Monday, February 29, 2016

2015-16 BBM Winter Awards: Manager of the Year

It took Edgar Gonzalez nearly a decade's worth of persistence to finally get a shot to play Major League Baseball, but his return to a big league dugout as a coach may not be so protracted a journey.  In his first managerial job since retiring as a player after the 2014 season, the former San Diego Padres and Yomiuri Giants infielder led Mexicali to a first-half title and advanced to the Mexican Pacific League championship series, earning the Baseball Mexico Winter Award for Manager of the Year.

Gonzalez was handed the reins for the Aguilas in the offseason and guided them to a 38-29 mark and two playoff series wins before running into a peaking Mazatlan team in this season's title bout, losing in five games to the Venados.  He steered the team with a steady hand as the Eagles played consistently well throughout the winter with no debilitating slumps.

Mexicali led the LMP with a .295 team batting average, with five players topping the .300 mark and another two hitting in the upper .290's, a figure not uncommon in the summer Mexican League, long a notorious hitter's circuit, but something rarely seen in the MexPac (historically a pitcher's league).  The Aguilas acquitted themselves well on the mound, too, finishing third in the loop with a 3.51 ERA and leading all eight teams with seven shutouts, a 1.30 WHIP and 502 strikeouts.  Although the batting fell off in the pitching-dominated playoffs with a .246 average (no team hit higher than .252), the hurlers stepped it up with a sparkling 2.30 ERA and a stingy 1.06 WHIP over 16 contests.

The 37-year-old San Diego native will get a chance to display his acumen on a larger stage in March when he manages Mexico's national team in the World Baseball Classic qualifiers in Mexicali.  He may need all the acumen he can conjure if the Mexican League withholds players from the event and major league organizations drag their heels on making talent available for games against Germany, Nicaragua and the Czech Republic.  The WBC qualifier takes place March 17 through 20 at Estadio B-Air.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Betancourt signs with defending LMB champ Tigres

Former big league shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt helped his struggling playing career with a strong winter season in the Mexican Pacific League, resulting in a free agent contract with the defending Mexican League champion Quintana Roo Tigres for the upcoming campaign.

Betancourt spent the MexPac regular season with the Mexicali Aguilas, for whom he finished 12th in the MexPac batting race with a .298 average, came in second to Jalisco's Japhet Amador in home runs with 12 and finished second in the LMP with 126 total bases, two behind Navojoa's Quincy Latimore, while playing both first and third base over 63 games for manager Edgar Gonzalez' Eagles.  He then hit .288 for Mexicali in 16 postseason games as the Aguilas reached the championship series against eventual LMP champion Mazatlan, who picked him up for the Caribbean Series, where he rewarded the Venados by batting .438 and scoring or driving in 14 runs in five games during their unbeaten run to the CS title in Santo Domingo.

It was a far cry from when the 34-year-old Cuban began the winterball season in October just trying to regain his mojo after hitting .250 in 21 games for Tijuana in the LMB last spring before being released in April.  Betancourt has bounced around a bit the past two summers after spending the 2013 campaign starting at shortstop for Milwaukee, batting just .212 with 13 homers in 137 contests.  He signed a one-year deal with Japan's Orix Buffalos in 2014, but was let go on May 14 that year after hitting .141 in 28 games.  That was followed by last season's short stay in Tijuana.  Entering the LMP season, his future in pro baseball was in doubt.  Now he'll have a chance at redemption of sorts in Cancun, where he'll vie for a roster spot on skipper Roberto Vizcarra's champions.

The question moving forward is where Betancourt will fit in with the Tigres, who have a veteran-packed infield featuring longtime LMBers Carlos Gastelum, Jorge Vazquez, Rolando Acosta and Kevin Flores plus ex-Marlins infielder Alfredo Amezaga.  With his ability to play all four infield positions (albeit little time spent at second base), the versatile Betancourt could land a spot as a utility player, where the 38-year-old Amezaga may be the most vulnerable.

The Tigres added yet another Cuban exile in 44-year-old pitcher Jose Contreras, a 2006 All-Star with the Chicago White Sox amid a four-year stretch in which he won 51 games for the Yankees and Chisox after making his 2003 debut at age 31 for New York.  He beat Roger Clemens and the Houston Astros, 5-3, in the opening game of the 2005 World Series, won by Chicago.  His MLB career record over all or parts of eleven seasons was 78-67 with a 4.57 ERA, last pitching for Pittsburgh in 2013.

No word on whether his contact with Quintana Roo will affect Contreras' Social Security eligibility in the States.

Friday, February 26, 2016

TOMMY AL BAT on Jorge Pasquel's Last Game

Tomas "Tommy" Morales is a baseball treasure.
Since making his 1956 writing debut for Hit magazine, the 83-year-old Morales is in his seventh decade covering the game in Mexico and North America via his "Tommy al Bat" column. Writers and announcers are given full membership in Mexican baseball's Hall of Fame and Morales was enshrined in 1990.

The Barcelona-born scribe may draw comparisons to the late Washington Post columnist Shirley Povich for their longevity, but where Povich produced one column per week as an octogenarian, Morales still puts out several columns a week.  Also, Povich was a local icon in the D.C. area but Tommy is cherished by Mexicans from Baja California to the Yucatan Peninsula. Perhaps the better comparison would be with Vin Scully, who transcends his Dodgers affiliation.

What follows is a translation of Morales' February 24th "Tommy al Bat" column describing the final game as an owner and baseball power broker for the legendary Jorge Pasquel, a 1951 contest Morales himself attended as a 19-year-old law student in Mexico City.  Apologies in advance if this translation doesn't hit every right note.  Something is always lost when removed from its original language and not being remotely fluent in Spanish presents an extra challenge for me, but I want BBM readers to get at least a taste of one of Mexican baseball's living legends writing now about what became an important event in Mexico's baseball timeline that he witnessed 65 years ago:

On October 8, 1951, exactly the same day as the Giants beat the Yankees, 5-1, in the first game of the World Series that year, Mexico City’s Delta Park that night featured a game that was historically very important, since not only was it the end of the Veracruz Azules but the famous magnate Jorge Pasquel, too.

The Mexican League then stretched their calendar until the Major League World Series.  It was the fifth game of the final series for the crown between the visiting San Luis Potosi Tuneros and the Veracruz Blues. These Azules dominated the series for title success, three games to one.  For this meeting the Tuneros, handled by "Chile" Gomez, opened with southpaw Wenceslao Gonzalez, who would have his chance to pitch in the Major Leagues with the Washington Senators in 1955, while the Azules opened with black American Rufus Lewis.

Jorge Pasquel was in his box next to the dugout of his Azules on the third base side for this game, which could be the coronation.  That year I was studying my senior year of law school at Colegio Cristobal Colon and went with a classmate to see the game.  I remember near the beginning of the game, when we arrived at Delta Park, there was lightning in the distant sky but it never rained. I went to my favorite place, the Shaded General section, on the third base side running into left. There were not many people in the park since the finals had broken down after a big fight that took place in San Luis Potosi and why it was decided that the rest of the series would be played at Delta Park.

In the second inning, the Blues scored the first run of the game when "Kanguro" Jimenez scored after "Bibi" Crespo and pitcher Rufus Lewis both singled. Wenceslao avoided further damage by dominating Felipe Iturralde into a double play groundout.

In the beginning of the fourth, however, the Tuneros scored twice to take the lead, all coming with two outs: Cuban veteran Carlos Blanco, always a good hitter, got a hit, advanced to second on a passed ball and scored on a single by gradulón Rene Gonzalez.  Singles by catcher Raul Navarro and Claudio Solano pushed across the second run.  For the sixth inning, Rufus Lewis exited as Pasquel called on Ramón Bragaña to relief.  It was a great twist of fate, as the "Professor" was going to win the last game in the history of the Veracruz Azules after 12 years of life as a star pitcher with the Blue team.

It was not until the eighth that the Azules managed the tying second run, an unearned one.  Panamanian Leon Kellman was awarded first base and Angel Castro hit a grounder that looked like a double play, but second baseman Beto Rodriguez made a bad play at short to leave two on with no outs. The bases were filled with a walk to "Kanguro" Jimenez and the tying run came in on a slow grounder produced by "Bibi" Crespo.

After Bragaña put up a zero in the top of the ninth, the Azules came to bat in the bottom of the ninth, starting with a Felipe Iturralde walk, but Wenceslao Gonzalez dominated Chema Castro for a strikeout and a high fly by Leon Kellman that looked like an out was not caught by Fernando Garcia, resulting in a double that left runners on second and third with one out, the runner on third representing the possible championship run for the Blues.  "Chile" Gomez ordered Angel Castro intentionally walked to load the bases loaded and sent to bat the stocky, but strong, Panamanian Archie Brathwaite, a candidate for a double-play grounder savior if he hit one.

But the Panamanian, on a count of a ball and a strike, hit a high fly to short right. Iturralde, a fast player, took off from from third on the hit and came home and beat the throw from outfielder Alfonso Zarate, giving the Azules their crown. Pasquel was already on the ground when the winning run scored and shared hugs and congratulations with his players. As I was watching the celebration,the lights were suddenly turned off at Delta and we were in the dark, a darkness that marked the disappearance of Veracruz Blues and retirement of the famous Jorge Pasquel, who four years later in 1955 died in an accident piloting his own plane.

The Veracruz Azules of 1951, the last Azules, were a different team than what Pasquel had when they commenced in 1940 with players like the great Josh Gibson.  They were both champions, the first and the last. The years have passed rapidly, as usual, and that darkness that came at the end of the coronation game also marked the end of a very important in our beloved Mexican League era.  We all got to ask a few days later: Could the  Mexican League survive without Jorge Pasquel?

Tommy Morales' "Tommy al Bat" blog is available en espanol on the Mexican League website.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

MexPac to use 22 days announcing awards; Bammys coming next week

The Mexican Pacific League has begun announcing postseason honors for their 2015-16 season, with three outfielders given Golden Gloves awards Tuesday.

The naming of Navojoa left fielder Quincy Latimore, Mexicali center fielder Chris Roberson and Hermosillo right fielder Sebastian Elizalde as the MexPac's best-fielding outfielders kicked off what will be a 22-day stretch in which the league releases the names of its top performers in dribs and drabs, culminating with the Tuesday, March 15 announcement of the LMP's Matias Carrillo Trophy for best batter, Ronnie Camacho Trophy for top slugger and the Playoff MVP, three weeks after the first winners were announced.  The Hector Espino MVP Trophy will be mentioned on March 11.

Conversely, our own BBM Winter Awards, lovingly known as the "Bammys" (hey, if ESPN can lay on the cheese...) will require only next week to announce.  Admittedly, there won't be as many awards as the LMP does, for which we proudly hide behind the old saw that "brevity is the soul of wit."  When in doubt, quote Shakespeare.

Anyway, here's a look at next week's BBM Winter Awards schedule:

MONDAY - Manager of the Year
TUESDAY - Batter of the Year
WEDNESDAY - Pitcher of the Year
THURSDAY - Most Valuable Player
FRIDAY - Playoff MVP

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Escalante to stay two more years as Liga president

The Mexican League's Assembly of Presidents met in Mexico City Monday to discuss a number of issues the league is facing in 2016.

Perhaps the most pressing was replacing league president Plinio Escalante (pictured), who announced his retirement effective at the end of the upcoming season after sitting behind the big desk since replacing Alejandro Hutt in 2007.  The dilemma essentially solved itself when Escalante agree to serve two more years in office, moving his exit down the road to 2018.  Although the LMB has tended to sputter along during Escalante's reign while the while the Mexican Pacific League has exploded in both attendance and presence in recent years, the Yucatecan has provided a measure of stability during his nine years at the helm at the Liga's Mexico City headquarters.  Escalante met with LMB directors for two hours Sunday night hammering out details of his extension prior to Monday's announcement.

Introduced at Monday's session was Javier Balseca Gonzalez, the Mexican League's new director of marketing and merchandising.  Balseca, who was hired to the post in January, gave a presentation to Liga leaders whose 16-team league drew 3.87 million fans in 2015 for an average of 4,565 per opening. Conversely, the AAA International League pulled in 7,199 per contest while Pacific Coast League teams welcomed 6,508 people through the turnstiles per night.  The Mexican Pacific League led all non-MLB leagues in the hemisphere with a regular season average attendance of 9,670.

The team presidents also discussed moving the date of the Liga's 2016 All-Star Game in Monterrey, which was originally scheduled for May 29, a date that coincides with Mexican soccer's Premier Division championship game.

Finally, Laguna Vaqueros CEO Carlos Gomez del Campo told his peers the Torreon-based team is in the process of finding new partners, a topic that was tabled until the Assembly's September meeting in Oaxaca. The next such gathering is scheduled to take place May 27 in Monterrey during All-Star Weekend but, as noted above, that may change.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

BBM Winterball 2015-16 Review, Part 2

Mexico’s “second” winter circuit, the Veracruz Winter League, played a short regular season that involved the LIV’s six teams playing 30-game schedules in December before embarking on January’s playoffs.  The Paso de Ovejas Campesino won the season title with a 19-10-1 record, two games up on the Acayucan Tobis at 15-10-1.  The Tobis went on to win the pennant by beating Xalapa in five games in the championship series, breaking the Los Tuxtlas Brujos’ string of four consecutive flags.

After winning their first title in ten LIV winters, Acayucan represented Mexico at the Latin American Series in Managua against champions from Panama, Colombia and host Nicaragua.  The Tobis posted a strong 9-3 opening day win over Colombia’s Barranquilla Caimanes on January 26 before dropping their final two round-robin stages games and losing a 1-0 semifinal play-in game against Barranquilla despite tournament rules clearly stating than in the event of a tie, the nod would go to whoever had won their first-round matchup.  

Veteran baseballist Cristhian Presichi, a longtime Mexican Leaguer, led the loop’s batters with a .407 average for Paso de Ovejas, Tuxtla Gutierrez’ Carlos Rodriguez was tops with 7 homers and 32 ribbies.  Campesinos hurler Angel Araiza and the Tobis' Juan Grijalva topped the loop with 4 wins each, Los Tuxtlas' Joel Payamps turned in an 0.82 ERA and Raul Carrillo of Palenque posted 39 strikeouts.

There are two other winter pro leagues in Mexico.  While the Mexican Pacific League may be considered AAA in quality and the Veracruz Winter League regarded a AA circuit, the Mexican Winter League is the country’s Class A vernal loop while the Mexican League-operated Academy League goes from being an A league in summer to a Rookie league for the winter.

The Mexican Winter League, or LIM, rose from the ashes of the now-defunct Northwest Baseball League, a Nayarit-based confederation that folded last year after eight seasons.  The LIM, also overseen by the Liga (as is every play-for-pay league in Mexico outside the LMP), moved its six-team operation eastward toward Mexico CIty, mainly in the central Mexican states of Guanajuato and Aguascalientes.

The first winter of LIM competition saw the Mexico City Diablos Rojos (augmented by players contracted to the Oaxaca Guerreros) defeat the Salamanca Petroleros, 4 games to 3, in the playoff final.  Former Diablos outfielder VIctor Bojorquez managed Mexico City to a 40-22 record and a first-place finish during the regular season before longtime Red Devils shortstop Jose Luis Sandoval piloted the squad through the playoffs, culminating in Mexico City’s 9-5 Game Seven win over the Petroleros on January 20 in front of 4,669 at Estadio Fray Nano in the nation’s capital.

Guanajuato’s Manuel Cruz led the LIM with a .414 and 12 homers while Mexico City’s Jose Martinez drove in 47 runs.  Diablos hurlers Filiberto Baez and Jesus Anguamea tied for the league lead with 7 wins apiece, teammate Ariel Gracia was tops with 67 strikeouts and a 2.85 ERA.

Finally, there’s the Academy Rookie League, consisting of Mexican League prospects housed together at the LMB’s training facility near Monterrey.  The Academy League runs a more ambitious “Class A” schedule from late March through July, but the LIA, which consists of four shared teams and one solely stocked with youngsters under contract with Saltillo, runs a shorter eight-week slate of doubleheaders between October and December, with teams playing about 27 games each.  As in the LIM, a team shared by the Diablos Rojos and Oaxaca won the LIA crown by going 21-4-2.

Now that the dust has settled on a full plate of winter leagues and games, we can all allow ourselves a breath, but only a short one because spring training is getting underway and Mexico’s five summer pro leagues will be warming up before you know it.  That’s one of the beauties of Mexican baseball:  There is no such thing as an offseason.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

BBM Winterball 2015-16 Review, Part 1

When the Mazatlan Venados brought back Juan Jose Pacho to manage the team in midseason, the veteran skipper was inheriting a last-place team from Miguel Ojeda, who resigned on December 9 prior to accepting a job running the San Francisco Giants’ AA Richmond affiliate.  The Venados had turned in a decent 20-15 record in the first half to finish in third place and pick up six playoff points, but Mazatlan was scuffling early in the second half when Pacho took the reins from Ojeda.

The Deer didn’t set the Mexican Pacific League on fire over the rest of the regular campaign, going 18-15 for another third-place finish in the second stanza, and after losing their first-round playoff series in six games to Navojoa, it took the MexPac’s wildcard rule allowing the team with the most wins in an opening-round loss to join the three series winners as a semifinal to keep the Venados’ season barely alive.  

The rest, as they say,  is history as Mazatlan proceeded to knock out Obregon in a tough seven-game set before topping Mexicali in five contests to win the LMP pennant.  Then the Venados marched into Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic and ran the table to become the fourth MexPac team in six winters to win the Caribbean Series title.  None of it was new to Pacho, who brought the Venados back from a similar first-round loss all the way to their first Serie del Caribe title in 2005, conveniently held in Mazatlan that year and kickstarting Carnival a little early.

Obregon finished the LMP’s best regular-season record at 39-29.  Former Nats farmhand Jesus Valdez hit .347 for Jalisco to win the batting title while massive DH Japhet Amador led the circuit with 14 homers and 48 RBI’s for the Charros before leaving two weeks early after signing with Japan’s Rakuten Golden Eagles.  Mazatlan outfielder Jeremias Pineda stole 31 bases in 36 attempts to finish on top of that table.

Mexicali’s Javier Solano topped the loop with eight wins and 71 strikeouts over 81 innings to win two of the three pitching triple crown categories and Alejandro Soto of Mazatlan posted a low ERA of 2.63.  Los Mochis closer Andres Avila tied an LMP record with 23 saves, one more than Mazatlan’s Steven Hensley.

One of the biggest stories of the MexPac season was the continued significant growth in attendance.  Nearly three million fans clicked the turnstile during both the regular season and playoffs for a 12 percent increase, the seventh straight winter such numbers have gone up.  An average of more than 9,500 attendees places the circuit behind only Major League Baseball, Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball and the Korean Baseball Organization in average pro baseball attendance worldwide.  Conversely, no affiliated minor league in the United States drew more than 7,000 per opening.  In all, the LMP has seen attendance rise 39 percent since 2012 and with stadium development still ongoing in various MexPac cities, including Obregon and Mazatlan, those numbers should continue to go up.

Culiacan fans in particular have taken great pride in Estadio BBVA Bancomer, with over 16,000 people attending Tomateros games to watch a non-playoff team, and the venue will host next February’s Caribbean Series.

NEXT: Veracruz Winter League, Mexican Winter League and Academy Rookie League wrap

Thursday, February 18, 2016

LMB teams to train in Tucson, free exhibitions set

Although Tucson, Arizona has been without its own professional baseball team since the San Diego Padres moved their AAA Pacific Coast League affiliate to El Paso after the 2013 season, that doesn't mean the city of 528,000 has been devoid of the game itself.  Quite the opposite, in fact. The Tucson Invitational Games have become a prominent February and March destination for small college baseball teams from across the country, often with 18 games played daily as eighty schools will play there this year.  More proof of how baseball in Tucson has evolved after the PCL's departure will be on display next month when three Mexican League teams hold their training camps at the Kino Sports Complex, which also hosts the TIG.

The Tijuana Toros will arrive for a 30-day stretch on Friday, February 26 while the Veracruz Rojo Aguilas and Puebla Pericos will come to town for their own month-long stays on Tuesday, March 1. According to complex events manager Sallyann Wassmuth, two exhibition games have been scheduled at 11,000-seat Kino Veterans Memorial Stadium (formerly known as Tucson Electric Park): The Toros will welcome the German National Team on Wednesday, March 9 for a tuneup prior to the World Baseball Classic qualifier in Mexicali, followed by a contest between the Toros and the Texas Rangers AAA squad three days later.  Both contests are scheduled for 6PM Mountain Time.

Pima County Stadium District director Maureen "Reenie" Ochoa, who oversees the 155-acre complex, says, "We are most delighted to host our visitors from Mexico at the Kino Sports Complex for the Mexican Baseball League training camps and will be encouraging the many residents of Pima County to stop by the ballpark to watch some very fine players and teams in action.  Baseball is alive and well at the Kino Sports Complex."  Ochoa adds that given the uncertainty regarding several aspects of the two games, "we are going to open the gates for anyone who wishes to enjoy a nice day or evening at the ballpark."

Besides the ballpark, the Kino complex (named after Italian Jesuit priest Eusebio Kino, who established 24 missions between Sonora and Arizona at the dawn of the 18th century) includes seven full-sized practice baseball fields, two practice infields and numerous batting cages in addition to several soccer fields and four clubhouses.

This will not be the first time in Tucson for Mexican baseball teams.  The same three teams coming this year were joined by the Campeche Piratas last year while the fall Mexican Baseball Fiesta involving Mexican Pacific League teams playing preseason games originated in Tucson in 2011 and is now held in four cities across the American southwest every October.  The result has been the establishment of a beachhead of sorts for Mexican baseball in Tucson, whose metro population of just over a million people includes over 350,000 residents of Hispanic heritage.

Although pro baseball in Tucson dates to 1915, the sport has had a somewhat spotty history there.  Tucson usually had a franchise in the Class D Arizona-Texas and Arizona-Mexico leagues between 1928 and 1958, when the widespread contraction plaguing minor leagues at the time finished off the circuit.  After an absence of ten years, the AAA Pacific Coast League placed a team at Hi Corbett Field in 1969.  The PCL remained in town for four decades until the team moved to Reno following the 2008 season.

After a pair of disastrous seasons in the independent Golden League, Tucson was back in the PCL in 2011 when San Diego moved their displaced Portland affiliate to Optics Valley for three lame-duck summers before resettling (again) their AAA club in El Paso.  The Padres averaged 3,145 fans per game in 2013, their last year in Arizona.  The city was also a MLB spring training site for decades and has hosted teams in both the Arizona Rookie League and Arizona Fall League.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Mexicali, Gonzalez preparing for WBC Qualifiers

A four-team World Baseball Classic qualifying tournament will be held in Mexicali's El Nido ("The Nest") ballpark next month and the Mexican Pacific League's Mexicali Aguilas are preparing to host the four-day event.

Mexico's national team, conveniently managed by Aguilas skipper Edgar Gonzalez (pictured), will take on sides from Germany, Nicaragua and the Czech Republic from March 17 through 20 at the 19,500-seat facility.  The WBC qualifier will be a double-elimination tournament for the first time after a double round-robin format had been used in the past, with a March 20 winner-take-all final to determine the qualifier for next year's WBC.  Mexico has qualified for all three Classics since its 2006 inception, but was bumped into the qualifiers after finishng last in their pool at the 2013 event.  They will be the favorites at Mexicali going in.

Australia has already won a qualifier tournament at Sydney, knocking out New Zealand, South Africa and The Philippines last weekend.  Panama City will host a qualifier concurrent with Mexicali's festivities, with host Panama taking on Colombia, France and Spain while national teams from Israel, Brazil, Great Britain and Pakistan will gather in Brooklyn, New York for the fourth and final qualifier in September.  The four qualifying teams will join twelve others to form the 16-nation field for next year's WBC.

This will mark Gonzalez' first time managing the Mexican National Team after playing second base at the 2009 and 2013 Classics alongside brother Adrian, currently a Dodgers All-Star first baseman.  In his first winter managing in the LMP, Edgar led the Aguilas to a 38-29 regular season record before advancing through the playoffs to the championship series, where Mexicali lost in five games to eventual Caribbean Series titlist Mazatlan.

Monday, February 15, 2016

$20 million ballpark on horizon in Mazatlan

After more than fifty seasons calling Estadio Teodoro Mariscal "home," the Mazatlan Venados will be moving into a new home in the next few years.

The Venados have played 54 seasons at Teodoro Mariscal (pictured) since it opened in 1962, during which they've won nine Mexican Pacific League pennants and hosted five Caribbean Series tournaments (winning the CS crown at home in 2005).  The 15,000-seat facility is now lagging behind other new or renovated Mexican Pacific League stadiums in amenities and modern conveniences, however.  Having attended a pair of games in Mazatlan in 2010, this writer's impression was that while Teodoro Mariscal was a functional ballpark reasonably maintained by the Venados under then-GM Jesus "Chino" Valdez (a gracious host now working as the Pittsburgh Pirates' scouting director in Mexico), it was showing some wear and a bit spartan compared to the new breed of minor league ballparks that are as much about revenue as baseball.

There has been much debate in recent years among Mazeltecos whether the long-term solution was either a major Marsical renovation or a new ballpark altogether, but the question appeared settled last week after Mazatlan mayor Carlos Felton Gonzalez announced a new stadium will be built.  Guadalajara's El Informador newspaper quotes Felton Gonzalez as saying, "There is much interest among the federal, state and probably municipal governments and the Toledo family (Venados owners) and CONADE (Mexico's national sports commission)."

According to the mayor, the ballpark would cost 380 to 400 million pesos, or approximately US$20-21 million at current exchange rates. He did not give capacity figures.  The facility would be built near Mazatlan's Multipurpose Center in the La Marina area north of the city's Zona Dorado tourist area, causing concern among some Mazeltecos regarding its lack of proximity to most year-round residents in comparison to the more centrally-located Teodoro Mariscal.

The Mazatlan Messenger website says the first stone will be laid before the end of 2016.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Canizales talks LMP expansion, rules changes

In the afterglow of watching one of his teams win the Caribbean Series for the fourth time in six winters after setting box office records during the regular season, Mexican Pacific League president Omar Canizales shared his thoughts with ESPN Deportes about possible expansion of the eight-team circuit into the nation's capital and changes in the system used to determine the loop's six playoff teams.

Saying there's no timeline, Canizales admitted that the LMP has already looked at placing a team in Leon while he dreams of a MexPac franchise in Mexico City. "The Liga Pacifico is deeply rooted in the culture of the people of the north," Canizales told ESPN. "We have the challenge of crossing that border.  There are plans to expand to Leon and the dream is to have a team in Mexico City, although that hasn't been talked about."

Leon is a city of more than 1.5 million residents in the central Mexican state of Guanajuato that has had Mexican League teams in the past, most recently in 1991. Leon's ballpark, Estadio Domingo Santana (pictured), underwent renovations in 2014 that included work on the playing surface and in some areas within the existing structure, but the seating capacity remains at 3,000, far too small for a league that averaged nearly 10,000 fans per opening this winter.  Longtime Mexican baseball coach and scout Carlos Fragoso, who has recommended players to both the Red Sox and Yankees, says that while Leon is an open market at present, the LMB has "reserved" it as a possible franchise site should one of its 16 teams seek to move from its current locale in the future.

It would not be any easier to establish a team in the Distrito Federal, where the Mexican League Diablos Rojos have created a virtual baseball hegemony, making it tough for competitors to gain a foothold.  The Diablos could be considered the Liga's flagship franchise, given their location, history of success, the deep pockets of owner Alfredo Harp Helu and the insider power of team president Roberto Mansur.  In addition, Mexico City's best-suited facility for the sport, Estadio Fray Nano, holds only 5,200 onlookers and is controlled by the Red Devils while a new 13,000-seat ballpark is in the works.

Canizales also touched on the end to the MexPac's regular season in December, in which the Jalisco Charros were in the position of qualifying for the playoffs if they LOST their last game.  "It's necessary to improve the system of competition, although there've only been three times when a team has reached the final game needing to lose to advance to the playoffs," he said.  "Maybe a playoff game between the teams involved would provide a solution."

Friday, February 12, 2016

Piratas open training camp, Campos back for 22nd season

One of the things that makes Mexican pro baseball unique is that there's no such thing as an offseason, a Heaven on Earth for hardcore fans.  The Mexican League's Campeche Piratas opening their 2016 training camp Wednesday, just three days after the Mexican Pacific League champion Mazatlan Venados clinched the Caribbean Series title.  Is there a better place in the world to be a baseball fan than Mexico?

Twenty-two players, including twelve pitchers, turned out for the first day of camp at Parque Nelson Barrera in Campeche.  Piratas coach Roque Sanchez will be overseeing the team until manager Lino Connell arrives later this month.  Team president Jorge Carlos Hurtado Montero was also on hand along with GM Gabriel Lozano and physiotherapist Nicolas Gongora.

Gongora is a kinesiologist who has experience working with high-performance athletes in the USA and was initially hired by the Piratas over the winter to spend time with ageless pitcher Francisco Campos, who was one of the 22 players on the field Wednesday.  Gongora apparently impressed team management enough to have a larger role given to him for the coming season.  "We must leave behind the concept that baseball players are not athletes," Hurtado said. "This spring we'll have some innovations and that's why we decided to start with Nicolas Gongora, who will work with you on an individual basis, through science applied to sport, improving your athletic performance."   Gongora then told the assembled players and coaches, "Today you win the Liga."

Time will tell with the Piratas, who finished fourth in the LMB South last summer with a 53-56 record before knocking out fifth-place Puebla in a Wildcard game and stretching Yucatan to seven games in the first round of playoffs.  The 43-year-old Campos suffered through a 6-10 season with a 5.64 ERA as the man known as Pancho Ponches (liberally translates to "Mister Strikeout") recorded just 54 K's over 95.2 innings.

However, his sixth-inning punchout of Oaxaca's Yancarlo Angulo last July 9 made the Sonora native just the fifth pitcher in the LMB's 91-year history to record 2,000 career strikeouts, trailing only Jesus "Chito" Rios (2,549), Ramon Arano (2,380), Angel Moreno (2,255) and Mercedes Esquer (2,053).  Campos, who enters 2016 with 184 career LMB wins and 2,014 strikeouts, was quoted afterward in Excelsior as saying, "It's an honor to be with other pitchers who were legends to me, who were role models and who were my idols.  Now I hope to reach fourth place in strikeouts and 200 wins."

Except for stints in the Brewers and White Sox organizations between 2002 and 2004, the converted catcher has spent his entire 21-year career with Campeche.  His future selection to the Salon de la Fama is assured...if Campos ever stops pitching.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

New ballpark on drawing board in Los Mochis

The modernization of Mexican Pacific League ballparks has seen an overall upgrade or outright replacing of stadiums in most of the LMP's eight cities, and Los Mochis may be the next site for a new facility.

According to El Debate, Caneros team president Joaquin Vega, the team is currently lining up financial support for a ballpark to be built atop the parking lot adjacent to Estadio Emilio Ibarra Almada, the home of the MexPac club since the team was formed in 1947.  Emilio Ibarra held 3,000 fans when first opened but subsequent expansions have brought its current capacity to 10,840.  The stadium was badly damaged by Hurricane Paul in 1982, causing the Caneros to play day games only the following winter due to lack of floodlights.  It has seen occasional upgrades over the years but they have not been enough to keep pace with the other LMP facilities.

Vega admits that nothing has been officially authorized, but that the Caneros hope to emulate Culiacan, where the new 20,000-seat Estadio BBVA Bancomer was built next to Estadio General Angel Flores, which was built in 1948 and served the Tomateros from their inception in 1965 until January of last year, when it was razed after Culiacan's LMP finals victory.

Caneros team officials held a meeting with potential investors earlier this week in Mexico City, but it may be a hard task to line up enough private money to build the ballpark because money is already tight in the country while the peso closed Tuesday trading at $18.81 per U.S. dollar, its lowest value in years.

The upgrading of MexPac facilities began with the overhaul of Mexicali's ballpark in 2007, followed by a new stadium in Hermosillo in 2013, a move by the Guasave Algodoneros to Guadalajara's three-year-old stadium in 2014 and Culiacan's new ballpark, which opened last year. In addition, a 16,000-seater is being built in Obregon and plans are being made for a new yard in Navojoa, leaving Mazatlan as the only LMP city with no plans to replace or renovate its longtime ballpark, 54-year-old Estadio Teodoro Mariscal.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Caribbean Series post-tourney talk includes attendance, future of event

The conclusion of this winter's Caribbean Series in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic is being followed by concerns regarding declining attendance at the event.  No figures have been released for last week's seven-day tournament, although photographs taken at Estadio Quisqueya have shown swaths of empty seats at the 14,469-seat ballpark during games not involving the host Escogido Leones, who failed to win a game in four tries.

Such talk about attendance woes at the Serie del Caribe is not new, although Mexico has bucked the trend by drawing large crowds when they host the event every four years.  Next February's Caribbean Series will be in Culiacan, where the Tomateros drew 16,000 fans per game to their new 20,000-seat ballpark.  The other three countries hosting the CS on a rotating basis, however, have been another story.

La Opinion's Raul Breton reports Caribbean Baseball Confederation president Juan Francisco Puello Herrera says that ticket sales this year were better than for previous Februarys, and that while "the low attendance probably gives a bad perception to fans, the fact that they don't see much attendance in the stadium doesn't mean there haven't been good receipts at the ticket office."

Puello Herrera discounted speculation that the Caribbean Series might be shopped around to markets outside the four current host nations, including the United States.  "It's not in the immediate plans of the Confederation to bring the Caribbean Series to the U.S.  What we plan is to look at the possibility of some of our leagues that have a greater economic capacity and presence organizing the event more often."  The CS was held in Miami in 1990 at the Orange Bowl and 1991 at Bobby Maduro Stadium, both since demolished.  Puello Herrera expressed interest in returning to Miami and playing at Marlins Park in the recent past, quoted on as saying, "I think that, with a centrally located ballpark like they have, if we promote it right, things could go better over there."

Cuba returned to the Caribbean Series on a conditional basis in 2014 after an absence of more than five decades and an offer to Panama, which sent teams to the earliest tournaments, to rejoin the Confederation has been discussed.  Puello Herrera downplayed both notions.  "They're discussing the possible economic aspects of a Panama entry as well as scheduling for a six-team tournament if Cuba stays."  Cuba's status, he added, depends on relations with Cuba's Office of Foreign Assets Control as well as the nation's evolving relationship with the United States.

Puello Herrera spoke before it was learned that Cuban star brothers Yulieski and Lourdes Gourriel left the team after their semifinal loss to Mexico Saturday, something that might cause baseball or government officials on the island nation to reconsider their commitment to the Caribbean Series in the future.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Five Venados named to CS Dream Team, Bentacourt bypassed

Five members of the Mezatlan Venados, including manager Juan Jose Pacho (pictured), have been named to the 2016 Caribbean Series "Dream Team" following the MexPac champions' six-game sweep of the 58th edition of Latin baseball's annual showcase.

Pacho was named skipper of the Dream Team, which also included Mazatlan outfielder Justin Greene, catcher Sebastian Valle and pitchers Hector Daniel Rodriguez and Steven Hensley.  Here's the list of all selections:

LHP - Hector Daniel Rodriguez (MEX)
RHP - Freddy Garcia (VEN)
  RP - Steven Hensley (MEX)
    C - Sebastian Valle MEX)
  1B - Neftali Soto (PR)
  2B - Yulieski Gourriel (CUBA)
  3B - Adonis Garcia (VEN)
  SS - Juniel Querecuto (VEN)
  LF - Jose A. Martinez (VEN)
  CF - Justin Greene (MEX)
  RF - Alex Romero (VEN)
MGR-Juan Jose Pacho (MEX)

Rodriguez won both his starts for the Venados (most in the CS) and had a 2.45 ERA, Hensley had a CS-best two saves over four scoreless appearances, Valle hit .455 with 7 RBI's in three games, Greene batted .360 with three steals (most in the tournament) and Pacho won his second Serie del Caribe for the Venados.

Venezuela's Aruagua Tigres, who the Venados beat twice, also placed five members on the all-tournament squad, Santurce of Puerto Rico got first baseman Neftali Soto on the list and Cuban second baseman Yulieski Gourriel (who defected with brother Lourdes Jr. after the tournament) was also accorded Dream Team honors.  Aragua outfielder Jose "Cafecito" Martinez (son of the late Carlos "Cafe" Martinez, a seven-year MLB infielder) was named MVP of the tournament after leading all batters with 12 hits, 7 runs and a .480 average.

One curious Dream Team omission was Mazatlan infielder Yuniesky Betancourt, who was edged out as the all-tourney shortstop by Aragua's Juniel Querecuto.  Betancourt hit .438 and led all hitters with a .526 on-base percentage, eight RBI's and three doubles, scoring six times in the bargain.  For his part, Querecuto hit .259 with seven hits (four in one game against Cuba), scored twice and drove in one run, going 1-for-8 in two games against Mazatlan.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Vazquez hits walkoff HR, Venados win Caribbean Series title

Jorge Vazquez (pictured) belted a Renee Cortez pitch for a walkoff homer in the bottom of the ninth inning to hand the Mazatlan Venados a 5-4 win over Venezuela's Aragua Tigres in Sunday's title game at the 2016 Caribbean Series in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.  The roundtripper completed a Mazatlan comeback after the Tigres took a 4-2 lead in the top of the seventh inning as the Venados won their second CS title, giving Mexico its fourth crown at Latin America's baseball showcase since 2011.

Aragua's Freddy Garcia and Mazatlan's Eddie Gamboa hooked up in a low-scoring duel at the game's start, with the former Mariners All-Star allowing two Venados runs into the sixth inning and Gamboa likewise giving up a pair of Tigres runs before running into trouble in the seventh.

Mazatlan got on the board in the third when Esteban Quiroz scored from second on Chris Roberson's single to left and then Roberson, who moved to third on a Jeremias Pineda bunt, came in when Garcia let go with a wild pitch to Justin Greene.  The Venezuelans knotted it up at 2-2 in the top of the sixth when Jose Martinez' leadoff single to center was followed by a Hernan Perez line-drive homer to left off Gamboa.

Gamboa's troubles really got started in the seventh when he began by striking out Martinez, who was able to reach first when strike three fooled Mazatlan catcher Sebastian Valle.  Perez then singled up the middle, both runners advanced on Sandy Leon's bunt and Jose Martinez strolled in from third on Teodoro Martinez' single to right, giving Aragua a 3-2 lead.  Perez tried coming in from second on the play but Pineda's throw from right nailed him at the plate for the inning's second out while Leon scooted to second.  At that point, Jovany Lopez relieved Gamboa and promptly walked Juniel Querecuto on five pitches, loading the hassocks.  That brought up Alex Romero, whose flyout to Greene in center was enough to bring Perez in from third and increase the Tigres' lead to two.

It was Aragua's turn to be snakebitten in the bottom of the seventh when, with two out, Gumercindo Gonzalez gave up a single to right by Yuniesky Betancourt.  No great harm done, but Gonzalez was then replaced by Arcenio Leon to pitch to Esteban Quiroz.  Quiroz tapped a comebacker to Leon, who made a throw to first for the third out that was missed by Felix Perez, allowing Betancourt and Quiroz to motor to third and second, respectively.  At that point, Jesus Sanchez was brought in for Perez to get the final out but instead gave up a two-run single to Valle, scoring both Betancourt and Quiroz to bring the score to 4-4.
Jeremias Pineda was eventually retired on a 6-3 groundout off a pitch from Jose Miljares, the fourth Tigres pitcher of the inning.

After neither team scored in the eighth and Steven Hensley got the Tigres' third out in the top of the ninth, Vazquez (a Venados postseason reinforcement from Culiacan) led things off for Mazatlan in the bottom of the frame.  After working the count to 2-0, the 33-year-old former Yankees minor leaguer redirected a Cortez delivery over the wall in left-center for the walkoff win.

Garcia finished with 5.1 innings, allowing two runs on four hits and striking out three for the Tigres.  Gamboa tossed 6.1 frames and let in four runs (two unearned) on eight hits, including Perez' homer.  The Venezuelans actually outhit Mazatlan by a 12-7 margin as Vazquez and Roberson each posted two hits on the day.  Hensley earned the win after pitching to just one batter while Cortez was tagged with the loss under partly cloudy skies and a game time temperature of 81 degrees.

The win marks the second for the Venados under manager Juan Jose Pacho, who also led Mazatlan to the CS crown in 2005 at home.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Rodriguez, Betancourt power Venados to CS final vs. Venezuelan champs

Hector Daniel Rodriguez (pictured) pitched six innings of four-hit shutout ball and Yuniesky Betancourt had three hits, driving in four runs and scoring another to lead the Mexican Pacific League champion Mazatlan Venados to a 7-2 win over Cuba's Ciego de Avila Tigres in Saturday evening's semifinal in Santo Domingo to reach the 2016 Caribbean Series title game Sunday at 3PM Eastern against Aragua of Venezuela.

Rodriguez needed to be sharp as Tigres starter Vladimir Banos matched him over the first three innings, allowing two hits and no walks while retiring nine of the first eleven Mazatlan batters he faced.  Then came the fourth inning, in which the Venados pushed three runs across the plate to break the deadlock.  Banos gave up a leadoff double to Alex Liddi, then walked Cyle Hankerd and Jorge Vazquez to load the bases with nobody out.  Betancourt then punched a single to left to bring in Liddi from third with the game's first run, enough for Ciego de Avila manager Roger Machado to yank Banos and bring in Livan Moinelo from the bullpen.

That strategy backfired when Moinelo walked Esteban Quiroz on four straight pitches, forcing Hankerd in with Mazatlan's second run.  Yander Guevara replaced Moinelo and got Erick Rodriguez to ground into a 4-6-3 double play as Vazquez lumbered in from third to stake the Venados to a 3-0 lead.

Mazatlan scored once more in the bottom of the sixth as Vazquez and Betancourt singled to lead things off.  After Vazquez was forced out at third on a Quiroz bunt, Rodriguez drove in Betancourt from second by singling to left, making it a 4-0 game.

Terance Marin took over for Rodriguez in the top of the seventh after the latter issued a leadoff walk to Yoelvis Fiss.  Guillermo Avilles cracked a liner that was deflected by Marin's glove to short, where Betancourt was unable to make a play as Fiss moved to second and Avilles crossed first.  Osvaldo Vazquez then lined a single to left that brought Fiss to bring the Cubans to within two runs.

The Mexicans blew the game open in the bottom of the seventh.  After Chris Roberson led off with a double, Ciego de Avila reliever Yalfredo Dominguez intentionally walked Hankerd to fill the open sack at first and pitch to Vazquez, another strategy backfire when Dominguez hit Vazquez on an 0-2 pitch to load the bases for Betancourt, who smoked the first pitch he saw for a three-run double to center to give the Venados a 7-1 advantage.

The Tigres got one run back in the eighth when Alfredo Despaigne doubled Yulieski Gourriel in from first and after Esmailin Caridad walked both Lourdes Gourriel Jr. and Avilles to load the bases with two out, Jake Sanchez replaced Caridad on the hill for the Venados and struck out Vazquez on four pitches to end the inning and the Cuban threat.  Steven Hensley then pitched the ninth and, after walking Yulieski Gourriel and walking Despaigne with two out, battled Ariel Borroto for eight pitches before getting a swinging strikeout to end the game and clinch a spot in Sunday's title game.

Rodriguez earned his second win of the Caribbean Series for Mazatlan while Banos fell to 0-2 in the CS-ending loss for the Tigres.  Eddie Gamboa, who threw five decent innings in the Venados' Game Two win over Ciego de Avila Tuesday, is the scheduled starter for Sunday's championship game against Aragua.  The Venezuelan club dominated Puerto Rico's Santurce Crabbers, 13-3, in Saturday's earlier semifinal as the Tigres' Jose Martinez singled twice, tripled, homered and drove in four for Aragua.  Former MLB All-Star Freddy Garcia is the likely starter for manager Eddie Perez' Venezuelan League champs.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Venados end CS first round at 4-0; to play Cubans in semis

Leadoff batter Jeremias Pineda (pictured) had a productive day at the plate, including one of four consecutive doubles during a six-run eighth inning, to pace the Mazatlan Venados' 8-4 win over Puerto Rico's Santurce Cangrejeros Friday as both sides wrapped up their first-round schedules.  With the win, Mazatlan finished the opening round-robin at 4-0 to earn the top seed at Saturday's semifinals in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.

After the teams opened play by trading zeroes for two innings, Paul Leon put the Mexican Pacific League pennant-winners on the scoreboard in the top of the third when his grounder drew an errant throw into right field from Santurce third baseman T.J. Rivera (allowing Leon to take second), advanced to third on Ramon Urias' ground out to second and came in on a two-out Pineda line-drive single up the middle off Cangrejeros starter Hiram Burgos.

Venados starter Arturo Lopez fairly sailed through the first three frames before his defense pulled an epic fail in the fourth, allowing the Crabbers to take a 2-1 lead.  After Kennys Vargas flew out to lead off the frame, Leon mishandled a Rivera grounder to short for a error.  Henry Ramos then hit another grounder that Leon fielded cleanly and flipped to second sacker Ramon Urias to start a double play, only to have Urias miss the ball on the pivot.  Instead of the inning being over, Lopez served up a Danny Ortiz single to center that brought Rivera in with the tying run.

Then, as Lopez pitched to Joe Lozada, Santurce attempted a double-steal, drawing a throw from Mazatlan catcher Sebastian Valle that sailed high above second base into center field, allowing Ramos to pause briefly at third before lighting out for home and sliding in ahead of Justin Greene's throw to Valle for the go-ahead tally. Neither Puerto Rican run was earned but no further damage was done.

The two sides swapped two more scoreless frames before the Venados knotted the score in the top of the seventh when Pineda lined a two-out triple past Santurce centerfielder Ramos, then came in on Greene's bunt single down the third-base line to make it a 2-2 game.  Greene then took second with his third stolen base of the CS, but Alex Liddi popped out to first baseman Neftali Soto in foul territory to end the inning.

After Jesus Barraza blanked the Cangrejeros in the bottom of the seventh, Mazatlan kicked open the flood gates by sending ten batters to the plate en route to six runs on as many hits.  The frame was highlighted by consecutive doubles from Cyle Hankerd, Urias, Pineda and Greene, with Hankerd's and Urias' two-baggers driving in two runs apiece.

Bolstered by the 8-2 lead handed over to them, Barraza and three other relievers combined to hold Santurce to one run in the eighth and one more in the ninth, a drop-off from the Mazatlan bullpen's three previous outings but good enough for Barraza to be awarded the win while wrapping up the Venados' fourth straight triumph in Santo Domingo this week.

Pineda, Greene and DH Javier Vazquez each had three of Mazatlan's 15 hits, with Pineda (who'd gone 0-for-8 before Friday's game) scoring twice and driving in two runs while Greene batted in two more.  Although he wasn't the pitcher of record, Lopez gave manager Juan Jose Pacho six strong innings, allowing no earned runs on five hits, striking out seven and walking none.  Efrain Nieves bore the brunt of Mazatlan's eighth-inning outburst, allowing all six runs in two-thirds of the frame for the loss.

The win clinches the top seed for the 4-0 Venados in Saturday's semifinal, one game better than Venezuela's Aragua Tigres at 3-3 and two up on Santurce's 3-3 mark.  Ciego de Avila needed eleven innings to nudge host Escogido, 4-2 Friday night, giving the Cubans a 1-3 first round record and the final berth in the semis while the Dominicans finished 0-4.  Aragua plays Santurce at 3:00PM ET in Saturday's first game while Mazatlan meets Ciego de Avila in the 7:50PM nightcap.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Bullpen, Hensley key to Mazatlan's CS success

While the Mazatlan Venados have certainly had their share of offensive heroes after three wins in as many games at the Caribbean Series in the Dominican Republic, the greatest share of credit for the success of the Mexican Pacific League champions this week may go to the team's relatively anonymous bullpen.

It's pretty hard to ignore how Sebastian Valle has the CS lead with five RBI's after whacking two doubles in Tuesday's 9-3 trouncing of Cuban champs Ciego de Avila, going 2-for-4 in the only game he's played; Esteban Quiroz (.444), Cyle Hankerd (.400) and Justin Greene (.385) are all among the tournament's top ten batters with Yuniesky Betancourt (.333) and Chris Roberson (.308) also faring well at the plate.  The Venados are second among the five CS teams with a .260 average.

Mazatlan's three starting pitchers thus far (Hector Rodriguez, Eddie Gamboa and Alejandro Soto) have all had fair showings, combining for a 3.91 ERA over 16.1 innings, but the Venados bullpen has been almost lights-out. Steven Hensley, who finished the regular season with 22 saves, one behind Los Mochis' record-tying closer Andres Avila, leads the CS with two saves after two scoreless outings.  Hensley is only part of the story, however.

Venados manager Juan Jose Pacho brought 14 pitchers to the Dominican Republic and he has not been afraid to use them.  After bringing in three relievers in Monday's win over host Escogido, Pacho called in five men from the bullpen Tuesday against Ciego de Avila before waving in seven during Wednesday's win against Venezuelan pennant-winners Aragua.  The result among the ten men who've trotted in from the pen is an ERA of 1.69, with Jake Sanchez' two-run eighth Wednesday against Aragua the only hiccup over 10.2 innings in 15 combined appearances from non-starters.  Arturo Barradas has a CS-best two holds in two hitless times on the mound, Esmailin Caridad has only allowed one walk in two trips and Terance Marin (a starter before Mazatlan added him as a reinforcement) pitched two shutout innings with three strikeouts against the Dominicans in Monday's opener.

After Thursday's bye, the Venados will close out the round-robin first stage Friday at 2:30PM Eastern against Puerto Rico's storied Santurce Cangrejeros.  Regardless of Friday's outcome, Mazatlan's three wins have already punched their ticket to Saturday's semifinals.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Venados hold off Aragua, go to 3-0 at Serie del Caribe

Yuniesky Betancourt bopped a two-run double and later scored to key a three-run fourth inning as the Mezatlan Venados went on to beat Venezuela's Aragua Tigres in Santo Domingo Wednesday to go to 3-and-0 at the 2016 Caribbean Series, clinching a berth in Saturday's semifinals while take sole ownership of first place in the opening round robin.

Aruagua took a 1-0 lead in the top of the third when Oscar Salazar opened with a single off Mazatlan starter Alejandro Soto, moved to second after Soto uncorked a wild pitch to Juniel Querecuto and came in to score on Adonis Garcia's single to center field.  

Alex Liddi socked a leadoff triple in the bottom of the fourth and Jorge Vaquez was plunked by a Omar Bencomo pitch to bring up Bentacourt with one out.  The former Mariners shortstop grounded Bencomo's into left field for a double, scoring Liddi and Vazquez to give Mazatlan the lead, then (after Esteban Quiroz struck out) came across with a tally on Erick Rodriquez' single to left to make it a 3-1 contest.

The Venezuelans cut their deficit to one in the top of the sixth when Hernan Perez' ground ball up the middle made it into center field to bring in Dariel Alvarez from third, but Mazatlan put two more on the board in the bottom of the frame after Quiroz's one-out double scored Cyle Hankerd all the way from first, followed by Quiroz motoring in to score when Rodriguez topped a grounder to third base and Garcia threw the ball beyond the glove of Salazar at first, bringing the Venados lead to 5-2.

Mazatlan added one more run in the seventh when Hankerd lined a 3-and-2 Jesus Sanchez pitch into center to score Justin Greene from third.  The Tigres scored twice in the eighth as Jose Martinez scored from third when a Jake Sanchez pitch to Salazar got away from catcher Rodriguez for one run and Sandy Leon's single up the middle with two out allowed Hernan Perez, who was running on the pitch, to score from second.  That was as close as Aragua would get, however, as Steven Hensley picked up his second save of the CS with a scoreless ninth despite giving up a single and a walk.

Soto got the win despite a mediocre start in which he gave up two runs on six hits in 5.2 innings as the Venezuelans outhit the Mexican Pacific League champs by a 15-12 margin.  Bencomo was tagged with the loss after getting rocked for three runs on six hits in 3.2 frames.  Greene had three singles for the Venados while Hankerd, Rodriguez and Quiroz each had two safeties (with Quiroz collecting a pair of doubles). Garcia, Alvarez and Martinez all had three singles as Aragua failed to get an extra-base hit in the game.

The Venados will rest Thursday before wrapping up the first round Friday at 2:30PM Eastern time against the legendary Santurce Cangrejeros, winners of 14 Puerto Rican championships and five Caribbean Series titles who once had Roberto Clemente and Willie Mays playing side-by-side in the outfield in the early Fifties.  Mazatlan's win Wednesday gives manager Juan Jose Pacho's squad sole possession of first place as the CS' sole unbeaten team, and even a loss Friday to the Crabbers won't keep them out of Saturday's semis.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Bullpen, bottom of order pace Mazatlan win over Cubans at Caribbean Series

Mazatlan's bullpen and the bottom four hitters in their batting order came through in Tuesday's 9-3 win over Cuban champion Ciego de Avila at the Caribbean Series in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.  The win gives the Venados a 2-0 record in the four-game, round-robin stage of the annual showcase of Latin winter baseball.

The Venados drew first blood in the bottom of the second inning when Sebastian Valle (pictured) lined a bases-loaded double to center off Ciego de Avila starter Yoanni Yera that brought in all three runners to give the Venados a 3-0 advantage.  Mazatlan then plated single runs in the third on a Cyle Hankerd solo homer to left and in the fourth on a Ramon Urias RBI single to make it a commanding 5-0 lead.

Gamboa actually pitched decently through five innings, holding the Tigres scoreless despite having to pitch out of a jam in the fifth, but the wheels came off his wagon in the top of the sixth after he gave up a leadoff double to Yulieski Gourriel and, two outs later, four consecutive singles by Ariel Borrero, Jose Adolis Peres, Yorbis Borroto and Lourdes Gourriel, Junior that resulted in three runs for the Cubans.  That was enough to cause Venados skipper to bring his hook to the mound and replace Gamboa with Jovany Lopez, who retired Yoelvis Fiss on a swinging strikeout with runners on second and third.

Yuniesky Betancourt brought Mazatlan's lead to 6-3 in the bottom of the sixth by coming in from third on a bases-loaded walk to Jeremias Pineda, and the Venados put the contest in their hip pocket with three more scores in a seventh that saw Betancourt whack a run-scoring double and Valle bopping a two-bagger of his own that brought in two more runs.  Roberto Espinosa struck out Cuban stalwarts Yulieski Gourriel and Alfredo Despaigne in the top of the ninth to close out the win.

Espinosa was one of four Mazatlan relievers to combine for 3.1 innings of two-hit shutout pitching after Gamboa tossed 5.2 frames and let in three runs on eight hits to earn the win.  The bottom four batters in the Venados order combined to go 7-for-11 with six runs and seven RBI's, with Betancourt and Esteban Quiroz each scoring three times and Valle driving in five runs with his two doubles.

Mazatlan will face the Venezuelan champion Aragua Tigres at 2:30PM Eastern time Wednesday and get an off day Thursday before closing out the first round Friday against Puerto Rico's Santurce Cangrejeros. 

Monday, February 1, 2016

Opportunistic Greene, Venados beat Dominicans, 3-2, in Caribbean Series opener

Mazatlan centerfielder Justin Greene (pictured) singled and scored twice, including the eventual game-winner, as the Venados opened their schedule at the 2016 Caribbean Series with a 3-2 win over Dominican champion Escogido Monday in Santo Domingo.  The game was hard-fought throughout with strong pitching on both sides, but it was defensive miscues by the host Leones that held the door open for the Venados win.

Mazatlan took a 1-0 lead in the top of the second when Cyle Hankerd stroked a leadoff single up the middle, moved to second on Yuniesky Betacourt walk, advanced to third on Olmo Rosario's fielder's choice grounder to shortstop (with Betancourt getting forced at second) and came in to score when Esteban Quiroz' tapper back to the mound drew a throwing error from Escogido pitcher Greg Reynolds.

The Venados added a run in the third after Greene punched a one-out grounder that eluded Leones shortstop Pedro Lopez for an infield single.  The former Chisox and Arizona farmhand then streaked to third when Chris Roberson's soft liner landed safely in right field for a single.  After Hankerd walked to fill the bases, Betancourt hit a grounder to Leones third baseman Pedro Ciriaco, who had to settle for throwing to second to force Hankerd after having no play to make against Greene, who'd streaked across home plate to make it a 2-0 game.

Escogido came back with a pair of runs against Mazatlan starter Hector Rodriguez in the bottom of the third inning when Leury Garcia lined a ball to right center field that eluded both Greene in center and Jeremias Pineda in right for a two-run, inside-the-park homer to tied the score up.

Another boo-boo by the Leones defense led to Mazatlan's winning run in the top of the fifth. Greene and Roberson led off the frame with back-to-back singles off Reynolds, who was then pulled in favor of Edgar Garcia.  Betancourt then hit a double-play grounder to Lopez at short, who made the toss to Garcia at second to force Roberson but Garcia then threw the ball past first baseman Diory Hernandez, allowing Greene to cover ground and scamper home for the Venados' third and final run of the game.

It was then left to the Mazatlan bullpen to hold the Leones at bay the rest of the night, with closer Steven Hensley getting pinch-hitter Jimmy Paredes to hit a grounder to Hankerd at first for the final out of the night, earning Hensley the save and the Venados the win.  Rodriguez allowed two runs on Garcia's homer over five innings, striking out five for the win, while Terance Marin contributed two no-hit innings in relief for Mazatlan.  Reynonlds suffered the loss for Escogido and was carged with all three Venados runs over four-pus innings.  Greene and Roberson each had two hits for Mazatlan while rightfielder Zoilo Almonte went 2-for-4 for the Leones, who went 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position.

In Monday's other Caribbean Series opener, Venzuela's Aragua Tigres held off Santurce of Puerto Rico, 2-1, as Jose Martinez' second-inning triple scored Felix Perez and Dariel Alvarez to back up Freddy Garcia's six innings of one-run pitching.

The Venados will be back Tuesday at 2:30PM Eastern time when they take on Ciego de Avila, the defending Cuban National Series champion who currently hold the best record in the 16-team circuit.