sides.  Teams will play only within their divisions over the final five series of the regular season schedule.

Romero isn't the only former helmsman looking for work.  The Quintana Roo Tigres relieved manager Roberto "Chapo" Vizcarra of his duties following a series-opening 3-1 loss at home to Union Laguna. Vizcarra was in his fifth season running the Tigres and had been quite successful over his first four, winning two pennants and posting a 182-122 record after taking over the team late in the 2013 season.  However, 2017 was not kind to the Sonora native as Quintana Roo was 36-49 after losing 12 of their first 14 games this month (including a nine-game losing skid).  Vizcarra, who becomes the ninth LMB manager fired this season but will remain with the Tigres organization working with prospects, was replaced by third base coach Hector Hurtado.  A former catcher who managed the ill-fated Reynosa Broncos last season, Hurtado led Quintana Roo to a four wins over his first five games.  The beleaguered team, which has been plagued by financial problems off the field under new owner Fernando Valenzuela, is now in a virtual tie for third with Veracruz in the LMB South at 40-50.  With the bottom four teams in the division fading to the finish line, both the Tigres and Rojos del Aguila are almost sure bets to join Yucatan and Puebla in the postseason.

Former Durango outfielder Yadir Drake's .385 average compiled before his exit to Japan (where paychecks presumably arrive on time) has made the LMB batting title the Cuban exile's to lose.  A former Drake teammate with the Generales, third baseman Daniel Mayora, now plying his trade in Monterrey, is second at .375.  Mayora was hitting .425 in his first nine games with the Sultanes but did not play during their weekend home series with Oaxaca as veteran Agustin Murillo manned the hot corner.  Mayora's absence from the lineup was not felt too acutely as manager Felix Fermin's squad, who lead the Liga with a collective .317 average, put 30 runs and 45 hits on the scoreboard in the Sultanes' three-game sweep of the Guerreros.

Tijuana outfielder Corey Brown pummeled two homers against Tabasco to give him a league-leading 22 for the season, one more than Aguascalientes infielder Jose Vargas.  A Ventura, California product, the 29-year-old Vargas is making his Mexican League debut in 2017 after spending three years in the White Sox system and another six playing independent ball, but he's making up for lost time after joining the Rieleros, homering in five straight games earlier this month and socking his 21st longball in 69 games Sunday against Leon.  Yucatan's Ricky Alvarez is regaining his stroke in Merida following his midseason trade from Laguna.  He had two homers and six RBIs last Tuesday against Durango and is hitting .366 over his last ten games with the Leones while his 97 ribbies lead Monclova's Manny Rodriguez by 13 in that category.  Monclova centerfielder Justin Greene had three stolen bases last week to bring his season total to 45 swipes, continuing to run away with the steals title (I'm not tired of that line QUITE yet).

Veracruz ace Nestor Molina had a no-decision Friday at Monclova in his first start in eight days, but pitched well (7 IP, 1 ER, 9 K) to lower his Liga-leading ERA to 1.62 and crack the century mark in strikeouts at 104.  The 11-1 Molina has singlehandedly kept the Eagle Reds in playoff contention and is the frontrunner for BBM's Summer Pitcher of the Year award.  Monclova's Josh Lowey hasn't been as dominant as in year's past at 7-5 with a 3.08 ERA, but the Floridian is cruising to his third straight strikeout title with 121 ponches over 108 innings.  Mexico City hurler Octavio Acosta was reached in Campeche for three runs on nine hits over 5.1 innings in Saturday's no-decision, but still leads the loop in wins with a 12-1 record in the Guasave product's breakout year.  There's a spirited competition for the saves crown among five closers going down the stretch.  Chad Gaudin (Monclova) and Wirfin Obispo (Monterrey) are tied for the lead with 25 saves each, one ahead of Jason Urquidez (Tijuana) at 24 while Tiago da Silva (Durango) has 22 and ex-MLBer Jose Valverde (Aguascalientes) has 21.  Da Silva may have trouble gaining ground with Generales management white-flagging the season via the jettisoning of stars Drake and Mayora, but Urquidez has been solid all year while Valverde has been the linchpin of an otherwise marginal Rieleros pitching staff, converting his 21 saves in 24 opportunities.

With the Liga's interdivisional games concluded until the Serie del Rey in September, the rest of the regular season schedule becomes doubly important as playoff contenders will now play head-to-head over the final five series.  The biggest midweek faceoff will undoubtedly be in Tijuana, where the Toros host a Monterrey side they've been unable to shake off despite TJ's dozen straight wins.  While this series won't settle the question of who wins the LMB North's top seed, it'll go a long way in that direction.  There are more than one series that matter next weekend.  Tijuana will be on the road to take on an Aguascalientes team playing well under manager Homar Rojas.  While the Rieleros may be the fifth-best team of the five given a realistic shot at the pennant, they may also be the squad that nobody wants to draw in the postseason.  They've been finding ways to win all year long.

An intruiging LMB South weekend matchup will be Yucatan at Puebla.  The Leones have led the division almost wire-to-wire this year and while the ouster of Romero (the defending two-time Manager of the Year) is a bit of a headshaker, the less-volatile Rodriguez has kept the team winning.  The Pericos, for their part, were emaciated following their 2016 pennant-winning campaign when owner Gerardo Benavides transferred Puebla's core players to his newly-purchased Monclova team, but they've hung in there this season and have played better since former Blue Jays skipper Tim Johnson took the reins from Von Hayes earlier this season.  The Parrots will not be a pushover.

One interesting sidebar is that Benavides is now making noises about possibly moving the Pericos to either Juarez or Nuevo Laredo next season, disappointed with attendance figures in Puebla this year (3,051 per game, a decline of 29 percent from 2016) but apparently not connecting the dots as to why.  Veracruz owner Jose Antonio Mansur has made similar comments about relocating the Rojos del Aguila to the Texas border.  Puebla and Veracruz are two of the LMB's longest-standing cities, although franchises have come and gone in both over the years.

Friday, July 21, 2017

LMB to play two seasons from April to November in 2018

LMB Assembly (with Javier Salinas on microphone)
The Mexican League has formally announced that it will be playing two shorter seasons during the 2018 calendar year, beginning in April and ending in November.  The announcement came at the Liga's Assembly of Presidents meeting Thursday in Mexico City. The plan is for two separate 66-game regular season schedules with playoffs, bridged by a one-week rest in July during which the LMB's All-Star Game (there'll be just one of those) is played.

While the move, approximating the country's popular Liga MX soccer circuit's Apertura and Clausura tournaments (which drew crowds of about 27,000 per match for its 2016-17 seasons), represents a radical departure from baseball orthodoxy, Minor League Baseball president Pat O'Connor was in attendance at Thursday's meeting and endorsed the move.  O'Connor, you may recall, was compelled to call an emergency meeting of LMB teams in February when internecine squabbling threatened to tear the 16 teams into two leagues or cancel the 2017 season altogether.  Instead of two leagues, now we'll see two seasons for 2018.

Currently, the Liga plays a single 112-game regular season schedule from early April to mid-August, followed by a three-tiered, eight-team playoff lasting about a month into mid-September.  The new format will include two 66-game regular seasons followed by playoffs, with the LMB's "Apertura" lasting from April to July and their "Clausura" running from August into November.  The notion of a two-season format was floated last month in a reference made by incoming league president Javier Salinas, whose background has been (not so ironically, apparently) entirely as a Liga MX marketing executive.  There was no word whether Salinas was going to divide the LMB into eight-team Premier and First Divisions with promotion/relegation playoffs for 2018, but it's only July.

Salinas, who will replace retiring LMB president Plinio Escalante at the conclusion of the current season and has been serving as a de facto co-president, addressed the addition of 20 games and a separate playoff to a league in which half its teams are teetering on economic collapse.  "The cost is relative," he said.  "You can raise or lower it.  If you qualify for the playoffs, it decreases.  If you manage your team better, the same. Each team is independent and will have the economic strategy that suits them best."  Salinas and the LMB team presidents will be relying on added sponsorships next season to help offset the added expenses accrued from lengthening the overall season two months for teams like the Tabasco Olmecas, who had 178 warm bodies rattling around Estadio Centenario 27 de Febrero for a game against Yucatan earlier this month, and the Durango Generales, who've had some players refusing to play because they hadn't been paid in weeks.

Prior to Thursday's press conference from the Assembly meeting, the two-season proposal had drawn almost universal skepticism from Mexican baseball's print commentators, but the move may ultimately draw the strongest reaction from the Mexican Pacific League.  While the LMB has eleven teams drawing fewer than 5,000 fans per night (seven clubs are bringing in fewer than 3,000 per opening), the MexPac has built itself into a juggernaut with a leaguewide attendance average of just under 10,000 per game, a figure that dwarfs every league in organized Minor League Baseball.  The LMP season traditionally opens in mid-October, meaning the LMB's Clausura will overlap the MexPac schedule by about a month.  

According to Beatriz Pereyra of Proceso, the LMB will require players to sign contracts for both seasons, thus cutting the player pool for the MexPac.  Thus far, LMP president Omar Canizales has been silent on this topic, but it's expected by some that his league will respond by opening their rosters to more imported talent from the United States to fill the void while the Liga plays out its Clausura season.  In effect, the LMB's lengthening of its schedule is a declaration of war on the LMP, which has in the recent past explored expansion into Liga cities like Monterrey, Tijuana and even Mexico City. 

Whatever happens, the LMB will likely have the backing of Major League Baseball and commissioner Rob Manfred, which recently gave the Liga their version of the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval despite the financial mess many Mexican League teams are in.  According to Pereyra, three teams (Durango, Leon and Saltillo) each owe the Liga MX$15 million in assessments for 2017, with Leon owner Arturo Blanco owing another 900 thousand pesos toward the purchase price of the former Reynosa Broncos, while several other LMB franchises owe MX$2.5 million to the league office. 

One of those teams, the Veracruz Rojos del Aguila, are looking to move, possibly to Nuevo Laredo. The Eagles are currently eleventh in the LMB attendance derby with a per-game average of 2,647. Team president Jose Antonio Mansur backtracked a bit by later stating he would keep the team in the port city if attendance improves over the rest of the current season, during which the 40-49 Rojos del Aguila have been a playoff contender in the weak South Division.  

The club has been a past recipient of government subsidies to remain afloat, a common occurance with several LMB franchises.  However, the exiled ex-State of Veracruz governor responsible for recent largesse, Javier Duarte, was arrested outside the country in April after a six-month manhunt and is facing charges of pilfering millions of dollars from public coffers, as are many of his associates.  Duarte was extradited from Guatemala City earlier this week.  In all, eight former Mexican governors have been indicted for similar crimes and their successors have typically reined in past subsidies to sports teams that have relied on them to meet payroll, among other expenses.

In all, the LMB's break from baseball tradition would be fascinating to observe, let alone report on, under any circumstance.  That the Liga is doing so amid internal financial peril to so many of its teams accentuates how badly Salinas and the owners will need this to work in order to bring fans in through the gates and sponsorship pesos to team bank accounts.  We'll be watching.

P.S.  The LMB also announced the return of its Mexican Winter League for a third season, opening on October 20.  The six-team LIM, considered Class A in the country's baseball system, is a prospect-oriented circuit that allows only Mexican-born players.  It's presumed the loop will play a single-season schedule.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

No new Mazatlan ballpark; Teodoro Mariscal to be remodeled

Mazatlan mayor Fernando Pucheta Sanchez (center)
Now that halting attempts to have a brand-new ballpark built for Mazatlan have been abandoned, a full renovation of 55-year-old Estadio Teodoro Mariscal has gone from Plan B status to reality.  Between the resident Venados Mexican Pacific League franchise and both state and local governments, about 308 million pesos (or approximately $17,000,000US) has been earmarked for the project.

A ceremony invoving team and government officials was held Friday at the Teodoro Mariscal site.  According to a City of Mazatlan press release, mayor Fernando Pucheta Sanchez told the assembled group, "I appreciate everyone present for the enthusiasm they show in the works being carried out in the municipality, works that go within a framework of respect and legality, works that I don't mind paying the cost that means the discomfort they represent today, but tomorrow they'll be the pride of all Mazatlecos."  Pucheta may have been referencing alleged under-the-radar dealings involving politicians in the contruction of some of the many new MexPac ballparks that have popped up this decade.

While the Teodoro Mariscal renovation will not make the 15,000-seat facility a "new" ballpark, per se, it's projected to bring the facility more in line with its counterparts in places like Culiacan, Hermosillo and Obregon for amenities and revenue-producing potential.  Once one of Mexico's top ballparks, Mariscal has shown its age the past several winters and when talks were held weeks ago about where in Mexico to relocate next February's Caribbean Series from strife-torn Venezuela, the five-time CS host was not even considered.  The event went to Guadalajara instead.

Estadio Teodoro Mariscal was opened April 26, 1962, eighteen months after construction began on plans drawn up by architect Quirino Ordaz Luna.  The ballpark's location was regarded as somewhat remote at the time but as Mazatlan has filled in and added a Zona Dorado tourist enclave to the north, Teodoro Mariscal is now considered fairly central.  The scuttled plans for a new ballpark placed that proposed facility to the north of the Zona Dorado near the ocean, which would've made it a chore for some Mazeltecos to make it to a Venados game.  Instead, baseball will continued to be played where it's been for over five decades.

According to Puro Beisbol columnist Juan Angel Avila, the ballpark renovations (which will be performed in three stages) will bring about a Venados Hall of Fame, new locker rooms, a gym for player workouts, a medical/rehab room, an area for live musical performances and a children's play area.  Avila adds his admiration that, unlike similar projects elsewhere, the Mazatlan redo appears to be less about the talk and more about the action, and that work is already getting underway.

Beside the five Caribbean Series between 1978 and 2005, Teodoro Mariscal has been the scene of 15 MexPac championship series (the Venados have won nine LMP pennants) and All-Star Games in 1965 and 1983.  Mazatlan has historically been one of the better-drawing teams in the winterball circuit, but that was not the case last season.  The Deer drew a total of 198,589 fans to 34 home dates in the 2016-17 season for an LMP-low average of 5,851 per opening during a regular season during which nearly 10,000 aficionados clicked the turnstiles leaguewide on a nightly basis.

The renovations in Mazatlan will leave just Los Mochis and Navojoa among the eight MexPac franchise playing in ballparks that have not been at least renovated in the past decade.  The Caneros play at 11,000-seat Estadio Emilio Ibarra Almada (erected 1947) while the Mayos call 11,500-seat Estadio Manuel "Ciclon" Echeverria (1970) home.  Talks have been held in both LMP sites regarding ballpark renovations or replacement, but nothing firm has been agreed to in either city.

While nobody is saying anything right now, it's fairly common knowledge that brothers Juan Jose and Erick Arellano (Mazatlan natives who own both the Yucatan Leones and Union Laguna Vaqueros of the Mexican League) have coveted their hometown as a potential LMB franchise site.  The Arellanos reportedly were proponents of the new ballpark as a condition for bringing a Liga team to the Pearl of the Pacific, but it's not known whether they would still pursue a team to play in the new and improved Teodoro Mariscal instead.  An anticipated offseason scheduling turf war between the two leagues will hinder any LMB attempts to place teams in MexPac territory in any regard.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Toros' Barreda hurls no-no; Romero fired in Yucatan

Manny Barreda gets doused following his 2nd no-hitter since November
Although the 2017 season has not likely gone the way Manny Barreda hoped it would after a good enough start to the year, the Tijuana Toros' right-handed pitcher from Sahuarita, Arizona has accomplished a rare feat by tossing his second no-hitter in eight months in Sunday's 4-0 win over Tabasco.  Barreda turned in a similar performance for Los Mochis last November 28 when he blanked Hermosillo, 2-0, giving him a no-hitter in both the Mexican and Mexican Pacific Leagues within eight months of each other.

Similar to his November no-no, which required 138 pitches, Barreda had to work deep into counts to Olmeca batters en route to a 145-pitch performance but only walked two Tabasco batsmen while striking out 14.  The contest was scoreless until the bottom of the third inning when Jose Guadalupe Chavez scored on a Juan Apodaca line-drive single to left.  Apodaca later came around to plate a run on Jorge Cantu's single up the middle.  Tabasco starter Angel Araiza found more trouble in the bottom of the fourth when Dustin Martin's 20th double of the year brought in Gabriel Gutierrez and Corey Brown to make it a 4-0 contest.

That would turn out to be more than enough cushion for Barreda to work with as he retired eleven Olmecas in a row before allowing a walk to the dangerous Sandy Madera in the seventh, then put away Tabasco's final seven men to seal the no-hitter and win.  Araiza was at times his own worst enemy on the mound for the visitors.  Despite only pitching those first four innings, the eighth-year veteran righty tossed 104 pitches but only 55 went for strikes as he walked five Toros hitters among the 25 he faced.

Barreda's strong winterball campaign for the Caneros (a 2.20 ERA and 1.077 WHIP with 66 strikeouts over 69.2 innings) led to his signing with the Atlanta organization in December, but he was returned to Mexico without ever pitching a regular-season inning in the Braves system.  Although the 28-year-old has pitched reasonably well for the Toros since arriving in the border city on April 4, showing a 3.63 ERA after 16 starts and striking out 88 hitters over 89.1 innings, Sunday's win was only his fourth in ten decisions for the team with the best record in the Liga.

A throng of 13,598 (equal to a week-long homestand in Villahermosa) looked at at Tijuana's Estadio Gasmart as the Toros won their seventh straight contest and widened their LMB North lead to three-and-a-half games over Monterrey, who lost at Oaxaca Sunday by a 6-2 count.  The Sultanes have lost six of their last ten games and now have to worry less about catching up to TJ and more about holding off a hard-charging Monclova team sitting one game behind them in the standings after the Acereros swept a road series in Oaxaca and took two of three games in Veracruz last week.  Aguascalientes is now six games behind Monterrey in fourth place and the Rieleros continue to play well for manager Homar Rojas, a past expert at working with low-budget rosters who's led the Railroaders to eleven wins in 14 games this month.

The Yucatan Leones continue to hold a comfy lead in the LMB South, but surprised observers by firing manager Willie Romero on Saturday.  Romero got into a heated argument with a fan following a heartbreaking 1-0 home loss to Puebla on July 9 and was serving a resulting suspension handed down by the Liga office when the axe fell on the two-time LMB Manager of the Year.  Romero arrived in Merida as a player in 2003 and was well-liked by Leones fans (except for at least one, apparently) after being a key performer for Yucatan's 2006 pennant winners and had led the Lions to an overall 193-110 record since taking the helm in 2015 and had them at 50-31 before his suspension began Friday.

Bench coach Oswaldo Morejon, who retired as a player last year after hitting .296 with 2,011 hits in his 20-year LMB career, has taken over for Romero and may remain manager the rest of the season although with the Arellano brothers in charge, one never knows for sure...don't be shocked if Union Laguna helmsman Ramon Orantes (like Morejon a longtime Liga infielder who retired last fall after 24 seasons) is brought in and reunited with former Vaqueros MVP candidate Ricky Alvarez.

Speaking of Alvarez, the stocky first baseman has struggled a bit since arriving from Torreon June 20 in a one-sided trade between the two teams owned by the Arellanos involving eight players.  Alvarez was hitting .330 with 13 homers and a LMB-high 75 RBIs in 66 games at the time of the trade (attendance in Laguna has plummeted in the aftermath), but has hit .295 with two homers and 14 ribbies in 22 games with Yucatan.  The Leones split road six games in Durango and Laguna last week while Puebla won four of six crossover home games against Aguascalientes and Saltillo to shave Yucatan's division lead to seven-and-a-half games.  The Pericos beat the Saraperos twice over the weekend as well-traveled Jon Del Campo (playing for his third team in 2017 and seventh Liga squad since 2011) socked a grand slam on Saturday and a two-run homer Sunday for his first two longballs of the year.

WIth three weeks remaining in the regular season, the batting title is Yadir Drake's to lose.  The former Durango outfielder from Cuba left his .385 average behind when he left to pay for Japan's Nippon Ham Fighters, for whom he's batting .138 after eight games.  Monterrey's Daniel Mayora is second at .372 after going 11-for-26 in his first six contests for the Sultanes.  Aguascalientes' Jesse Castillo hasn't dropped off since winning the All-Star Game MVP award in Campeche, belting two homers in Leon Friday to tie Tijuana's Corey Brown for the Liga lead.  Yucatan's Alvarez continues to top the list for RBIs with 89, but underrated Manny Rodriguez of Monclova (if a career .317 hitter can be called "underrated") drove in five runs last week to bring his total to 79.  Manny's new teammate, Justin Greene, swiped a base in each game of the Acereos' weekend series against Veracruz to continue running away with the stolen base title at 42.  And, yes, I'll use that line until I get bored with it.

It may be a good thing the Liga doesn't let gringos like me vote for postseason awards because I have no idea who I'd mark down for Pitcher of the Year.  Mexico City's Octavio Acosta beat Campeche last Friday in Estadio Fray Nano, which is no pitcher's park by any stretch, to run his season record to 12-1.  Acosta leads the LMB in wins, ranks sixth with 88 strikeouts in 104.2 innings and his 2.67 ERA is eighth on that list.  Then there's Nestor Molina, who has somehow posted an 11-1 mark for a very marginal Veracruz club.  Then again, his 1.63 ERA over 19 starts would take care of the "somehow" part of the equation, as would his 95 strikeouts (second to the 117 recorded by Monclova's Josh Lowey).  It's hard not to consider Yucatan's Yoanner Negrin, too.  Although he's not having anywhere near the year he had in winning this award in 2016, Negrin is 11-3 and fourth in ERA at 2.48.  The Cuban exile has a combined 33-5 record since joining the Leones from the Cubs organization just over two years ago.

Reliever of the Year won't be easy for voters either.  Last year's winner, Chad Gaudin, is tops with 24 saves to augment his 2.25 ERA while Monterrey closer Wirfin Obispo is one behind at 23 saves with an even better 2.07 ERA.  Still, I'd cast my vote for Durango's Tiago da Silva, who's third with 21 saves in 28 appearances after missing over a month with an arm injury.  The Brazilian tossed a scoreless ninth in Sunday's win over Quintana Roo to lower his ERA to 1.78 in his first appearance since June 11.  The Generales are in seventh and 23 games out of first in the LMB North, but it's hard to imagine where they'd be without the 32-year-old righty.

Perhaps the biggest upcoming midweek series on the schedule will be in Aguascalientes, where the Rieleros try to stay hot against a Puebla team that's been playing better themselves in recent days.  The inter-divisional games continue next weekend with no huge sets on the docket, although Veracruz at Monclova hold some intrigue.  The Rojos del Aguila are trying to cement their hold on third place in the LMB South while the Acereros try to continue their climb up the North ladder.  Nestor Molina is scheduled to pitch Wednesday in Monterrey amid this buzzsaw of a road trip the Eagles will take this week and will not open in Monclova.

LMB STANDINGS (as of July 17)
North Division: Tijuana 61-28, Monterrey 57-31, Monclova 56-32, Aguascalientes 52-38, Union Laguna 47-41, Mexico City 46-43, Durango 38-51, Saltillo 35-52
South Division: Yucatan 52-32, Puebla 47-42, Veracruz 40-46, Quintana Roo 36-48, Leon 34-50, Oaxaca 33-53, Campeche 32-52, Tabasco 30-57

Friday, July 14, 2017

Ensenada wins both Liga Norte halves, playoffs open Saturday

Jermy Acey, interviewed by actor Branscombe Richmond
The Ensenada Marineros parlayed a four-run eighth inning into an 8-5 comeback win over Puerto Penasco Thursday night to clinch the North Mexico League's second-half championship with a 25-17 record, one game ahead of the 24-18 San Quintin Freseros.  Alberto Querales went 3-for-3 with a homer and three RBIs for the Marineros while Miguel Rodriguez slashed a two-run double in the decisive eighth, giving the home team a final season record of 52-31 and winning both halves to collect 16 total points toward playoff seeding.  Defending champion San Quintin (48-36) finished second in both halves to come in at 14 playoff points.  San Luis (40-43) came in third with 10.5 points and Puerto Penasco (41-43) rounds out the playoff field as the Tiburones picked up 11.5 points.  Caborca (37-45) and Mexicali (31-51) will both miss the postseason.

The Liga Norte is considered as Class AA within Mexico's pro baseball structure, with each of the circuit's six franchises sharing affiliations with two Mexican League teams.  The LNM is one of two AA leagues in the Mexican system; the other plays at the Mexican League Academy campus near Monterrey.  Ensenada is a farm team for the Mexico City and Oaxaca that (unlike their all-Mexican LMB parent clubs) has ten non-Mexican players on their 29-man roster, including San Diego-born infielder Nick Guerra, considered "nationals" via his Mexican-American status.  Guerra hit .250 in 25 games for the Marineros.

A minor league veteran outfielder from Texas had a banner year at the plate in the LNM this summer. Puerto Penasco outfielder Jermy Acey, a former Blue Jays farmhand who's played independent ball since 2006, led the Liga Norte in batting with a .358 average and 106 hits, finished third in RBIs (63) and tied for sixth in homers (10).   San Quintin's Marcos Veccionacci's 17 roundtrippers were tops in the loop while Edgar Duran of Ensenada led in RBIs with 77.  Vecchionacci had an MVP-type year for the Freseros, finishing third in the batting derby at .344 and coming in second to Duran (81) with 72 runs scored.  Duran was another standout, hitting .334 (sixth in the Liga Norte batting derby) and coming in second with 16 homers.

There are several LNM Pitcher of the Year candidates for 2017.  Elian Leyva of Puerto Penasco went 11-1 to lead the circuit in wins, followed by the 10 victories of Ensenada's Wanel Vasquez.  The latter registered 92 strikeouts to tie San Quintin starter Yeiper de Jesus Castillo and matched San Luis' Daniel Bloch for fourth on the ERA table at 3.66.  Leyva was also first with a 1.18 WHIP, finished third in ERA with a 3.34 mark (Ensenada's Alexis Lara was first at 2.92) and fourth in strikeouts with 78 ponches.  Ensenada closer Rafael Cova's 20 saves topped the chart, followed by Caborca's Loiger Luis Padron's 15.  Cova had a 1.87 ERA with 40 strikeouts over 33.2 innings.

The Liga Norte held its All-Star Weekend at Puerto Penasco, culminating with a June 10 Sonora win over Baja California by a 3-1 score.  Cuban Lazaro Leal of San Luis was named Game MVP.  Before the All-Star contest, Leal's Algodoneros teammate, Juan Carlos Torres, won the Home Run Derby.

The Liga Norte playoffs will open Saturday with a pair of semifinal games.  Top-seed Ensenada will host #4 Puerto Penasco while second-ranked (and 2016 titlist) San Quintin hosts San Luis.  The winners of the best-of-seven series will collide in the North Mexico League's Championship Series in another set scheduled for seven games, starting July 25.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Flurry of activity as Tuesday LMB trade deadline passes

Yucatan catcher Sebastian Valle
Tuesday marked the final day that Mexican League teams can make trades or sign free agents to their active rosters with one month remaining in the regular season, and fans of such transactions were not disappointed.  Dozens of players were either traded, brought in or cut loose throughout the LMB, and rather than go through the entire eye-glazing list, let's take a look at some of the key transactions made before the July 11 deadline passed.

The deal that drew the hottest reaction was the trade of the rights to catcher Sebastian Valle from Tabasco to Yucatan in exchange for pitcher Juan Delgadillo, infielder Kristian Delgado and two more players prior to the 2018 season.  The 26-year-old Valle played for Mexicali in last winter's Caribbean Series, putting the Aguilas into the semis by belting a walkoff homer in a 5-1 win over Venezuela's Zulia Aguilas in a battle of Eagles before catching for Mexico in the World Baseball Classic in Guadalajara.  The former Phillies prospect was signed as a minor league free agent by Seattle in the offseason but has spent almost the entire season on the disabled list, making one July 6 plate appearance in a rehab assignment with the Mariners' Arizona Rookie League team before his release two days later.

A Los Mochis native who has never played in the Mexican League, Valle has hit .253 with 74 homers over 822 games in his minor league career.  His LMB rights have been held by the Olmecas, who've had their own problems even without paying what will likely be a good salary for a catcher of Valle's status in Mexico, so the Olmecas jumped at the chance to add a veteran pitcher like Delgadillo (a son of Villahermosa in his 13th LMB season with 77-66 career record, including a 5-1 mark this year) and the versatile Delgado, who plays three positions and has hit .239 this year for both Tabasco and Union Laguna, where he played eight games on loan.

"Foul!," cried Monterrey Sultanes part-owner Jose "Pepe" Maiz, who came out of his season-long hibernation to complain to LMB president Plinio Escalante and president-in-waiting Javier Salinas that the Sultanes had a deal worked out with Tabasco to obtain Valle's right.  The LMB responded quickly, replying that there is no record of such an arrangement in the Liga's Mexico City offices and that the Olmecas' swap with Yucatan would hold.  Not that the Sultanes ended up standing still, signing All-Star third baseman Daniel Mayora (who was released by the financially imploding Durango Generales on Monday) and inking free agent first baseman-catcher Jesus Montero, a onetime top Yankees prospect who was released by the Orioles organization in late June after three injury-plagued months at AAA Norfolk.  Mayora, of course, fell one game short of tying the Mexican League record of 36 consecutive games with a hit and is among the LMB batting leaders with a .367 average.  Montero, who hit .260 with 15 homers and 62 RBIs for Seattle in 2012, will give the Sultanes a powerful bat and suspect glove.

Monclova was also busy up to the deadline.  The Acereros signed former major leaguers Carlos Quentin and James Loney as free agents while placing second baseman Tim Torres on the reserve list.  Quentin, who briefly played in the Puebla outfield last summer, appeared in two MLB All-Star Games and hit 154 homers in 834 games over nine big league campaigns (including a .288/36/100 season for the White Sox in 2008) .  Loney has eleven years of experience as an MLB first baseman, seven with the Dodgers, after finishing sixth in National League Rookie of the Year voting in 2006.  He has a career average of .284 with 108 homers.  Torres spent nine years as minor leaguer in four organizations, playing in the 2010 Southern League All-Star Game, before making his LMB debut with Oaxaca in 2015.  A versatile Oral Roberts product who can play seven positions, Torres hit .348 in 32 games for Tabasco and Monclova before being placed on reserve.

Other player moves included the signing of free agents OF Eliseo Aldazaba (Mexico City), OF Jeremias Pineda (Veracruz), IB-3B Alex Valdez (Saltillo) and 3B Eudor Garcia (Tijuana).  The most notable of that foursome may be Valdez, who hit 30 homers and drove in 100 last year for Monterrey and added 12 more longballs for the Sultanes this summer.  He represented Carmen at the LMB All-Star Game in both 2014 and 2015 and brings five-year Liga totals of .296/112/424 to the Saraperos lineup.  Unlike the power Valdez will add to the Saltillo batting order, Pineda is all about speed.  The Gulf Coast League's MVP in 20112, the 26-year-old Dominican was an All-Star for Veracruz in 2015, where he hit .285 with a Liga-leading 60 steals.  He's since spent time in the Marlins system before his release from AA Jacksonville on July 3.  Aldazaba belted 41 homers with 138 RBIs for Campeche over the 2014 and 2015 campaigns and will give the Diablos a reliable vet in the outfield.

The most intriguing pickup may be Garcia in Tijuana.  The 23-year-old El Paso native spent four years in the Mets system after being picked in the fourth round of the 2014 draft before being let go in late June.  While Garcia has been slowed by injuries, he's shown a good bat with gap power.  His signing will allow Toros manager Pedro Mere the chance to rest retiring veteran infielders Jorge Cantu and Oscar Robles by shifting Alex Liddi to first base and inserting Garcia at third.  In the postseason, that will matter.

One more notable roster move was the placement on the 60-day disabled list of catcher Iker Franco by the Quintana Roo Tigres.  A five-time All-Star for the Cancun team who was MVP of the 2011 LMB Championship Series, the 36-year-old Franco had hit just .157 in 17 games for the Tigres before he was shelved for the season Tuesday.  Franco played sparingly in 2015 and 2016 and is nearing the end of a solid, workmanlike career as a tough customer behind the plate and opportunistic batter.  His 14-year Liga totals include a .269 average with 112 homers and 531 ribbies.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Molina having standout year in Veracruz, ERA now at 1.41

Veracruz pitcher Nestor Molina
Let's start this story with a proven fact: No matter where he's pitched, Nestor Molina has been a winner.  Throw out a 6-12 season in 2012 while pitching for the White Sox organization, and the Venezuelan right-hander has posted a winning record every year since his pro baseball debut in 2007, with a career MiLB record of 60-28 in his eleventh summer.  Along the way, Molina was a postseason All-Star in the Class A Florida State League after going 10-3 with a 2.58 ERA for the Blue Jays' Dunedin affiliate in 2011 (his first year as a starter) prior to being sent to the Pale Hose that winter in a swap of minor leaguers.  He hasn't backed into that career .682 winning percentage either, registering a 3.13 ERA over 230 appearances, 92 of them starts.

Even with an impressive background like that, the 28-year-old Molina has dialed it up at least one notch this year pitching for the Veracruz Rojos del Aguila.  Molina raised his 2017 Mexican League record to 10-1 after shutting out Tabasco over six innings last Saturday en route to a 3-2 Red Eagles victory in Villahermosa, limiting the Olmecas to four singles while striking out four batsmen.  It marked Molina's tenth straight win after losing an April 8 home game to Leon despite a decent start in which he gave up two Bravos runs in six innings.  Consistency has been a hallmark, with only one of 18 starts not being a "quality" outing when Molina let in four Durango runs on eleven hits in six frames during a May 11 no-decision.  Every time out, he gives the Rojos del Aguila a chance to win.

Last weekend's win over Tabasco lowered Molina's earned-run average to 1.41 on the season, more than a full run better than Tijuana's Carlos Hernandez at 2.44.  His ERA stood at 2.54 after that rocky start against Durango, but he has lowered it in each of his next nine starts over the past two months.  In that stretch, Molina's ERA has been a microscopic 0.42 with with 47 strikeouts and 17 walks over 66 innings.  Molina is second in the Mexican League in strikeouts with 90 whiffs in 121.1 innings, trailing only Monclova's Josh Lowey's 108 punchouts.

Although the Veracruz roster has past and present All-Stars like first baseman Balbino Fuenmayor and outfielder Luis Suarez, Molina is clearly the main reason the Red Eagles have passed the Quintana Roo Tigres into third place in the punchless LMB South with a 37-43 record.  Although being six games under .500 is nothing to write home about, Veracruz might be battling to keep out of the division cellar if manager Eddy Castro couldn't send Molina to the mound every five games.  Instead, they're positioning themselves for the playoffs after finishing sixth in the LMB South in 2016.

Veracruz is one of the Liga's oldest baseball cities.  The Rojos del Aguila predate the Mexican League by more than two decades, making their debut in 1903.  The team is the oldest in the circuit, with six LMB pennants since 1937 while such baseball greats as Hall of Famer Martin Dihigo (who led the Red Eagles to titles in 1937 and 1938), Santos Amaro, Roberto Ortiz, Al Pinkston, Pilo Gaspar, Ramon Arano and Miguel Fernandez have worn Veracruz jerseys.  Jorge Pasquel, who briefly challenged the hegemony of Major League Baseball in the 1940's, was a Veracruzano.  While it's unlikely anyone in the LMB South will challenge Yucatan in the postseason this year (although defending champion Puebla has shown some signs of life lately), Nestor Molina will likely carry the Rojos del Aguilas on his back to their first playoff berth since 2013.

Things have heated up considerably in the North, where Tijuana loosened Monterrey's season-long grip on first place by sweeping the Sultanes at Estadio Monterrey in a midweek series last week before going into Monclova for a weekend series with the red-hot Acereros.  Monclova won the first two games of the series to stretch their winning streak to ten games before the Toros took Sunday's closer, 1-0, as Monclova starter Miguel Pena combined with three relievers for a six-hit shutout.  Corey Brown's fifth-inning double off hardluck Acereros starter Mauricio Lara drove in Isaac Rodriguez with the game's lone run as Pena's record rose to 8-2 while his ERA fell to 3.12.  For their part, Monterrey dropped the first two games of their home series with Mexico City before bouncing back Sunday to blank the Diablos Rojos, 8-0.  Angel Castro tossed seven innings of three-hit ball to go to 10-3 on the season and Ramon Rios cracked a fifth-inning grand slam off Diablos Rojos starter Efren Delgado in the Sultanes win.

The result of all this activity is that Tijuana maintains a tenuous half-game lead over Monterrey while Monclova has moved to three-and-a-half games back in third.  The Aguascalientes Rieleros hold fourth place after winning their first eight games in July before dropping a 5-4 decision to Laguna at home Sunday.  Puro Beisbol editor/columnist Fernando Ballesteros calls the Railroaders "dangerous" because they have more pitching depth than most LMB teams along with solid everyday players like MVP candidate Jesse Castillo, ageless All-Star Saul Soto, outfielder Dave Sappelt and newcomer third baseman Michael Wing, who's hit .441 with five homers in his first 20 games in Rieleros togs.  Suffice to say, nobody wants to face this team in the playoffs.

With former Durango outfielder Yadir Drake and his .385 batting average gone to Japan, the Cuban (who'll barely qualify for the batting title) set the bar for the rest of the Liga's hitters to catch up to.  At this point, Drake's lead in the batting race appears safe.  His former Generales teammate, Daniel Mayora, has moved into a tie with Monterrey's Chris Roberson for second place on the table with .367 averages.  Mayora missed a couple weeks with an injury shortly after his 35-game hitting streak ended, but he's gone 6-for-14 (.429) over three games since his July 6 return.  Tijuana's Brown homered Thursday and Saturday to become the first LMB batsman to reach 20 homers for the season, two ahead of Monclova's Matt Clark and Raniel Rosario of Saltillo.  Brown has also gone 12-of-14 on stolen base attempts and while his .292 average will hamper his MVP aspirations, the former Oklahoma State star has been a linchpin in the Toros lineup this summer.  Yucatan first baseman Ricky Alvarez' 86 RBIs are 12 ahead of Monclova second sacker Manny Rodriguez' 72, while Acereros outfielder Justin Greene is running away with the stolen base title (couldn't resist) with 38 swipes, well ahead of Mexico City speedster Carlos Figueroa's 23.

As mentioned, Veracruz' Molina (10-1/1.41/90K) is on his way to a career year and should be considered the frontrunner for Pitcher of the Year honors by keeping an at-best mediocre Red Eagles team in the playoff hunt.  However, there have been a number of top pitching efforts in the 2017 LMB season.  Former Mets farmhand Octavio Acosta of Mexico City won at Monterrey, 8-1, Saturday for his Liga-leading eleventh win.  The 11-1 Acosta has an ERA of 2.71 with 82 strikeouts in 99.1 innings pitched.  Besides Molina, Monterrey's Castro, Yohan Flande of Aguascalientes and Yucatan ace Yoanner Negrin (2016's Pitcher of the Year) have all reached the 10-win threshold.  Monclova's Lowey is well out in front of Molina in the strikeout derby by a 108-90 margin and Monterrey closer Wirfin Obispo has overtaken Durango's injured Tiago da Silva in the saves department.  Obispo has preserved 22 Sultanes wins while da Silva had 20 saves for the Generales before going on the shelf following a two-inning stint at Tijuana on June 11.

Coming up in the Mexican League, it'll be a crossover week as all eight LMB North teams do battle with counterparts in the South.  The most intriguing midweek series appears to be scheduled for Puebla, where the Pericos will host Aguascalientes in a matchup of teams positioning themselves for postseason runs.  The best series next weekend is slated for Torreon, where Union Laguna welcomes Yucatan as both teams owned by the Arellano brothers clash.  It'll be the first game back at Estadio Revolucion for Yucatan's Ricky Alvarez, who was traded to the Leones late last month, touching off a firestorm of criticism among Laguna fans and lower attendance at subsequent Vaqueros home games.  The numbers may rise next weekend but a festive mood is unlikely.