Monday, February 19, 2018

Dodgers-Padres series in Monterrey sells out in two hours

Fans waiting to buy Dodgers-Padres tickets in Monterrey
If any question remained as to whether the May series in Monterrey between the National League champion Los Angeles Dodgers and their NL rivals from San Diego is a big deal, those doubts should be dispelled by the fact that only two hours were required to sell out 22,000-seat Estadio Monterrey for all three games. 

According to Puro Beisbol's Hector Bencomo in his Imparable column on Saturday, ducats went on sale Friday via Ticketmaster and were quickly snapped up, with a few seats to be offered to Padres VIPs reportedly the only tickets remaining.  Although ticketbuyers were required to purchase a three-game package, there's no doubt that a large number of single-game tickets will be made available through secondary sellers like StubHub (at a premium, of course).  Bencomo says that while ticket sales at the offices of the host Monterrey Sultanes was fully staffed, only about 800 walk-up fans were able to buy tickets before the series was sold out, with another frustrated 700 would-be ticketbuyers still standing in a line that stretched through the parking lot.

The so-called Mexico Series will mark the first regular season appearance of Major League Baseball teams south of the border in 19 years, when the Padres and Colorado Rockies opened the 1999 campaign with a single game in Monterrey on April 4.  Three years earlier, San Diego and the New York Mets competed in the first-ever MLB series in Mexico, also at Estadio Monterrey in August 1996.  The ballpark, which opened in July 1990, is currently undergoing a retrofit that will lower the capacity from 27,000 to 22,000 seats but make the facility (Mexico's largest baseball stadium) more user-friendly.

The series will feature a number of marquee names among the playing ranks, mostly among the Dodgers, who'll bring Clayton Kershaw, Cody Bellinger, Justin Turner, Corey Seager, Chase Utley and Yasiel Puig.  San Diego will have notable performers Wil Myers, Hunter Renfroe, Clayton Richard and likely Christian Villanueva, a third baseman from Guadalajara who impressed the Padres during a September callup last year by batting .344 with four homers in 32 at-bats over 12 games.

Heras fails to reach terms on loan to Monclova, returns to Yucatan

Yucatan (for now) outfielder Leo Heras
Close observers of Mexican baseball have no doubt noticed the practice of teams "loaning" players to each other.  It's a decades-old system in which one franchise facing a surplus of players at one position will loan a player to another league club with a need at that position for the season, with the loaning team holding the player's rights while the receiving team often picks up the salary of the player being transferred. 

Sometimes such deals can reach ridiculous proportions when the two teams involved are under the same ownership, creating a situation where clubs like Union Laguna and Puebla serve roles with Yucatan and Monclova (respectively) similar to how the old Kansas City Athletics were considered a de facto "farm team" for the New York Yankees in the late 1950's.  Players usually have no recourse, but there are exceptions to the rule and outfielder Leo Heras is the latest to buck the system.

Heras is a 27-year-old Tijuana native who will be entering his twelfth year of pro ball after debuting with his hometown Tijuana Potros in 2007 at age 16.  The 5'9" lefty hitter has built a reputation as a reliable batsman with gap power, some speed and good enough with a glove to be able to play all three outfield slots and fill in at second in a pinch.  He's a career .313 batter over eleven Liga seasons and collecting 67 homers and 115 stolen bases in 741 LMB games, appearing on four All-Star Games along the way. 

Last summer, the one-time Astros farmhand hit .293 with three homers in 95 games for Yucatan after a March trade from Mexico City to the Merida club before turning in a .253/0/19 winterball campaign for Obregon.  While he was toiling for the Yaquis last December, the Leones shipped him on loan to Monclova and the status quo appeared to be undisturbed (with Heras even appearing at an Acereros press conference announcing his arrival) until Heras did the unusual: He balked at the deal.

The issue appears to be money, as Heras and the Steelers were unable to reach an agreement as to how much the outfielder would earn for the 2018 season.  Puro Beisbol's Hector Bencomo weighed in on the subject, speculating that Heras considered the move from Yucatan to Monclova a sale and not a loan, and that the veteran flychaser wanted a percentage of the sale price.  The reason for the fallout and Heras' subsequent return to Merida has never been broached by either side, but the issue of a player seeking compensation when he's sold dates back to the days of legendary slugger Hector Espino. 

Espino's disputes over salaries and sales, mostly with the Monterrey Sultanes, are legendary among Mexican baseball cognoscenti.  A very quiet man by nature, Espino was also every bit as proud and aware of his value as both a player and a man and not afraid to dig in his heels against ownership.  That's something almost unheard of among ballplayers south of the border even today, so Heras' stance ensured his return to Yucatan last week and has likely punched his ticket to another LMB franchise who'll be willing to meet his price.

Diablos GM Minjarez suspended for role in "Rookiegate"

Francisco Minjarez (while a Tigres employee)
Several months after Quintana Roo Tigres owners Fernando and Linda Valenzuela lodged a complaint with the Mexican League over the suspicious transfer of five Tigres prospects to the Mexico City Diablos Rojos while the Valenzuelas were purchasing the Cancun franchise, there has been a response from the LMB office.  Diablos general manager Francisco "Pollo" Minjarez has been suspended indefinitely by the Liga office after having been employed in the Tigres front office prior to last February's sale before moving to Mexico City to serve as the Red Devils GM, and is believed to have played a pivotal role at both ends in the prospect transfer.

Minjarez was working in the Cancun front office under longtime Tigres GM Chito Rodriguez while owner Carlos Peralta was in the process of selling the franchise to the Valenzuelas in a deal finalized a year ago.  Shortly after the Tigres changed hands, Rodriguez retired and Minjares took the GM job in Mexico City under Diablos team president Roberto Mansur, who retired after last season, stating health concerns.  During this timeframe, five Tigres prospects on a master player roster the Valenzuelas claim they had in January 2017 became property of the Diablos in February in what Minjarez told Proceso reporter Beatriz Pereyra was a "gentleman's agreement" between the two sides.  He did not specify whether the agreement was between Peralta and Red Devils owner Alfredo Harp Helu or between Rodriguez and Mansur, two decades-long powers within the LMB, or any combination thereof.

That deal exploded in importance last June when the Diablos sold two of the five former Tigres prospects, 15-year-old infielder Fernando Villalobos and 16-year-old pitcher Damien Mendoza, for US$1.5 million and US$1.2 million, respectively.  The bone of contention with the Tigres and the Valenzuelas is that since they were not informed of the transaction, the rights to the five prospects (including Villalobos and Mendoza) still belonged to them and that they should receive proceeds from the two sales.  For his part, Minjarez told Pereyra that the transfer of the prospects is common among some LMB teams and that the deal had already consummated before the sale of the Tigres was finalized.

There's speculation that Minjarez may return to his former GM position in Obregon, now that a five-year suspension he received from the LMP in 2013 after not paying players promised bonuses after winning their third straight pennant has ended.  The Diablos are not taking this quietly, however, as new team president Othon Diaz wrote a letter to Mexican League president Javier Salinas protesting Minjarez' suspension and a formal protest is not being ruled out.  That would put Salinas in the difficult position of a first-year league president going head-to-head with his league's richest owner and be a real test of his leadership and power.

As for the Valenzuelas, they're still waiting to hear how much of that US$2.7 million they'll be getting.  While Fernando may be a better known figure in Mexico and the USA than Harp (he's no doubt more popular), baseball has always been a tough sell in Cancun, the once-proud franchise may face some difficult times ahead.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Culiacan finishes CS at 1-3; Caguas cops title (again)

Culiacan's Sebastian Elizalde scored the first run of the game from third base after Dominican shortstop Abiatal Avelino made a fielding error on a Jesse Castillo grounder in the top of the first inning as the Mexican Pacific League champion Tomateros went on to trounce the Cibaenas Aguilas, 8-1, last Tuesday to close out the host team's appearance at the Caribbean Series in Guadalajara.  The Mexicans finished the round-robin stage of play with a 1-3 record to fall a game short of the semifinals.  Cibaenas went on to reach Thursday's CS final before falling to Puerto Rican titleist Caguas, 9-4, to give the Criollos their second straight Serie del Caribe championship.

The Tomateros raised their lead to 3-0 in the top of the fifth courtesy of another Aguilas infield error, this time a wide throw to first by third baseman Hector Gomez on a Joey Meneses grounder that allowed both Justin Greene and Elizalde to score on the play.  The Dominicans were their own worst enemy in the field by committing an astounding six errors in the contest, although only one Mexican run was unearned.  Cibaenas scored their lone run in the bottom of the fifth when Gomez scored from third on Gustavo Nunez' sacrifice fly to Greene in center field, but Culiacan effectively salted the game away with a four-run outburst in the top of the sixth.

In that frame, the retiring Alfredo Amezaga rapped a triple to right off Samuel Deduno that plated Walter Ibarra and Gabriel Gutierrez to make it a 5-1 score, followed by a Greene homer to left to bring in Amezaga, giving Mexico a 7-1 advantage.  Japan-bound slugger Japhet Amador completed Culiacan's scoring for the game (and series) by launching an insurance homer over the center field wall against Cibaenas' Esmerling de la Rosa in the top of the seventh in a game that was played without much drama after the Mexicans were mathematically eliminated from Final Four contention the night before.

Mexican starter Sergio Mitre (6 innings, 1 run) got the win while Domincan hurler Angel Castro took the loss after letting in one run in three entradas.  Elizalde, Greene and Amador each had two of the Tomateros' nine hits on the night while Gomez' three safeties paced the eight-hit Dominican effort but four Culiacan relievers combined to fire three innings of two-hit shutout ball the rest of the way.

Tuesday's win was perhaps the lone bright spot for manager Benji Gil's Tomateros, whose MexPac championship team added 15 reinforcements prior to traveling east to Guadalajara.  A natural lightning rod who received widespread criticism (and a fine from the LMP) by making an obscene gesture following Culiacan's pennant-clinching win in Navojoa, Gil was plagued by bullpen collapses in Mexico's first two losses against Puerto Rico and Cuba's Granma Alazanes before falling to Venezuelan kingpins Anzoategui in a game they never led.  Surprisingly, the Tomateros had the lowest ERA of the five-team field at 4.37 but the highest WHIP of the tourney with a 1.66 mark.  They came in last in team batting by turning in a .273 average, respectable enough but well behind the Venezuelans' smoking .356 figure.  Greene and Rico Noel both hit .333 to lead the "home" team but the Mexicans' power shortage (only three homers at hitter-friendly Estadio Charros) didn't help and only Elizalde recorded more than two RBIs with three.  Reliever Jose Isidro Marquez, son of longtime closer Isidro Marquez, had three hitless appearances out of the bullpen, striking out four.  Despite the controversy and lack of success at the CS, Tomateros owner Hector Ley says that Gil will be back as manager in Culiacan next winter.

Ultimately, however, it was a flat performance by the Tomateros, who missed the LMP playoffs last winter when Culiacan hosted the Caribbean Series.  Guadalajara was pressed into service as hosts this time around when Venezuela's unstable political and economic situation forced the Caribbean Baseball Federation to pull out of Barquisimeto last year.  They'll try Venezuela again in 2019 but while CBPC president Juan Francisco Puello spoke bravely about big things in the CS' future, talk has already started up that Mazatlan may be similarly called upon as Guadalajara was.  The Venados are scheduled to host the CS in 2021 as part of the event's four-nations rotation, but current renovations at Estadio Teodoro Mariscal may bring the tournament to the Pearl of the Pacific two years early.  Puerto Rico is due to serve as hosts in 2020, depending on how efforts to bring the island back from last fall's devastating hurricane have gone by then.  Puello also says that Panama, Nicaragua and Colombia (who all send their winter champions to the lower-level Latin American Series) are under consideration for future inclusion in the Caribbean Series, although it's hard to see how any of the three would be contenders for a title anytime soon.

In all, Guadalajara received high marks for how the city (and host Jalisco Charros) staged the tournament, as Charros owner Armando Navarro continued his high-wattage effort to raise his hometown's baseball profile in the wake of last spring's World Baseball Classic first round games there that also earned high marks.

Jimenez, Picota to fill last two LMB managerial vacancies

Former major league shortstop Alfonso "Houston" Jimenez has been hired (as expected) to manage the
Mexican League's Tabasco Olmecas in 2018 while well-travelled former pitcher Lenin "Len" Picota will be dugout boss for the Saltillo Saraperos.  Both moves come with training camps set to open later this month and the regular season six weeks away.

The hirings complete the LMB's 16-man managerial roster for their upcoming Apertura season, set to run from late March through June with 57-game schedules followed by a month of playoffs.  The 2018 Clausura will mirror that format from July through mid-October.  While the league isn't actually using either term, the Liga Mexicana soccer circuit for whom LMB president Javier Salinas once worked, has employed Apertura ("Opening") and Clausura ("Closing") for their own two-season approach that has been quite successful for them over the years.  We'll use them here, for now.

The 60-year-old Jimenez is a Mexico City native who reportedly got his nickname from a character in a TV western (perhaps "Temple Houston," a 1963-64 series about a frontier lawyer?).  As a player he was similar to another Mexican shortstop, Mario Mendoza: Solid defenders but light hitter in the majors whose bats warmed up enough in the Mexican League to bring Salon de la Fama elections to both.  Another parallel between Jimenez and Mendoza is that both have spent most of the past two decades as managers in Mexican baseball, a peripatetic existence that has brought pennants to neither as a skipper.  Jimenez was let go in Oaxaca last September after two seasons at the helm of the Guerreros.  He went 40-67 in 2017 for a two-year record in Oaxaca of 78-119 in his second go-round with the franchise (this will be Jimenez' second job in Villahermosa as well).  This will be his eleventh MXL managerial job since 2001 but Jimenez has enjoyed a measure of success, going 879-777-3 in seventeen seasons dating to 1999.  He was a coach on Mexico's 2009 WBC team and elected to the Salon in 2013.  The Olmecas finished last in the LMB South in 2017 with a 38-69 record.

Unlike Jimenez, Picota's new job in Saltillo will be his first managerial gig in Mexican baseball.  However, the 51-year-old former pitcher is no stranger to the game south of the border.  A former Cardinals prospect who rose as high as Class AAA, Picota eventually moved on to independent ball, Taiwan, South Korea and Mexico, with LMB stops in Oaxaca, Nuevo Laredo, Laguna and Aguascalientes between 1996 and 2006 (going 19-13 over all or part of four seasons).  He pitched for his native Panama in the 2006 World Baseball Classic at age 39, later coached for the Panamanians in two more WBCs and served as Panama National Team assistant manager under new Monterrey skipper Roberto Kelly in 2014.  More recently, he has managed the Chinandega Tigres to the two most recent Probeis Panama winterball pennants and Latin American Series titles after winning the Probeis penant and a berth in the 2016 LAS managing the Panama Nacionales.  Picota will take over a Saraperos team that came in seventh in the LMB last summer with a 44-64 mark.

Here's a list of managers who will be piloting Mexican League teams when the 2018 season opens next month (new managers in italics, always subject to change):

NORTHERN DIVISION-Aguascalientes, Homar Rojas; Durango, Matias Carrillo; Union Laguna, Ramon Orantes; Dos Laredos, Eddy Castro; Monclova, Dan Firova; Monterrey, Roberto Kelly; Saltillo, Len Picota, Tijuana, Pedro Mere.
SOUTHERN DIVISION-Campeche, Daniel Fernandez; Leon, Luis Carlos Rivera; Mexico City, Victor Bojorquez; Oaxaca, Jose Luis Sandoval; Puebla, Lorenzo Bundy; Quintana Roo, Tim Johnson; Tabasco, Houston Jimenez;  Yucatan, Roberto Vizcarra.

Tix to Dodgers-Padres series in Monterrey will cost plenty

While baseball fans across Mexico are duly excited about the three-game National League regular season series between the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres in Monterrey, they might be forgiven for taking a pause to let the price of tickets sink in.  On the basis of one US dollar being the equivalent of $18.72 in Mexican pesos (as of Sunday, February 11), a single-game ticket will cost as much as US$205 for a seat in the Platinum VIP seats behind home plate, the cheap seats on the outer edges of the upper deck looming above the left and right field corners will go for US$21 while outfield bleacher seats are priced at US$25.  The catch is that fans will be required to buy tickets to all three games of the series, each accompanied by those ubiquitous Ticketmaster fees loved by sports and music fans across both borders.

The upshot is that the first MLB regular season series in Mexico since 1999 is going to be out of the price range of many baseball lovers in Monterrey and elsewhere.  Even if a family of four were able to score tickets to the series in the upper-deck cheap seats, it would set them back US$246.79 before the Ticketmaster fees are even approached, a lot of money in a country where the GDP-based per capita income in 2016 was US$9,707 per year, or about one-fifth of what the average US resident brought in.  Here's a look at the Estadio Monterrey seating chart with corresponding per-peso ticket prices (remember to convert to US currency using that 18.72:1 ratio we mentioned in the first paragraph):

The Mexico Series will take place May 4, 5 and 6.  Estadio Monterrey is currently undergoing renovations that will modernize the ballpark, which was opened in 1990.  The upgrades will remove five thousand seats to bring the capacity down to 22,000.  The last time a regular season MLB series took place in Mexico was on Opening Day of 1999, when the Padres sent Mexican baseball legend Fernando Valenzuela to the mound against Colorado.  El Toro actually threw out the first pitch before shutting out the Rockies through six innings and earning the win in what ended up a wild 15-10 Padres triumph over their National League West rivals.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Mexico 0-3 to start Caribbean Series, slim chance for semis

The 2018 Caribbean Series has gotten off to a thud for the Mexican Pacific League champion Culiacan Tomateros, who added no fewer than 15 reinforcements from other LMP teams after the conclusion of the playoffs to give manager Benji Gil a veritable all-star team to take to Guadalajara (while a number of miffed players were left behind).  Regardless of having a talent-loaded squad, the Mexicans lost their first three games at Estadio Charros to place themselves in must-win mode for their final round-robin contest.

Culiacan lost Friday's opener to defending champion Caguas of Puerto Rico, 7-4, in front of 16,500 fans.  The Tomateros held a 4-3 lead after four innings, but the Criollos tied the game in the top of the fifth and touched reliever Casey Coleman for three runs in the eighth to achieve their margin of victory.  Coleman (part of the only three-generation pitching family in MLB history) allowed three hits, including an RBI ground-rule double to David Vidal that broke the deadlock.  Nick Struck, who relieved Coleman with one out, let another run on on a wild pitch to Dayron Verona before giving up a run-scoring trip to Verona to bring the score to 7-4.  Sebastian Elizalde singled twice to drive in two runs and score another for Mexico, Jesse Castillo and Gabriel Gutierrez combined for four hits and Ronnier Mustelier scored twice.  Anthony Garcia paced the winners with three hits, including two doubles, two RBIs and a run scored.  Edgar Gonzalez (4.2IP/4R/8H) had a rocky start for Culiacan, for whom Coleman took the loss.

Saturday night's game went no better for Mexico in a 5-4 loss to Cuba's Granma Alazanes after frittering away another late lead.  This time, it was a 4-2 advantage going into the bottom of the seventh that was lost after being built on a three-run fourth frame that featured run-scoring singles by Rico Noel and Elizalde.  Culiacan reliever Aldo Montes gave up a one-out solo homer to Raul Gonzalez to make it a one-run game and a subsequent sacrifice fly by Frederich Cepeda tied the contest at 4-4.  It was left to Gonzalez to drive in the eventual game-winner in the bottom of the eighth on a sacrifice fly off the snake-bitten Coleman, who was tagged with his second loss in as many nights.  Justin Greene, Walter Ibarra and Noel each had two of eleven Mexican hits while Noel picked up two ribbies.  Culiacan starter Danny Rodriguez lasted just 37 pitches before being pulled with two out in the third, letting in two runs on as many hits and one walk.  Alain Sanchez got the win for Cuba with five innings of one-run relief.

Skipper Gil's seat got even hotter after Mexico lost their third straight game at home Sunday, 6-4, to Venezuelan champion Anzoategui.  While Culiacan never led in this one, the tilt was tied at 2-2 until the Caribes pushed a run across in the top of the sixth on Willians Astudillo's solo homer off reliever Miguel Pena, a former Red Sox farmhand who went 11-2 for Mexican League champion Tijuana last summer.  One inning later, Niuman Romero's line-drive single off Pena brought in Luis Domoromo to give the Venezuelans a two-run lead.  The Caribes scored two more in the top of the ninth to go up 6-2 before Chris Roberson's pinch homer with Joey Meneses on base closed the gap to a final two runs.  Meneses and Jesse Castillo each had two of the Tomateros' eight hits as Venezuela starter Nestor Molina (last year's LMB Pitcher of the Year with Veracruz) went 5.1 innings for the win, allowing two earned runs on five hits.  Rolando Valdez lasted four innings and 74 pitches for Mexico, letting in a part of runs, while Pena absorbed the loss after giving up those two runs.  Casey Coleman did not pitch.

The 0-3 Mexicans will get one more crack at a win Tuesday when they play Dominican  kingpins Cibaenas, managed by former LMB helmsman Lino Rivera, in the nightcap after a bye on Monday.  Cuba is 2-0 with games ahead Monday against the Dominicans and Tuesday versus Puerto Rico.  Venezuela is 2-1 going into Monday's clash with Puerto Rico, while both the Dominicans and Boricuans are 1-1.  While Culiacan is up against the wall, it should be remembered that Caguas was similarly 0-3 at this time last year before sneaking into the semis with a fourth-game win, then won the semi and final games for the championship.

Venezuela's Rene Reyes leads all batters appearing in three games with a .583 average after going 7-for-12.  Teammate Balbino Fuenmayor, who got off to a great start last summer for Veracruz in the MXL before cooling off in the second half, is right behind with a .500 average.  Fuenmayor's two homers are tied with yet another Anzoategui performer, Rafael Ortega, while his six RBIs top that list.  Six pitchers have one win apiece but only one, Dominican ex-MLBer Francisley Bueno, allowed no runs as Bueno blanked Caguas for five innings in Sunday's 6-3 Cibaenas win over the Puerto Rican champs.  Cuban veteran Lazaro Blanco has five strikeouts, one more than Mexico's Valdez and Venezuela's Molina.

One notable change from past Caribbean Series is that the games are being split into day-night doubleheader, with fans attending the afternoon games required to exit the ballpark before paying their way in for the evening contests.  Results thus far are mixed but incomplete.  With Mexico playing the nightcap throughout the round-robin stage, the afternoon games drew around 7,000 for the first two days with no attendance listed for Sunday's Day Three.  Culiacan's Friday opener against Caguas drew a sellout crowd of 16,500 at Estadio Charros, but no figures have been released for either Saturday's or Sunday's nightcaps.  The day-night format will continue through Wednesday's semifinals, with the title game slated for 9PM Eastern on Thursday night.

Diablos lose 2018 LMB All-Star Game in wake of MLB series shift
(Still) under construction: Estadio Alfredo Harp Helu
The offseason has not been kind to the Mexico City Diablos Rojos.  In addition to the so-called "Rookiegate" scandal in which the team is being investigated over five Quintana Roo Tigres prospects being mysteriously transferred to Mexico City (two of whom were sold to the Texas Rangers for a combined $2.7 million), continued delays in the construction of the Diablos' new ballpark has led to the Mexican League shifting its 2018 All-Star Game from the Nation's Capital to Parque Kukulkan in Merida, home of the Yucatan Leones.

The All-Star Game was originally scheduled to take place at 13,000-seat Estadio Alfredo Harp Helu on June 29, a date that falls between the two 57-game seasons with playoffs the LMB will be playing this year.  However, at an Assembly of Presidents meeting held last week in Mexico City, it was determined that the new ballpark (which had originally been slated to open in 2017) couldn't be guaranteed ready to host the All-Star Game.  Instead, the Presidents voted to move the contest to Merida and its 16,000-seater.  Parque Kukulkan was opened in 1982.  Since then, it has been the site of All-Star Games in 1982, 1992, 1998 and 2015 (the latter in front of 12,600 spectators).  The facility underwent $30 million in renovations prior to the 2016 season.

Losing the All-Star Game marks the second time this winter that the Diablos Rojos have lost a chance to host a major event.  The Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres had previously arranged to play a 2018 three-game regular season series in Mexico City, contingent on the new ballpark being ready.  However, structural damage found in late 2017 led to all sorts of timelines being pushed back months while those damages were to be addressed.  That resulted in the Dodgers and Padres moving their series to Estadio Monterrey, home of the Sultanes, in early May.  Although the Monterrey ballpark's current renovation will drop its seating capacity from 27,000 to 22,000, it remains Mexico's largest baseball facility and should be a showcase for new Sultanes owners Grupo Multimedios, who will host the MLB set.  Monterrey led all minor league teams in attendance last summer with an average of 11,575 per game (although paid attendance at the liberally-papered house was believed by many columnists to be a fair amount less than the announced figures).

Meanwhile, back in Mexico City, the Diablos are resigning themselves to playing another season at tiny Estadio Fray Nano.  The 5,200-seat facility, which is the smallest in the MXL, was only meant to be a stopgap after the Red Devils vacated the larger (but far less baseball-friendly) Foro Sol prior to the 2015 season.  Instead, they'll be playing their fourth season on the heels of a 2017 campaign in which one of the Liga's flagship franchises finished out of the playoffs while drawing just 2,503 fans a night, 14th in the 16-team circuit.

One bright spot from last week's meeting is that the upcoming two-season LMB calendar will be named after owner Harp, only the second time the league has dedicated a season to a person.  The other was the late Mexico City Tigres founder and future LMB president Alejo Peralta.  Puro Beisbol's perspicacious columnist/editor Fernando Ballesteros noted last week that while there are similarities between the two men, Peralta's vision and effort always included Mexican baseball as a whole while Harp has kept his own vision and effort within his two teams, the Diablos and Oaxaca Guerreros.

Union Laguna changes name from Vaqueros to Algodoneros

While it's been a tough time for the aforementioned Alfredo Harp Helu in Mexico City, at least he has his billions in the bank and an upcoming Mexican League season named after him.  Then you have baseball fans in Torreon and Gomez Palacio, who've endured some hardships of their own over the years, particularly the last one.

Consider that teams representing the Laguna region have not won a Mexican League pennant since 1950, when Union Laguna beat out the Jalisco Charros for the flag.  Since then, Laguna has copped just one division crown (in 1990) while owners, managers and players have come and gone.  One thing that remains from that 1950 championship is Estadio Revolucion, a 12,000-seat ballpark with an impressive neoclassical entryway that was completed in 1932.  While some renovations were done before the 2003 season, Estadio Revolucion looks much the same as it did in a year when Babe Ruth was "calling" his homer at Wrigley Field and Mickey Mantle was turning one year old.

With that as a backdrop, Laguna fans saw their Vaqueros make an unexpected run for a Mexican League playoff berth under first-year manager Ramon Orantes last summer, only to see star first baseman Ricky Alvarez traded to Yucatan as part of a seven-player deal in late June.  Alvarez was batting .330 with 13 homers and a MXL-leading 75 RBIs in 66 games at the time, and his departure left both a huge hole in the Vaqueros lineup and tremendous unrest among the Laguna faithful.  The team plunged out of contention while attendance at home games plummeted as many fans stayed home as part of an unofficial boycott.  The Vaqueros are owned by the same Arellano brothers who coincidentally also own the Leones in Merida, beneficiaries of the one-sided Alvarez deal and confirmed over the winter that, indeed, they are more focused on success in Yucatan than Laguna.

The Arellanos (brother Erick runs the Torreon team while Jose Juan operates the Merida squad) spent the winter trying to sell the Vaqueros after it had been speculated in the past that they may seek to move the franchise to their hometown Mazatlan, but found no takers.  Thus, faced with an unhappy fan base and a team regarded as Yucatan's "farm team" the way the old Kansas City A's were to the Yankees, the Arellanos did what any logically-thinking owners would do to turn things around: They changed the team name.

The Union Laguna Vaqueros are now the Union Laguna Algodoneros (loosely translated to "Cotton Growers").  The nickname was used by the Mexican Pacific League's former Guasave team, still used by San Luis Rio Colorado's North Mexican League club and dates to the name of a Laguna franchise started in 1970 as part of the LMB's on-again, off-again presence in the region of 1.2 million residents.

Whether fans will respond to the new name when the team wearing it is the same one that missed the playoffs (albeit with a winning 60-49 record under Orantes).  Laguna did finish sixth on the MXL attendance table with an average of 4,396 in 2017, but the then-Vaqueros had been averaging over 5,000 per opening prior to the Alvarez trade and those missing fans will have to be enticed back to the Algodoneros' aging ballpark.  A name change may not be enough.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Culiacan wins LMP pennant on Amezaga RBI single in 12th

Veteran Culiacan Tomateros infielder Alfredo Amezaga
Alfredo Amezaga's bases-loaded single with one out drove in Joey Meneses from third base broke a 4-all tie as the Culiacan Tomateros went on to top the Navojoa Mayos, 6-4, Sunday night in Navojoa to win Game Seven of the Mexican Pacific League championship series.  The win gives manager Benji Gil's Tomateros their eleventh MexPac pennant and a berth in the upcoming Caribbean Series in Guadalajara.  Culiacan has won two Serie del Caribes, in 1996 and 2002.  The Mayos were looking for their third LMP title since the team's inception in 1959-60 and their first since 1999-2000.

Navojoa got off to an early 1-0 lead when Leo Heras' second-inning single off Culiacan starter Sergio Mitre brought in Fernando Flores, but the Tomateros struck back in the top of the fourth when Meneses belted a Tyler Alexander delivery for a two-run homer to take a 2-1 lead.  Not do be outdone, Jesse Castillo returned the favor with a two-run blast of his own off Mitre in the bottom of the fifth to put the Mayos back ahead, 3-2, but Culiacan drew even in the top of the seventh when Justin Greene hit a bases-loaded pitch from reliever Esteban Haro off the glove of Navojoa third baseman Jovan Rosa to plate Ronnier Mustelier from third.

Castillo crunched his second longball of the night in the bottom of the eighth (this one off Derrick Loop) to push the hometown Mayos back on top, 4-3, but Sebastian Elizalde lofted a sacrifice fly with the sacks full in the top of the nine to send Jose Guadalupe Lopez home to knot the game back up and in effect send it into overtime.  After two scoreless innings, Amezaga's safety broke the deadlock for good and the visitors added an insurance run when Andy Wilkins scored on Jonathan Aceves' sacrifice fly to center, a play that drew an appeal from Mayos skipper Willie Romero on Wilkins' tag-up that was turned down by the umpires to give the Tomateros their eventual 6-4 margin.  Culiacan closer Chad Gaudin pitched a scoreless bottom of the ninth to earn the save for Casey Coleman's relief win.  Carlos Bustamante, who served up the ageless Amezaga's fateful safety, took the loss for the Mayos, who used eleven pitchers in the must-win game.  The Tomateros used six hurlers themselves as a full house of 11,500 at Estadio Manuel "Ciclon" Echeverria watched a game that went 5 hours and 11 minutes.

After opening the title series with two losses at home last weekend, the Mayos stayed alive by winning two of three contests in Culiacan to bring the finals back to Navojoa and the last remaining old-school ballpark in the MexPac, now that facilities in Mazatlan and Los Mochis are being modernized.  The Mayos won last Tuesday's first game at Estadio Tomateros, 4-2, as the Mayos' 13-hit attack was keyed by a two-run Rosa homer and a solo blast from Alejandro Gonzalez.  The visitors then knotted the series up at two games apiece one night later with a 5-3 triumph led by Paul Leon's two-run homer and run-scoring single.

The Tomateros fought back Thursday by topping Navojoa, 5-3, as Leon scored the go-ahead run in the bottom of the seventh on a Flores single.  Wilkins contributed two hits (including a solo longball) and two RBIs for the Tomateros, raising his average in the title series to .462.  Three consecutive sellouts drew 56,130 to the ballpark in Culiacan before the series moved back north to Navojoa for Game Six with the Tomateros holding a 3-games-to-2 lead.

Back home to end the series one way or another, the Mayos took a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the third on Saturday's Game Six when Alejandro Gutierrez socked a solo homer to straightaway center off Tomateros starter Edgar Gonzalez and made it 2-0 one frame later on a bases-loaded walk to Heras that brought in Max Ramirez from third.  The Mayos lead held until the top of the eighth when a Fernando Perez solo homer put Culiacan on the board and a subsequent two-run single from LMP batting champion gave the visitors a 3-2 lead, but Leon's homer in the bottom of the ninth knotted the game up and Randy Arozarena's walkoff single ended the game with a Navojoa win to force Sunday's deciding game.

Meneses was named Finals MVP after Game Seven. The Culiacan-born first baseman, a free agent after seven years in the Braves system, had a quiet regular season for the Tomateros with a .248 batting average to go with five homers and 32 RBIs in 66 games before turning in a standout postseason by batting .348 with five longballs and 13 ribbies in 18 games over three stages.  The 6'3" 25-year-old hit .370 with a pair of homers, six runs and five RBIs in the title series.

The Tomateros will be joined in Guadalajara by the Anzoategui Caribes of Venezuela, who beat Lara in six games for the crown, and the defending champion Caguas Criollos, who won their second straight Roberto Clemente League title in Puerto Rico by topping Santurce, 2 games to 1, in their final series capping a season abbreviated by Hurricane Maria.  Two more teams will be determined this week.  The Granma Alazanes took a 3-games-to-2 lead over Las Tunas in the Cuban National Series finals with a 3-2 win Sunday night.  In the Dominican League championship series, the Cibaenas Aguilas have won two of three games against Licey in their best-of-7 set.

The Caribbean Series will open Friday.

Tucson, El Paso interests explore potential Mexican League franchises

Mexican League president Javier Salinas
Citing his league's return to Laredo, Texas via the newly-moved Dos Laredos Tecolotes, Mexican League president Javier Salinas says there's interest in bringing LMB teams to at least three more cities in the USA.  According to Puro Beisbol, Salinas said "Cities like Tucson, San Ysidro, California and El Paso want to have a Mexican League team, on both borders, and there is a history between us and Laredo that was formed in 1930.  I think this will be a watershed and I think that together, we are going to be able to make a very good story out of this."

Tucson would seem a natural location for ann MXL beachhead in the States.  The southern Arizona city has a metropolitan population of one million people (of whom about 40 percent are Hispanic), no viable in-season competition for the sports entertainment dollar after the popular University of Arizona baseball team finishes their home schedule in May and TWO ballparks (Hi Corbett Field and Kino Veterans Memorial Stadium) that have both hosted MLB spring training games and AAA teams.  Mike Feder, who organizes the Tucson Baseball Fiesta every October, is a two-time Pacific Coast League Executive of the Year and knows how to operate a team.  From this standpoint, Tucson is the best open market north of the border for the Liga, although baseball historically has received lukewarm interest there.

El Paso would certainly rate as prime territory for Mexican League expansion.  While similar in population to Tucson, with a million people residing in El Paso's metropolitan area, the market swells to more than 2 million when Greater Juarez is factored in.  Arguably a better baseball town that Tucson, minor league ball has been a constant part of El Paso's summer fabric since 1930 and 9,725-seat Cohen Stadium is available.  The problem?  El Paso's already got a AAA team, the PCL's Chihuahuas, playing at a newer facility, Southwest University Park (7,500 capacity).  That team finished fourth in the PCL attendance derby with 544,668 fans attending 69 games, an average of 7,894 per opening.  Does anyone imagine MiLB president Pat O'Connor doing nothing if an LMB team comes to El Paso?  Neither do I.  The answer might be to set up across the border at 15,000-seat Estadio Juarez Vive with a heavy marketing effort in Texas, but I'm not convinced that O'Connor would allow that, either.

That leaves San Ysidro, which sits across the Mexico-California border from Tijuana and has a population of 28,000 with neither a history of pro ball or a suitable ballpark for even a Rookie league team.  While San Ysidro has easy access to the lucrative San Diego market to the north, one could expect Tijuana Toros owner Alberto Uribe to raise a hand at an Assembly of Presidents meeting and say, "Hey, wait a minute!" if San Ysidro is even considered in jest for an MXL franchise.  Not gonna happen at this point.

After all is said, Tucson would appear to be the clearest destination for the Mexican League as their second set of footprints in the fertile-but-untapped Southwest USA market.  It's obvious that Salinas is willing to listen but it'll ultimately be up to investors anywhere to blaze that trail first.

Tim Johnson named new Tigres skipper for 2018

New Quintana Roo Tigres manager Tim Johnson
It's been quite a year for Tim Johnson.  After starting 2017 as manager for the San Luis Algodoneros, a Puebla Pericos affiliate playing in the Class AA North Mexico League (or LNM), the former Brewers infielder and Blue Jays manager found himself summoned to Puebla in early June to replace Von Hayes as the Pericos helmsman with the team holding a 26-28 record.  He went on to take the defending champions to a 30-26 mark the rest of the way for a second-place finish in the LMB South, a division playoff title and a berth in the Serie del Rey against eventual winners Tijuana for the second year in a row.  Johnson did this with a roster decimated when owner Gerardo Benavides transferred most top players on the 2016 champions to his hometown Monclova Acereros, who were eliminated in the first round by Monterrey.  His reward?  Being let go in favor of Lorenzo Bundy during the offseason.

Johnson has shown he's nothing if not a survivor, however, and Quintana Roo Tigres owner Fernando Valenzuela was obviously impressed enough when Johnson's Pericos eliminated the Tigres in the playoffs last August to hire him in Cancun for 2018.  Johnson will take over the reins from Hector Hurtado, a former MXL catcher for 22 years who himself had assumed team leadership during last season when manager Roberto Vizcarra (who led the Tigres to two pennants, including their 12th and last flag in 2015) was sacked.

Johnson takes over a team with a glorious past but an uncertain future.  The Valenzuelas are locked in battle with the Mexico City Diablos Rojos over five prime Tigres prospects who were transferred to the Diablos while sales negotiations with former owner Carlos Peralta were ongoing, a move former Tigres exec and current Diablos GM Francisco "Pollo" Minjarez called a "gentleman's agreement.  Two of those prospects were subsequently sold to the Texas Rangers for a combined US$2.7 million, money the cash-strapped Valenzuela's could use in Cancun.  A complaint has been filed with Minor League Baseball and Fernando has said that he would consider putting the Tigres back up for sale if he is not given restitution.  The Diablos have reportedly offered US$500,000 but were turned down.

On the field, the Tigres are a team in transition, too.  Many veterans have been shown the door over the past two years to make the team younger.  Still, some longtime LMBers like Carlos Gastelum, Sergio Contreras and Pablo Ortega are still on the roster.  Johnson will not have the communication problems with players that helped sink Wally Backman as manager in Monclova (Johnson was considered as Backman's replacement at the time) and he has the luxury of playing in the weaker LMB South, although Mexico City swapping places with Leon make it a tougher division.  On the other hand, he takes over a heritage franchise that has never caught on in either Puebla or Cancun since moving out of Mexico City in 2002 and is now operating with precarious finances since the Valenzulas' two partners bailed on them not long after the sale, leaving the former Cy Young winner solely responsible for a team no longer receiving the sort of largesse from the State of Quintana Roo that Peralta enjoyed.

Again, Johnson has shown resilience since tall tales of service in Vietnam led to his firing in Toronto after a winning 1998 season.  He has bounced between Mexican and independent teams in the US ever since, always finding work.  He's shown he can win south of the border, copping a Mexican League title with Mexico City in 1999 and Mexican Pacific League titles leading Hermosillo in 1989-90 and 1991-92.  Winning either MXL pennant in 2018 with the Tigres is highly unlikely and the snake-bitten franchise may have to be willing to settle for some resilience themselves.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Culiacan blanks Mayos twice to take 2-0 LMP finals lead

Culiacan Tomateros P Anthony Vazquez
The Culiacan Tomateros earned a pair of 4-0 shutout wins in Navojoa over the weekend to take a 2-games-to-0 lead in the 2018 Mexican Pacific League championship series, with the next three games slated to take place at Estadio Tomateros.  The winner will advance to next month's Caribbean Series in Guadalajara.

The title series opened Saturday when Anthony Vazquez tossed a beautiful one-hitter for the visitors in their 4-0 conquest over the Mayos.  Joey Meneses belted a two-run homer off Mayos starter Barry Enright in the top of the first inning to give Vazquez a 2-0 cushion to start with.  After allowing a leadoff Alejandro Gonzalez single in the bottom of the first inning and a walk to Max Ramirez in the second, Vazquez retired the final 22 Navojoa batters of the game without allowing a baserunner after Ramirez' free pass (which was erased by Fernando Flores' 4-6-3 double-play ground out to end the frame.  Andy Wilkins stroked a two-run homer of his own in the third off Enright to put the Tomateros up 4-0, but the story of the game was Vazquez.  The 31-year-old lefty, who had a combined 12-10 record last summer with AAA Toledo and AA Erie in the Tigers' system, struck out seven while throwing strikes on 67 of his 95 pitches.

Game Two was more of the same on Sunday, with Culiacan winning another 4-0 contest while recording 11 hits for the second night in a row.  The hometown Mayos batters fared a little better by putting up seven hits for the game, but none of them resulted in a run as Navojoa ended up going scoreless over 18 innings in their two home games.  Edgar Gonzalez pitched six innings for the win, allowing four hits and striking out four.  Gonzalez and Mayos knuckleballer Eddie Gamboa locked up in a scoreless pitcher's duel through the first three innings until the dam burst on Gamboa in the top of the fourth, when Issmael Salas and Ronnier Mustelier each contributed two-run doubles to give Gonzalez all the runs he'd need.  Gamboa was tagged for the loss after lasting one out into the fifth inning, allowing those four runs on six hits and one walk with six strikeouts as a second consecutive sellout crowd of 11,500 at Estadio Manuel "Ciclon" Echeverria looked on.

Mayos first-year skipper Willie Romero, a prime candidate for Manager of the Year,  now has a travel day to figure out how to jump-start his offense before the series resumes Tuesday in Culiacan.  The Mayos reached the finals last Wednesday by beating Jalisco, 4-2, to knock out the Charros in six games in their semifinal set.  Ramirez socked his fourth homer of that series with a two-run bomb to aid starter Jaime Lugo, who got the win.  The 25-year-old Lugo was primarily a reliever for his five-year Mexican League career until after being shuttled from Monclova to Puebla last summer, starting all 13 of his appearance for the Pericos and 5-2 with a 3.92 ERA and helping the defending champions reach their second straight title series before falling to Tijuana.  He went 5-3 for the Mayos during the LMP regular season with a 2.53 ERA.

However, pitching isn't the Mayos' primary concern going into Tuesday's Game Three in Culiacan.  Somehow, Romero and his coaches are going to have to figure out how to wake up his batting order after last weekend's slumber party and win at least twice to bring the series back to Navojoa.  For his part, Culiacan helmsman Roberto Vizcarra is halfway to his goal of winning a second consecutive pennant after winning the title last winter with Mexicali.

Roberto Kelly named manager in Monterrey, signs three-year contract

New Monterrey Sultanes manager Roberto Kelly
Former major league outfielder Roberto Kelly is the Monterrey Sultanes' new manager.  The well-traveled Panamanian played for eight teams in his 14-year MLB career (including seven seasons with the Yankees), compiling a career .290 batting average with 124 homers and 235 stolen bases, making two All-Star Game appearances and reaching the playoffs four times.  His most productive season came in 1991 with the Yanks when he belted 20 homers, stole 32 bases and drove in 69 runs to augment a .267 average.  Kelly topped the .300 mark five times.

Kelly is no stranger to Mexican baseball.  After his MLB days were over, he spend two summers with the Mexico City Diablos Rojos, batting .334 with 19 homers in 2002 and .328 with 10 homers in 2003 before retiring as a player following that season at age 38.  He went on to spend several years in the Giants system, managing their Class A Augusta team in the South Atlantic League between 2005 and 2007.  He earned Manager of the Year honors in 2006 after leading the GreenJackets to a Sally League-best 92-47 record and a berth in the championship series.  He was brought up to San Francisco in 2008 and spent nine seasons coaching under manager Bob Brenly as the Giants won three World Series titles.  He was replaced as third base coach by Phil Nevin after the 2016 season.

The Sultanes' hiring of Kelly highlights an offseason during which they thought they had ex-MLB catcher Miguel Ojeda lined up to manage the team in 2018, only to have Ojeda back out to take a similar position with a Durango club that endured endless problems during their first season in the LMB last summer.  Although it was first thought that Ojeda would manage the Generales this summer, indications are that he may instead end up working in the front office if that team's ownership situation is ever resolved.  While Monterrey doesn't have nearly the off-field issues that the Generales do, they are coming off a campaign in which they were eliminated in the playoffs by Tijuana a second straight time after finishing second to the Toros in the LMB North during the regular season with a 68-43 record under manager Felix Fermin, who was not rehired.  Kelly's deal is for three years, a remarkable figure in a league with almost manic levels of managerial turnover.

One of the Sultanes' shortcomings was on the basepaths, where they finished 14th in the Liga in stolen bases with 55 swipes.  That should change under Kelly, who gained notice while managing in Augusta for his team's aggressive baserunning tactics as the GreenJackets stole 624 bases in three years while putting together an aggregate 258-157 record.

With Kelly's hiring in Monterrey and Tim Johnson being tabbed as the new manager in Quintana Roo (more on that next week), that leaves the Saltillo Saraperos and Tabasco Olmecas as the remaining Mexican League teams in search of new pilots, although the perpetually uncertain situation in Durango regarding Ojeda (who is part of a group bidding to buy the team from owner Virgilio Ruiz) could make that three clubs.

MLB bans scouts from working for Mexican League teams

P Luis Heredia during his Pirates days
The fallout over the Pittsburgh Pirates' firing of their Latin America scouting director, Rene Gayo, after he reportedly gained a personal financial windfall in the Bucs' 2010 signing of Mazatlan teen pitching prospect Luis Heredia for a reported $2.6 million, has led to Major League Baseball issuing a decree that scouts working for MLB organizations will not be allowed to simultaneously work for Mexican League franchises. 

Beatriz Pereyra of Mexico City's Proceso writes that MLB's ruling comes at the behest of new Mexican League president Javier Salinas during last month's winter meetings in Orlando, according to a claim Salinas made in an interview.  "We told MLB that we want to prohibit LMB executives from participating as scouts because there is a conflict of interest," says Salinas.  "Those scouts would not only be able to work for teams of the LMB, but for any league in the world."  The former Liga MX soccer commercial and marketing director, who was working for MedioTiempo website when he was picked to succeed Plinio Escalante as LMB presidente last year, added that "you can't work buying and selling at the same time because there is no clarity when you are judge and party."

The Miami-born Gayo spent five years as the Cleveland Indians' Latin America scouting director before being hired by Pittsburgh in 2004 to fill a similar position that had been vacant for five years.  Among his signings over the years for both teams were Danys Baez, Jhonny Peralta, Starling Marte and Willy Taveras (who now plays for Monclova).  He was fired by the Pirates in November after an MLB investigation found that Gayo received a kickback from the Veracruz Rojos del Aguila (who owned Heredia's LMB rights, which MLB organizations officially recognize) when Heredia signed his 2010 deal with the Bucs.  Team owner Jose Antonio Mansur, who reportedly owns 16 mansions and is a close friend of imprisoned former Veracruz governor Javier Duarte, moved the franchise to Nuevo Laredo last fall.  Mansur has owned Mexican League teams in Aguascalientes, Poza Rica and Cancun as well as Veracruz and now Nuevo Laredo over the years.  He was named Executive of the Year in 2012 when Veracruz won the pennant under current Tijuana manager Pedro Mere, but Mansur's teams have typically not seen success either in the standings or at the box office.

Interestingly, MLB's edict does not extend to Mexican Pacific League teams like the Mazatlan Venados, whose general manager, Jesus "Chino" Valdez, is a Heredia family friend, also works as a Pirates scout and may have been key in Heredia's signing with Pittsburgh (although there have never been rumors of kickbacks to Valdez).  Heredia, who is now 23, was released by the Pirates after last season and is once again a free agent after turning in a 26-26 record with a 3.88 ERA over seven years in the Pittsburgh organization.  It was thought he might pitch for the Venados this season, but the 6'5" righty decided to rest for the winter instead while seeking employment for the coming season after being a Baseball America Top 100 prospect as recently as 2013.  Mansur and the Tecolotes still own his LMB rights.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Culiacan sweeps Mexicali to reach MexPac title series

Culiacan DH Joey Meneses
Although it took the “lucky loser” rule for the Culiacan Tomateros to avert elimination from the Mexican Pacific League playoffs, luck had nothing to do with the Culichis’ sweep of defending champion Mexicali in the semifinals to punch their ticket to the LMP championship series.

The Tomateros began last week with a 7-4 Game Seven loss at home to Jalisco as Agustin Murillo had three hits (including a two-run homer) and three RBIs to give the Charros the deciding victory in their first round set.  However, Culiacan’s three wins in the series was enough to give them a berth in the second stage due to Mazatlan winning two games in their loss to Mexicali and Hermosillo earning just one triumph in their defeat to Navojoa.

Given that reprieve via LMP rules, the Tomateros then took on a Mexicali team that ran away with the second-half title and dismantled them easily, starting with a 6-2 win in the border city last Wednesday behind starter Edgar Gonzalez’ six innings of two-run pitching and Rico Noel’s single and double with two RBIs and one run scored.  Manager Benji Gil’s squad then took Thursday’s Game Two in Estadio B’Air, 5-4, with Joey Meneses’ ninth-inning single driving in LMP batting champ Sebastian Elizalde with what proved to be the game-winning run as Culiacan closer Chad Gaudin came turned in a 1-2-3 inning for the save.

After a travel day, the series shifted to Estadio Tomateros for Game Three on Saturday, with the hosts shutting out the Aguilas, 6-0, as Anthony Vazquez went all the way with a four-hitter for Culiacan, aided and abetted by Ali Solis’ three-run homer in the seventh.   The Tomateros put a wrap on the series and Mexicali’s season with a 6-4 win Sunday, with Issmael Salas’ sixth-inning bunt single driving in Ronnier Mustelier from third to break a 4-all tie.  The Tomateros picked up 38 hits over the four games while Mexicali’s defense broke down with ten errors, four of them coming in Sunday’s series-ending contest.

While the Aguilas will call it a winter, with players and manager Pedro Mere left to wonder how they so grandly missed a second trip to the Caribbean Series, the Tomateros will await the outcome of the Navojoa-Jalisco series to learn who they’ll face next in their attempt to bring an eleventh MexPac pennant to Culiacan.

Mayos one win away from LMP championship series berth

Navojoa (and Boston) RHP Hector Velazquez
The Navojoa Mayos are poised to move into the Mexican Pacific League championship series in their quest for the team’s first pennant since 2002-03 after taking a 3-games-to-1 lead over Jalisco in their LMP semifinal series.  Navojoa is not one of the LMP’s traditional powers, with just three titles in their 63-year franchise history, and the team is seeking its second trip to the finals since 1997-98.

The Mayos topped the Charros, 9-4, Sunday night in Guadalajara after jumping on Jalisco starter David Reyes for four runs on four hits, including a two-out single up the middle by Fernando Flores that scored Jesse Castillo and Jovan Rosa.  Willie Romero’s charges went on to take a 7-1 lead into the sixth inning and cruised to the win.  Designated hitter Max Ramirez had a big night for the visitors, belting two homers and driving in three runs while leadoff hitter Angel Gonzalez contributed three singles and a double, scoring once.  Eddie Gamboa earned the win after allowing two runs in five frames for his third postseason victory.  Reyes was tagged with the loss.

Navojoa opened the series at home last Wednesday and beat the Charros, 4-1, behind a decent five-inning outing from starting pitcher Hector Velazquez.  The Red Sox hurler allowed eight hits but only let in one run as Cardinals farmhand Randy Arozarena socked a solo homer in the bottom of the first to give Velazquez and the Mayos a lead they’d build on and hold the entire game.  Game Two on Thursday ended with Jalisco prevailing 4-3 in their lone win of the series thus far.  The Charros opened with two runs in the top of the first inning, including a game-opening homer from Yordanys Linares, and added two more in the second on a Linares triple.  Starter Tyler Alexander carried a shutout into the fifth and pitched through the sixth for the win, giving up five hits and two walks, striking out six Mayos batters as Jalisco erased Navojoa’s home-field advantage.

The series shifting to Guadalajara, however, has done the Charros no favors.  The Mayos won both weekend encounters, including a 6-3 Saturday tilt in which both Ramirez and Gonzalez lofted two-run homers in support of opener Barry Enright.  The former Diamondbacks starter went 7.1 strong innings for the win, scattering five hits and two runs while whiffing four.  Sunday’s win put the Charros in must-win mode for Monday’s Game Five at home.  Velazquez will seek his third playoff win for the Mayos while Jalisco skipper Roberto Vizcarra will send out Octavio Acosta, who’s followed up a standout summer with Mexico City (14-1, 2.99) with a solid winter for the Charros (7-3, 3.94).  Acosta has been rocked for an 8.59 ERA and a loss in two postseason starts, however.

Four LMB teams still without managers as training camps approach

Houston Jimenez with Tabasco in 2015
With training camp for the Mexican League’s two 2018 seasons about a month away, four LMB franchises are still shopping for a manager.  The Tabasco Olmecas are searching for a new leader to replace Vicente Palacios, the Saltillo Saraperos still have a vacancy after Marco Antonio Romero was not rehired and the Monterrey Sultanes have gone back to the drawing board after Miguel Ojeda spurned an offer to take a similar job in Durango (although the Generales’ unsettled ownership situation makes that a tentative commitment).

While the term “managerial job security” is an oxymoron in Mexican baseball, Tabasco may stand out even by the status quo south of the border.  The franchise as run by the Dagdug brothers is a perpetual also-ran on the field (one pennant in 53 years) and a fiasco off of it, with ongoing electrical problems at 53-year-old Parque Centenario 27 de Febrero serving as a symbol of sorts for the poorly-supported Olmecas, who averaged an LMB-worst 1,437 fans per game last summer.  While Villahermosa is not a preferred destination for men on the Mexican managerial merry-go-round, rumor has Alfonso “Houston” Jimenez returning for his second tour of duty with the Olmecas, including a 2015 season during which the ex-Twins shortstop marked his 800th career win as a Mexican League helmsman.  Jimenez was fired during the 2017 season as skipper from his tenth managerial job last summer in Oaxaca.  

Then you have the once-proud Saltillo Saraperos, who less than a decade ago won two consecutive Mexican League pennants and led all of Minor League Baseball in attendance under the ownership of deep-pocketed Juan Manuel Ley, whose family continues to own the Culiacan Tomateros in the wake of his death.  However, the Saraperos have fallen upon hard times since the Leys sold the franchise in 2013 after fourteen seasons in the Coahuila city, missing the playoffs in 2017 under managers Orlando Sanchez (fired after failing to recapture the glory days of 2008-10 under his watch) and Romero, once one of Mexico’s top sluggers.  With Romero gone, some observers expected Lino Rivera to be named Saltillo’s new skipper until the team board of directors publicly ruled that out, shifting attention to Panamanian Lenin Picota as a potential dugout boss.

Next we come to the Monterrey Sultanes, who’ve had an interesting year after owner Jose “Pepe” Maiz sold half the team to Grupo Multimedios last February.  While the Sultanes, under new general manager Guillermo “Willie” Gonzalez (who replaced fixture Roberto Magdaleno in the front office after the sale) were able to induce enough people out to Estadio Monterrey to lead MiLB with an average attendance of 11,575 per game, the team fell to Tijuana in the LMB North championship series for the second year in a row, leading to the decision to not bring back Felix Fermin as skipper (although Fermin remains on the roster as a third-base coach).  A deal between the Sultanes and Ojeda, who led Mexico City to the Liga pennant in 2014, was believed to have been worked out until the former big league catcher backed out to manage in Durango instead.  Since then, nobody’s name has surfaced as front-runner in Monterrey.

Finally, let’s talk about Durango.  The Generales’ difficulties in their first year have been exhausted here (you can check the archives in BBM’s right-hand column to review the carnage), but the underfinanced team drew well in the state capital even after their season went south following a surprisingly respectable showing during a month-long road trip to open 2017 as renovations to Estadio Francisco Villa were hurriedly being done.  Cuban skipper Joe Alvarez went from too-early “Manager of the Year” talk to unemployed after embattled owner Virgilio Ruiz fired Alvarez after the season.  While Ojeda has been named as the new skipper in Durango, Ruiz is said to be trying to sell his virtually-insolvent franchise that the league had to take over down the stretch and any new owners would not necessarily be obliged to honor a deal that Ruiz made with Ojeda.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Mayos first to reach LMP semis; Hermosillo, Mazatlan out

Navojoa Mayos knuckleballer Eddie Gamboa
The Navojoa Mayos were the first team to qualify for the Mexican Pacific League playoff semifinals after bouncing first-half champion Hermosillo in five games, capping the set with a Friday win.  The Mayos pitching staff was the story of this series, holding the Naranjeros to a miniscule .153 batting average.  Outfielder Cedric Hunter contributed a .313 mark, including the lone homer for the Orangemen, but Hermosillo hitters were putty in the hands of Navojoa hurlers Hector Velazquez, Jaime Lugo and especially veteran knuckleballer Eddie Gamboa, who won both his starts and limited the Naranjeros to two unearned runs on five hits in 12.1 innings.  Hermosillo was shut out twice and held to one run once before being eliminated, 4-3, on Friday night to send home 13,195 disappointed fans at Estadio Sonora.  Mexican League MVP Jesse Castillo topped the Mayos offense by going 7-of-18 (.389) with five RBIs, including two ribbies in a three-hit Game Five.  Randy Arozarena had four hits and scored twice in Friday's clincher.

While the Mayos move on in the hope of securing Navojoa's first LMP pennant since 1999-2000, ironically under current Hermosillo manager Lorenzo Bundy, the Naranjeros were the first team to exit the MexPac playoffs and face a long offseason with plenty of questions about what went wrong.  Bundy's job status after several winters with the team is in more doubt than ever.

A Philadelphia native who lives in Tucson between seasons, Bundy won't have long to lick his wounds.  He was hired last week to replace former MLB infielder Tim Johnson as manager of the Mexican League's Puebla Pericos for the 2018 season.  Johnson took over the defending champion Pericos from Von Hayes in early June and led the team to an unexpected return to the LMB championship series after owner Gerardo Benavides transferred most of the Parrots' roster to his other Liga team in Monclova.  Bundy coached under Don Mattingly in Miami last summer.

Navojoa defeated Hermosillo, 4 games to 1
Jan. 1  NAVOJOA 5-9-0, Hermosillo 0-1-1 (Eddie Gamboa tosses 7 innings of 1-hit shutout ball)
Jan. 2  NAVOJOA 3-5-1, Hermosillo 0-5-2 (Hector Velazquez blanks Naranjeros over 5.1 innings)
Jan. 4  HERMOSILLO 4-6-0, Navojoa 3-10-1 (Cedric Hunter homer in 7th breaks 3-3 tie)
Jan. 5  Navojoa 5-7-1, HERMOSILLO 1-3-2 (Jovan Rosa hits 2-run HR, Jesse Castillo has 2 RBIs)
Jan. 6  Navojoa 4-10-2, Hermosillo 3-8-1 (Jesse Castillo 3 RBIs on 3 hits, Randy Arozarena 4 hits)

Aguilas crush Mazatlan, 10-1, Sunday to qualify for second round
C.J. Retherford had 3 game-winning hits for Mexicali
Defending champion Mexicali was stretched a little farther in their opening round series, requiring six games to eliminate Mazatlan.  The Aguilas punched their way to a resounding 10-1 win Sunday at home, banging out 20 hits to the delight of the Estadio Gasmart crowd.  The game was scoreless until the bottom of the fourth inning, when the Eagles plated three runs on four hits, including an RBI double by C.J. Retherford, and never looked back.  Chris Roberson, Walter Ibara and Luis Juarez had three hits apiece while Xorge Carrillo belted a two-run homer in a four-run Mexicali sixth.  Aguilas starter Sergio Mitre was the beneficiary of his mates' hitting outburst and earned the win after tossing six frames of one-hit shutout ball.

Up until Sunday's win, C.J. Retherford had a week he'll tell his grandsons about by personally delivering the game-winning hit in Mexicali's first three victories.  The former White Sox minor league infielder was irate about being left off the Aguilas roster for the Caribbean Series last winter under then-manager Roberto Vizcarra and has returned to the postseason with a vengeance.  Retherford's RBI double in the bottom of the ninth ended the Aguilas' 2-1 win in Game One last Monday, followed by a walkoff solo homer in the eleventh one night later as the borderites triumphed, 3-2.  After one day off and a Mazatlan win Thursday behind Brian Hernandez' 3-run blast, Retherford was at it again Friday, when his solo homer in the top of the ninth accounted for the game's lone run in the Aguilas' 1-0 win at Mazatlan as Mexicali starter Justin De Fratus and Venados' Dustin Crenshaw swapped zeros until reliever Nick Stuck gave up Retherford's dinger.

 After a sketchy first half under Vizcarra, who was fired less than a year after leading the Aguilas to last winter's pennant, Mexicali has responded under Mere (who piloted Tijuana to the LMB title this summer) by running away with the second-half title.  The Eagles are hoping for a second straight trip to the Serie del Caribe and Retherford wants to make sure he's not forgotten if they make it to Guadalajara.  Mazatlan is done for the season after manager Daniel Fernandez' squad won just two first-round games.  Jalisco's win at Culiacan Sunday night ensured both those teams will advance no matter who wins Game Seven of that series Monday.

Mexicali defeated Mazatlan, 4 games to 2
Jan. 1  MEXICALI 2-4-0, Mazatlan 1-7-0 (C.J. Retherford hits walkoff RBI double in 9th for win)
Jan. 2  MEXICALI 3-10-0, Mazatlan 2-6-0 <11> (C.J. Retherford belts walkoff solo HR in 11th)
Jan. 4  MAZATLAN 3-8-0, Mexicali 0-2-1 (Alejandro Soto, two relievers combine on 2-hitter)
Jan. 5  Mexicali 1-6-0, MAZATLAN 0-3-0 (C.J. Retherford's 1B in 9th drives in game's lone run)
Jan. 6  MAZATLAN 5-10-1, Mexicali 3-9-2 (Brian Hernandez 3-run HR in 7th keys comeback win)
Jan. 7  MEXICALI 10-20-1, Mazatlan 1-4-0 (Xorge Carrillo had 3-run HR as Aguilas had 20 hits)

Charros blank Culiacan, 2-0, to force Game Seven on Monday
Jalisco slugger Japhet Amador has 4 homers in 6 games
In what has turned out to be the best of the MexPac's three opening-round playoff series, the Culiacan Tomateros have traded victories with the Jalisco Charros throughout the first six games of their set, including a Jalisco win Sunday night in Culiacan to tie things up at three games apiece and force a Game Seven on Monday at Estadio Tomateros.  Regardless of who cops the series, both teams will advance to the LMP semifinals because the club that comes up short will have won three games in a losing effort.  That'll be enough to punch a ticket to the semis as the first round's "lucky loser" by nudging out Mazatlan (two wins) and Hermosillo (one win) for most wins in a series loss.

David Reyes was joined by four Jalisco relievers, including MLB free agent Sergio Romo, in tossing a combined three-hit 2-0 shutout Sunday as 15,148 onlookers watched in Culiacan.  Reyes tossed five innings of hitless ball with four strikeouts before being replaced after 78 pitches with a 1-0 lead, courtesy of Japhet Amador's leadoff homer in the fourth (the Mulege Giant's fourth roundtripper of the series after failing to go deep in his final nine games of the regular season). Manuel Flores, who replaced Reyes, lost the no-hit bid by allowing singles to Rico Noel and Joey Meneses in the sixth but those were the only safeties the Tomateros would pick up all night.  Jabari Blash, who was dealt from San Diego to the Yankees in last month's trade that sent Chase Headley back to the Padres, hit a solo insurance homer for the Charros in the ninth as Romo worked the last two frames for his second save.

Culiacan opened the series last Monday with a 2-1 win in Guadalajara and the two combatants have gone back and forth since.  If Game Seven holds to form, the Tomateros would win the series but Mazatlan's loss in Mexicali Sunday takes the pressure off both squads.  While there've been some strong performances in this matchup of two longtime rivals (and hosts of the 2017 and 2018 Caribbean Series), Amador has stood out by socking homers in each of the past three contests.  Three of his dingers in the series have been solo shots as the Rakuten Golden Eagles DH has a .333 average over six playoff contests.  The massive slugger will spend his third summer in Japan later this year.

Starters have been announced for Monday night's deciding game.  Former Yankees prospect Will Oliver (who's spent the past four years pitching independent ball) will be on the hill for Jalisco after a no-decision last Thursday, when he allowed two runs on seven hits in 5.1 innings in a 3-2 loss.  He went 1-4 with a 4.18 ERA in the regular season.  Salvador Valdez will be handed the ball by Tomateros helmsman Benji Gil.  Valdez gave up two runs on four hits over six innings in last Tuesday's 4-2 home loss to Jalisco.  The Culiacan-born righty was 2-2 with a 2.83 ERA in eight starts for the Tomateros.
Culiacan and Jalisco are tied, 3 games to 3
Jan. 1  CULIACAN 2-1-2, Jalisco 1-6-1 (Two runs score on Ronnier Mustelier ground-out in 4th)
Jan. 2  Jalisco 4-8-1, CULIACAN 2-8-0 (Gabriel Gutierrez singles and homers with 2 RBIs)
Jan. 4  Culiacan 3-8-0, JALISCO 2-7-0 (D'Arby Myers singles twice, walks, scores, drives in run)
Jan. 5  JALISCO 7-17-1, Culiacan 6-10-0 <12> (Agustin Murillo doubles, scores winner in 12th)
Jan. 6  Culiacan 5-7-0, JALISCO 4-8-0 (Ali Solis 3-run HR in 4th for Tomateros holds up)
Jan. 7  Jalisco 2-5-2, CULIACAN 0-3-0 (Japhet Amador hits 4th playoff HR in road shutout)