Monday, April 10, 2017

Leones off to fast start; Leon, Durango early surprises

There was nothing shocking about Yucatan winning seven of their first eight games to take an early lead in the Mexican League's Southern Division standings.  The Leones were considered an early favorite after defending champion Puebla's roster was gutted in the off-season load up the Monclova Acereros (both teams are owned by Gerardo Benavides), and they opened the season by sweeping Quintana Roo in a three-game opening series, splitting a pair of games at Tabasco and taking all three home games against Campeche last weekend to start the campaign with a 7-1 mark.

Yucatan's pitching, a traditional strength for the Merida team, has been exceptional thus far, turning in a team ERA of just 1.39 as last year's LMB Pitcher of the Year Yoanner Negrin and veteran Jonathan Castellanos (pictured) won their first two starts.  Negrin has picked up where he left off, blanking the Tigres over six innings in the March 31 season opener at Parque Kukulcan and holding Campeche to one run on two hits and no walks with seven strikeouts in seven frames last Friday.  Negrin's 0.69 ERA leads the Mexican League, just ahead of Monterrey's Angel Castro's 0.79.

Castellanos has quietly been one of the Liga's top pitchers, going 48-33 over the past five seasons and missing only one start since the start of the 2012 season after battling injury problems earlier in his career.  The 35-year-old righty pitched five shutout innings against Campeche Saturday after beating the Tigres on April 1.  With proven offensive performers like outfielder Jesus Valdez, Leo Heras and Jose Aguilar plus newcomer infielders Esteban Quiroz and Yuniesky Betancourt (who has yet to play a game for the Leones this season), Yucatan will be tough to beat.

Puebla's rebuilt Pericos lead the league with a .356 team batting average to start 6-3 out the gate, good for second in the LMB South standings, but the surprise team of the division has to be Leon.  The Bravos, who suffered through a miserable 24-88 season in 2016 as the Reynosa Broncos, are tied for third at 5-4 under veteran skipper Francisco "Paquin" Estrada.  While the team will have to play on the road until Estadio Domingo Santana in Leon is ready for occupancy later this month, the Bravos pulled into a tie for third with Oaxaca and Quintana Roo after sweeping the Veracruz Rojo del Aguilas over the weekend.  Former Southern League All-Star outfielder Alfredo Marte leads Leon with a .424 average and 9 RBIs while ten-year minor league pitcher Mitch Lively is 2-0 with a 1.38 ERA after two starts.

In the LMB North, Monclova has surprised nobody by winning six of their first nine games to take a one-game lead in the standings.  Puebla's losses have been the Acereros' gain as owner Benavides transferred several key members of his 2016 pennant winners to Monclova's already-strong team in hopes of bringing a championship to his home state.  Free agent signee Matt Clark, a former NCAA home run leader at LSU who hit 25 dingers in 2013 for Japan's Chunichi Dragons and spent time in Milwaukee in 2014, is batting .343 with 3 homers and 14 RBIs in 9 games for the Steelers.  Josh Lowey, the LMB's Pitcher of the Year in 2015, won his first two starts for Monclova with 16 strikeouts in 13 innings for a 2.77 ERA under new manager Wally Backman.  The Acereros lost in Laguna, 5-2, Sunday night to snap a three-game win streak.

The surprise team of the North, and perhaps the entire league, is Durango.  The very existence of the Generales for the 2017 was in doubt until days before the season began, given the uncertainty over the team's financial situation and whether their ballpark, Estadio Francisco Villa, would be ready over the first three months of the schedule.  Even so, the LMB Assembly of Presidents approved the former Carmen Delfines moving forward on a rare unanimous vote while, like Leon, playing on the road until their home field is ready.  The Generales didn't even name a manager until two weeks before the season opener, but Joe Alvarez has quickly galvanized his squad to produce a 5-4 start to trail Monclova by one game in a three-way tie for second with Tijuana and Aguascalientes.  Durango opened the season by beating the Rieleros, 2-1, on March 31, winning two of three in TJ over the potent Toros and then copping a pair of games in Monterrey over the weekend.  Cuban outfielder Yadir Drake is off to a hot start for the Generales, leading the club with a .389 average, 2 homers and 6 RBIs, but it's been the pitchers doing much of the heavy lifting, as the Generales are among the LMB's team ERA leaders at 3.99.  Adrian Garza won his first two starts of the season, middleman Antonio Garzon has a pair of wins in relief and closer Tiago Da Silva's five saves leads the loop.

Saltillo's Luis Borges leads the LMB with a .500 batting average after going 13-for-26 over 8 games, Alex Liddi of Tijuana has crashed 5 homers, Monclova newcomer Manny Rodriguez' 17 RBIs top the circuit and Justin Greene has swiped 5 bases for Saltillo to take the early lead in steals.  Among pitchers, besides Negrin's 0.69 ERA for Yucatan and Da Silva's 5 saves for Durango, thirteen pitchers have 2 wins apiece and Lowey's 16 strikeouts for Monclova are tops in that category.

On the upcoming schedule, the Quintana Roo Tigres make the loooong trip from Cancun to Tijuana to face the Toros in a big midweek series while next weekend's slate of games includes another big cross-divisional set in Monclova when Puebla comes to town.  Somehow, one thinks emotions in the stands will likely run a little higher when the Acereros make their first visit to Angelopolis with so many former Pericos players on their roster.

MEXICAN LEAGUE STANDINGS as of March 10, 2017
LMB North: Monclova 6-3, Aguascalientes 5-4, Durango 5-4, Tijuana 5-4, Laguna, Monterrey 4-5, Saltillo 4-5, Mexico City 3-6
LMB South: Yucatan 7-1, Puebla 6-3, Leon 5-4, Oaxaca 5-4, Quintana Roo 5-4, Campeche 3-6, Tabasco 3-6, Veracruz 2-7