Monday, June 19, 2017

All-Stars: North wins, 4-3; Castillo MVP; Diaz cops HR Derby

2017 LMB All-Star Game MVP Jesse Castillo
The Mexican League held its 2017 All-Star Weekend between Friday and Sunday in Campeche and the Walled City did not disappoint.  Festivities culminated in a 4-3 North Division win Sunday night as a record throng of 10,657 crammed 6,000-seat Parque Nelson Barrera Romellon, capping a three-day event that began with the LMB announcing Friday that they would play two shorter seasons in 2018 and hometown hero Francisco "Frank" Diaz beating Tijuana's Alex Liddi in the final round of Saturday's Home Run Derby.

Sentiment was the rule of the day at Sunday's Juego de Estrellas, with winless Francisco Campos (0-3) taking the mound for the LMB South as cheers rang out from all corners of the ballpark.  The man they call Poncho Ponches (which liberally translates to "Strikeout Man") was making the 15th All-Star appearance of his 23-year Liga career, all spent in Campeche except for a stint of five wins in as many starts on loan to Monterrey in 2006.  To many, Campos IS the Piratas, and he held up his end of the bargain by tossing a scoreless first inning and living up to his nickname by whiffing Mexico City shortstop Ramon Urias, older brother of Padres shortstop prospect Luis Urias.

After his South teammates gave Campos a lead in the bottom of the first when Balbino Fuenmayor (Veracruz) doubled in two runners off Octavio Acosta (Mexico City), the North got a run back when Zoilo Almonte doubled off Pablo Ortega (Tigres) in the top of the second.  It became a 3-1 game in the bottom of the entrada when another Campeche All-Star, third baseman C.J. Retherford, socked a solo homer off reliever Arturo Lopez (Mexico City), but the North roared back for three runs in the top of the third.  Yoanner Negrin (Yucatan) took over on the hill for the South and was immediately greeted by singles from Justin Greene (Saltillo) and Urias, followed by a three-run bomb detonated by Jesse Castillo (Aguascalientes) to produce what turned out to be the game-winning runs.

Castillo (pictured) was subsequently selected as the All-Star Game MVP by media members in attendance.  Greene and Urias each had two singles as part of the North's 10-hit attack.  The South's eight safeties were scattered among as many batters, with a double from Ronnier Mustelier (Yucatan) the only extra-base hit.  A total of 19 pitchers saw action for both teams as North manager Pedro Mere (Tijuana) and South skipper Willie Romero (Yucatan) kept to 20-pitch count limits.  Jose Oyervides (Monclova) tossed a scoreless third to pick up the win while Negrin came away with a blown save and the loss.  Tijuana closer Jason Urquidez blanked the South in the bottom of the ninth to earn the save.

On Saturday, a large turnout watched the Home Run Derby, featuring four players representing each division.  Leon's Leandro Castro swatted 10 homers in the opening round to lead all eight batters, advancing to the second round along with Campeche's Frank Diaz (7), Alex Liddi (4) and Issmael Salas (4).  Liddi and Salas moved on after a special tiebreaker with Durango's Yadir Drake and Veracruz' Balbino Fuenmayor, who'd also hit four homers in the opening stage.  Tijuana's Corey Brown (3) and the Rieleros' Castillo (3) finished tied for seventh.  In the second round, defending HR Derby champ Liddi knocked out 14 dingers to reach the final along with Diaz (10), as Castro (7) and Salas (6) fell well short.  Diaz then outhomered Liddi by an 8-6 margin to win the Derby and claim a check for MX$20,000 as Piratas fans in attendance roared their approval during a weekend that gave baseball in the Gulf city a badly-needed shot in the arm, with the help of Pirates' All-Stars Diaz, Retherford and, of course, Poncho Ponches.

However, the biggest news out of the weekend may have been delivered Friday after the LMB's Assembly of Presidents meeting.  While leaders apparently did nothing to address concerns in either Leon (non-payment of franchise fees) or Tabasco (bottoming-out attendance), outgoing president Plinio Escalante announced that 2018 will include two four-month seasons between February and November instead of a traditional six-month regular season plus playoffs, adding that the change came on a unanimous vote.  The format would be similar to Liga MX soccer, which has two annual tournaments (the Apertura and Clausura) in both its Premier and First divisions.  No details were made available by the LMB, but reaction among Mexican cronistas has been almost universally negative.  BBM will have more as details become available on this move, likely the brainchild of incoming LMB president Javier Salinas, a longtime Liga MX exec, and one that may have repercussions throughout baseball and draw challenges from Mexican Pacific League president Omar Canizales and Minor League Baseball president Pat O'Connor.