Friday, June 2, 2017

Durango wins two in Mexico City, fewer than 2K attend series

There may not be two more different franchises in Mexican League baseball than the Mexico City Diablos Rojos and the Durango Generales.  The Diablos have existed in the nation's capital since 1940, they've won 16 pennants since they broke through for their first title in 1956, they're owned by Alfredo Harp Helu (Mexico's version of Paul Allen, a billionaire who likes to dabble in sports) and they'll move into a brand-new ballpark in 2018. South of the border, the Red Devils are baseball royalty.  After a halting beginning to the 2017 season, the Diablos won 8 of 10 games in early May to pull into contention for a playoff berth.

Then there are the Generales, who moved from Carmen during the winter, had an abbreviated training camp because there was nobody to run it for the first few weeks (manager Joe Alvarez wasn't hired until February), had to play their first month in the LMB on the road because renovation on Estadio Francisco Villa was delayed until well after the first of the year and have had to endure at least rumors of missing paychecks for players because owner Virgilio Ruiz is undercapitalized.  After a surprising start during which the Generales went 11-10 away from home, never being swept in a series while actually winning sets against LMB North powers Tijuana and Monterrey, the team hit the proverbial wall by being swept in Monterrey and Laguna before finally playing their first home game.  That came on May 2 against Monclova, who went on to sweep Durango and extend the new team's losing string to nine games while dropping their record to 11-19.

That was the background of the two franchises when the last-place Generales took a 20-31 record into Mexico City for their first-ever meeting against the 28-23 Diablos Rojos, who were hoping to pick up at least a couple wins and perhaps a sweep against the upstarts.  Instead, Durango left Estadio Fray Nano Thursday night after winning two of three games against one of the Liga's flagship franchises, leaving the Diablos wondering both what happened and where their fans were.

Durango pulled out a 5-3 win in Tuesday's opener when a two-out Daniel Hinojosa single brought in Jesus Loya and Javier Salazar to break a 3-all tie in the top of the ninth inning, followed by closer Tiago da Silva's scoreless frame (with two strikeouts) for his LMB-leading 19th save.  To their credit, the Diablos fought back Wednesday with a 13-8 slugout win keyed by a six-run sixth inning.  Mexico City shortstop Ramon Urias continued his career year by going 2-for-4 with four RBIs, including a three-run homer (his 10th) in the bottom of the first while leadoff man Carlos Figueroa had three of the Diablos' 17 hits on the night.

It was Thursday's rubber match, however, that left the home team scratching their collective heads as the visitors won by a 6-0 score.  Generales starting pitcher Amilcar Gaxiola, a former Braves farmhand who went 10-7 with Tabasco in 2014 but has struggled since (going 0-8 last year), tossed seven innings of six-hit shutout ball to earn his third consecutive win since May 20.  Durango rightfielder Yadir Drake, having a career year himself, belted a three-run homer in the top of the first off former LMB Rookie of the Year Juan Pablo Oramas to set the tone and the Diablos never came close to catching up.

The 27-year-old Drake (pictured), who defected from Cuba to the Yucatan Peninsula on a boat in 2011, is leading the Liga with a .406 average after bouncing around the minors since arriving on the mainland six years ago.  He actually spent time with a Diablos affiliate before signing with the Dodgers, who released him early last year.  Drake's career was floundering until last winter, when he hooked on with Los Mochis and hit .232 with 6 homers in 39 games for the Mayos.  Not eye-popping numbers, true, but enough to earn an invite from the fledgling Generales, who return home Friday night to open a weekend series against Tijuana.

While the Generales have earned respect around the LMB for showing fight under difficult circumstances, even by Liga standards, and winning 11 of their last 15 games, the Diablos are left wondering what's next. Since their May run (capped by a five-game win streak), Mexico City has gone 4-8 heading into a weekend home set against Union Laguna.  While they are a long way from being out of the race for a postseason berth at 28-26, good for a fifth-place tie with Aguascalientes and three games behind fourth-place Laguna, the Diablos are back to looking to regain some mojo.

The Diablos are one of two in the Liga (Harp's Oaxaca Guerreros being the other) who've decided to field all-Mexican rosters this year in reaction to MiLB president Pat O'Connor's edict last winter that there will be no limit to the number of Mexican-American players in the Liga.  Both teams, to their credit, have played credibly thus far (Oaxaca is one game out of fourth in the LMB South), but going all-domestic with one of the circuit's most potent offenses, including a .303 team batting average, has not translated to support at home for the Diablos.

A number of Mexican League teams have struggled at the gate in 2017, but nobody expected a legacy team in a city of more than 20 million people to draw fewer than 2,000 fans TOTAL for their series against Durango.  None of the three contests against the Generales drew as many as 700 aficionados at Estadio Fray Nano and a number of writers have noted that both Mexico City and Tabasco are now routinely drawing fewer than 1,000 onlookers per game, whether or not the announced attendance figures reflect that. reality.  The Diablos are officially averaging 2,805 fans per opening after 27 home games, ranking 12th in the 16-team loop, but it's clear that Mexico City residents are not coming to a ballpark that was never more than a stopgap after the team moved there from Foro Sol in 2014.  Perhaps people are waiting for the unnamed 12,000-seat (expandable to 16,000) facility to open.  It's been speculated that the new ballpark will be ready for play next month, making the decision by Diablos management to delay their first game until April 2018 a curious one, since Fray Nano has obviously never worked out for the team.  Ironically, a Durango team that was perilously close to not even playing this year is seventh in the LMB with an average of 3,604 fans after 15 home dates.

With the midway point of the season on the horizon, it's still too early to make any long-term predictions, dire or otherwise.  But even though a look at both Durango and Mexico City LMB franchises would give all the advantages to the latter at first glance, the two clubs appear to be heading in opposite directions.  Although there is certainly no chance of the Diablos folding or leaving Mexico City (the Yankees will leave New York first), the team needs some positive things to start happening soon to keep 2017 from becoming a proverbial “lost season.”