Monday, May 7, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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


Mazatlan Venados tab Joe Alvarez as new skipper

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

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

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

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