Monday, May 21, 2018

South playoffs uncertain as final LMB Spring week arrives

Tijuana Toros second baseman Isaac Rodriguez

The final week of the Mexican League's abbreviated Spring 2018 season is upon us and while most participants for next month's eight-team playoffs have been determined, the fourth and final positions in the South Division remain up in the air with six games left on the schedule.

In the LMB North, the Monterrey Sultanes have a 33-18 record to continue their season-long leadership in that division, although Aguascalientes (30-21) has won three straight to pass Tijuana (29-21) for second place.  Monclova (26-24) is in fourth, three games behind Tijuana and four-and-a-half games in front of Durango (22-29), setting up a first-round series with Monterrey while the Rieleros and defending champ Toros are jockeying for home field advantage in their likely division semi set.

Things are much more unsettled in the South, where three teams have a chance for first place while another three are vying for the final playoff berth.  Yucatan holds the best record in the league at 35-16 and have a three-game lead over Mexico City (31-18) while Quintana Roo (30-18) is on the Diablos' heels.  The Tigres visit Cancun next week in what may be the most important series of the 57-game season for both teams.  

Likewise, things are tight in a three-way duel for fourth place.  Leon (24-26) had a solid grip on fourth before dropping eight of their last ten games, allowing Puebla (23-26) to sneak to within a half-game.  Lurking behind the Bravos and Pericos is Tabasco (23-28), a team given no chance to make the postseason when the season opened but winners of seven of their last ten contests to creep to within a game-and-a-half of Leon.  It seems almost certain that the standings will be close enough at season's end to force a single play-in game between the fourth- and fifth-place teams.

Isaac Rodriguez of Tijuana is bouncing back from a mediocre 2017 season in a big way, topping the Liga with a .405 batting average, 83 hits and 46 runs scored while tying Mexico City's Carlos Figueroa for the stolen bases lead at 19 apiece.  The LMB's Rookie of the Year in 2016, the 27-year-old second baseman has to be in the mix for Most Valuable Player honors. There's now a three-way tie for the lead in homers as Monterrey's Ricky Alvarez is knotted up with Monclova's Jesse Castillo and Luis Juarez of Yucatan with 13 longballs each.  Castillo, who joined the Acereros after a big 2017 season with Aguascalientes, is tops with 54 RBIs.

Tijuana starter Carlos Hernandez is making it harder to consider anyone else for Pitcher of the Season.  The Californian leads circuit hurlers with eight wins and a 2.21 earned-run average, with his lone loss coming to Tabasco on April 11.  The two-time Texas League All-Star has allowed just four walks in 53 innings over ten starts for the Toros. Josh Lowey of Monclova has the strikeout trophy ready for engraving with 74 whiffs over 65.1 frames, 21 K's ahead of Raul Valdes of Saltillo.  Aguascalientes closer Anthony Carter's first year in Mexico has gone well, with 13 saves in 14 opportunities to lead the Liga while registering a 2.12 ERA in 27 trips from the Rieleros bullpen.

Yaquis pick ex-MLB infielder Oscar Robles as new manager

New Obregon Yaquis manager Oscar Robles
One year after his retirement as a player, former Los Angeles Dodgers shortstop Oscar Robles has been picked to manage the Obregon Yaquis next winter in the Mexican Pacific League.  Robles went out a winner after playing for the 2017 Mexican League champion Tijuana Toros, for whom he is serving this year as a coach under manager Pedro Mere. The Obregon job will be Robles' first full-time managerial gig, although he won all three games he served as a fill-in for the Navojoa Mayos in 2007-08.

The 42-year-old Robles is a Tijuana native who played high school ball in San Diego before beginning his playing career at 18 as a third round draft pick of the Houston organization in 1994, spending five seasons in the Astros system before returning south of the border to play for Oaxaca and Mexico City between 1999 and 2004.  Robles used some of his signing bonus money from the Astros to buy a new scoreboard for his high school's baseball field. The Diablos sold Robles to Los Angeles for the 2005 season and he rewarded the Dodgers by hitting .272 with 44 runs in 110 games primarily at shortstop and third base.  

However, he only hit .152 in 29 games for the Dodgers in 2006 and ended up spending time in the Padres and Phillies systems before returning a final time to the Mexican League in 2009 for stints in Mexico City and Tijuana over the last nine seasons of his career.  While his major league batting average was a less-than-awe-inspiring .260 for 163 games in three seasons with the Dodgers and Padres, Robles was a very effective .339 hitter in 15 seasons in the LMB (topping the .350 mark five times. He also spent 21 winters playing for four teams in the MexPac.

Robles will replace Miguel Ojeda in Obregon after the Yaquis failed to qualify for the LMP playoffs for the second winter in a row.  His coaching staff will include bench coach Rafael Castaneda, first base coach Leo Valenzuela, third base coach Gerardo Sanchez, batting coach Sergio Gastelum and pitching coach Tavo Alvarez.

The Trouble with Toros

The image of the Tijuana Toros as the Mexican League's model franchise has taken a bit of a hit in 2018.  The first crack in the facade came during training camp, when former Los Angeles Dodgers coach Juan Castro left the franchise after first being hired in the winter as the Toros' director of baseball operations, let go without warning by team owner Alberto Uribe and then brought back as a coach, a job Castro left behind in MLB for when ended up as a disastrous two-month stint in Tijuana before he left in frustration and returned to his home in Phoenix.

Now there's an American fan expressing his own frustration with the Toros organization.  The fan, who wishes to remain anonymous for now, grew up in New York and saw Mickey Mantle play for the Yankees as a youth but now works as a photographer in San Diego, where he's become a Toros fan over the past two years...until now.  The following is the text from an email sent to Baseball Mexico after attempts to address a financial discrepancy that left the fan with no funds in his bank account left him as frustrated as Castro was:

I have been a big fan of this team for 2 years. I have Toros stickers on my car.  I have a Toros jersey and a Toros hat. And whenever I get a chance, no matter where I am (US or MX), I gloat about how great it is to be at a Toros game.  I have been to both Serie del Reys.
So I want to go to last Saturday's game (April 21).  The website would not allow me to buy a ticket so I went to MacroPlaza, which is where I bought tickets last year.  After dealing with Friday afternoon traffic, I walk into the Toros shop and they tell me they no longer sell tickets and I must go to the stadium.  So I drive to Gasmart Stadium. I go to the ticket booth and request 2 tickets, $469 pesos. I like to sit right about 3rd base and close. By the way, I am a big baseball fan...my Dad took me to games at Yankee Stadium when I was a kid. I am old enough to have seen Mickey Mantle play his last 2 seasons.  I have no cash on me (my first mistake), so I use my debit card. The kid doing the transaction seemed new but I did not interfere with his job. His manager was nearby but was not very interested in what this kid was doing. Again it is not my business, so I leave and I go to Soriana's to go food shopping because my fridge is empty.  
I go to the cashier to check out  and my card is denied. But I know that I have money in that account so after contacting Soriana's management to see if it was a problem with their system, I decided to contact my bank.  And guess what? The kid had charged me $469 DOLLARS instead of pesos, so now I am overdrawn, and the overdraft fees roll in. I start a claim with my bank to work on getting my money back.  Mind you, I do not have a dime to my name now and the bank said the investigation can take up to 10 days.
So I take a deep breath and brave the Friday evening traffic in Tijuana.  I get home and start trying to contact the Toros organization. First I send a message through the Toros website.  I have not seen a reply to that yet after 7 days. Then I try the Facebook page and the response is dismal at best.  It was basically (paraphrase from memory), “We are sorry that you had this experience, and I hope it works out with your bank.”   I send a message that I will be at the game that night if they wanted to contact me.
At the game I walked into an "office" of sorts. I meet a kid that works for the organization. He seems very confused and said to meet him after the game.  The game begins and I start to feel sick, like the flu. I leave after the 4th inning and go home. I send the kid a message telling him that I am sorry but I felt sick.  That was Saturday and I have not had a response yet. In the meantime I have rice and beans in my cabinet so until today, when my bank released some of the funds, it had been that for breakfast, lunch and dinner.  
By Sunday my illness is not getting better so I drive to my hospital and they prescribe antibiotics.  Only problem is that I have no money to buy them. I finally bought them today. In the meantime my automatic payment for my cell phone bill is denied with a $35 charge, my YMCA payment denied with a $10 charge, etc. etc.  
Now I must say this.  The fact that they have "stonewalled" me up to now is not a surprise (relating to their complete and utter lack of empathy).  I have had 2 other very specific incidents with them in the past relating to their lack of empathy so this surprised me, and yet it did not surprise me.
By the way, I have had several other "encounters" with the Toros organization.  One was re: a promo they made 2 yrs ago. It was a video with actors portraying Nazis, including Hitler ( it appeared that the Nazis were the Toros).  The were standing over a large map and making a strategy to "wipe out" their opponents. Being a Jew that has lost family to the Holocaust, I was offended and I let them know this.  They responded with sort of a "what's the big deal?" attitude. I tried to explain why it’s a big deal but they did not see my point. I then sent an image, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, of a male forearm with "6,000,000" written on it. They answered, "What is the point of this?” and I told them what the point was, and is.
Another issue was the use of the word "puto" in the stadium, especially against the opposing team.  I asked if they knew anything about good sportsmanship. They did not answer that. And I mentioned the fine by FIFA against the Mexican National Team for the use of this word.  No response on this. And children, in the stadium, are chanting it with the adults. This is a family gathering at the games..so why???
The last issue was with their #1 mascot named Chango.  Chango does a lot of interacting with the crowd but the one thing that he constantly does (that I think is inappropriate) is his very sexual "pelvic thrust.”  He does it a lot and the young kids try to copy him. They never answered me on this issue.

It sounds like there are a few answers for the Toros to come up with.  Regarding the ticket charge issue, to quote Judge Marilyn Milian from TV's People's Court program, "PAY the man!"  Concerning the Nazi references, where to begin? The fan says he's considering contacting the Anti-Defamation League about it.



Monday, May 14, 2018

Sultanes sweep TJ, Tecos to take commanding North lead

Monterrey Sultanes pitcher Marco Tovar
Leo German and Chris Roberson led off the sixth inning with back-to-back doubles to break a scoreless tie as the Monterrey Sultanes went on to beat Dos Laredos, 4-2, in Mexican League action Sunday to complete a three-game sweep of the Tecolotes.  The Sultanes had a 6-0 week after going into Tijuana last Tuesday and winning all three games against the defending champion Toros and are now a Liga-best 32-13 while holding a five-game advantage over second-place Aguascalientes with just two weeks left in the LMB's Spring 2018 regular season.  Tijuana is third at 24-20 while Monclova holds fourth at 22-22, a game and a half ahead of 21-25 Durango.

Tecos starter Alexis Candelario carried a no-hitter through five innings in search of his first win of the campaign before German broke up the no-no bid and Roberson ruined his shutout.  Roberson eventually came in to score on an Agustin Murillo single while Sultanes newcomer Sebastian Elizalde plated Monterrey's fourth and final run of the frame on a single by Yadir Drake, who ended the inning when he was thrown out trying to stretch his hit to a double.  Dos Laredos did score a pair of runs off reliever Manny Acosta on consecutive hits by Gilberto Galaviz and Gustavo Nunez in the top of the seventh to shave their deficit to 4-2, but the Tecos went hitless the rest of the way as the border team went on to drop their eighth straight game while Monterrey conversely won their eighth straight.  Sultanes starter Marco Tovar tossed six shutout innings to go to 6-2 on the season while Candelario fell to 0-4 for Dos Laredos.

The bigger series for the Sultanes came earlier in the week, when they won all three games in Tijuana.  Tovar was splendid in winning Tuesday's 2-1 opener by scattering five hits and allowing one run for the victory, with Ramon Rios' solo homer in the top of the seventh the difference-maker in that one.  Monterrey won Wednesday's contest, 6-0, in a three-hit shutout as Murillo socked a three-run homer and starter Zach Dodson allowed just two singles over six frames before completing the sweep with a 3-2 win Thursday night as Roberson scored the go-ahead run on a Ricky Alvarez groundout in the top of the tenth.  Despite the high profile of the visitors and importance of the series, fewer than 16,000 fans attended the midweek three-game set at Estadio Gasmart.  The Toros are averaging 10,595 fans over 24 home games to make the relatively low turnout an eye-raiser but, as we'll detail next week, all may not be well in fan relations in Tijuana (at least with one fan in particular).

While Monterrey is five games ahead in the LMB North standings with 12 games left on the schedule, things are considerably tighter in the South.  Yucatan is 31-14 to hold a one-game advantage over 29-14 Quintana Roo while the 28-17 Mexico City Diablos Rojos are three games out of the lead.  Leon remains in fourth place at 23-22, although Puebla swept a three-game home set with Campeche to narrow the Bravos' lead for the final playoff berth to two games after the Pericos were four games out on Friday.

Puebla first baseman Daric Barton has taken over the lead in the LMB batting race with a .418 average, sixteen points ahead of Puebla's Sergio Perez.  Monterrey's Alvarez still leads the Liga with 13 homers despite not hitting a longball in over ten games, allowing Jesse Castillo of Monclova to catch up.  Castillo has homered in three of his last four games and now tops the circuit with 48 RBI's, two more than Alvarez.  Tijuana second baseman Isaac Rodriguez, the league's 2016 Rookie of the Year, has stolen 19 bases in 22 attempts to take the lead in that category over teammate Justin Greene, who's been out of the lineup since May 3.  Rodriguez had stolen a combined 22 bases over 171 games prior to this year.

Carlos Hernandez of Tijuana continued his great season Friday by going six shutout innings in Monclova to post his league-leading seventh win against one loss in a 3-1 Toros triumph.  Hernandez' 2.28 ERA is second on the table only to Yucatan's Jose Samayoa at 2.22.  Josh Lowey on Monclova is running away with the strikeouts title, whiffing 67 batters in 59 innings to take an 18-K lead over Saltillo's Raul Valdes.  Aguascalientes' Anthony Carter and Josh Lueke of Monclova are tied at the top with 11 saves each, one more than closers Maikel Cleto of Laguna and Monterrey's Wirfin Obispo.

A pair of midweek series with playoff implications will start Tuesday when Puebla visits Leon and Tijuana hosts Aguascalientes.  A couple of important sets are slated for next weekend when Aguascalientes visits Monterrey and Yucatan heads to Cancun to take on the Tigres as the top two teams in each division go head-to-head.


Firing season opens: Tecos toss Castro, Olmecas oust Jimenez

Former Dos Laredos Tecolotes manager Eddie Castro
Despite the pressure of winning within an abbreviated 57-game schedule this year, Mexican League owners showed remarkable restraint by not firing any managers during the first month the the Spring 2018 season.  However, no deed (good or bad) goes unpunished for long in the LMB as both the Dos Laredos Tecolotes and Tabasco Olmecas have made changes at the top in May.

Last Monday, the Tecos let veteran skipper Eddie Castro go after the Venezuelan had taken the team to a 15-24 record in the LMB Spring 2018 season.  Former Monterrey manager and big league shortstop Felix Fermin was tabbed to take over.  Castro had managed the club in Veracruz (when they were the Rojos del Aguila) since 2014, leading them to a playoff berth last year but otherwise putting together a less-than-imposing 206-273 record for the perpetually-undermanned team.  Castro has also managed in Tabasco, Puebla and Minatitlan.  Under Fermin, who managed in both Carmen and Monterrey before not being rehired by the Sultanes following last season, the Tecos have gone 0-6 after being swept in Aguascalientes and Monterrey last week and are currently in last place in the LMB North.  

Also on Monday of last week, the Tabasco Olmecas said goodbye to manager Alfonso "Houston" Jimenez.  A former MLB shortstop like Fermin, Jimenez was sent packing after taking the Olmecas to a 14-25 record.  This was the Mexico City native's second go-round with the Villahermosa squad.  He was 48-56 with Tabasco in 2015 and his recently-ended stint with the team was his eleventh managerial job in the Mexican League since he began managing the Saltillo Saraperos in 2009 and his fifth gig since 2014.  As of May 14, one week after he was released, Jimenez is still listed on the Olmecas website as their manager, leading one to wonder if their webmaster wasn't also fired.  Whoever is now managing Tabasco led them to five wins in six games last week, including both ends of a Sunday doubleheader in Oaxaca.  Much more of that and the team might actually release his name.


Female umpire to make Mexican League debut Tuesday

Mexican League debutante umpire Luz Alicia Gordoa
Mexican baseball history will be made Tuesday night when the Mexico City Diablos Rojos open a three-game series against Oaxaca at Estadio Fray Nano.  Luz Alicia Gordoa will be making her debut as a Mexican League umpire, becoming the first distaff arbiter in the LMB's 93-year history.  

The Sinaloa native made her professional umpiring debut last winter when she worked a few games in the Mexican Winter League, the LMB-affiliated winterball circuit, starting with a November 23 contest between Salamanca and Celayo.  The 41-year-old Gordoa's experience lies more in officiating soccer matches, which she did for two decades before giving baseball a shot.  She also played softball for 20 years before turning to umpiring the past five.  She was joined in the LIM by 34-year-old Paulina Barajas Castro of Mexico City, where she worked games in the Liga Olmeca youth baseball organization now headed by Carlos Fragoso as well as the Liga Lindavista and Liga Maya before joining Gordoa at the MLB Academy near Monterrey last fall.  

While Gordoa will be the first woman to umpire a Mexican League game, female umps have worked games in Minor League Baseball since 1972, when Bernice Gera worked one game in the Class A New York-Penn League before quitting after other umpires reportedly said they would not work with her.  A heated discussion with Auburn Phillies manager Nolan Campbell during the game didn't make Gera feel any more welcome.  However, that opened the door for future women umpires in MiLB.  Christine Wren worked in the Class A Northwest League in the mid-Seventies but the most notable was Pam Postema, who began umpiring in the late-Seventies and eventually spent 13 seasons working in the minors, including six seasons at the AAA level.  She umpired an MLB exhibition game in 1989, but was not rehired by the AAA Alliance following that season.  Postema then filed a sexual discrimination lawsuit against Major League Baseball that was settled out of court, but otherwise left the game to work as a trucker, factory worker and welder.  She wrote a 1992 book, You Gotta Have Balls to Make It in This League, in which she said, "I'll never understand why it's easier for a female to become an astronaut or cop or firefighter or soldier or Supreme Court justice than it is to become a major league umpire."

Monday, May 7, 2018

Leon win streak snapped at 11; Bravos fourth in LMB South

Leon Bravos pitcher Dustin Crenshaw
Danny Vasquez' two-run single in the top of the second inning gave Campeche a 4-3 lead in Leon and the Piratas pulled away to an 8-3 Mexican League win over the Bravos Sunday afternoon at Parque Domingo Santana.  The defeat ended an eleven-game win streak for the surprising Bravos, who have moved into the fourth and final playoff slot in the LMB South with a 22-17 record, three games behind third-place Mexico City but four games up on defending division champion Puebla with three weeks remaining in the Liga's Spring 2018 season.

Leon had posted their eleventh straight victory Saturday night with a 5-3 triumph over the visiting Piratas when consecutive RBI singles by Junior Lake and Quincy Latimore in the bottom of the seventh broke a 3-all tie and gave Eder Llamas the win out of the bullpen.  Llamas was one of seven relievers to follow starter Dustin Crenshaw, who tossed 5.1 innings for the Bravos and gave up two runs (one earned) on six hits and no walks, striking out two Campeche batsmen.  Leon was 11-16 when they began their skein on Tuesday, April 24 with a 5-1 win at Tabasco despite batting only 2-for-12 with runners in scoring position.

Manager Luis Carlos Rivera's team is second in the league with a .322 batting average (trailing only Durango's .329) while the Bravos' 48 homers tops the loop.  Leon has three batters in the top ten: outfielder Felix Pie (sixth at .392), shortstop Amadeo Zazueta (eighth at .381) and second baseman Niko Vasquez (ninth at .376) while Pie is tied for third in homers with nine.  The Bravos' pitching has been middle-of-the-road with a 5.08 ERA, ninth in the 16-team league, although Crenshaw has done well so far with a 3-1 record and a 3.30 ERA over eight starts, winning the first game of the streak in Villahermosa and picking up another W five nights later in Campeche.  Leon barely snuck into the playoffs last year in their debut season, but with Puebla fading badly (losing nine of their last ten) and only 21 games left in the abbreviated regular season, the Bravos are sitting pretty.

While Leon has zoomed past Puebla for fourth in the LMB South, there remains a spirited three-team battle for the division lead, with Yucatan (27-12) holding a one-game lead over another surprising team, Quintana Roo (25-12) while Mexico City (25-14) is two games out of first.  The Tigres, who were not expected to contend this year under new manager Tim Johnson, have won eight of their last ten to vault past the Diablos Rojos into second heading into a crucial three-game set against Leon opening Tuesday in Cancun.  In the LMB North, Monterrey (26-13) won two of three games in Dos Laredos over the weekend to maintain a 3-5-game lead over defending Liga champs Tijuana (22-16).  The Sultanes topped the Tecolotes, 8-4, Sunday at Uni-Trade Stadium in Laredo as DH Yadir Drake came one homer shy of hitting for the cycle, scoring twice and driving in two more runs.  Aguascalientes (22-17) and Monclova (20-18) hold the final two Zona Norte playoff berths with none of the division's other four teams within five games of the .500 mark.

First-year Durango first baseman Dustin Geiger, a former Cubs and Marlins farmhand, leads the Mexican League with a .408 batting average, six points ahead of Puebla first sacker Daric Barton.  Monterrey's Ricky Alvarez is tops with 13 homers and tied with Tijuana's Cyle Hankerd for the RBI lead at 41 while Hankerd's Toros teammate Justin Greene's 18 stolen bases leads the league despite Greene only playing twice since April 24.  Pitcher Carlos Hernandez (also of Tijuana) pitched six innings in the Toros' 7-1 home win over Saltillo Saturday to post his sixth victory of the Spring, best in the LMB.  Yucatan's Jose Samayoa's 2.17 ERA leads all starters, Josh Lowey of Monclova looks like a lock for another strikeout title with 58 (17 more than his nearest rival) and former MLBer Josh Lueke of the Acereros has ten saves to top Liga closers in that category.

Coming up this week is a huge series in Tijuana, where the Toros host LMB North-leading Monterrey in a three-game set starting Tuesday.  Next weekend's top series will be in Cancun when the Tigres host Mexico City in a renewal of Mexican baseball's oldest rivalry, which has been spiced up by the Rookiegate scandal and Tigres owner Fernando Valenzuela's open frustration over the Liga office's "What Me Worry?" response.


First MLB no-hitter in Mexico tossed during series in Monterrey


Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Walker Buehler
As if there wasn't enough history being made last weekend in Monterrey, where Major League Baseball played its first regular season games since 1999, Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Walker Buehler combined with three relievers to toss the first MLB no-hitter outside the USA and Canada on Friday night in the Dodgers' 4-0 win over San Diego at Estadio Monterrey.  Five no-hitters had been spun in Montreal or Toronto previously.

Buehler, a 23-year-old righty who was the Dodgers' 2015 first-round draft pick, pitched the first six hitless innings for Los Angeles, striking out eight and walking three to go to 2-0 on the season.  He was followed in order by relievers Adam Cimber, Kazuhisa Makita and Phil Maton, each of whom contributing a hitless frame to seal the no-no for the Dodgers, who then lost the last two games of the series.  San Diego evened the set Saturday with a 7-4 triumph behind two-run homers by first baseman Eric Hosmer and catcher Rafael Lopez, then took Sunday's rubber match by shutting out the defending National League champs, 4-0, as starter Eric Lauer combined with three relievers to scatter eight hits while Hosmer homered once more with a two-run shot in the bottom of the fifth.

While Buehler and his bullpen mates stole the lion's share of attention for the series on Friday night, it ended up being three games that Padres third baseman Christian Villanueva would probably just as soon put in the taillights.  Villanueva, a Guadalajara native who has received much early notice as a potential Rookie of the Year candidate, went 0-for-11 over the series and committed two errors in the field Sunday.  Villanueva has gone 1-for-20 in May to bring his season batting average, which stood at .355 on April 22, down to .265 after Sunday's contest.

The series, which sold out in less than two hours, was well-received by fans and media alike as a total of 65,116 attendees in 22,000-seat Estadio Monterrey.  The success of the Mexico Series brought out calls for a future MLB team south of the border, either in Monterrey or Mexico City.  MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said during Friday's ESPN2 broadcast that both Mexico and Montreal are potential candidates for expansion teams, but some Mexican baseball columnists quickly pointed out that the country's political and financial instability would be tough obstacles to overcome and that it's a lot harder to get people to attend 81 home games as opposed to a single three-game series.


Mazatlan Venados tab Joe Alvarez as new skipper

New Mazatlan Venados manager Joe Alvarez
The Mazatlan Venados front office decided after last winter that one season with Daniel Fernandez as manager of the Mexican Pacific League team was enough and that a change was needed at the helm.  After a months-long search, the Venados last week introduced Cuban-born Joe Alvarez as their pilot for the 2018-19 LMP campaign.

The 61-year-old Alvarez will make his LMP managerial debut with Mazatlan this October, but he is no stranger to the MexPac after previously serving as a coach with the Obregon Yaquis under Eddie Diaz.  However, Alvarez' Mexican baseball bonafides have been mostly been built in the Mexican League.  After winning Gulf Coast League pennants in 1986 and 1987 managing the Dodgers' Rookie league entry and a Florida State League title with Vero Beach in 1990, the former minor league infielder spent time in the Rays and Phillies organizations before taking over in Puebla on an interim basis in 2014 after Houston Jimenez was fired during the season.  Alvarez then guided the Pericos to second place in the LMB South and won playoff series against Campeche and Quintana Roo before falling to Mexico City in the Serie del Rey for the Liga pennant.

He went on to serve as a coach with the Korea Baseball Organization's SK Wyverns before returning to Mexico last summer as manager in Durango, leading the Generales to a .500 record playing the first month on the road while their ballpark was undergoing renovations.  The team eventually fell victim to injuries and front office mismanagement and finished seventh in the LMB South with a 43-66 record.  Alvarez could hardly be blamed for the Generales' misfortunes, but he was not rehired after the 2017 season.

Alvarez, who was born in Manzanillo, Cuba but attended high school in New Jersey before making his pro baseball debut in 1974 in the Yankees organization (later playing in the Astros and Orioles systems), takes over a Mazatlan team that finished the regular season with a 37-31 record and qualified for the postseason under Fernandez before falling to defending MexPac champion Mexicali in the first round, four games to two.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Trades: Tigres add Manny, Solano; Drake goes to Monterrey

New Quintana Roo Tigres pitcher Javier Solano
It's been a rather unusual April as far as the Mexican League goes.  While there has yet to be a manager fired in the first month of 2018's opening season, a number of high-profile players have changed teams earlier than normal.  The Quintana Roo Tigres appear to have come out much stronger as a result by netting disgruntled second baseman Manny Rodriguez from Monclova and veteran starting pitcher Javier Solano from Monterrey, while Durango has shipped 2017 LMB batting champion Yadir Drake to the Sultanes in a move that gives Monterrey's first-year manager Roberto Kelly one more good bat.

Rodriguez, you'll recall, left the Acereros three weeks ago after a series in Puebla after getting fed up with the ongoing shuttling of players between Monclova and the Pericos orchestrated by Gerardo Benavides, who owns both teams.  The 35-year-old MVP of the Mexican Pacific League chose to stay with his family in Southern California rather than continue playing for a Monclova team that was severely lacking in happy ballplayers or chemistry.  Rodriguez himself has been on that shuttle, playing on Puebla's 2016 Liga champions before being shipped to Monclova in February of last year as part of a lopsided deal that sent six players to the Acereros in return for relief pitcher Joaquin Lara, who only won his first LMB career game this month for the Pericos.

After sitting out since April 8, Rodriguez made his debut last weekend for the Quintana Roo Tigres, who acquired him on loan from the Acereros last week, and it wasn't long before the career .316 batter made his mark by belting a decisive two-run homer in Saturday's 3-1 win over Oaxaca at home in Cancun.  Although he was in manager Tim Johnson's lineup as a designated hitter, Rodriguez is expected to take over at second for veteran Carlos "Chispa" Gastelum, a six-time All-Star who has held that job for the Tigres since 2002.  For the season, Manny is batting .292 with two homers and 18 RBIs over 17 games.

Another recent addition to the Quintana Roo roster, Solano gives the Fernando Valenzuela-owned Tigres a young veteran who became a starter for Monterrey in 2015 and had gone 25-12 for the Sultanes since 2016, including a 4-1 mark this year.  However, Solano's ERA was a healthy 6.59 after six starts before being shipped to Cancun for pitcher Jesus Adrian Castillo, a 33-year-old who'd been with the Tigres since 2014 and was a solid 3-2 with a 3.75 ERA after five starts this year.  Although Castillo is having the better year, he has never won more than six games in seven LMB seasons and is generally not considered in Solano's class as a pitcher.  One Mexican columnist says Solano was sent south to avoid legal issues in Monterrey, particularly a civil lawsuit from a former player, but BBM has not verified that story.  He'll join a starting rotation featuring Barry Enright, Tyler Kane, former Marlins hurler Henderson Alvarez and ageless Pablo Ortega.

Meanwhile, Durango has loaned Drake to Monterrey even though the Cuban expat was batting .383 with four homers and 27 RBIs in 30 contests for Matias Carrillo's Generales.  Money may be at the heart of the move, since the Sultanes have plenty of it while Durango (now owned by a group led by former MLB catcher and Mexico City manager Miguel Ojeda) is struggling to right their financial ship after a 2017 season under former owner Virgilio Ruiz during which a number of players, including Drake, went weeks without a paycheck.  Drake hit .385 for the Generales last year to top the Liga before finishing the season in Japan by hitting just .232 in 35 games for the Nippon Ham Fighters.

Durango did pick up injury-plagued veteran slugger Jorge "Chato" Vazquez, who had retired from the Mexico City Diablos Rojos last year after once having been considered one of the New York Yankees' more intriguing prospects.  Vazquez went 0-for-3 with a walk in his Generales debut Saturday night against Monclova and is hoping the back problems that derailed his LMB career are behind him.  The 5'11" 250-pounder, who turned 36 this month, once played under Ojeda in the nation's capital.


Sultanes still rule LMB North, three-way battle for South supremacy

Monterrey Sultanes outfielder Domonic Brown
The Monterrey Sultanes continue to rule the roost in the Mexican League's North Division with a 21-10 record, three games ahead of defending champion Tijuana and surprising Aguascalientes, but the LMB South has evolved into a three-way duel between Yucatan, Mexico City and equally-surprising Quintana Roo, with only one game separating the troika as the LMB's Spring season heads into its final month prior to June's playoffs.

Although it can't really be called a "surprise" that Monterrey has done well over the first month of the campaign, few expected that manager Roberto Kelly's team would be showing as much power as they have.  Kelly stated at his hiring over the winter that speed and aggressive baserunning would be the hallmark of his offense.  The Sultanes are one of six Liga teams batting over .300 (they're at .305), but it's the longball, not the stolen base, that's been the driver of a club averaging nearly six runs per game.  Monterrey stands second in the LMB with 42 homers, behind only Leon's 44 roundtrippers.  Much of that production belongs to Ricky Alvarez, who leads the loop with 11 homers, while ex-MLB outfielder Domonic Brown (who hit 27 homers for Philadelphia in 2013) has seven and third baseman Agustin Murillo has six.  Although Monterrey has been successful on 25 of 36 stolen base attempts to rank fifth in that category (Chris Roberson and Leo German have six swipes apiece), that's not why the Sultanes have been winning.

While Tijuana was expected to be in contention for a second consecutive pennant, Aguascalientes was accorded second-tier status after star first baseman Jesse Castillo was dealt to Monclova in the offseason.  Instead, Rieleros manager Homar Rojas has cobbled together a very good everyday lineup with the likes of catcher Carlos Rodriguez, second baseman Michael Wing, third sacker Jose Vargas and a pair of old-timers in first baseman Saul Soto (who turns 40 in August) and outfielder Cristhian Presichi (38 in July).  Wing is batting .353 with four homers, Presichi is at .345 and Soto has a .306 average with a team-high five homers.  Beyond Roy Merritt (2-0 and 2.97 in six starts), the Rieleros rotation has been so-so but closer Anthony Carter (2-2/7 saves/2.29 ERA) and middleman Linder Casto (3-0/3 holds/1.69) have headed up a strong bullpen.

The LMB South has become a three-way race between Yucatan (22-10), Quintana Roo (20-10) and Mexico City (21-11).  The Diablos Rojos are the most productive offensively, averaging 6.5 runs per outing playing in Mexico City's rarified air, but Yucatan's traditionally-strong pitching staff leads the Liga with a 4.02 ERA, a half-run better than the Diablos or Tigres, and it's pitching that generally wins games and pennants.  A more interesting battle may be shaping up for the fourth and final playoff berth in the South as Puebla (16-14) and Leon (16-16) are only a game apart in the standings.  While the Pericos have reached the Serie del Rey the past two years (winning the title in 2016), the Bravos have won five games in a row while Puebla has dropped five straight.

Tijuana's Isaac Rodriguez, the LMB Rookie of the Year in 2015, leads the league with a .409 average and his 17 stolen bases is one behind teammate Justin Greene's 18 to rank second in the Liga.  Rodriguez already has a career high in steals after he swiped 14 bases last year in 74 games.   Other offensive leaders include Monterrey's Alvarez with 11 homers and Luis Juarez of Yucatan with 38 RBIs.  Tijuana newcomer Kyle Lobstein, a former Detroit starter, has a 1.69 ERA, Monclova's Josh Lowey is in his accustomed spot as strikeouts leader with 46 and three pitchers have five wins apiece: Tijuana's Carlos Hernandez, Mitch Lambson of Puebla and Juan Pablo Oramas has a 5-0 record for the 13-19 Tabasco Olmecas (a 1.98 ERA in seven starts might help explain why).

MEXICAN LEAGUE STANDINGS
North Division:  Monterrey 21-10, Aguascalientes 18-14, Tijuana 18-14, Monclova 15-16, Durango 14-18, Los Laredos 13-19, Union Laguna 11-20, Saltillo 11-21.
South Division: Yucatan 22-10, Quintana Roo 20-10, Mexico City 21-11, Puebla 16-14, Leon 16-16, Tabasco 13-19, Campeche 12-19, Oaxaca 11-21.


Padres, Dodgers to play Mexico Series in Monterrey next weekend

Major League Baseball will return to Mexico next weekend when the Monterrey Sultanes host the defending National League champion Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Diego Padres (featuring rookie star Christian Villanueva) in a three-game series at Estadio Monterrey.  Tickets for all three games at the renovated 22,000-seat venue were sold out two hours after going on sale earlier this year.

The Padres will serve as the home team in Monterrey after the series was moved from Petco Park in San Diego.  This will mark the team's third visit to Monterrey.  San Diego took on the New York Mets in a three-game series during the 1996 season and opened the 1999 campaign against Colorado at Estadio Monterrey, marking the first time MLB opened a season outside the USA or Canada.  The Padres have struggled out the gate this season and are currently last in the NL West with a 10-18 record, ten games behind division-leading Arizona.  While manager Andy Green's roster contains some recognizable names like Wil Myers, Eric Hosmer and Chase Headley, their unexpected star thus far this season has been the Guadalajara-born Villanueva.

A former BBM pick as the Mexican Pacific League's Most Valuable Player in 2015-16 with the Obregon Yaquis, Villanueva was expected to fight for a roster spot with fellow third basemen Headley (a former Padres first-round pick who was reacquired from the Yankees in the offseason) and incumbent starter Cory Spangenberg.  Instead, Villanueva had a three-homer night early in the schedule and has since taken over the hor corner for San Diego and is an early candidate for Rookie of the Year honors.  He's hitting .348 with eight longballs and 18 RBIs to lead the Padres in all three categories despite not being in the lineup for seven games.  Villanueva's batting average would be second in the National League to St. Louis's Tommy Pham with more at-bats, he's tied for second in homers behind the nine of Colorado's Charlie Blackmon and his slugging percentage of .768 would lead the NL with more plate appearances.

The Dodgers, of course, need no introduction.  Skipper Dave Roberts has a star-studded everyday lineup featuring the likes of Cody Bellinger, Corey Seager, Yasiel Puig, Chase Utley, Joc Pederson and Matt Kemp while Los Angeles' starting rotation includes Clayton Kershaw, arguably the best pitcher in the game, and Alex Wood while closer Kenley Jansen and Josh Fields anchor the bullpen.  Added to the mix is outfielder Alex Verdugo, a 21-year-old Mexican American from Tucson who was called up Saturday from AAA Oklahoma City, where he was batting .276 with four homers in 19 contests. The Dodgers have gotten off to a slow start with a 12-14 record, third in the NL West heading into the week.  However, this is still essentially the same team that came within one game of a World Series win against Houston last fall and they're expected to be in the thick of things when September comes.

ESPN will broadcast the third game of the Mexico Series on Sunday, May 6 at 10AM Eastern time.  Eight-year ESPN veteran announcer Adnan Virk will handle play-by-play duties while former MLB first baseman Eduardo Perez, whose father Tony is a Hall of Famer, will provide commentary.

The Mexico Series was originally scheduled to be played in Mexico City at the new Estadio Alfredo Harp Helu, named after the Diablos Rojos' billionaire owner, but the venue's construction has faced delay after delay and will not be ready before 2019, meaning the Mexican League's 2018 All-Star Game had to be moved to Parque Kukulkan in Merida as well.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Dissension in Monclova: Manny Rodriguez leaves Acereros

Monclova's erstwhile second baseman Manny Rodriguez
Team chemistry.  It's something that's often overlooked by fans and media alike, especially in an era during which fantasy leagues have placed a premium on a player's statistics at the expense of his humanity, but it's hard to win championships with a roster of unhappy players.  As if to provide Exhibit A for how that works (or doesn't), we bring you the Monclova Acereros and their disaffected star second baseman Manny Rodriguez.

Coming off an MVP season of winterball in the Mexican Pacific League, Rodriguez was expected to be a linchpin on a loaded Acereros team that on paper was one of the favorites to win at least one title in the Mexican League's two seasons for 2018.  Instead, Rodriguez has left the team out of frustration from repeated player movements between Monclova and the Puebla Pericos (both owned by Gerardo Benavides) and the resulting dissension among players used like pawns in a chess game with the same person dictating moves on either side of the board.  The 35-year-old Guasave native was off to a good start for the Acereros, batting .302 with a homer and 16 RBIs over 15 games before deciding enough was enough following an April 8 game (ironically against Puebla) and leaving the club.  Rodriguez has since been placed on the Reserve list and is no doubt being shopped around in trade talks.

The problem in Monclova underscores what has been a problem in the Mexican League the past few seasons: Ownership of multiple teams, or what cronistas south of the border are calling "timeshare" franchises.  Besides Benavides, Alfredo Harp Helu owns both the Mexico City Diablos Rojos and Oaxaca Guerreros while brothers Juan Jose and Erick Arellano own both the Yucatan Leones and Union Laguna Algodoneros (although the latter team is now for sale).  The siblings last year decided to strengthen the Leones down the stretch by "trading" slugger Ricky Alvarez from Laguna to Yucatan for lesser players, effectively killing Laguna's playoff hopes and alienating their fan base in the bargain.  Benavides has been far more hands-on with his two teams, deliberately stacking his Monclova club with stars from Puebla's 2016 LMB champions last year in attempt to create a pennant-winner for his hometown Acereros. 

Instead, the Pericos reached the title series against Tijuana while the Steelers were knocked out of the playoffs by Monterrey in the first round.  Due to Benavides' capricious moves (none of which have been resisted by LMB president Javier Salinas, who's said he's fine with timeshare teams), the Acereros are currently sixth in the LMB North with an 11-15 record and a locker room of ballplayers who would rather be somewhere else in what would serve as an object lesson for an owner who didn't already think he knows it all.  Player movement with the Acereros continues in an attempt to create some team harmony but the person who needs to be traded most is also the one signing the paychecks.

While Monclova has clearly been a disappointment during the LMB's Spring season as the halfway mark of the schedule approaches this week, the Monterrey Sultanes have looked sharp under new manager Roberto Kelly and lead the North with an 18-9 mark, two games up on 16-11 Tijuana.  The Sultanes are tied for fifth in the league with a .305 batting average and the aforementioned Alvarez (who was dealt to Monterrey from Yucatan in the offseason) leads the loop with 11 homers and is second to Tijuana's Corey Brown with 32 RBIs to augment his .353 average at the plate.  Veteran pitcher Javier Solano has definitely benefited from the support, showing a 4-1 record despite an ERA of 6.59 and proving that sometimes it is indeed better to be lucky than good.  Aguascalientes is third with a 14-13 record while Durango is fourth at 13-14.  The Generales have ensured a nightly slugfest by leading the LMB with a .331 batting average while averaging 6.7 runs per game but allowing 7.9 runs per contest, making converted starter Tiago da Silva's 3.23 ERA a much more remarkable stat than one would think at first blush (da Silva is 4-1 this year).

After fielding only two teams with winning records last season, the LMB South has four squads playing .600 or better ball this spring.  The Mexico City Diablos Rojos, who missed the playoffs the last two years with import-free rosters, have abandoned their "Mexican-only" philosophy and are now tied with Yucatan at the top of the table with am 18-9 record.  The Diablos are also seeing a rise in attendance after drawing fewer than 3,000 per game to Estadio Fray Nano in 2017, with crowds topping 5,000 all three nights last weekend for their three-game sweep of the Quintana Roo Tigres.  The Red Devils overcame a three-homer game by Tigres third baseman C.J. Retherford Sunday to wrap up the set with a 10-6 win over the visitors.  However, it seems the Diablos just can't avoid controversy.  GM Francisco "Pollo" Minjarez, ostensibly suspended by LMB president Salinas for his role in the Rookiegate scandal (which has apparently been swept under the league office rug), is reportedly still running the team and even regularly appeared in the team's box during the series against the Tigres, who came out on the short end of Minjarez' alleged double-dealing when five of their prospects were transferred to Mexico City while former Dodgers ace Fernando Valenzuela was in the process of buying the Tigres from Carlos Peralta.

The situations in Monclova, Torreon, Mexico City and Cancun indicate that while Salinas has been successfully proactive in raising his league's image through an increased social media presence and the LMB's innovative two-season approach, he has a long way to go before proving that he is a leader of the men who operate Mexican League franchises.  While the so-called New Breed of owners have won the battle with the Old Guard for control of the Liga's Assembly of Presidents, what has not changed is the impression that the LMB is still essentially a fiefdom for the Haves over the Have-Nots...only the names have changed and it serves neither the league nor Mexican baseball well if both are to be taken seriously and grow.

MEXICAN LEAGUE STANDINGS (as of Monday, April 23, 2018)
LMB North: Monterrey 18-9, Tijuana 16-11, Aguascalientes 14-13, Durango 13-14, Dos Laredos 12-15, Monclova 11-15, Union Laguna 9-18, Saltillo 9-18.
LMB South: Mexico City 18-9 Yucatan 18-9, Puebla 16-10, Quintana Roo 16-10, Tabasco 12-15, Campeche 11-15, Leon 11-16, Oaxaca 10-17.


LMP to allow 12 foreigners in 2018-19, but All-Star Game dropped

Some 2016 LMP All-Stars in their own right
The Mexican Pacific League held a meeting last week in Mazatlan, where team presidents had a chance to tour Estadio Teodoro Mariscal, where a massive retrofit is underway in preparation for next winter's schedule.  Renovations have been moving along at a decent pace but the possibility exists that the Venados will need to spend their first few series on the road for the 2018-19 season to ensure the ballpark is fully ready for occupancy.  Both the Durango Generales and Leon Bravos spent the first month of the 2017 Mexican League season living out of their suitcases while their respective ballparks were being brought up to standard.  The Venados are not expected to wait that long, but one never knows for sure in these instances.

Besides looking over Teodoro Mariscal's modernization effort (which leaves Navojoa as the only LMP franchise site with an outdated playing facility), the LMP governors made a couple of important decisions that point directly toward the effect the Mexican League's extension of their schedule into October with the latter's two-season format with month-long playoffs for each.  One decision was to raise the limit of foreign players allowed on a MexPac team's active roster from eight to twelve next winter.  The reason given is a practical one, since there will be so little turnaround time for players between the end of their LMB seasons and the beginning of the LMP schedule and Mexican League teams (who own the players' rights in Mexican ball) are expected to hold some players on their protected lists out of the winterball season, citing fatigue.  The result is a shortage of domestic talent for LMP clubs at the beginning of their season, which led to the increase of imports.  The LMB's no-limit policy on Mexican-American ballplayers, as mandated last year by Minor League Baseball president Pat O'Connor, does not exist in the MexPac (which does not fall under MiLB auspices) but it may need to be considered as October draws closer and homegrown players start becoming unavailable.

Another change brought on by LMB schedule encroachment was the demise of the LMP All-Star Game, which was revived two years ago after an absence of nineteen winters.  The event has drawn well in both Obregon and Los Mochis since it was resumed, but the window for selected players and coaches to take part was already a narrow one even before the Liga extended their calendar by a month, and LMP leaders determined that holding an All-Star Game (along with the popular Home Run Derby) this winter wasn't practical from a logistical standpoint.  The MexPac regular season is presently set to open on Friday, October 12, less than a month after the Mexican League's second-season playoffs will conclude.


New Mexican Baseball Hall of Fame nearing completion, grand opening

New Mexican Baseball Hall of Fame in Monterrey
After being closed for several years, with its contents boxed in storage during the interim, the Mexican Baseball Hall of Fame (or Salon de la Fama) is expected to reopen in a new building in Monterrey, where the museum existed in an existing facility on the Cuauhtemoc brewery ground from 1973 until 2011, when the brewery decided to shut it down.

The new Salon de la Fama is being erected on the banks of the Paseo Santa Lucia, an artificial canal running through Monterrey's Parque Fundidora, and will be a stand-alone facility.  Mexico City Diablos Rojos owner Alfredo Harp Helu is bankrolling the new Hall with construction overseen by former Monterrey Sultanes team president Jose "Pepe" Maiz, an engineer by trade.  BBM has been critical of both men in the past but they deserve all the credit for reviving what should be considered a pantheon for Mexican baseball rather than just one more occupant in one more storage facility.

Puro Beisbol's Enrique Kerlegand, now arguably the dean of Mexican baseball writers following the passing of Tommy Morales, toured the new Salon last week and wrote glowingly of its progress in his Tiempo de Beisbol column.  Kerlegand says Harp is currently spending about 300 million pesos (or approximately US$17 million) to build the Salon, expected to open this summer, and will include several viewing rooms, restaurants and a dome under which a Precinct of Immortals constructed of marble, bronze and glass will highlight the nearly 200 members.  There will also be a mini-ballpark named after Hector Espino at the site, which Kerlegand says should serve well as a temple of Mexican baseball.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Four teams bunched one game apart atop LMB South

Quintana Roo Tigres infielder Brian Hernandez
While the Monterrey Sultanes were able to maintain their three-game lead in the Mexican League North Division over the past week, only one game separates the top four teams in the LMB South in what's been a very competitive start out the gate for what has been considered the weaker of the Liga's two eight-team divisions.

The Quintana Roo Tigres continued to surprise many observers by holding on to a tie for first with Yucatan in the South after a 12-6 win Sunday in Durango to lift their Spring 2018 record to 11-4.  Third baseman Brian Hernandez had five of the Tigres' 20 hits on the night, doubling twice and scoring two runs while driving in two more.  The Leones kept pace with an 8-3 victory over Union Laguna in Torreon as former MLB All-Star Freddy Garcia tossed five innings of four-hit ball for the victors, allowing one unearned run for Garcia's first LMB win in three decisions.

Sitting one game behind the leaders with identical 10-5 records are the Mexico City Diablos Rojos and Puebla Pericos.  The Red Devils completed a three-game home sweep of defending champion Tijuana with a 3-1 win over the defending champs Sunday.  Ricardo Valenzuela's two-run single with the bases loaded in the fourth inning broke a scoreless tie and starter Luis Niebla (4 IP, 0 R) combined with closer Jean Machi and two other relievers to make the lead stand.  Puebla stayed even with the Diablos by recording a 7-2 triumph in Monclova over their big-brother Acereros, thanks to Jesus Arredondo's three-run homer in the third and starter Rogelio Bernal's 6.2 innings of one-run pitching against his former teammates.  Oaxaca, Leon, Tabasco and Campeche are all under .500 and in danger of falling out of contention early in the shortened format, but the LMB South overall has fared better thus far in 2018 than they collectively showed last summer.

Monterrey struggled a bit on the road against South teams last week, dropping two of three games against Tabasco in Villahermosa before rebounding to win twice in Campeche, maintaining their three-game LMB North leadership with an 11-4 record after winning eight of their first nine games of the year.  The Sultanes missed their chance for a three-game sweep of the Piratas Sunday by dropping a 6-4 contest as Uriak Marquez had three hits with a run scored and another driven in for the hosts.  Even so, Monterrey is up three games on the only other North team with a winning record, the 8-7 Aguascalientes Rieleros, who rode a two-hit shutout from starter Guillermo Trujillo and four relievers.  Olmecas opener Alejandro Astorga (2 R, 4 H) pitched seven strong innings but lacked support in absorbing a tough loss.

Dos Laredos, Tijuana and Durango are all tied for third in the LMB North with 7-8 marks while Monclova sits a game behind in sixth at 6-9, but the season has gotten off to bad starts in Saltillo (5-10) and Union Laguna (3-12).  Mexican baseball has never been the most secure for managers and drumbeats in Torreon and Gomez Palacios for Algodoneros skipper Ramon Orantes' replacement only got louder after Sunday's home loss to Yucatan and Freddy Garcia.

None of the upcoming midweek series would make the menu at a five-star restaurant, but the most interesting set may be when Monclova visits Merida to take on Yucatan in a matchup between two the Liga's top teams.  Next weekend's fare looks more palatable, with longtime rivals Mexico City and Monterrey squaring off in the northern city for three games.


Ricky Alvarez off to torrid start in first year with Sultanes

Monterrey Sultanes first baseman Ricky Alvarez
It would be hard to blame first baseman Ricky Alvarez if he got off to a slow start with Monterrey this spring.  After all, the Sultanes are the Tijuana-born slugger's third Mexican League team since he was traded by Laguna to Yucatan late last June in a seven-player swap even though he was leading the LMB with 75 RBIs in 66 games and mentioned often in early MVP conversations.  Alvarez cooled off over 43 games with the Leones, playing home games in Merida's pitching-friendly Parque Kukulkan, and finished the 2017 campaign with a .311 average and 17 homers to go with his 105 RBIs to nudge out Saltillo's Rainel Rosario by one ribbie for the crown.

What ended up a solid season by any standard wasn't enough to keep Alvarez in Yucatan, however, as he was a centerpiece in a major offseason deal between the Leones and Sultanes that sent Alvarez and outfielder Francisco Lugo to Monterrey for shortstop Walter Ibarra and designated hitter Luis Juarez.  Rather than struggle to fit in with yet another new team or wonder what it takes to keep from having to change teams, the 5'11" 220-pounder is off to a torrid start for the Sultanes.  Alvarez hit three homers over the weekend in Campeche to take LMB lead with six roundtrippers in his first 15 games while his four RBIs at Estadio Nelson Barrera on Saturday and Sunday gave him 16 for Spring 2018 to put him in a five-way tie at the top in that category.   With a .410 average, the former Tigers farmhand ranks sixth on the batting derby table.   Now in his seventh Liga season after debuting with Monterrey back in 2012, Alvarez has LMB career totals of .293/82/365 over 552 games while going 50-of-69 on stolen base attempts.  In short, it doesn't appear to really matter whose uniform Ricky puts on because he's going to produce for that team.

Leading the LMB bat race through last weekend is Tijuana outfielder Maxwell Leon, a journeyman utility player who spent five years in the Detroit Tigers system before his 2011 LMB debut with Minatitlan, where he hit .341 with 14 homers and 43 RBIs in 57 games for the Petroleros.  While the Mexico City native didn't approached those numbers over his subsequent six seasons with four teams, Leon has proven to be a useful player who can plug a defensive hole while offering a .290 hitting average with some gap power.  Leon has taken the lead in the Mexican League batting race with a .515 average, 33 points higher than Durango's Yadir Drake and 53 points up on Drake's Generales teammate, newcomer Dustin Geiger.  Drake and Geiger are tied with Alvarez, Quintana Roo's Brian Hernandez and Monclova's Manny Rodriguez (who else?) for the RBI lead with 16 each while Tijuana's Justin Greene and Jeremias Pineda of Dos Laredos are knotted up at eight stolen bases in what is already shaping up to be a tight race for both 2018 seasons in Mexico.

Four Liga pitchers are carrying identical 3-0 records, but the hurler who's gotten the most out of the least amount of time on the mound is Yucatan middleman Jesus Barraza, who has yet to be scored upon over eight innings in seven appearances out of the Leones bullpen.  Monterrey's Marco Tovar has a 0.96 ERA in three starts (tops among LMB starters) while Puebla's Mitch Lamson's effectiveness has been an even 2.00 per nine innings.  Javier Solano of Monterrey, the fourth 3-0 hurler and a past Mexican Pacific League Pitcher of the Year, saw his ERA rise to 4.20 after being touched for four runs on ten hits in five innings at Tabasco last Wednesday.  Josh Lowey's 24 strikeouts for Monclova is one better than the 23 of Tiago Da Silva, who is in Durango's starting rotation after being one of the LMB's top closers in 2017.  Three men are tied with four saves apiece: Yucatan's Ronald Belisario, Anthony Carter of Aguascalientes and Campeche's Pedro Rodriguez.


Villanueva swats three homers in single game for Padres

San Diego Padres third baseman Christian Villanueva
Third baseman Christian Villaneuva's impressive major league debut for San Diego after a September callup last year (.344 with four homers and 7 RBIs in 12 games) wasn't enough to keep the Padres from reacquiring former first-round draft pick Chase Headley to play some third base at Petco Park in 2018 along with incumbent starter Cory Spangenberg, another onetime first round pick who hit .264 with 13 homers and 11 steals in 2017.  The crowded situation at the hot corner carried over throughout spring training, when there was some speculation that Villanueva might be sent back down to AAA El Paso (for whom the Guadalajara product was .296/20/86 over 109 contests while splitting time between third and first base).

Villanueva, who has appeared in two winterball seasons with Obregon (winning BBM's Most Valuable Player award in 2015-16 for his play with the Yaquis), ended up sticking with the parent club and has been the starter at third for most games thus far.  While he's had his ups and downs, like most rookies, Villanueva solidified his standing by belting three homers in a home game against Colorado on April 4 as the Padres topped the Rockies, 8-4.   With his trio of longballs, Villanueva became the fourth Mexican-born player to whack three homers in a single MLB game, joining Erubiel Durazo (2003, 2005), Vinny Castilla (1999, 2002) and Roberto Avila (1951).  For the record, he went deep with two homers off Colorado starter Kyle Freeland in the second and fourth innings while touching Antonio Sentazela with a three-run blast in the seventh.  All three roundtrippers were to left field at Petco Park, one of the hardest ballparks to homer at in MLB.

After the game, San Diego manager Andy Green sagely allowed as to how Villanueva's outburst would probably earn a little more playing time.  Word does travel and pitchers are now working the 26-year-old a lot more carefully than they might have and the subsequent five games have seen him go 3-for-18 at the plate with eight strikeouts to drop his batting average from .429 to .240.  Still, no matter what Villanueva does the rest of the season (or his career, for that matter), he'll have had a night that precious few of his countrymen have experienced at the highest level of the game.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Monterrey races to 8-1 start, leads LMB North by three games

Monterrey first baseman Ricky Alvarez
New manager Roberto Kelly's offseason overhaul of the Monterrey Sultanes roster appears to be panning out, if the first ten days of the Mexican League's 2018 Spring season are any indication.  Not that things were all that dire with one of the LMB's flagship franchises, as the Sultanes copped the LMB North regular season title before falling to Tijuana over six games in the division finals last summer, but the Panamanian ex-Yankee outfielder has been very direct since he was hired to replace Felix Fermin at the helm of the Sultanes that he wants a team that emphasizes speed and baserunning and went about finding players who fit that image.

So far, so good.  The Sultanes roared out the gate by winning their first six games before being mauled by Monclova, 16-3, at home Friday night as Ruben Rivera's fifth-inning grand slam off Edgar Torres highlighted an 18-hit Acereros assault on seven Monterrey hurlers.  The Sultanes then won the next two games to cop the series and raise their record to 8-1.  First baseman Ricky Alvarez, who returned to Monterrey in a December trade with Yucatan that also netted the Sultanes outfielder Francisco Lugo in exchange for DH Luis Juarez and shortstop Walter Ibarra, ranks fourth in batting in the LMB with a .432 average and is tied with five others for the lead in homers with three longballs.  Perhaps more telling, the 5'11" 220-pound Alvarez, rarely mistaken for a gazelle, has stolen two bases in two tries over his first nine games to tie rightfielder Leo German and third baseman Agustin Murillo for the club lead.  It would be wonderful to give you some team totals for an overall view of how much has changed with the Sultanes, but Minor League Baseball appears to have decided that baseball is really an individual sport and are not posting team figures this spring so your guess is as good as mine.

Lefty Marco Tovar, who only pitched in five games in 2017 and went 1-0 with a 5.06 ERA for Monterrey, has won his first two starts and is tied for second with Union Laguna's Emil Sepulveda among LMB starters with an 0.82 ERA.  Another veteran moundman, Javier Solano, is also 2-0 with a 2.70 ERA.  Surprisingly, Kelly has not gotten much support from his bullpen as closer Wirfin Obispo (who converted 28 saves in 36 opportunities last year and went 7-5 with a 2.12 ERA) has a blown save in three opportunities thus far with a 5.06 ERA.  Obispo has earned 50 saves the past two years in Monterrey with 170 strikeouts in 126.2 innings, however, so the 33-year-old Dominican has plenty of time to regain his mojo.

The Sultanes' early success on the field has also been reflected at the gate, where Monterrey leads the LMB in attendance with 141,451 fans clicking the turnstiles at renovated Estadio Monterrey for an average of 15,717.  The Sultanes will hit the road for a pair of series this week, playing three games in Tabasco Tuesday through Thursday before opening a three-game set in Campeche Friday.


Generales' Drake picks up where he left off, leads Liga in batting
Durango Generales outfielder Yadir Drake

When Cuban outfielder Yadir Drake left the Durango Generales last summer to play in Japan, he was leading the Mexican League with a .385 batting average over 71 games before heading across the Pacific to Hokkaido and the Nippon Ham Fighters.  After a slow start with the Fighters, Drake raised his Pacific League average to .232 with one homers and three RBIs in 32 games at season's end and was not brought back to the Far East for 2018.  As a result, the 27-year-old right-handed batter is back in Durango, for whom he signed as an unheralded free agent in January 2017 after being released by the Los Angeles Dodgers following two seasons in their system (topping out at AA Tulsa, where he hit .269 in 106 contests for 2015).

Drake made his LMB debut during the Generales' turbulent first season, playing on the road for the first month and waiting for his paycheck on more than one occasion as the league covered payroll for the underfunded franchise.  Despite all the on- and off-field distractions, Drake (who also swatted 14 homers and drove in 61 runs) was awarded the Liga batting title when his 300 plate appearances barely qualified him for the crown while he also performed in the All-Star Game.

There have been a number of changes in Durango since the end of the 2017 season, including new ownership, a new team president in former MLB catcher and Mexico City manager Miguel Ojeda and a new manager in Matias Carrillo.  One thing that hasn't changed is Drake's production at the plate, where he leads the LMB tables with a .515 average (17-of-33) and is tied for the top of the list with three homers while driving in 10 runs over his first nine games.  His on-base percentage of .600 is also tied for the Liga lead with Puebla first baseman Daric Barton.  There IS one change that affects Drake, however:  He married a Mexican woman during the offseason and is applying for Mexican citizenship.  It's expected that once Drake's nationalization is completed, the Generales will activate pitcher Francisley Bueno to fill one of the squad's eight slots for import players.  Bueno, another Cuba native and a former Kansas City Royals reliever, was 3-2/4.47 in eleven starts for Durango in 2017.

The Generales, who spent the entire month of April on the road last year while their ballpark was being fixed up for Durango's return to the LMB, have played all nine of their games on the road so far in 2018 (winning five of them to tie with Aguascalientes and Dos Laredos for second in the LMB North, three games behind Monterrey).  They'll open their home schedule Tuesday night when they host Yucatan for a midweek series.

Other LMB batting leaders one day into April include Durango's new first baseman Dustin Geiger (a former Cubs farmhand) with 14 RBIs, Dos Laredos centerfielder Jeremias Pineda with 12 runs scored and Tijuana centerfielder Justin Greene with seven stolen bases, setting up a dandy battle with Pineda (five swipes) for the steals title in Spring 2018.

Among pitchers, Tijuana reliever Jesus Barraza, an eighth-year LMB middleman, is 3-0 for the Toros to lead the loop in wins.  Barraza teammate Kyle Lobstein is 1-0 in two starts and has yet to give up an earned run in 9.1 frames to lead the Liga in that category, Monclova's Josh Lowey in in his accustomed position as strikeouts leader with 15 K's over 14 innings and four pitchers are tied with three saves apiece (Yucatan closer Ronald Belisario has tossed the most innings of the foursome with 6.1 entradas and has six whiffs with one walk).


Velazquez earns first win of 2018 for Bosox; 10 Mexicans in MLB
Boston Red Sox pitcher Hector Velazquez

Mexican pitcher Hector Velazquez has picked up his first win of the season by going 5.2 innings for the Boston Red Sox in a 2-1 win over the Tampa Bay Rays Sunday in St. Petersburg, Florida.  The 29-year-old righty from Obregon scattered five hits, struck out five Rays batters and walked just one in front of 14,256 onlookers at Tropicana Field.

Tampa Bay's lone run came via a leadoff solo homer to deep right field by first baseman Brad Miller on the first pitch of the second inning.  Velazquez struggled a bit in the second, allowing two more hits before retiring Mallex Smith on a fly out to left and inducing Adeiny Hechavarria to hit a force-out grounder to second to end the threat.  Velazquez eventually made it seven consecutive outs by Rays batters before allowing a two-out single to Joey Wendle and a walk to Wilson Ramos, then closing out the frame by dishing up a long fly by Smith that was hauled in by Red Sox centerfielder Jackie Bradley.  He retired the side in the fifth and set down the first two Tampa Bay batters in the sixth prior to a Matt Duffy single up the middle, bringing Boston manager Alex Cora out of the dugout to wave Marcus Walden in from the bullpen and a trip to the showers for Velazquez, who had to enjoy what late pitching coach great Johnny Sain used to call "the cool of the evening," Sain's way to describe a pitcher's state of mind after turning in a strong effort on the mound.

Velazquez spent seven years pitching in Mexico prior to signing with the Bosox early last year.  He was the Mexican League's Rookie of the Year in 2010 after turning in a 6-4 record and a 2.63 ERA for the Campeche Piratas, including a complete-game shutout among 14 starts in 29 appearances.  He spent six summers in the Walled City before a trade sent him to Monclova in 2016.  Velazquez' seven-year LMB career record is 51-33 with a 3.56 ERA in 155 outings.  His winterball record wasn't quite as sparkling over eight Mexican Pacific League campaigns, going 27-22 and registering a 4.00 ERA.  However, two of those seasons (the last six with Navojoa) resulted in Pitcher of the Year awards.  He was 8-1 and 2.17 in 2013-14 but it was Velazquez' 2016-17 showing that caught the eye of Red Sox scouts when he finished 9-3 and had a 2.32 ERA, good enough for a minor league contract with Boston.

Velazquez spent most of 2017 with AAA Pawtucket, where he was one of the International League's top twirlers by going 8-4 with a 2.21 ERA in 19 starts.  He made his Major League debut for Boston on May 18 in a start at Oakland, giving up three homers in five innings to lose an 8-3 contest before being shipped back to Rhode Island.  He was brought back a month later, securing his first win on June 14 at Philadelphia, 7-3, in an interleague contest.  Velazquez won two more games for the Red Sox to finish the regular season with a 3-1 record, posting a solid 2.92 ERA.  He pitched briefly for Navojoa last winter before Boston shut him down until training camp opened in February.

The right-hander is one of 10 current Mexican-born players on MLB rosters, joined by Philadelphia pitcher Victor Arano (Cosamaloapan), Toronto pitchers Jaime Garcia (Reynosa), Roberto Osuna (Juan Jose Rios) and Marco Estrada (Sonora), Arizona pitchers Jorge de la Rosa (Guadalajara) and Fernando Salas (Huatabampo), Cincinnati pitcher Yovani Gallardo (Penjamillo), White Sox pitcher Joakim Soria (Monclova) and San Diego third baseman Christian Villanueva (Guadalajara).