Monday, June 5, 2017

Rieleros take 2 of 3 from Sultanes in weekend home series

Baseball in Aguascalientes has never been an easy sell.  The central Mexico city of about a million metropolitan area residents first fielded a Mexican League franchise in 1975 and local fans were rewarded with a pennant three years later when the Rieleros defeated Union Laguna in five games to win the LMB championship, but the game itself has always held a somewhat peripheral existence there.  The original Rieleros lasted 25 seasons before moving to Puebla after the 1999 campaign to become the current incarnation of the Pericos.  The Cordoba Cafeteros moved to Aguascalientes in 2004 and the Rieleros II put in four seasons before the team was moved to Nuevo Laredo and became the reconstituted Tecolotes following the 2007 season.

The third iteration of the Rieleros appeared in 2012 as an expansion team and are in the midst of their sixth LMB season.  That 2012 team surprised everyone by finishing second in the North Division with a 59-49 record and advancing to the title series before losing to Veracruz in seven games.  Since then, however, Aguascalientes has failed to qualify for the playoffs the past four season while annually finishing in the bottom half of the attendance tables with crowds usually in the 3,000 range.  Then you have curious decisions such as the one in which reigning Liga RBI champion Diory Hernandez was released by the team last month despite a .300 batting average after 23 games before getting hurt in late April.  Hernandez was signed Saturday by Union Laguna and had five hits (including a homer) over the weekend for the Vaqueros.  Oops!

Even so, this year's edition of the Rieleros has been more competitive than in recent seasons and if their recent home series against Monterrey (holders of the best record in the league) is any indication, Aguascalientes may host its first playoff game in five years when the postseason opens in ten weeks.  The Rieleros won their first two games against the Sultanes to briefly pass Mexico City for fifth place in the LMB North before dropping Sunday's finale, but their 30-27 record is good enough for a fifth-place tie with the Diablos, two games behind Laguna for the fourth and final playoff berth.

The set opened Friday with a 7-3 Rieleros win as Monterrey starter Javier Solano was chased after allowing six runs on eight hits over five innings.  Ags catcher Carlos Rodriguez, who's hitting .316, launched a three-run homer off Solano in the third to open a 5-1 lead and the Railroaders never looked back.  Saturday's game resulted in another 7-3 win for the Rieleros, this time off LMB wins leader Angel Castro, who was pulled with one out in the sixth after allowing six runs on seven hits and four walks after allowing a three-run bomb by third baseman Jose Vargas that broke a 3-3 tie.  Aguascalientes came back to Earth Sunday in a 10-5 loss to the Sultanes as Luis Juarez' two-run homer keyed a four-run Monterrey seventh, but the point was made that the Rieleros can't be overlooked this year.  Attendance was up at 9,000-seat Estadio Alberto Romo Chavez, too, with more than 13,000 attending the series and more than 4,000 on hand for each game.  Although the Sultanes are one of the Liga's better road draws, overall turnstile numbers are up in Aguascalientes this year.

The Rieleros have an interesting roster with veterans like Rodriguez, 1B Jesse Castillo (who's having an MVP-type season), ageless DH Carlos Soto and recent acquisition OF Dave Sappelt, batting .355 since signing as a free agent a month ago.  Pitching is not a team strength, with Merritt the top pitcher in a mediocre rotation, but the addition of Jose Valverde (who has 288 career saves in MLB) has definitely bolstered the bullpen.  Valverde (pictured) has a pair of wins and eight saves to go with a 2.43 ERA.  No other reliever in the Liga boasts his credentials.  It's a little premature to start printing playoff tickets, but to write off Aguascalientes as an also-ran for a fifth straight year would come at one's own peril.  This is not a bad team.

Even with the series loss, Monterrey still leads the MB North at 38-17, four and a half games ahead of 34-22 Tijuana in second.  The Toros are starting to feel a little heat from 33-23 Monclova and 32-25 Union Laguna, while Aguascalientes and Mexico City are on the playoff position periphery.  Among the North's eight teams, only Durango and Saltillo are below .500 and the Generales are playing well enough to make some teams ahead of them nervous.

Conversely, the LMB South is a trainwreck once you get past division leaders Yucatan.  The Leones are cruising along at 34-20, which would put them second in the North, but nobody else is even break-even.  Quintana Roo is second at 26-27, a half-game ahead of 27-29 Puebla and two games up on surprising Veracruz, who hold fourth at 25-30.  At present, five LMB South teams are in contention for three remaining playoff berths behind Yucatan, with only Tabasco and Leon out of the picture for now.  The Olmecas and Bravos have had their respective shares of off-field miseries as well, with the Bravos facing a possible in-season expulsion over their apparent failure to pay league fees this year after the franchise moved there from Reynosa (which was a basket-case franchise last year as well).  More on that later this week.

Durango's Yadir Drake (.397) has seen his batting average drop below .400, but is still leading LMB hitters, eight points ahead of Chris Roberson of Monterrey.  Drake is part of a three-way logjam for the home run lead with Tijuana teammates Alex Liddi and Corey Brown, all showing 14 roundtrippers.  Drake has hit five homers since May 26.  Ricky Alvarez productive year for Laguna continues, with the first sacker topping the circuit in RBIs (62) to augment his .339 average and 11 homers.  Saltillo outfielder Justin Greene stole three bases over the weekend to reach 30 swipes for the campaign, twelve steals ahead of Mexico City's Carlos Figueroa.  Figueroa, a Diablos outfielder, carries 220 pounds on his 5'8" frame, conjuring an image that doesn't invoke a typical speedster, but he's only been caught three times in 21 attempts.

Among pitchers, Oaxaca's Irwin Delgado held Yucatan to one run over seven innings Sunday to earn his eighth win of the year.  The 8-2 Delgado has won his last four starts to tie Monterrey's Angel Castro for most triumphs in 2017.  Delgado's 2.29 ERA is second only to Veracruz' Nestor Molina's 2.09 figure in that category while his 74 strikeouts are seven up on Monclova's Josh Lowey in the K Derby.  After a workmanlike but unheralded eight years of pitching in the LMB, Delgado (a 5'9" lefty) is in the driver's seat for Pitcher of the Year honors.

The top two upcoming midweek series are both in the North, with Monclova visiting Aguascalientes for three games while Laguna hosts Tijuana in Torreon.  Next weekend will feature defending champion Puebla traveling to Cancun for a set with the Tigres with second place in the South on the line.  Another series that might not have raised an eyebrow weeks ago will be in Tijuana starting Friday when the Toros welcome Durango.  TJ was a preseason favorite among some while Durango was a candidate to not even reach the starting gate, but the Generales have won 7 of their past 10 games and are 19-20 away from home.  In short, Toros skipper Pedro Mere has a couple of tough series ahead this week.

MEXICAN LEAGUE STANDINGS (as of 5 June 2017)
LMB NORTH: Monterrey 38-17, Tijuana 34-22, Monclova 33-23, Laguna 32-25, Aguascalientes 30-27, Mexico City 30-27, Durango 25-32, Saltillo 24-31.
LMB SOUTH: Yucatan 34-20, Quintana Roo 26-27, Puebla 27-29, Veracruz 25-30, Oaxaca 24-31, Campeche 24-32, Tabasco 20-35, Leon 19-37.

NOTE: For unknown reasons, I'm not being allowed to post anything in the comments section below articles on BBM. I'm not ignoring anyone but I can't reply either. If you've got a question or comment you'd like a response to, just contact me directly at BaseballMexico @ live.com. I really do answer. -Bruce