Wednesday, February 8, 2017

CS Championship: Mexicali loses, 1-0, in grandest of finales

One night after knocking Cuba's Granma Alazanes out of Caribbean Series title contention with a 1-0 semifinal win, the Mexican Pacific League flag-bearing Mexicali Aguilas found themselves in one more pitching-dominated battle in Tuesday's CS championship game against Puerto Rico's Caguas Criollos.  The contest lived up to its importance by going into extra innings before the Criollos snuck away with a 1-0 win over the Aguilas to claim their fourth Serie del Caribe title.  An SRO crowd of 20,454 watched the contest at Culiacan's Estadio Tomateros, which was sold out for six of the seven days of play.

The 17-time Puerto Rican pennant winners won previous CS crowns in 1954, 1974 and 1987.  Caguas was a surprise finalist after losing three of four first stage round robin game, only reaching the semis by topping winless Dominican representative Licey on Saturday and then outscoring Zulia of Venezuela, 9-6, Monday to reach the final.  Mexicali was seeking its second Serie del Caribe title and first since 1986 under Francisco Estrada.  The Aguilas' MexPac flag is their fourth.

Caguas (PR) Criollos 1-7-1, MEXICALI (MX) Aguilas 0-4-1 (10)

Unsurprisingly, the title contest quickly became a duel between the two Pitchers of the Year in their respective leagues.  Caguas' Adlaberto Flores stymied the Mexicali lineup through six innings, blanking the Aguilas on one hit and a walk.  Flores was greatly aided by his infielders, with three double plays turned behind him. Likewise, Hector Velazquez (who led the MexPac in wins and strikeouts pitching for Navojoa) kept the Criollos in check for six shutout innings on five hits before giving way to Tyler Alexander in the seventh.  A former Brewers minor leaguer and Florida International alum, Alexander carried the shutout through the seventh and eighth, allowing one hit.

There were a pair of unsuccessful Criollos scoring threats early.  In the top of the first, Caguas had Ivan De Jesus, Jr. on third and David Vidal on second after doubling with one out, but Rusney Castillo grounded out to Jesse Castillo at first and Ruben Gotay popped out to shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt to end the inning. Velazquez had to bear down extra one more time in the top of the fifth when the Puerto Ricans had Jesmuel Valentin at second with one out before Henry Ramos and De Jesus both flew out to Chris Roberson in center for the second and third outs, respectively.

For their part, Mexicali was unable to put a runner into scoring position until the bottom of the seventh, when Roberson led off with a single to left off reliever Andres Santiago, who replaced Flores when the latter retired with an injured hand, and advanced to second on Jason Bourgeois' sacrifice bunt in front of home plate.  That chance faded to dust after Santiago struck out Betancourt on a full-count pitch and whiffed C.J. Retherford on four deliveries.

After Alexander retired the Criollos in order in the top of the eighth, it was the Aguilas' turn to try breaking the deadlock.  LMP batting champion Luis Juarez opened the frame by punching Santiago's first pitch into left field for Mexicali's third hit, followed by a Ronnier Mustelier sacrifice bunt that advanced Juarez into scoring position at second.  Santiago walked Castillo in five pitches, but the former Dodgers and Cubs farmhand fanned pinch-hitter Yordanys Linares swinging for the second out.  Ramon Rios batted next and the Aguilas shortstop hit a grounder to his Caguas counterpart, Yadiel Rivera, who threw to third for the force but Juarez was called safe.  The call was challenged by Caguas skipper Luis Matos and subsequently reversed, with Juarez called out at third to end the inning.

Oliver Perez replaced Alexander on the hill for the Aguilas in the top of the ninth (with Sebastian Valle replacing Xorge Carrillo behind the plate), and the 14-year MLBer got the Puerto Ricans out in order, throwing 11 of 14 pitches for strikes.  Mexicali could do little better, with Betancourt's single the only sign of life as Cubs minor leaguer Miguel Mejia held the Eagles scoreless to send the contest into overtime.

Aguilas closer Jake Sanchez took over in the tenth and gave up a leadoff double to Rivera, who moved to third on a sacrifice bunt by Jesmuel Valentin and then scored the first run of the game for either side on Jonathan Morales' sacrifice fly to Roberson in center.  It was only the second earned run Sanchez has given up since the season opened in October, but it was a big one, and the Aguilas batters had their work cut out for them in the bottom of the tenth.

With Mejia still pitching, Juarez grounded to short on the first pitch for the first out and Mustelier lined out to right for the second out, leaving the Caribbean Series (and Aguilas' season)  in the hands of Jesse Castillo. After looking at one pitch for a called strike, the 31-year-old Mexicali native and veteran of 13 Mexican League summers lined out to Rivera at short to end the game.

Mejia got the win for Caguas with two innings of one-hit shutout ball while Sanchez took the loss for Mexicali. Rivera singled and doubled for two of the Criollos' seven hits, scoring the game's lone run.  The Aguilas' four hits were spread among Roberson, Betancourt, Juarez and Carrillo as the Mexicans were 0-for-4 with runners in scoring position and left four men on base.  After hitting .324 and pushing 16 runs across in their first three CS games, manager Roberto Vizcarra's squad scored once over their final three games.

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