Monday, August 7, 2017

Tigres sweep Tabasco, hold third in South with 3 games left

Two-time All-Star infielder Abel Martinez
It's been a long season in Cancun.  While many tourists may rejoice in that, the Quintana Roo Tigres would not likely share the sentiment.  Ever since Carlos Peralta, son of team founder Alejo Peralta, sold the Mexican League legacy franchise last winter to a small group of investors led by former Cy Young Award winner Fernando Valenzuela, little has seemingly gone right for the Tigres.  Off the field, Valenzuela's two partners bailed out on him, leaving the former Dodgers All-Star and wife Linda to go it alone in a city that has never really warmed to the team, with attendance at just over 3,000 per game in 2017.

On the field, several well-paid veterans were dispatched during the offseason but the newcomers that first-year GM Fernando Valenzuela, Jr. replaced them with have mostly failed to pick up the slack.  Manager Roberto Vizcarra, who led the Tigres to pennants in 2013 and 2015, was fired last month as a result but neither he nor new skipper Hector Hurtado have had much to work with.  Quintana Roo is last in the LMB in batting average (.264) and runs per game (3.91) and while the pitching has been better, only wily veteran Pablo Ortega is among the top 20 in ERA (12th at 3.17).  The 10-8 Ortega is also the only Tigres pitcher to reach double figures in wins.

Into this bleak picture, however, some late-arriving hope has arrived in the form of a seven-game winning streak, including sweeps last week of series against LMB South Division leaders Yucatan and South cellar-dwellars Tabasco at home in Estadio de Beisbol Beto Avila.  With three games left in the regular season, the Tigres have a 48-54 record.  In any other season, being six games under .500 gives little reason for optimism but in the crazy 2017 Liga campaign, it's good enough for Quintana Roo to take over third place in a South Division where only two of eight teams have winning records. Veracruz has dropped into fourth at 46-57 while Leon is fifth with a 43-59 mark, virtually assuring the Tigres a playoff berth at a time in which it appears the team may be peaking.

The Tigres wrapped up their home schedule Sunday with an 11-inning win over Tabasco, 5-4, in front of a season-high 6,309 fans.  Quintana Roo starter Kameron Loe was reached for four runs on nine hits over five innings, but five relievers combined to hold the Olmecas scoreless on two hits for the next six frames until 21-year veteran Abel Martinez lined a walkoff single up the middle off Tabasco reliever David Gutierrez to score Brian Hernandez from third in the bottom of the eleventh.  It was sweet revenge for the 40-year-old Martinez, who was released by Tabasco on June 6 despite a .313 average and spent the next month jobless until the Tigres came calling on July 4 and signed him.

While the Tigres have won seven in a row, Yucatan has struggled a bit of late at the top of the division.  Although the Leones have clinched the top postseason seed in the LMB South with a 61-41 record, the Merida club lost three of their last five games of July before embarking on a five-game losing skid to begin August until beating Campeche, 2-1, Sunday.  The Piratas had won seven of their last nine games.  The Lions host the Tigres for three games at Estadio Kukulcan Monday through Wednesday to close the regular season.  Second-place Puebla (55-52) will be at home to face fifth-place Leon (43-59) for three games.  The defending champion Pericos have picked up the pace under new manager Tim Johnson and clinched second but it's do-or-die time for the Bravos, who are two-and-a-half games behind fourth-place Veracruz (46-57) and need to finish within three games of the Aguilas to force a play-in game for the fourth and final seed in the South.

Things are only a little less muddled in the LMB North, where Tijuana (74-33) has clinched the division with a six-and-a-half-games lead over Monterrey (67-39).  The Sultanes are trying to hold off Monclova (66-39) for second, but regardless of who finished where, the two teams will open the playoffs against each other.  Who will Tijuana play in the first round?  That would be the Aguascalientes Rieleros (63-44), who won two of three over the Acereros in Monclova over the weekend, including a doubleheader sweep Saturday during which former MLB reliever Jose Valverde picked up saves in both games to bring his season total to 25.  Union Laguna (57-49) has not been eliminated from postseason contention but the Vaqueros need to sweep a home series against Durango (43-63) with the Rieleros dropping all three home games against Saltillo (42-63) to sneak into a play-in game.  Mexico City (55-51) will miss the playoffs for the second consecutive season after qualifying for the postseason 33 straight times.  The Diablos Rojos' demand to remain in the LMB North despite closer geographic proximity to LMB South teams now looks dubious; the Red Devils would be a half-game ahead of Puebla for second place in the South.

Former Durango outfielder Yadir Drake will back into the LMB batting title with a .385 average, just barely qualifying with exactly 300 plate appearances (the threshold was 299.7) before heading off to Japan at the end of June.  Only Monterrey's Daniel Mayora (.375) had a chance but Mayora hasn't played since July 20 with no explanation or transaction accompanying his absence.  Mayora had batted 17-for-40 (.425) with a homer and nine runs scored for the Sultanes in nine games after coming over from Durango, where paychecks are a rare treat, before disappearing from the lineup.  No word on when his visage will adorn milk cartons.

Saltillo's Rainel Rosario knocked out four homers last week to take the Liga lead with 25 for the season, one more than Tijuana's Corey Brown.  Rosario has a modest eleven-game hitting streak going, including two 3-hit games and five 2-hit nights, to bring his average up from .320 to .335 in that span.  The former Cardinals and Red Sox farmhand has also driven in 21 runs during his hit streak to overtake Yucatan's Ricky Alvarez for the RBI lead, 103 to 102.  Conversely, Alvarez has gone nine games without driving in a run for a total of 27 ribbies in 40 games with the Leones after bringing in 75 runs in 66 games for Laguna prior to the controversial June 20 trade that sent him to Merida.  Justin Greene of Monclova has had the stolen bases title locked up for some time, swiping two last week to bring his season total to 48, well ahead of former Saltillo teammate Christian Zazueta's 30 steals.

Although there've been some strong pitching performances in 2017, the list of candidates for Pitcher of the Year appears to be narrowed to two: Mexico City's Octavio Acosta and Nestor Molina of Veracruz.  A former Mets minor leaguer, Acosta beat Tijuana last Thursday to bring his record to 14-1, assuring him of the LMB wins title with no other hurler within three victories of him.  He also lowered his ERA to 2.99 (tenth in the circuit) with a strong outing against the potent Toros at Estadio Fray Nano, which is not a pitcher's park, and his 102 strikeouts rank sixth.  Molina was touched for five runs on seven hits over six innings last Thursday in Oaxaca, losing his second straight game to fall to 11-3 while his ERA went up from a phenomenal 1.54 to a merely remarkable 1.78.  Molina is tied for second in wins with five other pitchers and his 118 strikeouts are second only to the 138 of Monclova's Josh Lowey.

Acereros closer Chad Gaudin saved two games last week and now has 29, one more than Monterrey's Wirfin Obispo.  Obispo drilled Tijuana's Cyle Hankerd with an eighth-inning pitch and while Hankerd did finish the game, he'll be out of the Toros lineup with a resulting injury.  Some Tijuana observers believe Obispo deliberately hit Hankerd, stirring up bad blood between the two franchises that has existed since the Toros eliminated the Sultanes in the LMB North finals with a team laden with Mexican-American players (who do not count against the six-foreigner limit), a bone of contention with Monterrey owner Pepe Maiz that grew into a major offseason schism threatening the Liga's very future.

The biggest regular season-ending series?  They're all big for one reason or another, so here they are:  Mexico City at Monterrey, Saltillo at Aguascalientes, Durango at Union Laguna, Monclova at Tijuana, Leon at Puebla, Oaxaca at Veracruz, Campeche at Tabasco and Quintana Roo at Yucatan.  There will be no traditional Monday travel day so the schedule is slated to end Wednesday night.  Any seeding tiebreakers would be played Thursday.  If a play-in game is needed, they'd be played on Friday (or Saturday if a tiebreaker is first required).  The opening-round division semifinals will begin Sunday.

Mexican League Standings (through games of August 6)
LMB NORTH: Tijuana 74-33, Monterrey 67-39, Monclova 66-39, Aguascalientes 63-44, Union Laguna 57-49, Mexico City 55-51, Durango 43-63, Saltillo 42-63
LMB SOUTH: Yucatan 61-41, Puebla 55-52, Quintana Roo 48-54, Veracruz 46-57, Leon 43-59, Campeche 42-61, Oaxaca 40-65, Tabasco 36-68