Monday, August 21, 2017

Toros eliminate Aguascalientes; division championships next

Tijuana outfielder Dustin Martin
Dustin Martin singled in Chris Valencia with the go-ahead run in the bottom of the eighth inning and closer Jason Urquidez held Aguascalientes scoreless in the ninth, striking out the final two Rieleros batsmen, as the Tijuana Toros scored a 4-3 comeback win over the Railroaders Sunday night in front of 17,608 fans in the border city.

The victory gives the Toros a 4-games-to-2 first round playoff series win over Aguascalientes and a ticket to the Mexican League North Division championship series against Monterrey.  Yucatan and defending champs Puebla will square off in the LMB South championship set.  Both series will open Thursday night.

TIJUANA 4-10-1, Aguascalientes 3-8-1
W-Sandoval (1-0).  L-Merritt (0-1).  Sv-Urquidez (3).  A-17,608.  T-3:02.

Aguascalientes took an early 2-0 lead by scoring single runs in the first and second innings against Toros starter Miguel Pena.  Richy Pedroza lined a one-out single to right field in the opening frame and came all the in from first one out later when longtime vet (and former Rieleros player-manager) Saul Soto rapped a double to left to give the visitors a 1-0 advantage.  In the second, Eliezer Ortiz drew a two-out walk off Pena but, with Dave Sappelt batting, appeared to be picked off for the third out.  However, a throwing error by TJ first baseman Jorge Cantu during the ensuing pickle allowed Ortiz to take second.  Sappelt then punched a single through the left side of the infield to bring Ortiz home.

The Toros tied the game at 2-2 by posting single runs of their own in the third and fourth innings.  With Dustin Martin occupying first base, Isaac Rodriguez tapped a double-play grounder to Rieleros starter Yohan Flande, who threw to Pedroza covering second for the first out but Pedroza's relay to Jesse Castillo was off the mark and allowed Rodriguez to scamper to second.  Jose Guadalupe Chavez, who had a great series at the plate, then drove Rodriguez with a single up the middle.  Chavez went 14-of-24 (.583) at the plate over the six-game set, scoring six runs and driving in seven more.  Tijuana's second run came a bit more directly when Corey Brown lofted a solo homer to right off Flande to even the score.

Aguascalientes regained the lead in the sixth on a Carlos Rodriguez solo homer after Pena had opened the inning by whiffing Jose Vargas and Cristhian Presichi, but the contest was knotted back up at 3-3 in the bottom of the seventh when Alex Liddi lined a leadoff homer to left off Rieleros reliever Roy Merritt, a Southern University alum who'd pitched 6.1 solid innings against the Toros in a start four nights earlier.  Liddi displayed a couple of shimmy-shake moves while circling the bases that won't bring him an invite to "Dancing With the Stars" but delighted the Tijuana fans regardless.  Merritt was pulled just before Liddi's next plate appearance in the eighth, but the Texan hurler may file Liddi's trip around the bags in his memory banks for next season.

The game-winning run came in the bottom of the eighth when Cyle Hankerd led off the inning by drilling a double to center.  Valencia was brought in as a pinch-runner to replace Hankerd while Alfredo Amezaga was sent up to the plate as a pinch-hitter for former Florida Marlins teammate Cantu and laid down a sacrifice bunt to advance Valencia to third.  Merritt then intentionally walked Juan Apodaca to pitch to Martin, a dangerous hitter but only going 2-for-21 in the series when he strode to the plate.  The strategy failed, as Martin lined a single to left, scoring Valencia from third to put the Toros up by a 4-3 count.  Urquidez then came on in the ninth and after allowing a single by pinch-hitter Edson Garcia, got both Sappelt and Pedroza looking to end the game and series, collecting his third save in Tijuana's four wins in the process.

Chavez finished with a 3-for-4 night at the plate while Hankerd had two hits for the winners.  Aguascalientes, who'd overachieved all season with a dollar-store roster cobbled together by manager Homar Rojas, got two hits apiece from Pedroza and Julian Castro but the Rieleros were unable to overcome the Brown and Liddi homers as well as their own defensive miscues along the way.  Pena went 5.2 innings on the mound for Tijuana, allowing three runs on seven hits, but the win went to reliever Juan Sandoval, who tossed a scoreless eighth before Martin's heroics made him the pitcher of record.  Merritt took the defeat for Aguascalientes after giving up two runs in 2.1 frames out of the bullpen.  Urquidez earned a save in all three of his appearances for the Toros, allowing only Garcia's single and one walk while striking out eight Rieleros in 3.1 innings of work.

Manager Pedro Mere's Toros will now face the Monterrey Sultanes in a rematch of last season's LMB North championship series.  That set, won by Tijuana, lit a match under Monterrey owner Jose "Pepe" Maiz over the Toros' use of Mexican-American players that became a full-blown schism in the offseason.  With Maiz now in the background after selling half the team to the Grupo Multimedios in February, the level of volatility should be ratcheted down a notch but in the Mexican League, one never knows for sure.  We'll all find out starting Thursday.