Monday, July 31, 2017

Rieleros halt TJ win streak at 16; Vargas, Soto split 4 HRs

Aguascalientes DH/1B Saul Soto
Jose Vargas and Saul Soto each swatted a pair of homers Friday night to power the Aguascalientes Rieleros to a 10-3 victory over Tijuana, stopping the Toros' Mexican League season-best winning streak at 16 games.  The borderites had swept five consecutive series (four against LMB South foes plus a huge midweek set against Monterrey) before the Railroaders ended the skein in front of 5,127 fans at Estadio Alberto Romo Chavez in Aguascalientes.

The Rieleros were trailing 3-2 heading into the bottom of the fourth inning.  Soto and Vargas led off the bottom of the second with back-to-back homers off Tijuana's Manny Barreda, making his first start since a July 16 no-hitter against Tabasco. The Toros got one run back in the third when Chris Valencia singled Roberto Lopez in from third, then took the lead in the top of the fourth on RBI singles by Alex Liddi and Gabriel Gutierrez.  Aguascalientes then regained the advantage for good with four runs in the bottom of the frame as Vargas passed TJ's Corey Brown for the LMB lead with his 23rd homer on another solo blast and the hosts got consecutive run-scoring safeties from Gennaro Andrade, Dave Sappelt and Richy Pedroza to go up 6-3 and the rout was on.

Ironically, Soto (who'd go on to belt his second homer of the night in the sixth, a two-run shot) led off the fourth by grounding out and closed it by popping out to Jorge Cantu at first.  By swatting his 10th and 11th homers, the nine-time All-Star reached double figures in roundtrippers for the seventh consecutive season and the 14th time in 16 seasons.  Soto hit the 250th homer of his 20-year Liga career July 15 in Leon and surpassed 1,000 RBIs earlier this season.  A career .304 batsman, the Los Mochis native (who turns 39 on August 11) is hitting .330 this year.

Vargas and longtime veteran outfielder Cristhian Presichi, who was celebrating his 37th birthday, each had four hits for Aguascalientes while Sappelt contributed three.  A career .313 hitter, Presichi is in his 18th LMB season.  Barreda absorbed his seventh loss in eleven decisions after giving up six runs on nine hits in 3.2 innings.  Roy Merritt gave the Rieleros a decent start in allowing two earned runs in 4.1 entradas, but it was Roby Romero (5-2) who got the win after going 1.1 frames in relief.

The Toros rebounded from Friday's loss with a 6-3 win Saturday behind Horacio Ramirez' seven innings of two-run pitching before the Rieleros closed the series Sunday by holding off Tijuana 6-5 (although Brown tied Vargas by whacking HIS 23rd homer) to win two of three against manager Pedro Mere's 71-30 team.  Mere has been mentioned as a potential candidate to become the Jalisco Charros' helmsman during the upcoming Mexican Pacific League winterball season, set to start in October.  Edgar Gonzalez has stepped down as skipper in Guadalajara to take a front office position with the team.

LMB hitters are still playing catchup to former Durango outfielder Yadir Drake's set-in-stone .385 batting average but the clock is ticking with nine games left in the regular season.  Monterrey's Daniel Mayora remains closest at .375 but the Durango exile hasn't played since going 1-for-6 against Veracruz on July 20. Mayora isn't on the Sultanes' reserve list and no cause for his absence has been discovered online. Aguascalientes' Vargas tops the home run list with 23 over 73 games, one ahead of Tijuana's Corey Brown's 22 longballs.  Yucatan's Ricky Alvarez reached the century mark in RBIs with an eighth-inning single in Leon last Thursday. He now has 102.  Rainel Rosario of Saltillo drove in runs in seven consecutive games (including a four-ribbie night Saturday in Monclova) to move into second behind Alvarez with 90 RBIs. Monclova centerfielder Justin Greene stole a base in Mexico City last Tuesday to bring his season total to 46 thefts, well in front of the 27 each of the Diablos' Carlos Figueroa and Christian Zazueta of Saltillo.  He also leads the loop with 21 times caught stealing.  Greene was given permission to go home to South Carolina to attend to family issues, but is expected back in time for the playoffs.

Octavio Acosta won his LMB-leading 13th game in 14 decisions for Mexico City in Durango Friday despite letting in five runs in 6.2 innings.  The Guasave righty has allowed eight runs over 12 innings in his last two starts, putting his ERA at 3.01 for the season.  Conversely, Veracruz' Nestor Molina allowed no earned runs in seven innings against Tabasco last Thursday, yet lost the 1-0 contest on an unearned first-inning run. Despite seeing his record drop to 11-2, Molina's ERA also fell to 1.54 for the year.  Molina recorded nine strikeouts to make it 113 whiffs in 140.2 innings for 2017, trailing only the 128 of Monclova's Josh Lowey.  Last season's strikeout king punched out nine Saltillo batters in seven innings of shutout pitching Saturday.  Monclova closer Chad Gaudin leads with 27 saves.  Gaudin had a rare bad outing Saturday trying to preserve the win for Lowey, instead giving up three ninth-inning runs to blow the save AND absorb the loss in a 6-5 defeat after the Acereros led 5-0 heading into the eighth inning.

Even after losing two of three in Aguascalientes, Tijuana still has a comfortable six-and-a-half-game lead over Monterrey in the LMB North standings and sit eight games ahead of Monclova while the Rieleros are solidly in fourth place, eleven games out of first.  Yucatan won two of three in Puebla over the weekend to open their LMB South lead over the defending champion Pericos to nine-and-a-half games.  Well behind the two leaders are the Veracruz Rojos del Aguila, who sit a half-game ahead of Quintana Roo in third place while Leon is two games back of the Tigres in fifth.

The LMB's most important upcoming midweek series takes place when Monterrey hosts Aguascalientes for three games.  The Rieleros will move on to Monclova Friday for a set with the Steelers, but the bigger trio of games may be in Mexico City when the Diablos Rojos welcome Union Laguna to Estadio Fray Nano. The Diablos and Vaqueros are in a down-to-the-wire battle for fifth place in the North, earning a one-game playoff at the division's fourth-place finisher (currently the Rieleros) for an LMB semifinal berth.  Tijuana and Yucatan clinched postseason slots over the weekend.

LMB North: Tijuana 71-30, Monterrey 64-36, Monclova 62-37, Aguascalientes 60-41, Union Laguna 53-47, Mexico City 52-48, Durango 41-59, Saltillo 40-59.
LMB South: Yucatan 60-36, Puebla 53-48, Veracruz 43-54, Quintana Roo 42-54, Leon 40-56, Campeche 38-59, Oaxaca 36-63, Tabasco 35-63.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Diablos-Guerreros team wins third Academy AA League title; Toros sweep Monterrey, win streak at 16

2017 Liga Academia AA champs Diablos-Guerreros
It took fourteen agonizing innings to do it, but a team of combined prospects from the Mexico City Diablos Rojos and Oaxaca Guerreros topped the Campeche-Quintana Roo squad, 4-3, last week in El Carmen (near Monterrey) to clinch their third consecutive Mexican League Academy Class AA League title and sixth straight crown when the winter Academy Rookie League seasons are factored in. The Diablos-Guerreros had a 55-30 record to top the Academy AA League standings, which included eight teams sharing prospects belonging to two LMB teams each.

Diablos-Guerros pitcher Luis Rodriguez, whose rights belong to Mexico City, was named MVP after going 6-2 with a 1.06 ERA (how did this guy lose TWO games, let alone one?) while striking out 108 batters and walking 22 over 76.1 innings. A Rodriguez moundmate, Juan Carlos Lopez, led the circuit in wins with a perfect 9-0 mark and strikeouts with 110 in 88 frames to go with his 1.62 ERA.  Durango-Veracruz' Jesus Vega was the top batter with an even .400 average, Juan Sanchez of Tigres-Campeche led in homers with 10 and Monterrey-Aguascalientes' Bryan Sosa's 69 RBIs were tops. Remigio Diaz was named Manager of the Year after leading the Monclova-Puebla squad to a 47-40-1 record and a fourth-place finish.

According to Fernando Ballesteros of Puro Beisbol, the Mexican League has operated at least one academy since 1983 as a complex dedicated to housing hundreds of domestic prospects for the purpose of teaching and developing baseball skills, a number of which dot the map in Latin American baseball-playing countries (including ten in Mexico alone).  While the El Carmen complex is the longest-running and most important of the LMB-linked five academies, Ballesteros said in his May 15 Zona de Contacto column that it is also perhaps the most "obsolete" (as stated by one Liga official), adding that instructors there don't feel motivation commensurate with their salaries.

The Tijuana Toros operate an academy of their own from which the team has been able to sell the rights of several prospects to Major League organizations, there's another in the state of Sinaloa that reportedly has the "endorsement" of MLB but lacks an established funding mechanism and faces an uncertain future and similar academies are operated by Gerardo Benavides in Monclova and brothers Juan Jose and Erick Arellano in their hometown of Mazatlan for their Yucatan and Laguna LMB prospects.

Brothers Adrian and Edgar Gonzalez, along with father David, opened the Gonzalez Sports Academy near the California-Mexico border in 2010 and generated controversy by seeking to negotiate contracts with big league teams directly, bypassing the Mexican League (which recently was endorsed by MLB as exclusive rights-holders for Mexican prospects).  That effort landed in a courtroom in 2013 after the Majors ruled that one Gonzales prospect's rights actually belonged to the LMB Diablos Rojos and while Ballesteros' May column referred to that academy as still operational, the GSA website was shut down by a hacker and their Facebook page has had no activity since some photos were updated in early February.


Tijuana Toros outfielder Dustin Martin
Former AAA All-Star Game outfielder (in 2010 for Rochester) Dustin Martin has had a hard time getting untracked in 2017, but he showed why he is still one of the most dangerous batters in a loaded Tijuana lineup by belting a pair of two-run homers to aid the Toros' 7-3 win over visiting Monterrey Thursday night at Estadio Gasmart in the border city.  The triumph handed Tijuana their fifth consecutive series sweep, this one against the Mexican League North Division leaders' closest challengers, while extending their season high win streak to 16 games.

The 33-year-old Martin, a former Mets, Twins and Diamondbacks farmhand who was also a New York-Penn League All-Star in 2006 and Florida State League All-Star in 2007, hit .325 with 19 homers, 33 stolen bases and 88 RBIs for Tijuana last year.  Thus far in 2017, he's batting .254 with 14 homers, 23 steals and 67 ribbies in 96 games.  Thursday night's performance showed that any opposing pitcher who downplays the Sam Houston State product to concentrate on the likes of Corey Brown, Alex Liddi or Cyle Hankerd in the playoffs may pay for their oversight.

Despite Martin's longball heroics, the key blow may have been a bases-clearing double by Roberto Lopez (batting ninth) in the second inning that gave the Toros a 3-0 lead that Martin extended in the sixth with his first two-run blast.  Monterrey narrowed the TJ lead to 5-3 when ageless Rafael Diaz came in from the bullpen in the eighth and allowed three Sultanes runs on four hits before Juan Sandoval was sent to the mound to record the final out of the entrada, but Martin's second bomb in the bottom of the eighth provided the final margin of victory for the home team.

A packed house of 17,980 looked on at Estadio Gasmart (capacity 16,811) Thursday night, bringing total attendance for the three-game set to 49,416.  More important, the potent Toros battered Monterrey's pitching staff, which came into the series with a team ERA of 3.87, for 24 runs on 35 hits over the three games.  Heading into Friday's series opener at Aguascalientes, the 70-28 Toros now lead 63-34 Monterrey by six-and-a-half games in the LMB North standings with 12 games left in the regular season.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Tijuana win skein at 13; Tigres fire skipper Vizcarra

Tijuana Toros pitcher Horacio Ramirez
Former Diamondbacks prospect Cyle Hankerd scored from third base when Tabasco third baseman Kristian Delgado bobbled Jorge Cantu's grounder in the top of the sixth inning to break a 3-3 tie and the Tijuana Toros went on to post a 7-3 win over the Olmecas Sunday to stretch their season-high Mexican League winning streak to 13 games.  Dustin Martin's three-run homer in the seventh gave TJ their final margin of victory as former MLB pitcher Horacio Ramirez got the win to raise his record to 3-2 in his ninth start of the year after missing ten weeks between April and June due to injury.

The contest was played in front of a cozy gathering of 960 fans at Villahermosa's Estadio Centenario 27 de Februar, where the Olmecas have been plagued by poor attendance and a faulty ballpark lighting system all season.  The 67-28 Toros have the best record in the circuit and hold a three-and-a-half-game lead over 63-31 Monterrey in the LMB North standings with 15 games left in the regular season.  The Sultanes have mostly kept pace with their own six-game win string.  Manager Pedro Mere's Toros have found July to their liking, winning 18 of 20 contests thus far. Tijuana opened the month with a five-game winning streak before losing a pair of games in Monclova, then launched their current run with a 1-0 win over the Acereros July 9 to avoid the sweep.  Since then, they've reeled off consecutive sweeps against South Division weak sisters Campeche and Tabasco, first in a six-game homestand and then another six on the road.

The LMB North's top four teams have made hay in their two weeks of cross-divisional play.  Besides TJ's 12-0 run, Monterrey had a record of 9-3 against Veracruz and Oaxaca, as did Monclova (who played the same two clubs), while overachievers Aguascalientes posted an 8-4 mark against defending champion Puebla and Leon to continue the North's season-long mastery over their counterparts to the south.  Tijuana, Monterrey, Monclova and Aguascalientes are well out in front of the rest of the LMB North pack and all but assured playoff berths.

That dominance has not applied to the Yucatan Leones, however.  The LMB South leaders drew Union Laguna and Durango as their crossover opponents and came away winning 8 of 12 games.  Yucatan has brought in Monterrey coach Juan "Chico" Rodriguez to replace the fired Willie Romero as manager after coach Oswaldo Morejon filled in for a couple games.  Rodriguez was a Salon de la Fama shortstop during his 20-year Liga playing career, mostly with Veracruz and Aguascalientes.  Romero will manage in Navojoa next winter but has not landed with another LMB team yet.  That will likely change for someone with his credentials.  Puebla went 7-5 against Aguascalientes and Saltillo so it wasn't a total wash for the southern sides.  Teams will play only within their divisions over the final five series of the regular season schedule.

Romero isn't the only former helmsman looking for work.  The Quintana Roo Tigres relieved manager Roberto "Chapo" Vizcarra of his duties following a series-opening 3-1 loss at home to Union Laguna. Vizcarra was in his fifth season running the Tigres and had been quite successful over his first four, winning two pennants and posting a 182-122 record after taking over the team late in the 2013 season.  However, 2017 was not kind to the Sonora native as Quintana Roo was 36-49 after losing 12 of their first 14 games this month (including a nine-game losing skid).  Vizcarra, who becomes the ninth LMB manager fired this season but will remain with the Tigres organization working with prospects, was replaced by third base coach Hector Hurtado.  A former catcher who managed the ill-fated Reynosa Broncos last season, Hurtado led Quintana Roo to a four wins over his first five games.  The beleaguered team, which has been plagued by financial problems off the field under new owner Fernando Valenzuela, is now in a virtual tie for third with Veracruz in the LMB South at 40-50.  With the bottom four teams in the division fading to the finish line, both the Tigres and Rojos del Aguila are almost sure bets to join Yucatan and Puebla in the postseason.

Former Durango outfielder Yadir Drake's .385 average compiled before his exit to Japan (where paychecks presumably arrive on time) has made the LMB batting title the Cuban exile's to lose.  A former Drake teammate with the Generales, third baseman Daniel Mayora, now plying his trade in Monterrey, is second at .375.  Mayora was hitting .425 in his first nine games with the Sultanes but did not play during their weekend home series with Oaxaca as veteran Agustin Murillo manned the hot corner.  Mayora's absence from the lineup was not felt too acutely as manager Felix Fermin's squad, who lead the Liga with a collective .317 average, put 30 runs and 45 hits on the scoreboard in the Sultanes' three-game sweep of the Guerreros.

Tijuana outfielder Corey Brown pummeled two homers against Tabasco to give him a league-leading 22 for the season, one more than Aguascalientes infielder Jose Vargas.  A Ventura, California product, the 29-year-old Vargas is making his Mexican League debut in 2017 after spending three years in the White Sox system and another six playing independent ball, but he's making up for lost time after joining the Rieleros, homering in five straight games earlier this month and socking his 21st longball in 69 games Sunday against Leon.  Yucatan's Ricky Alvarez is regaining his stroke in Merida following his midseason trade from Laguna.  He had two homers and six RBIs last Tuesday against Durango and is hitting .366 over his last ten games with the Leones while his 97 ribbies lead Monclova's Manny Rodriguez by 13 in that category.  Monclova centerfielder Justin Greene had three stolen bases last week to bring his season total to 45 swipes, continuing to run away with the steals title (I'm not tired of that line QUITE yet).

Veracruz ace Nestor Molina had a no-decision Friday at Monclova in his first start in eight days, but pitched well (7 IP, 1 ER, 9 K) to lower his Liga-leading ERA to 1.62 and crack the century mark in strikeouts at 104.  The 11-1 Molina has singlehandedly kept the Eagle Reds in playoff contention and is the frontrunner for BBM's Summer Pitcher of the Year award.  Monclova's Josh Lowey hasn't been as dominant as in year's past at 7-5 with a 3.08 ERA, but the Floridian is cruising to his third straight strikeout title with 121 ponches over 108 innings.  Mexico City hurler Octavio Acosta was reached in Campeche for three runs on nine hits over 5.1 innings in Saturday's no-decision, but still leads the loop in wins with a 12-1 record in the Guasave product's breakout year.  There's a spirited competition for the saves crown among five closers going down the stretch.  Chad Gaudin (Monclova) and Wirfin Obispo (Monterrey) are tied for the lead with 25 saves each, one ahead of Jason Urquidez (Tijuana) at 24 while Tiago da Silva (Durango) has 22 and ex-MLBer Jose Valverde (Aguascalientes) has 21.  Da Silva may have trouble gaining ground with Generales management white-flagging the season via the jettisoning of stars Drake and Mayora, but Urquidez has been solid all year while Valverde has been the linchpin of an otherwise marginal Rieleros pitching staff, converting his 21 saves in 24 opportunities.

With the Liga's interdivisional games concluded until the Serie del Rey in September, the rest of the regular season schedule becomes doubly important as playoff contenders will now play head-to-head over the final five series.  The biggest midweek faceoff will undoubtedly be in Tijuana, where the Toros host a Monterrey side they've been unable to shake off despite TJ's dozen straight wins.  While this series won't settle the question of who wins the LMB North's top seed, it'll go a long way in that direction.  There are more than one series that matter next weekend.  Tijuana will be on the road to take on an Aguascalientes team playing well under manager Homar Rojas.  While the Rieleros may be the fifth-best team of the five given a realistic shot at the pennant, they may also be the squad that nobody wants to draw in the postseason.  They've been finding ways to win all year long.

An intruiging LMB South weekend matchup will be Yucatan at Puebla.  The Leones have led the division almost wire-to-wire this year and while the ouster of Romero (the defending two-time Manager of the Year) is a bit of a headshaker, the less-volatile Rodriguez has kept the team winning.  The Pericos, for their part, were emaciated following their 2016 pennant-winning campaign when owner Gerardo Benavides transferred Puebla's core players to his newly-purchased Monclova team, but they've hung in there this season and have played better since former Blue Jays skipper Tim Johnson took the reins from Von Hayes earlier this season.  The Parrots will not be a pushover.

One interesting sidebar is that Benavides is now making noises about possibly moving the Pericos to either Juarez or Nuevo Laredo next season, disappointed with attendance figures in Puebla this year (3,051 per game, a decline of 29 percent from 2016) but apparently not connecting the dots as to why.  Veracruz owner Jose Antonio Mansur has made similar comments about relocating the Rojos del Aguila to the Texas border.  Puebla and Veracruz are two of the LMB's longest-standing cities, although franchises have come and gone in both over the years.

Friday, July 21, 2017

LMB to play two seasons from April to November in 2018

LMB Assembly (with Javier Salinas on microphone)
The Mexican League has formally announced that it will be playing two shorter seasons during the 2018 calendar year, beginning in April and ending in November.  The announcement came at the Liga's Assembly of Presidents meeting Thursday in Mexico City. The plan is for two separate 66-game regular season schedules with playoffs, bridged by a one-week rest in July during which the LMB's All-Star Game (there'll be just one of those) is played.

While the move, approximating the country's popular Liga MX soccer circuit's Apertura and Clausura tournaments (which drew crowds of about 27,000 per match for its 2016-17 seasons), represents a radical departure from baseball orthodoxy, Minor League Baseball president Pat O'Connor was in attendance at Thursday's meeting and endorsed the move.  O'Connor, you may recall, was compelled to call an emergency meeting of LMB teams in February when internecine squabbling threatened to tear the 16 teams into two leagues or cancel the 2017 season altogether.  Instead of two leagues, now we'll see two seasons for 2018.

Currently, the Liga plays a single 112-game regular season schedule from early April to mid-August, followed by a three-tiered, eight-team playoff lasting about a month into mid-September.  The new format will include two 66-game regular seasons followed by playoffs, with the LMB's "Apertura" lasting from April to July and their "Clausura" running from August into November.  The notion of a two-season format was floated last month in a reference made by incoming league president Javier Salinas, whose background has been (not so ironically, apparently) entirely as a Liga MX marketing executive.  There was no word whether Salinas was going to divide the LMB into eight-team Premier and First Divisions with promotion/relegation playoffs for 2018, but it's only July.

Salinas, who will replace retiring LMB president Plinio Escalante at the conclusion of the current season and has been serving as a de facto co-president, addressed the addition of 20 games and a separate playoff to a league in which half its teams are teetering on economic collapse.  "The cost is relative," he said.  "You can raise or lower it.  If you qualify for the playoffs, it decreases.  If you manage your team better, the same. Each team is independent and will have the economic strategy that suits them best."  Salinas and the LMB team presidents will be relying on added sponsorships next season to help offset the added expenses accrued from lengthening the overall season two months for teams like the Tabasco Olmecas, who had 178 warm bodies rattling around Estadio Centenario 27 de Febrero for a game against Yucatan earlier this month, and the Durango Generales, who've had some players refusing to play because they hadn't been paid in weeks.

Prior to Thursday's press conference from the Assembly meeting, the two-season proposal had drawn almost universal skepticism from Mexican baseball's print commentators, but the move may ultimately draw the strongest reaction from the Mexican Pacific League.  While the LMB has eleven teams drawing fewer than 5,000 fans per night (seven clubs are bringing in fewer than 3,000 per opening), the MexPac has built itself into a juggernaut with a leaguewide attendance average of just under 10,000 per game, a figure that dwarfs every league in organized Minor League Baseball.  The LMP season traditionally opens in mid-October, meaning the LMB's Clausura will overlap the MexPac schedule by about a month.  

According to Beatriz Pereyra of Proceso, the LMB will require players to sign contracts for both seasons, thus cutting the player pool for the MexPac.  Thus far, LMP president Omar Canizales has been silent on this topic, but it's expected by some that his league will respond by opening their rosters to more imported talent from the United States to fill the void while the Liga plays out its Clausura season.  In effect, the LMB's lengthening of its schedule is a declaration of war on the LMP, which has in the recent past explored expansion into Liga cities like Monterrey, Tijuana and even Mexico City. 

Whatever happens, the LMB will likely have the backing of Major League Baseball and commissioner Rob Manfred, which recently gave the Liga their version of the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval despite the financial mess many Mexican League teams are in.  According to Pereyra, three teams (Durango, Leon and Saltillo) each owe the Liga MX$15 million in assessments for 2017, with Leon owner Arturo Blanco owing another 900 thousand pesos toward the purchase price of the former Reynosa Broncos, while several other LMB franchises owe MX$2.5 million to the league office. 

One of those teams, the Veracruz Rojos del Aguila, are looking to move, possibly to Nuevo Laredo. The Eagles are currently eleventh in the LMB attendance derby with a per-game average of 2,647. Team president Jose Antonio Mansur backtracked a bit by later stating he would keep the team in the port city if attendance improves over the rest of the current season, during which the 40-49 Rojos del Aguila have been a playoff contender in the weak South Division.  

The club has been a past recipient of government subsidies to remain afloat, a common occurance with several LMB franchises.  However, the exiled ex-State of Veracruz governor responsible for recent largesse, Javier Duarte, was arrested outside the country in April after a six-month manhunt and is facing charges of pilfering millions of dollars from public coffers, as are many of his associates.  Duarte was extradited from Guatemala City earlier this week.  In all, eight former Mexican governors have been indicted for similar crimes and their successors have typically reined in past subsidies to sports teams that have relied on them to meet payroll, among other expenses.

In all, the LMB's break from baseball tradition would be fascinating to observe, let alone report on, under any circumstance.  That the Liga is doing so amid internal financial peril to so many of its teams accentuates how badly Salinas and the owners will need this to work in order to bring fans in through the gates and sponsorship pesos to team bank accounts.  We'll be watching.

P.S.  The LMB also announced the return of its Mexican Winter League for a third season, opening on October 20.  The six-team LIM, considered Class A in the country's baseball system, is a prospect-oriented circuit that allows only Mexican-born players.  It's presumed the loop will play a single-season schedule.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

No new Mazatlan ballpark; Teodoro Mariscal to be remodeled

Mazatlan mayor Fernando Pucheta Sanchez (center)
Now that halting attempts to have a brand-new ballpark built for Mazatlan have been abandoned, a full renovation of 55-year-old Estadio Teodoro Mariscal has gone from Plan B status to reality.  Between the resident Venados Mexican Pacific League franchise and both state and local governments, about 308 million pesos (or approximately $17,000,000US) has been earmarked for the project.

A ceremony invoving team and government officials was held Friday at the Teodoro Mariscal site.  According to a City of Mazatlan press release, mayor Fernando Pucheta Sanchez told the assembled group, "I appreciate everyone present for the enthusiasm they show in the works being carried out in the municipality, works that go within a framework of respect and legality, works that I don't mind paying the cost that means the discomfort they represent today, but tomorrow they'll be the pride of all Mazatlecos."  Pucheta may have been referencing alleged under-the-radar dealings involving politicians in the contruction of some of the many new MexPac ballparks that have popped up this decade.

While the Teodoro Mariscal renovation will not make the 15,000-seat facility a "new" ballpark, per se, it's projected to bring the facility more in line with its counterparts in places like Culiacan, Hermosillo and Obregon for amenities and revenue-producing potential.  Once one of Mexico's top ballparks, Mariscal has shown its age the past several winters and when talks were held weeks ago about where in Mexico to relocate next February's Caribbean Series from strife-torn Venezuela, the five-time CS host was not even considered.  The event went to Guadalajara instead.

Estadio Teodoro Mariscal was opened April 26, 1962, eighteen months after construction began on plans drawn up by architect Quirino Ordaz Luna.  The ballpark's location was regarded as somewhat remote at the time but as Mazatlan has filled in and added a Zona Dorado tourist enclave to the north, Teodoro Mariscal is now considered fairly central.  The scuttled plans for a new ballpark placed that proposed facility to the north of the Zona Dorado near the ocean, which would've made it a chore for some Mazeltecos to make it to a Venados game.  Instead, baseball will continued to be played where it's been for over five decades.

According to Puro Beisbol columnist Juan Angel Avila, the ballpark renovations (which will be performed in three stages) will bring about a Venados Hall of Fame, new locker rooms, a gym for player workouts, a medical/rehab room, an area for live musical performances and a children's play area.  Avila adds his admiration that, unlike similar projects elsewhere, the Mazatlan redo appears to be less about the talk and more about the action, and that work is already getting underway.

Beside the five Caribbean Series between 1978 and 2005, Teodoro Mariscal has been the scene of 15 MexPac championship series (the Venados have won nine LMP pennants) and All-Star Games in 1965 and 1983.  Mazatlan has historically been one of the better-drawing teams in the winterball circuit, but that was not the case last season.  The Deer drew a total of 198,589 fans to 34 home dates in the 2016-17 season for an LMP-low average of 5,851 per opening during a regular season during which nearly 10,000 aficionados clicked the turnstiles leaguewide on a nightly basis.

The renovations in Mazatlan will leave just Los Mochis and Navojoa among the eight MexPac franchise playing in ballparks that have not been at least renovated in the past decade.  The Caneros play at 11,000-seat Estadio Emilio Ibarra Almada (erected 1947) while the Mayos call 11,500-seat Estadio Manuel "Ciclon" Echeverria (1970) home.  Talks have been held in both LMP sites regarding ballpark renovations or replacement, but nothing firm has been agreed to in either city.

While nobody is saying anything right now, it's fairly common knowledge that brothers Juan Jose and Erick Arellano (Mazatlan natives who own both the Yucatan Leones and Union Laguna Vaqueros of the Mexican League) have coveted their hometown as a potential LMB franchise site.  The Arellanos reportedly were proponents of the new ballpark as a condition for bringing a Liga team to the Pearl of the Pacific, but it's not known whether they would still pursue a team to play in the new and improved Teodoro Mariscal instead.  An anticipated offseason scheduling turf war between the two leagues will hinder any LMB attempts to place teams in MexPac territory in any regard.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Toros' Barreda hurls no-no; Romero fired in Yucatan

Manny Barreda gets doused following his 2nd no-hitter since November
Although the 2017 season has not likely gone the way Manny Barreda hoped it would after a good enough start to the year, the Tijuana Toros' right-handed pitcher from Sahuarita, Arizona has accomplished a rare feat by tossing his second no-hitter in eight months in Sunday's 4-0 win over Tabasco.  Barreda turned in a similar performance for Los Mochis last November 28 when he blanked Hermosillo, 2-0, giving him a no-hitter in both the Mexican and Mexican Pacific Leagues within eight months of each other.

Similar to his November no-no, which required 138 pitches, Barreda had to work deep into counts to Olmeca batters en route to a 145-pitch performance but only walked two Tabasco batsmen while striking out 14.  The contest was scoreless until the bottom of the third inning when Jose Guadalupe Chavez scored on a Juan Apodaca line-drive single to left.  Apodaca later came around to plate a run on Jorge Cantu's single up the middle.  Tabasco starter Angel Araiza found more trouble in the bottom of the fourth when Dustin Martin's 20th double of the year brought in Gabriel Gutierrez and Corey Brown to make it a 4-0 contest.

That would turn out to be more than enough cushion for Barreda to work with as he retired eleven Olmecas in a row before allowing a walk to the dangerous Sandy Madera in the seventh, then put away Tabasco's final seven men to seal the no-hitter and win.  Araiza was at times his own worst enemy on the mound for the visitors.  Despite only pitching those first four innings, the eighth-year veteran righty tossed 104 pitches but only 55 went for strikes as he walked five Toros hitters among the 25 he faced.

Barreda's strong winterball campaign for the Caneros (a 2.20 ERA and 1.077 WHIP with 66 strikeouts over 69.2 innings) led to his signing with the Atlanta organization in December, but he was returned to Mexico without ever pitching a regular-season inning in the Braves system.  Although the 28-year-old has pitched reasonably well for the Toros since arriving in the border city on April 4, showing a 3.63 ERA after 16 starts and striking out 88 hitters over 89.1 innings, Sunday's win was only his fourth in ten decisions for the team with the best record in the Liga.

A throng of 13,598 (equal to a week-long homestand in Villahermosa) looked at at Tijuana's Estadio Gasmart as the Toros won their seventh straight contest and widened their LMB North lead to three-and-a-half games over Monterrey, who lost at Oaxaca Sunday by a 6-2 count.  The Sultanes have lost six of their last ten games and now have to worry less about catching up to TJ and more about holding off a hard-charging Monclova team sitting one game behind them in the standings after the Acereros swept a road series in Oaxaca and took two of three games in Veracruz last week.  Aguascalientes is now six games behind Monterrey in fourth place and the Rieleros continue to play well for manager Homar Rojas, a past expert at working with low-budget rosters who's led the Railroaders to eleven wins in 14 games this month.

The Yucatan Leones continue to hold a comfy lead in the LMB South, but surprised observers by firing manager Willie Romero on Saturday.  Romero got into a heated argument with a fan following a heartbreaking 1-0 home loss to Puebla on July 9 and was serving a resulting suspension handed down by the Liga office when the axe fell on the two-time LMB Manager of the Year.  Romero arrived in Merida as a player in 2003 and was well-liked by Leones fans (except for at least one, apparently) after being a key performer for Yucatan's 2006 pennant winners and had led the Lions to an overall 193-110 record since taking the helm in 2015 and had them at 50-31 before his suspension began Friday.

Bench coach Oswaldo Morejon, who retired as a player last year after hitting .296 with 2,011 hits in his 20-year LMB career, has taken over for Romero and may remain manager the rest of the season although with the Arellano brothers in charge, one never knows for sure...don't be shocked if Union Laguna helmsman Ramon Orantes (like Morejon a longtime Liga infielder who retired last fall after 24 seasons) is brought in and reunited with former Vaqueros MVP candidate Ricky Alvarez.

Speaking of Alvarez, the stocky first baseman has struggled a bit since arriving from Torreon June 20 in a one-sided trade between the two teams owned by the Arellanos involving eight players.  Alvarez was hitting .330 with 13 homers and a LMB-high 75 RBIs in 66 games at the time of the trade (attendance in Laguna has plummeted in the aftermath), but has hit .295 with two homers and 14 ribbies in 22 games with Yucatan.  The Leones split road six games in Durango and Laguna last week while Puebla won four of six crossover home games against Aguascalientes and Saltillo to shave Yucatan's division lead to seven-and-a-half games.  The Pericos beat the Saraperos twice over the weekend as well-traveled Jon Del Campo (playing for his third team in 2017 and seventh Liga squad since 2011) socked a grand slam on Saturday and a two-run homer Sunday for his first two longballs of the year.

WIth three weeks remaining in the regular season, the batting title is Yadir Drake's to lose.  The former Durango outfielder from Cuba left his .385 average behind when he left to pay for Japan's Nippon Ham Fighters, for whom he's batting .138 after eight games.  Monterrey's Daniel Mayora is second at .372 after going 11-for-26 in his first six contests for the Sultanes.  Aguascalientes' Jesse Castillo hasn't dropped off since winning the All-Star Game MVP award in Campeche, belting two homers in Leon Friday to tie Tijuana's Corey Brown for the Liga lead.  Yucatan's Alvarez continues to top the list for RBIs with 89, but underrated Manny Rodriguez of Monclova (if a career .317 hitter can be called "underrated") drove in five runs last week to bring his total to 79.  Manny's new teammate, Justin Greene, swiped a base in each game of the Acereos' weekend series against Veracruz to continue running away with the stolen base title at 42.  And, yes, I'll use that line until I get bored with it.

It may be a good thing the Liga doesn't let gringos like me vote for postseason awards because I have no idea who I'd mark down for Pitcher of the Year.  Mexico City's Octavio Acosta beat Campeche last Friday in Estadio Fray Nano, which is no pitcher's park by any stretch, to run his season record to 12-1.  Acosta leads the LMB in wins, ranks sixth with 88 strikeouts in 104.2 innings and his 2.67 ERA is eighth on that list.  Then there's Nestor Molina, who has somehow posted an 11-1 mark for a very marginal Veracruz club.  Then again, his 1.63 ERA over 19 starts would take care of the "somehow" part of the equation, as would his 95 strikeouts (second to the 117 recorded by Monclova's Josh Lowey).  It's hard not to consider Yucatan's Yoanner Negrin, too.  Although he's not having anywhere near the year he had in winning this award in 2016, Negrin is 11-3 and fourth in ERA at 2.48.  The Cuban exile has a combined 33-5 record since joining the Leones from the Cubs organization just over two years ago.

Reliever of the Year won't be easy for voters either.  Last year's winner, Chad Gaudin, is tops with 24 saves to augment his 2.25 ERA while Monterrey closer Wirfin Obispo is one behind at 23 saves with an even better 2.07 ERA.  Still, I'd cast my vote for Durango's Tiago da Silva, who's third with 21 saves in 28 appearances after missing over a month with an arm injury.  The Brazilian tossed a scoreless ninth in Sunday's win over Quintana Roo to lower his ERA to 1.78 in his first appearance since June 11.  The Generales are in seventh and 23 games out of first in the LMB North, but it's hard to imagine where they'd be without the 32-year-old righty.

Perhaps the biggest upcoming midweek series on the schedule will be in Aguascalientes, where the Rieleros try to stay hot against a Puebla team that's been playing better themselves in recent days.  The inter-divisional games continue next weekend with no huge sets on the docket, although Veracruz at Monclova hold some intrigue.  The Rojos del Aguila are trying to cement their hold on third place in the LMB South while the Acereros try to continue their climb up the North ladder.  Nestor Molina is scheduled to pitch Wednesday in Monterrey amid this buzzsaw of a road trip the Eagles will take this week and will not open in Monclova.

LMB STANDINGS (as of July 17)
North Division: Tijuana 61-28, Monterrey 57-31, Monclova 56-32, Aguascalientes 52-38, Union Laguna 47-41, Mexico City 46-43, Durango 38-51, Saltillo 35-52
South Division: Yucatan 52-32, Puebla 47-42, Veracruz 40-46, Quintana Roo 36-48, Leon 34-50, Oaxaca 33-53, Campeche 32-52, Tabasco 30-57

Friday, July 14, 2017

Ensenada wins both Liga Norte halves, playoffs open Saturday

Jermy Acey, interviewed by actor Branscombe Richmond
The Ensenada Marineros parlayed a four-run eighth inning into an 8-5 comeback win over Puerto Penasco Thursday night to clinch the North Mexico League's second-half championship with a 25-17 record, one game ahead of the 24-18 San Quintin Freseros.  Alberto Querales went 3-for-3 with a homer and three RBIs for the Marineros while Miguel Rodriguez slashed a two-run double in the decisive eighth, giving the home team a final season record of 52-31 and winning both halves to collect 16 total points toward playoff seeding.  Defending champion San Quintin (48-36) finished second in both halves to come in at 14 playoff points.  San Luis (40-43) came in third with 10.5 points and Puerto Penasco (41-43) rounds out the playoff field as the Tiburones picked up 11.5 points.  Caborca (37-45) and Mexicali (31-51) will both miss the postseason.

The Liga Norte is considered as Class AA within Mexico's pro baseball structure, with each of the circuit's six franchises sharing affiliations with two Mexican League teams.  The LNM is one of two AA leagues in the Mexican system; the other plays at the Mexican League Academy campus near Monterrey.  Ensenada is a farm team for the Mexico City and Oaxaca that (unlike their all-Mexican LMB parent clubs) has ten non-Mexican players on their 29-man roster, including San Diego-born infielder Nick Guerra, considered "nationals" via his Mexican-American status.  Guerra hit .250 in 25 games for the Marineros.

A minor league veteran outfielder from Texas had a banner year at the plate in the LNM this summer. Puerto Penasco outfielder Jermy Acey, a former Blue Jays farmhand who's played independent ball since 2006, led the Liga Norte in batting with a .358 average and 106 hits, finished third in RBIs (63) and tied for sixth in homers (10).   San Quintin's Marcos Veccionacci's 17 roundtrippers were tops in the loop while Edgar Duran of Ensenada led in RBIs with 77.  Vecchionacci had an MVP-type year for the Freseros, finishing third in the batting derby at .344 and coming in second to Duran (81) with 72 runs scored.  Duran was another standout, hitting .334 (sixth in the Liga Norte batting derby) and coming in second with 16 homers.

There are several LNM Pitcher of the Year candidates for 2017.  Elian Leyva of Puerto Penasco went 11-1 to lead the circuit in wins, followed by the 10 victories of Ensenada's Wanel Vasquez.  The latter registered 92 strikeouts to tie San Quintin starter Yeiper de Jesus Castillo and matched San Luis' Daniel Bloch for fourth on the ERA table at 3.66.  Leyva was also first with a 1.18 WHIP, finished third in ERA with a 3.34 mark (Ensenada's Alexis Lara was first at 2.92) and fourth in strikeouts with 78 ponches.  Ensenada closer Rafael Cova's 20 saves topped the chart, followed by Caborca's Loiger Luis Padron's 15.  Cova had a 1.87 ERA with 40 strikeouts over 33.2 innings.

The Liga Norte held its All-Star Weekend at Puerto Penasco, culminating with a June 10 Sonora win over Baja California by a 3-1 score.  Cuban Lazaro Leal of San Luis was named Game MVP.  Before the All-Star contest, Leal's Algodoneros teammate, Juan Carlos Torres, won the Home Run Derby.

The Liga Norte playoffs will open Saturday with a pair of semifinal games.  Top-seed Ensenada will host #4 Puerto Penasco while second-ranked (and 2016 titlist) San Quintin hosts San Luis.  The winners of the best-of-seven series will collide in the North Mexico League's Championship Series in another set scheduled for seven games, starting July 25.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Flurry of activity as Tuesday LMB trade deadline passes

Yucatan catcher Sebastian Valle
Tuesday marked the final day that Mexican League teams can make trades or sign free agents to their active rosters with one month remaining in the regular season, and fans of such transactions were not disappointed.  Dozens of players were either traded, brought in or cut loose throughout the LMB, and rather than go through the entire eye-glazing list, let's take a look at some of the key transactions made before the July 11 deadline passed.

The deal that drew the hottest reaction was the trade of the rights to catcher Sebastian Valle from Tabasco to Yucatan in exchange for pitcher Juan Delgadillo, infielder Kristian Delgado and two more players prior to the 2018 season.  The 26-year-old Valle played for Mexicali in last winter's Caribbean Series, putting the Aguilas into the semis by belting a walkoff homer in a 5-1 win over Venezuela's Zulia Aguilas in a battle of Eagles before catching for Mexico in the World Baseball Classic in Guadalajara.  The former Phillies prospect was signed as a minor league free agent by Seattle in the offseason but has spent almost the entire season on the disabled list, making one July 6 plate appearance in a rehab assignment with the Mariners' Arizona Rookie League team before his release two days later.

A Los Mochis native who has never played in the Mexican League, Valle has hit .253 with 74 homers over 822 games in his minor league career.  His LMB rights have been held by the Olmecas, who've had their own problems even without paying what will likely be a good salary for a catcher of Valle's status in Mexico, so the Olmecas jumped at the chance to add a veteran pitcher like Delgadillo (a son of Villahermosa in his 13th LMB season with 77-66 career record, including a 5-1 mark this year) and the versatile Delgado, who plays three positions and has hit .239 this year for both Tabasco and Union Laguna, where he played eight games on loan.

"Foul!," cried Monterrey Sultanes part-owner Jose "Pepe" Maiz, who came out of his season-long hibernation to complain to LMB president Plinio Escalante and president-in-waiting Javier Salinas that the Sultanes had a deal worked out with Tabasco to obtain Valle's right.  The LMB responded quickly, replying that there is no record of such an arrangement in the Liga's Mexico City offices and that the Olmecas' swap with Yucatan would hold.  Not that the Sultanes ended up standing still, signing All-Star third baseman Daniel Mayora (who was released by the financially imploding Durango Generales on Monday) and inking free agent first baseman-catcher Jesus Montero, a onetime top Yankees prospect who was released by the Orioles organization in late June after three injury-plagued months at AAA Norfolk.  Mayora, of course, fell one game short of tying the Mexican League record of 36 consecutive games with a hit and is among the LMB batting leaders with a .367 average.  Montero, who hit .260 with 15 homers and 62 RBIs for Seattle in 2012, will give the Sultanes a powerful bat and suspect glove.

Monclova was also busy up to the deadline.  The Acereros signed former major leaguers Carlos Quentin and James Loney as free agents while placing second baseman Tim Torres on the reserve list.  Quentin, who briefly played in the Puebla outfield last summer, appeared in two MLB All-Star Games and hit 154 homers in 834 games over nine big league campaigns (including a .288/36/100 season for the White Sox in 2008) .  Loney has eleven years of experience as an MLB first baseman, seven with the Dodgers, after finishing sixth in National League Rookie of the Year voting in 2006.  He has a career average of .284 with 108 homers.  Torres spent nine years as minor leaguer in four organizations, playing in the 2010 Southern League All-Star Game, before making his LMB debut with Oaxaca in 2015.  A versatile Oral Roberts product who can play seven positions, Torres hit .348 in 32 games for Tabasco and Monclova before being placed on reserve.

Other player moves included the signing of free agents OF Eliseo Aldazaba (Mexico City), OF Jeremias Pineda (Veracruz), IB-3B Alex Valdez (Saltillo) and 3B Eudor Garcia (Tijuana).  The most notable of that foursome may be Valdez, who hit 30 homers and drove in 100 last year for Monterrey and added 12 more longballs for the Sultanes this summer.  He represented Carmen at the LMB All-Star Game in both 2014 and 2015 and brings five-year Liga totals of .296/112/424 to the Saraperos lineup.  Unlike the power Valdez will add to the Saltillo batting order, Pineda is all about speed.  The Gulf Coast League's MVP in 20112, the 26-year-old Dominican was an All-Star for Veracruz in 2015, where he hit .285 with a Liga-leading 60 steals.  He's since spent time in the Marlins system before his release from AA Jacksonville on July 3.  Aldazaba belted 41 homers with 138 RBIs for Campeche over the 2014 and 2015 campaigns and will give the Diablos a reliable vet in the outfield.

The most intriguing pickup may be Garcia in Tijuana.  The 23-year-old El Paso native spent four years in the Mets system after being picked in the fourth round of the 2014 draft before being let go in late June.  While Garcia has been slowed by injuries, he's shown a good bat with gap power.  His signing will allow Toros manager Pedro Mere the chance to rest retiring veteran infielders Jorge Cantu and Oscar Robles by shifting Alex Liddi to first base and inserting Garcia at third.  In the postseason, that will matter.

One more notable roster move was the placement on the 60-day disabled list of catcher Iker Franco by the Quintana Roo Tigres.  A five-time All-Star for the Cancun team who was MVP of the 2011 LMB Championship Series, the 36-year-old Franco had hit just .157 in 17 games for the Tigres before he was shelved for the season Tuesday.  Franco played sparingly in 2015 and 2016 and is nearing the end of a solid, workmanlike career as a tough customer behind the plate and opportunistic batter.  His 14-year Liga totals include a .269 average with 112 homers and 531 ribbies.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Molina having standout year in Veracruz, ERA now at 1.41

Veracruz pitcher Nestor Molina
Let's start this story with a proven fact: No matter where he's pitched, Nestor Molina has been a winner.  Throw out a 6-12 season in 2012 while pitching for the White Sox organization, and the Venezuelan right-hander has posted a winning record every year since his pro baseball debut in 2007, with a career MiLB record of 60-28 in his eleventh summer.  Along the way, Molina was a postseason All-Star in the Class A Florida State League after going 10-3 with a 2.58 ERA for the Blue Jays' Dunedin affiliate in 2011 (his first year as a starter) prior to being sent to the Pale Hose that winter in a swap of minor leaguers.  He hasn't backed into that career .682 winning percentage either, registering a 3.13 ERA over 230 appearances, 92 of them starts.

Even with an impressive background like that, the 28-year-old Molina has dialed it up at least one notch this year pitching for the Veracruz Rojos del Aguila.  Molina raised his 2017 Mexican League record to 10-1 after shutting out Tabasco over six innings last Saturday en route to a 3-2 Red Eagles victory in Villahermosa, limiting the Olmecas to four singles while striking out four batsmen.  It marked Molina's tenth straight win after losing an April 8 home game to Leon despite a decent start in which he gave up two Bravos runs in six innings.  Consistency has been a hallmark, with only one of 18 starts not being a "quality" outing when Molina let in four Durango runs on eleven hits in six frames during a May 11 no-decision.  Every time out, he gives the Rojos del Aguila a chance to win.

Last weekend's win over Tabasco lowered Molina's earned-run average to 1.41 on the season, more than a full run better than Tijuana's Carlos Hernandez at 2.44.  His ERA stood at 2.54 after that rocky start against Durango, but he has lowered it in each of his next nine starts over the past two months.  In that stretch, Molina's ERA has been a microscopic 0.42 with with 47 strikeouts and 17 walks over 66 innings.  Molina is second in the Mexican League in strikeouts with 90 whiffs in 121.1 innings, trailing only Monclova's Josh Lowey's 108 punchouts.

Although the Veracruz roster has past and present All-Stars like first baseman Balbino Fuenmayor and outfielder Luis Suarez, Molina is clearly the main reason the Red Eagles have passed the Quintana Roo Tigres into third place in the punchless LMB South with a 37-43 record.  Although being six games under .500 is nothing to write home about, Veracruz might be battling to keep out of the division cellar if manager Eddy Castro couldn't send Molina to the mound every five games.  Instead, they're positioning themselves for the playoffs after finishing sixth in the LMB South in 2016.

Veracruz is one of the Liga's oldest baseball cities.  The Rojos del Aguila predate the Mexican League by more than two decades, making their debut in 1903.  The team is the oldest in the circuit, with six LMB pennants since 1937 while such baseball greats as Hall of Famer Martin Dihigo (who led the Red Eagles to titles in 1937 and 1938), Santos Amaro, Roberto Ortiz, Al Pinkston, Pilo Gaspar, Ramon Arano and Miguel Fernandez have worn Veracruz jerseys.  Jorge Pasquel, who briefly challenged the hegemony of Major League Baseball in the 1940's, was a Veracruzano.  While it's unlikely anyone in the LMB South will challenge Yucatan in the postseason this year (although defending champion Puebla has shown some signs of life lately), Nestor Molina will likely carry the Rojos del Aguilas on his back to their first playoff berth since 2013.

Things have heated up considerably in the North, where Tijuana loosened Monterrey's season-long grip on first place by sweeping the Sultanes at Estadio Monterrey in a midweek series last week before going into Monclova for a weekend series with the red-hot Acereros.  Monclova won the first two games of the series to stretch their winning streak to ten games before the Toros took Sunday's closer, 1-0, as Monclova starter Miguel Pena combined with three relievers for a six-hit shutout.  Corey Brown's fifth-inning double off hardluck Acereros starter Mauricio Lara drove in Isaac Rodriguez with the game's lone run as Pena's record rose to 8-2 while his ERA fell to 3.12.  For their part, Monterrey dropped the first two games of their home series with Mexico City before bouncing back Sunday to blank the Diablos Rojos, 8-0.  Angel Castro tossed seven innings of three-hit ball to go to 10-3 on the season and Ramon Rios cracked a fifth-inning grand slam off Diablos Rojos starter Efren Delgado in the Sultanes win.

The result of all this activity is that Tijuana maintains a tenuous half-game lead over Monterrey while Monclova has moved to three-and-a-half games back in third.  The Aguascalientes Rieleros hold fourth place after winning their first eight games in July before dropping a 5-4 decision to Laguna at home Sunday.  Puro Beisbol editor/columnist Fernando Ballesteros calls the Railroaders "dangerous" because they have more pitching depth than most LMB teams along with solid everyday players like MVP candidate Jesse Castillo, ageless All-Star Saul Soto, outfielder Dave Sappelt and newcomer third baseman Michael Wing, who's hit .441 with five homers in his first 20 games in Rieleros togs.  Suffice to say, nobody wants to face this team in the playoffs.

With former Durango outfielder Yadir Drake and his .385 batting average gone to Japan, the Cuban (who'll barely qualify for the batting title) set the bar for the rest of the Liga's hitters to catch up to.  At this point, Drake's lead in the batting race appears safe.  His former Generales teammate, Daniel Mayora, has moved into a tie with Monterrey's Chris Roberson for second place on the table with .367 averages.  Mayora missed a couple weeks with an injury shortly after his 35-game hitting streak ended, but he's gone 6-for-14 (.429) over three games since his July 6 return.  Tijuana's Brown homered Thursday and Saturday to become the first LMB batsman to reach 20 homers for the season, two ahead of Monclova's Matt Clark and Raniel Rosario of Saltillo.  Brown has also gone 12-of-14 on stolen base attempts and while his .292 average will hamper his MVP aspirations, the former Oklahoma State star has been a linchpin in the Toros lineup this summer.  Yucatan first baseman Ricky Alvarez' 86 RBIs are 12 ahead of Monclova second sacker Manny Rodriguez' 72, while Acereros outfielder Justin Greene is running away with the stolen base title (couldn't resist) with 38 swipes, well ahead of Mexico City speedster Carlos Figueroa's 23.

As mentioned, Veracruz' Molina (10-1/1.41/90K) is on his way to a career year and should be considered the frontrunner for Pitcher of the Year honors by keeping an at-best mediocre Red Eagles team in the playoff hunt.  However, there have been a number of top pitching efforts in the 2017 LMB season.  Former Mets farmhand Octavio Acosta of Mexico City won at Monterrey, 8-1, Saturday for his Liga-leading eleventh win.  The 11-1 Acosta has an ERA of 2.71 with 82 strikeouts in 99.1 innings pitched.  Besides Molina, Monterrey's Castro, Yohan Flande of Aguascalientes and Yucatan ace Yoanner Negrin (2016's Pitcher of the Year) have all reached the 10-win threshold.  Monclova's Lowey is well out in front of Molina in the strikeout derby by a 108-90 margin and Monterrey closer Wirfin Obispo has overtaken Durango's injured Tiago da Silva in the saves department.  Obispo has preserved 22 Sultanes wins while da Silva had 20 saves for the Generales before going on the shelf following a two-inning stint at Tijuana on June 11.

Coming up in the Mexican League, it'll be a crossover week as all eight LMB North teams do battle with counterparts in the South.  The most intriguing midweek series appears to be scheduled for Puebla, where the Pericos will host Aguascalientes in a matchup of teams positioning themselves for postseason runs.  The best series next weekend is slated for Torreon, where Union Laguna welcomes Yucatan as both teams owned by the Arellano brothers clash.  It'll be the first game back at Estadio Revolucion for Yucatan's Ricky Alvarez, who was traded to the Leones late last month, touching off a firestorm of criticism among Laguna fans and lower attendance at subsequent Vaqueros home games.  The numbers may rise next weekend but a festive mood is unlikely.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Toros sweep Sultanes in Monterrey, take LMB North lead

The Tijuana Toros knew they had an opportunity as difficult as it was enormous when they traveled to Monterrey for a three-game midweek series against the Sultanes.  Manager Pedro Mere's Toros had been looking up at Monterrey in the Mexican League's North Division standings all season, but Tijuana had whittled the Sultanes' lead down to two-and-a-half games by the time the set opened Tuesday.  The series gave the Bulls a chance to at least narrow the gap a bit, but they were facing a Monterrey team that leads the LMB in batting with a .315 average and had won seven games in a row, including road trip sweeps in both Campeche and Tabasco (where they endured lighting problems at Parque Centenario 27 de Febrero, where just 178 fans attended a doubleheader last Thursday).

The Toros not only accepted the challenge in front of them, they won all three games at Estadio Monterrey to pull a half-game ahead of the Sultanes in the standings.  Tijuana is now 54-26 (the best record in the Liga) while Monterrey fell to 53-26.  Monclova has been a few games back in third in the LMB North, but the Acereros have won their last eight games to pull four-and-a-half games out of the lead in what is shaping up to be a dandy division race over the last month of the regular season schedule.

Tijuana opened the series Tuesday with a 4-3 win as Dustin Martin's ninth-inning leadoff solo homer off reliever Thomas Melgarejo provided the difference.  Martin's blast gave TJ a two-run cushion that was enough to withstand a Monterrey rally in the bottom in the frame when closer Jason Urquidez gave up three hits, including an RBI single by Moises Gutierrez, and had runners on the corners with one out before striking out MVP candidate Chris Roberson and getting Ramon Rios to fly out to Corey Brown in center to end the contest with his 16th save.  Martin, who has struggled his way to a .250 batting average this season, went 2-for-3 with a walk and scored twice for Tijuana.  The loss wasted a 4-for-4 night for Sultanes' DH Luis Juarez, last winter's Mexican Pacific League batting champion who's hit .447 over his past ten games to raise his LMB season average to .299.  Toros starter Miguel Pena allowed two runs over six innings to go to 7-2 on the year while Angel Castro let in three scores over six frames for Monterrey to fall to 9-3.

The Toros held off Monterrey again on Wednesday night in a 4-3 win over the Sultanes.  Tijuana outhit the home team by a 13-6 margin, leaving ten runners on base, but the key hit of the night was a dribbler to the mound by Jose Guadalupe Chavez in the top of the sixth that enabled Roberto Lopez to come streaking in from third base to give the visitors a 4-2 lead.  Once again, the Sultanes came back to make it a one-run game in the bottom of the eighth when Zoilo Almonte poked a single into right field with runners at the corners to score Walter Ibarra from third, but Urquidez had a 1-2-3 ninth and struck out the last two batters to preserve the TJ lead for his 17th save.  Chavez singled twice and doubled as the Toros' leadoff batter, scoring once in addition to his run-scoring safety and three other Tijuana batters had two hits apiece.  Ibarra and Leo German each had two of Monterrey's six hits (a German double was the Sultanes' lone extra-base hit) as Tijuana starter Manny Barreda (3-6) allowed one run on two hits over six innings, striking out seven.  Monterrey's Jorge Reyes (1-2) was scuffed for ten hits in five frames in the loss, but only let in two runs.

Tijuana had to go into overtime for Thursday night's 8-4 victory to complete the broom job.  The Toros scored single runs in the second (Oscar Robles doubling in Jorge Cantu) and third (Alfredo Amezaga socked a leadoff homer) as the MLB veterans gave the visitors a 2-0 advantage.  Juarez evened the game with a two-run homer in the fourth off TJ starter Horacio Ramirez, another MLB vet,  and then took a 4-2 led two entradas later when Almonte lofted a two-run bomb off Toros reliever Ricky Ramirez, who'd walked Rios to open the inning.  This time, it was Tijuana's turn to come back, scoring once in the eighth on Brown's leadoff homer (his LMB-leading 19th) and knotting the contest in the ninth when Chris Valencia came in from third when Ibarra bobbled a Robles grounder to short.  After a scoreless tenth inning, the Toros put four runs on the board in the top of the eleventh as Martin lined a two-run single off Marco Carrillo to cap the scoring.  Edwin Quirarte came in from the bullpen to retire the Sultanes in order to end the game and series with another Tijuana win.  Chavez, Brown and Robles all had three hits to key the Toros' 17-hit attack, with Brown scoring twice, while Almonte's homer and single represented two of Monterrey's eight hits.  Pedro Villareal pitched a scoreless ninth and tenth for the Toros to earn the win.  Marco Rivas gave up Tijuana's first two runs in the eleventh to absorb the loss for Monterrey.

One interesting aspect of the series was attendance at the 27,000-seat Estadio Monterrey.  The Sultanes lead all of Minor League Baseball in attendance with a 12,047 average per opening and drew 27,529 over the three-game series with Tijuana (all played in triple-digit temperatures), but only 5,232 turned out for Tuesday's game while 6,858 were on hand Wednesday before 15,439 were in the stands for Thursday's finale.  One Puro Beisbol columnist mentioned earlier this week that the Sultanes have regularly given away tickets this season to put more backsides in the seats, but were not giving out free ducats for the tilts with the Toros.  No word on whether the house was papered for the Thursday night game, but it serves as a cautionary tale for teams in any sport who let people into their games for free and hope to make more money on concessions and merchandise sales: After people get used to attending your games for nothing, you run the risk that they'll eventually believe that's what your games are worth.

The Toros will move on to Monclova Friday for a three-game series with the Acereros while the Sultanes welcome the Mexico City Diablos Rojos for a weekend set in Monterrey.

Monday, July 3, 2017

LMB: Drake to Japan, Greene traded, Johnson released

The Durango Generales offense suffered a huge blow last week when All-Star outfielder Yadir Drake signed a contract with Japan's Nippon Ham Fighters for the rest of the 2017 season.  A onetime refugee who traveled from Cuba to Mexico on a raft, the 27-year-old Drake signed a half-season deal with the Hokkaido team for a reported 1.5 million yen (or about US$133,000), according to the Japan Times. The deal culminates what has been an incredible rise for Drake, who was leading the Mexican League with a .385 average (four points ahead of Monterrey's Chris Roberson) over 71 games with a month to go in the regular season while contributing 14 homers and 61 RBIs.

The Generales gave Drake his release last Thursday so he could sign with the Fighters, whose manager, Hideki Kuriyama, said, "I'm expecting big things from him, to act as a spark for our comeback in the second half of the season."  The team is currently fifth in the Pacific League standings with a 30-44 record.  Drake will be joining infielder Brandon Laird, the reigning league MVP who played for Mexico in this year's World Baseball Classic.  Another familiar name on the Fighters is pitcher Luis Mendoza, a former MLB hurler from Veracruz who is currently 2-6 with a 3.82 ERA. Mendoza has never pitched in the Liga, but spent parts of six winters pitching for Obregon in the Mexican Pacific League.

Meanwhile, Saltillo has traded their sarape for a white flag by sending their leadoff batter, All-Star outfielder Justin Greene, to the Monclova Acereros in what is likely a salary dump for the Saraperos, who are struggling in both the standings (last in the LMB North with a 31-44 record) and at the gate, where the team is averaging 5,482 fans per game at Estadio Francisco I. Madero, respectable by Mexican League standards but a far cry from when the team was averaging twice as many turnstile clicks just over a decade ago.  The Saraperos were built into an LMB powerhouse during the 14 years the team was owned by the Ley family (who also own the Culiacan Tomateros of the MexPac), but the franchise has been sold twice since 2013 and the current squad under owner Nerio Rodriguez has not bene popular among local fans, not shocking for a last-place entry.

Like Drake, Greene is a legitimate contender for MVP with a .365 average (fourth in the LMB), 63 runs scored (tied for third with Mexico City's Ramon Urias) and 37 stolen bases, far and away the most in that category.  Greene has also belted 10 homers this season, including a roundtripper during his Monclova debut Saturday in Campeche in which he went 3-for-5 with three runs scored.  Greene had his winterball season shortened last October 29 in a game for the Obregon Yaquis when he bunted a ball into his own face, causing a fracture and ending his campaign.  The South Carolinian was leading the LMP with 11 steals at the time.  To make room for Greene, Monclova shipped outfielder Julio Borbon (who recently tied a Liga record with six hits in a nine-inning game) to the Puebla Pericos.

There was one more player move that was somewhat surprising when Puebla released first baseman-pitcher Dan Johnson, who knuckleballed his way through five hitless innings in a June 24 start, his first in Mexico.  Johnson's second start four days later against Laguna ended early after he allowed five runs on as many hits in one inning.  He'd been productive at the plate for the Pericos since his mid-May arrival, batting .298 with seven homers and 22 RBIs in 32 games.  Perhaps the former MLBer wanted to continue pitching but if he does, he'll be doing it for the Leon Bravos, who signed and activated him as a free agent on July 2, one day after Puebla manager Tim Johnson let him go.  There shouldn't be much issue with Dan Johnson taking the mound in Leon, where the Bravos (owners of the worst record in the Liga at 26-47) are 13th of 16 LMB teams with a 5.27 ERA under manager Luis Rivera.

Don't think it hasn't escaped notice that Drake, Greene, Borbon and Johnson have all been featured in Baseball Mexico recently, but I'm not ready to declare a BBM Jinx quite yet.  But just in case, I stuck an LMB logo atop this story.  Whatever jinx the Liga has this season was likely self-inflicted.  There's no jinx in Monterrey, however, as the Sultanes have won seven games in a row (including road sweeps in Campeche and Tabasco last week) to take a two-and-a-half-games lead over Tijuana in the LMB North.  Monclova is solidly in third place while just two games separate Aguascalientes, Mexico City and Union Laguna in the battle for fourth and fifth places.  The Mexican League has added a wild card playoff game between fourth and fifth place teams in each division.  Yucatan (48-26) is ten-and-a-half games ahead of 39-38 Puebla in the LMB South standings.  Quintana Roo is in third while Veracruz holds fourth.

There are only four games between the remaining four teams for the fifth and final playoff berth, but the concern in Tabasco may be more about survival than postseason contention. The Olmecas had a disastrous homestand last week, drawing 2,337 fans to their three-game series against Monclova, had their Friday opener against Monterrey postponed due to power problems at Parque Centenario 27 de Febrero and pulled in 1,194 spectators to a Saturday doubleheader before just 178 warm bodies were in the seats for Sunday's 5-0 loss to the Sultanes.  That's an average attendance of 742 for five dates as interest in Villahermosa continues to dwindle.  Mercifully, the Olmecas will play a midweek series in Oaxaca, where the Guerreros aren't exactly packing them in either but at least they're drawing a fairly steady 2,500 per opening.

In the LMB batting race, Drake's numbers in Durango will qualify him for a few weeks after his departure for the Far East, and his .385 average still has the nod over Monterrey's Roberson at .381. Corey Brown of Tijuana leads the loop with 18 homers, two more than four players tied for second with 16 roundtrippers: Aguascalientes' Jesse Castillo, Matt Clark of Monclova, Alex Liddi of Tijuana and Saltillo's Rainel Rosario.  Ricky Alvarez appears to be adjusting to his new Yucatan team, driving in nine runs during last week's road trip to bring his season RBI total to 85 (14 ahead of Monclova second baseman Manny Rodriguez in second).  Greene's 37 steals in 52 attempts put him atop that table with 14 more than Mexico City's Carlos Figueroa.

Among pitchers, Diablos Rojos righty's Octavio Acosta's breakout year continues as he tossed seven innings of three-hit shutout ball against Oaxaca Sunday to win his third straight start, becoming the first LMB hurler to reach double figures in wins.  The 10-1 Acosta, a former Mets farmhand, is also sixth in strikeouts (74 in 92.1 IP) and ninth in ERA (2.92).  Veracruz ace Nestor Molina leads the Liga with a 1.48 ERA after holding potent Tijuana to one run in 16 innings over two starts last week.  The 9-1 Molina is tied with six others for second in wins while his 86 strikeouts are second to Monclova's Josh Lowey, whose 104 K's (including 11 whiffs in a seven-inning stint last Tuesday in Tabasco) have given him a nice cushion.  Lowey recorded 47 strikeouts and just nine walks over 32 innings for his last five starts.  With Durango closer Tiago da Silva shelved with a shoulder injury, Wirfin Obispo of Monterrey has gained the saves lead after going 5-for-5 in opportunity situations between June 25 and Jult 2.  Obispo now has 22 saves to da Silva's 20.

There will be a couple of midweek series worth watching this week.  The biggest will be in Monterrey, where the Sultanes will try to stretch their seven-game skein with a series against second-place Tijuana, while Campeche is in Veracruz in an attempt to gain ground on the Rojos Aguilas.  Next weekend's top series may be in the LMB South, when Puebla is in Merida for three games against Yucatan, although the Oaxaca-Campeche series at Estadio Nelson Barrera Romellon will be important for both teams in the playoff battle going on in that division.

Mexican League standings (as of Monday, July 3)
NORTH DIVISION: Monterrey 53-23, Tijuana 51-26, Monclova 43-30, Aguascalientes 43-35, Mexico City 41-36, Union Laguna 40-36, Durango 33-44, Saltillo 31-44
SOUTH DIVISION: Yucatan 48-26, Puebla 39-38, Quintana Roo 34-37, Veracruz 33-42, Oaxaca 30-45, Campeche 29-45, Leon 26-47, Tabasco 26-49

Спасибо за прочтение