Thursday, February 2, 2017

Detente temporarily reached among Mexican League owners

The presence of Minor League Baseball's president may have been required to broker it, but a detente of sorts appears to have been reached among the two warring factions of team owners and presidents in the Mexican League, at least for the 2017 season.

Pat O'Connor flew into Houston from MiLB headquarters in Florida to attend Wednesday's LMB Assembly of Presidents meeting in the Texas city.  Smoldering tensions had reached critical mass between eight "Old Guard" owners and seven "New Breed" owners over the issue of Mexican-American players performing in the Liga.  While the latter group preferred no limitations on such players (who do not count against the limit of six foreigners per team, a number not in dispute), the former wanted to cap the number at three after first proposing topping out at nine.

Various sources say things came to a head after last season's Northern Division finals, when a Tijuana Toros team with a large number of Mexican-Americans on their roster bested the Monterrey Sultanes, who relied mostly on homegrown talents.  Sultanes owner Jose "Pepe" Maiz took great exception and has led offseason efforts to cut back on the use of American-born players of Mexican descent.  Last month's Assembly resulted in the ouster of LMB president Plinio Escalante while Reynosa Broncos team president Eliud Villarreal, whose transfer of his franchise to Leon had been approved by the Assembly in November, was excluded from league affairs because his loyalties are with the New Breed.  Villareal's exclusion gave the Old Guard an 8-7 edge in bloc voting but the increasingly bitter dispute between the two factions threatened to split the 16-team Liga into two separate eight-team loops or even cancel the 2017 season altogether.

Instead, O'Connor was able to convince (no doubt with a little arm-twisting of some owners) the Assembly to reinstate Escalante at the helm of the circuit while bringing Villareal into the debate.  The MiLB majordomo reportedly stated in no uncertain terms that the governing body of minor league baseball, which accords the LMB its "AAA" status, would recognize nobody but the Yucatan native as the presiding authority of the Liga. Escalante had planned to retire after last season and return home to Merida and a front office job with the Yucatan Leones, but was talked into staying for two more years last winter in a move approved by 15 of the 16 team presidents (with only Quintana Roo dissenting).

The situation involving the renamed Leon Bravos is still unresolved despite the enforced recognition by O'Connor of Villarreal as a living, breathing member of the Assembly.  Attempts to move the team to Leon's 3,000-seat Estadio Domingo Santana (pictured) had already stalled due to lack of progress on upgrades to the facility and owner Mauricio Martinez was said to be instead looking into relocating in Nuevo Laredo, where there are no ballpark issues but problems with drug cartel activity on the border city mirror the problems that caused the Broncos' move out of Reynosa in the first place.  Word is that Martinez may seek to sell the franchise to a local group in Leon instead, although ballpark concerns there remain two months away from the season opener.

Speaking of the 2017 season, the LMB will be operating as one 16-team circuit.  O'Connor specified that a final, binding decision on the number of Mexican-American players allowed per team must be reached by no later than next Tuesday.  Whatever that allotment ends up being, however, the current state of detente should not be mistaken for peace.  The only change in this boxing match is that the referee has shown up, but the combatants are still at loggerheads and the imbroglio will continue to roil beneath the surface for the coming months.  In short, this ain't over.

Late Roberson homer lifts Mexicali to 4-2 win in CS opener

Hector Daniel Rodriguez turned in a brilliant start for Mexicali Wednesday night, as the Aguilas lefthander allowed just one Caguas hit over six innings, but it was Chris Roberson's two-run homer in the bottom of the seventh that put the Mexican Pacific League champions ahead for good as Mexicali went on to defeat the Puerto Rican champ Criollos, 4-2, in the second game of the 2017 Caribbean Series before 19,177 fans at Estadio Tomateros in Culiacan, Sinaloa.  The Aguilas are attempting to become the fifth team representing Mexico to win the Serie del Caribe since 2011.  Mexicali last won the CS in 1986 at Maracaibo, Venezuela under Salon de la Fama manager Benjamin "Cananea" Reyes.

MEXICALI (MEX) 4-10-0, Caguas (PR) 2-5-2

After retiring the first four Caguas batters he faced, Rodriguez gave up consecutive walks to Ruben Gotay and David Vidal with one out in the top of the second, but got the final two outs without incurring any further damage.  From that point, the 32-year-old portsider carried his no-hitter into the fifth inning, when Ivan de Jesus Jr. lined a single to center to momentarily break the Culiacan native's spell.  It was a good thing for Mexicali that Rodriguez continued the tradition of being at his best in big games because Criollos starter Orlando Roman matched him zero for zero through the fifth inning until Caguas manager Alex Cora brought in William Oliver from the bullpen to pitch a scoreless sixth.  Rodriguez threw 93 pitches to 21 Caguas batters through six innings before making way for reliever Derrick Loop, who got the first two outs in the top of the seventh frame before giving up a homer to Vidal for the first run of the game.

In the bottom of the seventh, Aguilas rightfielder Ronnier Mustelier greeted new Criollos reliever Fernando Cabrera by hitting a full-count pitch for a grounder through the right side of the infield into right field for a single. Agustin Murillo then tapped a sacrifice bunt toward the mound to advance Mustelier to second.  Xorge Carrillo's single to right moved Mustelier to third, giving Mexicali runners at the corners with one out. At that point, Aguilas manager Roberto Vizcarra called on reinforcement Jesse Castillo to pinch-hit for Ramon Rios and sent Isaac Rodriguez in to pinch-run for Carrillo at first. Cora countered by replacing Cabrera with J.C. Romero, who got Castillo to hit a roller to second to force Rodriguez for the second out, but Mustelier came in from third on the play to tie the game at 1-1.  Then Roberson strode to the plate and lofted Rodney's first pitch into the left field stands for a two-run homer to put Mexicali up by a 3-1 score.  Jason Bourgeois grounded out to first to end the inning.

MLB vet Sergio Romo was brought in to pitch for the Aguilas in the top of the eighth, but De Jesus socked Romo's second pitch over the same left field wall Roberson cleared for a solo homer to cut Mexicali's lead to one run.  After striking out Jesmuel Valentin, Romo let up back-to-back singles by Jorge Padilla and Rey Navarro before inducing Rusney Castillo to ground into a 6-4-3 double play to end the threat.  In the bottom of the eighth, with Hiram Burgos now pitching for the Puerto Ricans, leadoff batter Yuniesky Betancourt whacked a 1-0 pitch out to right for a solo homer to make it a 4-2 game.  Jake Sanchez, who has given up one earned run all season, entered the game in the top of the ninth and retired the Criollos in order for the save and the win.

Loop was awarded the win but the laurels must go to Rodriguez, who dazzled the Caguas lineup and the folks at home with his six innings of one-hit shutout pitching, striking out four batsmen.  Cabrera took the loss in relief for the Criollos, sparing Roman the indignity after the former Mets minor leaguer's five frames of five-hit shutout hurling kept pace with Rodriguez.  Mexicali outhit the Puerto Ricans by a 10-5 margin, with Roberson, Mustelier and C.J. Retherford collecting two hits apiece.

Mexicali will next play Dominican champions Zulia on Thursday night at 8:00PM MST (0300 UTC) in a battle of Los Dos Aguilas.  MexPac Pitcher of the Year Hector Velazquez will start for the Mexican side.

Granma (CUBA) 4-7-0, Zulia (DR) 0-7-2

Centerfielder Roel Santos doubled, tripled, drove in two runs and scored another to lead Cuban National Series champion Granma to a 4-0 shutout over Dominican titlists Zulia Wednesday in the first game of the 2017 Caribbean Series in Culiacan.  Alazanes pitchers Lazaro Blanco and Livan Moinelo combined on the seven-hit shutout of the Aguilas, accruing eight strikeouts between the two of them.

Santos led off the top of the first inning by tripling off Zulia pitcher Ivan Pineyro as his liner up the middle eluded Aguilas centerfielder Leury Garcia.  Two batters later, Santos motored in with the first run of the game on a passed ball by catcher Webster Rivas.  The score stood at 1-0 in favor of the Cubans until they added three more tallies in the top of the fifth.  After Pineyro loaded the bases with one out, Zulia manager Lipso Nava brought in reliever Edgar Garcia to face Santos.  Oops.  Garcia's first delivery was a wild pitch that scored Carlos Belitez from third base while baserunners Frank Morejon and Yoelkis Cespedes both advanced 90 feet.  Santos then cracked Garcia's next pitch into right field for a double, scoring both Morejon and Cespedes to open the Alazanes lead to 4-0.  Given some breathing room, Blanco and Moinelo carried the shutout to the end, with the latter recording a 1-2-3 ninth for the save.

Caribbean Series standings
MEXICALI (MEX) 1-0, Granma (Cuba) 1-0, Aragua (VEN) 0-0, Caguas (PR) 0-1, Zulia (DR) 0-1.