Monday, June 27, 2016

Monterrey opens LMB North lead; Puebla-Yucatan duel continues in South

Although they've dropped their last two games while rival Monclova has won three straight, the Monterrey Sultanes ended the weekend with a five-game lead over the Acereros in the Mexican League's North Division standings.

The Sultanes had won 13 of their first 15 games in June heading into a weekend series at Veracruz, where the home Rojos Aguilas have strugged all year and had just hired their third manager of 2016 last week.  Monterrey won the opener, 6-5, to raise their season record to 47-22 after opening June with a 33-20 mark, but then dropped the final two games of the set to fall to 47-24 and a five-game bulge over the second-place Acereros, who had held a comfortable lead in the LMB North before leveling off at the same time the Sultanes caught fire.

For their part, Monclova had mixed results on their six-game road trip last week, losing all three games at Puebla to the LMB South-leading Pericos before going into struggling Oaxaca and winning all three contests over the host Guerreros to bring their season ledger up to 42-29.  While Monterrey has gone 14-4 thus far this month, the Acereros have struggled to an 8-10 record, including a five-game losing skid.

The LMB South has been a two-team dogfight for weeks, and last week's results only underscored that fact.  Puebla has been strong all season, leading the South since the first few games of the season, and they've built a six-game winning skein by sweeping home series with both Monclova and Laguna between the 21st and 26th.  Travis Blackley won games on both those dates, including a 5-2 win over the Vaqueros and venerable 39-year-old righty Walter Silva, who was making the 2001st appearance of his 11-year Liga career.  Blackley's two wins brought his season record to 6-4 while Silva fell to 1-3 as the Pericos maintained their division lead with a 49-22 mark, best in the league.

So how did Yucatan do while Puebla was reeling off six straight victories?  The Leones swept a pair of three-game series to extend their own unbeaten string to seven games in a row.  Yucatan first traveled to Aguascalientes and scored 37 runs en route to three straight wins over the Rieleros and then spent three nights in Saltillo, where they put another 23 runs on the board during their sweep over the Saraperos as Yucatan's record rose to 48-23, one game behind the Pericos.

The two division leaders will start this week facing each other in a three-game series as Monterrey hosts Puebla in a vital matchup for both sides.  Monclova will be at home Tuesday to open a set with Tabasco while Yucatan welcomes Mexico City to Merida's Parque Kukulcan for a trio of games.

Lowey beats Oaxaca for 12th win, chasing pitching Triple Crown

Entering the Mexican League's 2016 season, Monclova pitcher Josh Lowey had one tough act to follow: His own 2015 campaign.  Even with that burden, the 31-year-old Floridian has been outdoing himself this year.

Let's hit the rewind button and go back in time.  Lowey was coming off a fair 2014 debut south of the border when he went 7-5 with a 4.11 ERA for the Acereros after kicking around for all or part of seven seasons pitching for independent teams (going 40-12 in three different leagues between 2011 and 2013).  The 5'11" righty really came into his own in 2015, earning Pitcher of the Year honors after a 13-6 season
in which he tied Mexico City's Marco Duarte for the Liga high with 13 wins, finished second with 145 strikeouts and was fourth in ERA at 3.03 as Monclova went on in the postseason to advance to the Serie del Rey finals against eventual LMB champion Quintana Roo.  How do you improve on a year like that?

If you're Josh Lowey, you start out your next season by winning 12 of your first 15 starts out the gate (including an 8-0 shared shutout at Monclova last Saturday) to lead the league in victories, topping the circuit with 123 strikeouts in 97.2 innings, registering an 0.92 WHIP that tops the charts and turning in an ERA of 1.66 that would lead the LMB under the age-old standard qualifier of innings pitched equaling the number of games played by a team.  The Liga still lists Tijuana's Hector Ambriz as the current ERA leader at 1.23 in 9 starts even though Ambriz hasn't pitched an inning in over five weeks and his 58.2 innings fall short of the 71 games the Toros have played.

It wouldn't be the first time a league has played fast and loose with tradition and/or its own rules to achieve a desired result, but Lowey is on his way to pitching's Triple Crown in the Mexican League and a second straight POY award.  Somehow, with a severe pitching shortage north of the border that has led to mound performances that would be shamed by a batting tee, not one MLB organization has ever signed Josh Lowey to even a minor league contract.  Maybe it really IS who you know...

Among batters, Puebla catcher Cesar Tapia still leads the LMB with a .374 average, Quintana Roo third baseman Alex Liddi has taken the lead in homers with 18, Aguascalientes shortstop Diory Hernandez continues to head the RBI list with 75 and Saltillo outfielder Justin Greene's 22 stolen bases is best in the loop.  Monclova closer Arcenio Leon is best among all closers with 25 saves.

Edgar Gonzalez resigns as Mexicali skipper, focusing on Mexico WBC team

After receiving Manager of the Year accolades for leading the Mexicali Aguilas to a 38-29 record, the top playoff seed and a finals berth in the Mexican Pacific League last winter, Edgar Gonzalez is stepping down as skipper of the border team to concentrate on managing Mexico's national team in next year's World Baseball Classic.

Gonzalez was named the Aguilas' manager September 15, 2015.  He'd retired as a player one year earlier after spending 15 seasons as a pro playing mostly second base and third base in the minors for five MLB organizations, two years with the San Diego Padres and two years in Japan with the Yomiuri Giants.  He also played winterball for five years with the Mazatlan Venados, often alongside younger brother Adrian on the right side of the infield.  His career minor league batting average was .298 and he hit .255 in 193 games for the Padres in 2008 and 2009.

Following the Aguilas season, after which he was named Manager of the Year by both the MexPac and BBM, Gonzalez remained in Mexicali as interim manager for the Mexican Nationals, who posted a 3-0 record in the WBC qualifiers in March, outscoring the Czech Republic, Nicaragua and Germany by an aggregate score of 25-2 to reach the WBC for a fourth straight time.  

Gil Velazquez, a 36-year-old former infielder, has been tabbed to replace Gonzalez at the helm in Mexicali. Velazquez is currently in Midland, Michigan managing the Great Lakes Loons, the Dodgers' Class A Midwest League affiliate.  The Loons finished the first half of the MWL schedule at 29-41 under Velazquez, who is in his first year managing a team after spending 17 seasons as a shortstop before retiring after spending the 2014 season with Yucatan, the only year he played in Mexico.  Velazquez had five short stints in MLB between 2009 and 2013 with Boston, Miami and the Los Angeles Angels, hitting .233 in 33 games. Overall, he batted .249 with 47 homers over his minor league career.