Monday, April 2, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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