Monday, April 17, 2017

Laguna gets seventh straight win, tied for LMB North lead

The last time a team from Mexico's Laguna region (centered in the cities of Torreon and Gomez Palacio) won the Mexican League pennant, Harry Truman was president of the USA, Hank Williams was just emerging as country music's most seminal singer and a 16-year-old named Henry Aaron was earning $3 a day playing for the semipro Mobile Black Bears.  You get the picture.

While it's far too early to seriously invoke thoughts of Union Laguna winning their first Liga pennant since 1950, the Vaqueros are making the most of the early portion of the 2017 schedule by winning seven straight games (including sweeps of road series in Tabasco and Campeche) to tie Monterrey for the LMB North lead with identical 10-5 records, tops in the circuit.  Union Laguna closed out their broom job in Campeche Sunday with a 6-4 win over the Piratas as Jerome Pena's three-run homer in the fifth inning put the Vaqueros ahead for good.  Starter Dustin Crenshaw battled through six rocky innings for his third win of the young season while closer Esmailin Caridad worked a 1-2-3 ninth with a pair of strikeouts for his fifth save.

If those names are unfamiliar to casual observers of Mexican baseball, it should come as little surprise.  Union Laguna has historically been one of those franchises that have operated on the margins with limited budgets.  While more glamorous teams in places like Mexico City and Monterrey have been able to afford more recognizable talent, Laguna has never had the financial means to compete at that level.  Even now, the Vaqueros have a relatively anonymous roster, with former MLB infielder Anderson Hernandez (who's batting .339) perhaps the most notable team member.

Union Laguna plays in the 12,000-seat Estadio Revolucion, the Liga's oldest ballpark and with an impressive art deco entry facade that was inaugurated in 1932 and has apparently never undergone a major facelift over its 85-year history.  Brothers Juan Jose and Erick Arellano, who also own the Yucatan Leones, bought the club in the offseason.  There has been some speculation that the Arellanos may move the team to their hometown of Mazatlan, but the combination of stalled plans for a new ballpark in Mazatlan, decent fan support in Laguna (they're currently sixth in LMB attendance with an average of 5,272 turnstile clicks per opening) and the brothers' own financial concerns may be putting that off for the time being.

For now, the Vaqueros are led by rookie manager Ramon Orantes, a longtime LMB infielder, and they've responded with a team batting average of .297 (third in the Liga). Shortstop Kristian Delgado (.368), first baseman Ricky Alvarez (.356 with 4 homers and 17 RBIs), outfielder Welington Dotel (.345) and Hernandez have done the most damage at the plate.  Orantes' pitching staff has a middle-of-the-road ERA of 4.57.  Crenshaw and lefty Edgar Osuna both have three wins, with Osuna's 1.50 ERA leading the team.  It's hard to envision Union Laguna maintaining this pace over five months against such loaded LMB North teams as Monterrey, Tijuana and Monclova, but they're off to a great start and it's an opportunity here to go into some depth about a team that has received relatively scant attention over the years.

While the Vaqueros and Sultanes top the North, only three-and-a-half games separate the co-leaders from last-place Saltillo.  At 6-8, the Saraperos are the only team in the division under .500.  In the LMB South, Yucatan is atop the standings with a 9-5 mark, a game up on Oaxaca's all-Mexican squad and a game-and-a-half ahead of defending champs Puebla.  The South is a little more spread out, with last-place Tabasco six games out of the lead with an Liga-worst 3-11 mark.  The Olmecas snapped an eight-game losing skid Saturday by beating Durango, 6-2, as Dave Sappelt stroked a two-run single and starter Angel Araiza went 5.1 innings for his first win.

Speaking of the Generales, who've gone a surprising 8-7 playing all their games away from home, they'll have to wait just a bit longer for their home opener at Estadio Francisco Villa, where hurried renovations haven't caught up with Tuesday's scheduled game against Veracruz.  A fire broke out at the ballpark over the weekend, which certainly didn't help the beleaguered franchise.  Durango's home opener has been pushed back to Friday against Oaxaca.  As hard as I've been on the Generales (and the Mexican League in general) the past few weeks and months, I want this team and league to succeed.  The center of power does appear to be shifting from the Old Guard owners to the New Breed group and while I'm simpatico with the Old Guard's "Mexico First" desire to focus on giving domestic talent more opportunities to play, the New Breed is bringing badly-needed fresh thinking and approaches to a league that has badly needed both for years.

On the stats front, longtime Monterrey centerfielder Chris Roberson leads the Mexican League with a .468 average, 18 points ahead of Oaxaca gardener Alan Sanchez.  Durango outfielder Yadir Drake has been a big part of the Generales' early success by leading the circuit with 6 homers to go with his .351 batting average.  Monclova first sacker Matt Clark tops the loop with 24 RBIs, one ahead of Acereros second baseman Manny Rodriguez.  Saltillo outfielder Justin Greene appears recovered from a facial injury suffered playing winterball in the Mexican Pacific League and has 7 stolen bases, best in the LMB.

Seven pitchers have 3 wins apiece, with Union Laguna's Crenshaw the only one to suffer a loss.  The most effective starter has been Mitch Lively of Leon, whose 3-0 record is augmented by a 0.90 ERA.  The leader in that category is Monterrey's Angel Castro (1-0) at 0.46.  Josh Lowey's disastrous 2016 stint in Korea appears to have had no ill effect in his Liga pitching.  The Floridian righty is 2-1 for Monclova with a 3.00 ERA and his 23 strikeouts in 21 innings are the LMB's best.  He's issued just two walks thus far in three starts.   Durango closer Tiago Da Silva is a perfect 8-for-8 in saves opportunities, putting him three ahead of Laguna's Caridad in that column.

Among the more important series coming up this week include Monclova's visit to Merida Tuesday through Thursday to take on the Yucatan Leones in a set between two teams picked by many (including me) to meet in September's championship series.  The Leon Bravos will play their first game at home Friday when they host Mexico City in the first of three.  As mentioned, Durango hopes to get their home schedule underway Friday against Oaxaca.