Monday, January 29, 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)

Monday, January 1, 2018

LMP regular season ends, playoffs to begin Monday

Culiacan OF Sebastian Elizalde homering
The Mexican Pacific League has concluded its 2017-18 regular season, with the Culiacan Tomateros parlaying a third-place finish in the second half into a top seed berth for the January playoffs.  Mexicali ran away with the second-half title by turning in a 26-7 record under manager Pedro Mere to finish six games ahead of 20-13 Navojoa, collecting eight points toward the postseason in the bargain.  However, the Aguilas' 16-19 showing in the first half netted the borderites just four points while the defending champs' sixth-place finish cost former skipper Roberto Vizcarra his job.

In the end, however, it was Culiacan's steady performance throughout both halves that gave them home-field advantage for the pending postseason.  Although some breaths were held when the Tomateros brought back the volatile Benji Gil as manager in the offseason, fans were rewarded with a 20-15 record for second place and 7.0 points in the first half followed by a 19-16 mark in the second stanza, good enough for third place and the 6.0 points that come with it for a total of 13.0 points, one point ahead of Mexicali and 1.5 points up on Navojoa.  Mexicali had the best overall record at 42-26 while Culiacan went a combined 39-29 and Navojoa was 38-30.  All three teams will move on to the playoffs, as will Hermosillo (33-34/11.5), Mazatlan (37-31/11.0) and Jalisco (35-32/9.5).  Obregon (27-41/7.0) was never a factor in either half and Los Mochis (20-48/6.5) finished their season in disastrous fashion by losing their last 17 games under interim helmsman Ramon Orantes, at least implying that fired manager Luis Sojo wasn't the problem with the Caneros.

Culiacan outfielder Sebastian Elizalde won the batting title with a .380 average, nine points ahead of Jalisco second baseman Manny Rodriguez.  A Reds farmhand, Elizalde also led the loop with a .446 on-base percentage, tied Rodriguez for the MexPac lead with 95 hits apiece and finished a distant second to Mazatlan speedster Jeremias Pineda (who'll miss the playoffs after going home shortly before Christmas to play for the Dominican League's Cibao Gigantes) with 16 stolen bases.

Elizalde is in the conversation for MVP honors, but it'll be hard to beat out Rodriguez, whose .371 average was augmented by 25 doubles, 58 RBIs, 50 runs scored, 150 total bases, a .568 slugging percentage and a 1.009 OPS (all best in the loop) while his 10 homers were good enough to tie for fourth with teammate Agustin Murillo.  The 35-year-old Guasave native posted his seventh straight .300+ Mexican League season last summer for Monclova and even stealing 19 bases, showing little sign of slowing down.  Navojoa's Randy Arozarena led the LMP with 14 homers in another down year for roundtrippers while tying Rodriguez for the doubles lead at 25 two-baggers.  The Cardinals minor leaguer by way of Cuba may get some MVP mention, too, but it appears to be Manny's award to lose at this point.

Any debate for Pitcher of the Year will likely include just two candidates: Mazatlan's Mitch Lively and Rolando Valdez of Mexicali.  Lively, who made the best of a bad situation in Leon during the summer, had some dominant moments during the MexPac calendar and finished with a 9-2 record to lead the league in wins, tossed the only complete game shutout of the season, posted the best WHIP (0.96) and finished with 63 strikeouts to come in second to Jalisco's Tyler Alexander (66) over 12 starts.  Lively, whose 2.50 ERA was second to Valdez, hasn't pitched for the Venados since December 17 (when he was rocked by Mexicali for four runs on 10 hits in 6.2 innings), but Tweeted Saturday that he was returning to Mazatlan for the playoffs after some time off, presumably at home in California.  He'll help form a potentially lethal playoff rotation with Roy Merritt, Dustin Crenshaw and Alejandro Soto for manager Daniel Fernandez' Deer.  Obregon closer Manny Acosta, who was picked by Navojoa in Saturday's reinforcement draft, led the MexPac with 16 saves

Valdez will receive some MVP votes on the basis of his league-leading 1.74 earned-run average, finishing a remarkable .76 ahead of Lively en route to a 5-2 record.  If there's a Comeback of the Year award in the LMP, the 32-year-old Nuevo Laredo product is a shoo-in after a 2016-17 winter in Obregon in which he was 1-8 with a 5.03 ERA for the Yaquis.  Valdez was dealt to Mexicali along with shortstop Daniel Castro in the offseason in exchange for pitcher Marco Duarte and third baseman Emmanuel Avila, a trade that (like the season itself) was a disaster for the Yaquis.  While Valdez and Castro (.329 with 27 runs in 47 games before the Colorado Rockies shut him down for the winter on December 8) both had standout years for the Aguilas, Duarte (0-6/5.75) and Avila (.243/2/17) both suffered through miserable seasons in Obregon.

Greene to Culiacan in first LMP reinforcement draft

Obregon (now Culiacan) OF Justin Greene
With the selection of Obregon centerfielder Justin Greene, the Culiacan Tomateros led off two rounds of Saturday's Mexican Pacific League Reinforcement Draft, an exercise that takes place three times following the end of the regular season in which each remaining playoff team is allowed to pick two players from other clubs that have been eliminated from postseason contention.  Similar drafts will be held at the end of the first round and semifinals of the MexPac playoffs before the pennant-winner loads up prior to February's Caribbean Series in Guadalajara.

The reinforcement drafts are an often-controversial procedure that can cause hard feelings among players who are placed on a team's reserve list after new players are brought in at each stage.  One notable example is Mexicali third baseman C.J. Retherford, who had batted .296 with 13 homers and 44 RBIs in 66 games for the Aguilas during the regular season last winter but was dropped just prior to the team's trip to Culiacan for last February's Serie del Caribe.  The former Arizona State star and White Sox prospect, with at least some justification, did not hide his displeasure over the move.  As if to tempt fate again, Mexicali picked Los Mochis third baseman Rudy Amador in the second round of Saturday's draft.  Still, it's the way things have been done for some time in the LMP and fans have grown used to seeing teams playing in the CS that only vaguely resemble the outfit that represented the champions at the onset of the postseason.

Greene will arrive in Culiacan on the heels of a decent campaign for Obregon, where he hit .288 with 14 stolen bases for the Yaquis over 36 games after arriving in midseason.  The 32-year-old South Carolinian had a good summer in the Mexican League, batting a combined .354 with 13 homers and a LMB-best 51 steals in 96 games for Saltillo and Monterrey, landing with the Sultanes in a late-season salary dump by the Saraperos.  His numbers didn't translate to similar success this winter, but the situation in Obregon steadily approached critical mass as the season progressed, culminating with beloved mascot Chacho being fired late in the schedule after joining with fans in chants against team owner Rene Rodriguez during a game (See why I find MLB so boring these days?)  As for Culiacan, Greene adds more speed to a team that led the MexPac with 73 stolen bases and should patrol the outfield with batting champ Sebastian Elizalde and vet D'Arby Myers, who hit .309 for the Guindas.  Another speedy outfielder, Rico Noel, went 13-for-14 on steals in 25 games for the Tomateros, where he appeared to peacefully co-exist with manager Benji Gil (which hasn't always been the case) while Cuban Ronnier Mustelier (.301) and second-round pickup Dustin Martin (.297 in 10 games for Obregon) are yet further options for the number one seed.

LMP Reinforcement Draft 1 (Saturday, December 30, 2017)
1. Culiacan, OF Justin Greene (Obregon)
2. Mexicali, OF Olmo Rosario (Los Mochis)
3. Mazatlan, P Santiago Gutierrez (Los Mochis)
4. Jalisco, P David Reyes (Obregon)
5. Hermosillo, P Luis Perez (Los Mochis)
6. Navojoa, OF Leo Heras (Obregon)
1.  Navojoa, P Manny Acosta (Obregon)
2. Hermosillo, P D.J. Johnson (Los Mochis)
3. Jalisco, P Irwin Delgado (Obregon)
4. Mazatlan, OF Moises Gutierrez (Obregon)
5. Mexicali, 3B Rodolfo Amador (Los Mochis)
6. Culiacan, OF Dustin Martin (Obregon)

2017-18 LMP First Round Playoff Schedule
MON, Jan. 1:   Jalisco at Culiacan, Hermosillo at Navojoa, Mazatlan at Mexicali
TUE, Jan. 2:    Jalisco at Culiacan, Hermosillo at Navojoa, Mazatlan at Mexicali
THU, Jan. 4:    Culiacan at Jalisco, Navojoa at Hermosillo, Mexicali at Mazatlan
FRI, Jan. 5:      Culiacan at Jalisco, Navojoa at Hermosillo, Mexicali at Mazatlan
SAT, Jan 6*:    Culiacan at Jalisco, Navojoa at Hermosillo, Mexicali at Mazatlan
SUN, Jan. 7*:  Jalisco at Culiacan, Hermosillo at Navojoa, Mazatlan at Mexicali
MON, Jan. 8*: Jalisco at Culiacan, Hermosillo at Navojoa, Mazatlan at Mexicali
*-If needed