Monday, May 8, 2017

LMB: Leones lengthen lead, Paquin packing, Robo rolling

While the Mexican League's Northern Division has been a dogfight over the first month of the 2017 regular season, the LMB South has been more or less the sole domain of the Yucatan Leones thus far.  The 21-11 Lions are the hottest team in the Liga right now, winning 11 of their last 13 games to pull into a five-and-a-half game lead over defending champion Puebla and Campeche (both 15-16 on the season as Yucatan is the sole team with a winning record iu the LMB South).

Pitching has always been a mainstay of Yucatan baseball and it remains a team hallmark this year at Merida's Estadio Kukulcan.  The Leones are third in the Liga with a team ERA of 3.67 and tied with Tijuana for second with a 1.34 WHIP (Monterrey leads in both categories at 3.19 and 1.22, respectively) behind the starting pitching of 2016 Pitcher of the Year Yoanner Negrin (5-1 and 2.64) and two-time All-Star Juan Delgadillo (4-1 and 3.41), but it's really the bullpen that's carried the mound staff.  Five relievers have ERAs of 3.00 or less, with former MLBer Jairo Asencio thriving in the closer's role with a 1-0 record, 12 saves and a 2.12 ERA.  Asencio has allowed 13 hits and two walks in 17 innings for an 0.88 WHIP while striking out 19 batsmen.

The Leones offense has been steady if unspectacular, with very few holes in the batting order.  While Yucatan's team batting average of .280 is in the bottom half of that league table, they've benefitted from opportunistic hitting from the likes of LF Jesus "Cacao" Valdez (.360 with 2 homers and 15 RBIs), RF Leo Heras (.345/2/14), 2B Jordany Valdespin (.298/2/18) and SS Esteban Quiroz (.281/3/16).  Former Mariners IF Yuniesky Betancourt (.325/1/9) signed with the Leones in the offseason but wasn't activated until April 26. After starting off 1-for-15 over his first four games, Betancourt has since gone 12-for-25 (.480) while building up a seven-game hitting streak through last weekend's series with Veracruz.  The Leones will never bludgeon opponents offensively like Laguna has been doing as long as they play in pitching-friendly Estadio Kukulcan, but this year's batting order looks to be a death-by-a-thousand-cuts proposition for the pitchers facing them.

Where Yucatan has been able to create some breathing room between themselves and the rest of the division, the Leon Bravos faded badly following a decent start after playing the first two weeks of the season on the road, and that cost manager Francisco "Paquin" Estrada his job.  Estrada had already survived a spring of uncertainty due to his reported virtual kidnapping episode during training camp, which drew international attention, and living out of a suitcase for the first five series of the regular season before Leon hosted its first home game on April 19 (a day after the scheduled opener was postponed due to a power outage at Estadio Domingo Santana).  Although the Bravos blanked Mexico City, 8-0, in their Leon debut, the team then won just two of their next 14 games, marked by three four-game losing streaks before Estrada got the axe prior to last weekend's series at home against Tabasco with the team at 10-20.  Estrada was replaced at the helm by Luis Carlos Rivera (pictured), who then steered the Bravos to a three-game sweep of the Olmecas to bring them up to 13-20 on the season.  Rivera, a former pitcher who had cups of MLB coffee with Atlanta and Baltimore in 2000, spent 11 years in pro ball before retiring in 2010 at age 32.

Meanwhile, in the Northern Division, Tijuana continued to ride the hot bats of OFs Cyle Hankerd (.351/8/32), Dustin Martin (.307/6/30) and Corey Brown (.291/12/41) to cobble together a six-game winning streak for an LMB-best record of 23-9, but Monterrey sits a half-step behind at 22-9.  As mentioned, the Sultanes have received some very good pitching this spring, particularly from starters Angel Castro (4-0 and 2.33) and Ken Sigman (3-0, 3.41), closer Wirfin Obispo (3-1, 1.11 with 4 saves) and now Alfredo Aceves (3.12 in two starts).  However, you have to go to the top of the Monterrey batting order to put a finger on the catalyst.

Leadoff hitter Chris Roberson, an Oakland native who married a Mexican woman and has achieved dual citizenship, has topped the .300 mark all six years he's patrolled center field for the Sultanes, averaging 19 stolen bases and 12 homers per season along the way.  This year, Robo is outdoing himself early by leading the LMB with a .435 average, 19 points ahead of Saltillo 2B Luis Borges, while his 10 homers are second in the loop.  As befits his leadoff status, Roberson's 31 runs scored are tied for third in the Liga with Laguna 1B Ricky Alvarez, trailing only two other Vaqueros, RF Jonathan Jones (34) and 2B Anderson Hernandez (32).  Tijuana's Brown launched a pair of homers in Aguascalientes last Thursday to bring his roundtripper total to 12 for the season, two ahead of Roberson.  Alvarez' 45 RBIs are tops in the circuit, four more than Brown and Monclova 1B Matt Clark.  Saltillo OF Justin Greene continues to lead in stolen bases with 11 swipes, but has just one steal since April 25.  Tijuana's Martin and Laguna LF Ethan Martin are tied for second with nine steals each.

Among pitchers, nobody broke the six-win barrier but Yucatan's Negrin joined Frankie de la Cruz of Saltillo and Laguna's Edgar Osuna and Dustin Crenshaw in the five-win circle.  Negrin, whose April 13 loss to Mexico City was his first in the regular season since May 1 of last year, is 5-1 thus far in 2017 with a 2.64 ERA that ranks tenth in the LMB.  That category is led by Saltillo's Raul Carrillo, who shows a 1.27 figure after four starts and three relief appearances to go with a 1-1 record. Leon's Walter Silva is second at 1.72 to go with his 3-2 mark.  Irwin Delgado of Oaxaca has passed Monclova's Josh Lowey in the strikeout derby, 43 to 41.  Delgado has one more start and seven more innings than Lowey, whose 1.11 whiffs per inning tops Delgado's .98 rate.  In the saves department, Yucatan's Asencio (12) has overtaken Durango's Brazilian closer Tiago da Silva (11) after converting his last six save opportunities.  Da Silva continues to pitch well for the Generales, with a 1.88 ERA, but the LMB's 2014 Reliever of the Year hasn't had a lead to preserve with Durango in the throes of a 12-game losing streak through last weekend.

On the schedule this week, the top midweek series will be in Monterrey, when the Laguna Vaqueros visit for a meeting of the Liga's top offense versus the league's best pitching staff.  The Vaqueros are third behind Tijuana and Monterrey in the LMB North at 21-12.  Campeche hosts Yucatan for three games between Tuesday and Thursday in an important trio of LMB South games.

Next weekend's biggest series appears to be the Monclova-Laguna set in Torreon.  The Acereros were predicted to challenge for a pennant in 2017 after most of last year's key players on Puebla's title team were moved north by Gerardo Benavides (who owns both teams) to augment an already-solid Monclova roster, but the team has not performed to expectations thus far, starting this week with an 18-15 record.  The club did win four straight games last week, including a sweep of reeling Durango, but Benavides (whose grandfather founded the team in 1974) is in "win now" mode and while it's no secret that manager Wally Backman would leave Mexico in a heartbeat if a better offer came along, his team needs to do better or his exit may not be in concert with another gig north of the border.  As the saying goes, "Wherever you go, there you are" and, Wally, right now you're in Monclova with a very talented team and one of the Liga's most loyal fan bases.  Make the most of it.