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.