Friday, September 1, 2017

Tijuana, Puebla both win series; Serie del Rey rematch set

The Tijuana Toros eliminated Monterrey from further contention for the Mexican League pennant by topping the Sultanes, 4-2, Thursday night in the border city to win their North Division championship series, 4 games to 2.  Manager Pedro Mere's club will advance to the Serie del Rey for a second year in a row against defending champion Puebla after the Pericos knocked out Yucatan, 4-3, Tuesday at home in Game Five of the LMB South finals.  Skipper Tim Johnson's Parrots will seek to bring Puebla its fifth Mexican League crown while the Toros are gunning for Tijuana's first-ever flag.

Since the Toros and Pericos were able to conclude their respective divisional championship sets in less than seven games, they'll be able to rest for four days before colliding in Game One of the Serie del Rey on Tuesday night in Tijuana.  Puebla defeated Tijuana in six games last year to win the pennant.

Jorge Cantu hoists LMB North title trophy
Photo courtesy of Rich McDaniel
TIJUANA 4-7-0, Monterrey 2-10-1
W-H. Ramirez (2-0).  L-A. Castro (0-2).         SV-Urquidez (2).  A-17,987.  T-3:03.

Tijuana starter Horacio Ramirez left the game in the sixth inning with a 4-2 lead and the Toros bullpen combined to hold Monterrey scoreless the rest of the way as TJ held off the Sultanes to clinch the LMB North title for the second year in a row.  A sellout crowd of 17,987 packing Estadio Gasmart was home happy after the home side concluded the set, 4 games to 2. Attendance was strong in this series, with 110,240 fans coming to the six games in both cities for an average of 18,373 per opening.

The Toros jumped on Monterrey starter Angel Castro early by scoring two runs in the bottom of the first inning.  The first three Tijuana batters reached base as singles from Jose Guadalupe Chavez and Corey Brown bracketed a walk to Roberto Lopez.  Cleanup batter Cyle Hankerd dribbled a grounder to Sultanes third baseman Agustin Murillo, who tagged the base to force Lopez out as Chavez streaked 90 feet to plate the game's first run.  After a Castro wild pitch to Jorge Cantu sent Brown and Hankerd to third and second, respectively, Cantu lofted a sacrifice fly to right field, scoring Brown.

Monterrey closed their deficit to 2-1 in the top of the second when Daniel Mayora lined a one-out homer over the left field wall, but the Toros responded with two more runs in the bottom of the third.  With one out, Castro plunked Hankerd, and then delivered a pitch to Cantu that the former big leaguer drilled into center field for a double.  Sultanes veteran Chris Roberson fielded the drive and sent in a throw to second sacker Ramon Rios, whose relay to the plate in an attempt to nail Hankerd at home sailed away from catcher Luis Flores' grasp to score both both Hankerd AND Cantu, who never slowed down after coming into second.  Monterrey manager Felix Fermin challenged the play but replays upheld home plate umpire Orlando Lopez' decision.  Castro was replaced on the hill later in the inning by Nick Struck, but the damage was already done and was later proved irreparable.

A Zoilo Almonte solo homer off Ramirez in the fifth brought the visitors to within two runs at 4-2, but relievers Mark Serrano, Juan Sandoval and closer Jason Urquidez held the Sultanes scoreless after Serrano took over for Ramirez in the sixth.  Serrano, Sandoval and Urquidez were all unscored upon over a combined 10.1 innings in ten appearances in the series.

It's been quite a year for Sandoval, a 36-year-old Dominican who was a AA Southern League All-Star n 2013 with Montgomery who led LMB pitchers during the regular season with 62 trips from the bullpen while his 28 holds were eleven more than Monclova reliever Arturo Barradas' 18.  After being touched for two runs in the second game of the Toros first round series with Aguascalientes on August 14, Sandoval has been unscored upon in his seven subsequent playoff appearances.  He didn't even allow a hit in that span until giving up an eighth-inning single to Murillo last night that was quickly wiped out on a 6-4-3 double play to end the inning. Sandoval has a combined six playoff holds in eight appearances heading into the Puebla series.

Ramirez earned the win after giving up two runs on seven hits (including two homers) and two walks over 5.1 innings, striking out eight Sultanes batsmen, while Urquidez earned his second save of the series.  Castro took the loss in the wake of allowing four runs on five hits, two walks and hitting a batter while throwing 58 pitches in just 2.2 innings.  Struck's own remarkable run as a setup man for Monterrey came to an end.  The Oregonian went 3.1 scoreless innings to bring his playoff string to seven scoreless appearances over 16 innings, adding 15 strikeouts and only walking four.  All, ultimately, for naught as Struck and his Sultanes teammates will head home while Pepe Maiz' favorite team moves on.

PUEBLA 4-9-1, Yucatan 3-11-1
W-Meza (1-0).  L-J. Russell (0-1).                   SV-Heath (3).  A-10,712.  T-2:40.

This one started out as a pitchers' duel, with Puebla starter Andres Meza and Yucatan opener James Russell swapped goose eggs on the scoreboard through four innings, but it was a four-run Pericos outburst in the bottom of the fifth that erased a temporary 1-0 Leones lead and propelled the defending Liga champs to a 4-3 victory and a second consecutive LMB South title over Yucatan, 4 games to 1.  A crowd of 10,712 clicked the turnstiles at Estadio Hermanos Serdan, bringing the three-game total attendance in Puebla to 33,613 and the overall series turnout to 57,613 over five games, an average of 11,523 per contest.

While ex-Cubs hurler Russell sailed through the initial four frames for Yucatan, retiring the first nine Pericos he faced, Meza struggled a bit to hold the fort.  He survived a scare in the top of the second, when Sebastian Valle stroked a one-out double to right and went to third on Ricardo Serrano's single up the middle, putting runners on the corners with one out.  However, Meza was able to get out of that jam by inducing a 5-4-3 double play grounder to third by Jose Aguilar to end the threat.  Leones manager Chico Rodriguez appealed the out at first, but the call by umpire Alan Izaguirre was upheld after a replay review.

Yucatan woke up the scorekeeper in the top of the fifth by manufacturing a run without benefit of a hit. Leadoff hitter Ricardo Serrano reached base when second baseman Hector Garanzuay bobbled his grounder, moved to second when a Meza pitch to Aguilar got past catcher Cesar Tapia, scooted over to third on Aguilar's sacrifice bunt and came in to score on a Julio Borbon sacrifice fly to give the Leones a 1-0 advantage.

The Pericos replied by batting through the order in the bottom of the fifth and scoring four times.  Ricky Rodriguez opened with a single and moved to second when Russell walked Tapia.  Both came in to score when Garanzuay dragged a bunt single down the third base line that Serrano threw past first baseman Ricky Alvarez into right field foul territory while Garanzuay scampered to third.  After Sergio Perez singled in Garanzuay to put Puebla up 3-1 with no outs, Russell was pulled in favor of Yoanner Negrin, who'd pitched in relief for the first time in two-plus years two nights before.  After Alberto Carreon's sacrifice bunt sent Perez to second, Negrin gave up back-to-back singles to Borbon (scoring Perez to make it a 4-1 contest) and Endy Chavez.  That was enough for manager Rodriguez to bring out his hook again to bring in closer Ronald Belisario, who threw out Borbon at home on an Issmael Salas comebacker and got Jesus Arredondo to fly out to center to finally end the inning.

A former Dodgers reliever, Belisario turned in a standout performance by tossing 3.2 shutout innings the rest of the way for the Leones, allowing only a pair of seventh-inning singles.  The 34-year-old Venezuelan had a standout postseason, with a 0.68 ERA in 13.2 innings over seven appearances, picking up three saves. Interestingly, after striking out seven Leon batters over four innings in his first two times out in the Leon series, Belisario failed to whiff a batter in any of his subsequent five trips from the pen against either the Bravos or Pericos for a total of 8.2 innings.

Yuniesky Betancourt brought Yucatan to within a run by belting a two-run homer off Meza's 58th and final pitch in the top of the sixth, but the LMB South's regular season champions were unable to score the rest of the way off four Puebla relievers.  Pericos closer Deunte Heath, who gave up runs in his previous two appearances, went the final two entradas for his third save of the series, allowing no hits and striking out three.

Meza wasn't at his sharpest for the Pericos, giving up three runs (two earned) on eight hits over 5.2 innings, but it was good enough for the win.  Russell took the loss for Yucatan after letting in four runs (all in the fifth) on five hits and a walk after such a strong start.  Borbon finished with three hits and an RBI for Puebla while Chavez added a pair of singles.  The Leones, who outhit the host team by an 11-9 margin, got two hits apiece from Valle, Juan Francisco and Ivan Araujo.  However, Yucatan went just 1-for-7 with runners in scoring position while Puebla was 3-for-6 in similar situations.

Ordinarily, without a break between games, Puebla manager Johnson (who took over the team after Von Hayes' midseason firing) might go with Josh Outman as his starter in the championship series against Tijuana while Johnson's counterpart with the Toros, Pedro Mere, would give the ball to Edgar Gonzalez.  However, with four days to rest all their pitchers, either manager might reshuffle their respective rotations prior to Tuesday's Serie del Rey opener in Tijuana.  We'll all see soon enough.

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