|Yucatan Leones shortstop Everth Cabrera came up big|
As Cabrera was performing his heroics in Yucatan, the defending champion Tijuana Toros were delivering a 15-2 beatdown to the Monterrey Sultanes to tie the LMB North title series at one gabe apiece. Dustin Martin cracked a grand slam in the top of the second off Sultanes starter Felipe Gonzalez to highlight a five-run inning that gave the Toros a lead they would widen as the game went on. Martin finished the night with six RBIs, Cyle Hankerd contributed a three-run homer to the cause and batting champion Isaac Rodriguez went 4-for-6 with three runs scored and two more driven in for manager Pedro Mere's men. TJ starter Kyle Lobstein pitched six pressure-free innings, allowing one run on three hits while striking out five batsmen to send 21,909 fans at Estadio Monterrey home disappointed. Sultanes reliever Gonzalo Ochoa had a nightmarish appearance in the seventh frame, allowing six runs on five hits (including Hankerd's roundtripper) and a walk before being pulled by skipper Roberto Kelly with one out remaining, which Marcos Rivas mercifully recorded.
Yucatan and Quintana Roo both reached the LMB South finals by dispatching Leon and Mexico City, respectively, in five games. Sebastian Valle's two-run homer gave Leones starter Jose Samayoa (6 innings, 1 run) all the support needed in Yucatan's 5-1 win over the Bravos last Monday in Leon while Jason Bourgeois' single drove in Angel Erro with the game winner in the bottom of the tenth in the Tigres' 6-5 win over the Diablos Rojos the same night in Cancun. The victory had to be doubly sweet for Tigres owners Fernando and Linda Valenzuela, who've had their own well-chronicled issues with the Red Devils organization over the past year.
Monterrey had to go the extra mile to win their LMB North semifinal series over Monclova in six games. The Acereros outlasted the Sultanes, 7-6, last Monday at home with the aid of four homers, including a two-run shot coming off the bat of former Yankees outfielder Ruben Rivera, now 44, who hit .385 for the series. Monterrey wrapped things up two nights later by a 6-3 count over the Steelers as veteran third baseman Agustin Murillo had a big night for the Sultanes, socking a pair of homers (one of them a three-run dinger off Acereros starter Mauricio Lara in the bottom of the fifth. The 39-year-old Lara had sailed through the first four frames without being scratched for a run before running into trouble in the fifth. Tijuana had earlier eliminated Aguascalientes in a four-game sweep, giving the Toros a week to rest before opening their series with Monterrey Saturday.
Both division championship series will resume Tuesday night after Monday's travel day, as the LMB South title set shifts to Cancun for Game Three while Tijuana will host Game Three in the LMB North series.
Bravos late with payment, lose SS Amadeo Zazueta to Dos Laredos
|Former Leon Bravos shortstop Amadeo Zazueta|
According to Puro Beisbol editor Fernando Ballesteros, the Bravos agreed to a series of payments to Monclova as part of an offseason deal that sent the 32-year-old Culiacan product to Leon after batting .341 for the Steelers last summer, socking 9 homers and driving in 64 runs over 101 regular season contests in 2017. The trade surprised many Mexican League observers at the time, but the Acereros were committed to Puebla Shuttle passenger Alberto Carreon and LMB veteran Kevin Flores, who spent three years with Yucatan after nine summers with the Quintana Roo Tigres before arriving in Estadio Monclova as a free agent last winter.
Instead, Carreon never got untracked with the Acereros and was shuttled back to sister team Puebla during the Spring 2018 season while Flores ended up playing just 27 of 57 games, batting .320 with 7 RBIs. And Zazueta? He became one of the faces of the Leon franchise by batting .356 with 5 homers, 9 steals and a team-high 46 runs scored while adding some adventurous defense in the 6 spot with 10 errors in 55 games. Despite being one of the Liga's more troubled franchises, the Bravos have managed to reach the playoffs in each of their first two seasons and Zazueta was a key member of this Spring's squad.
However, Zazueta apparently wasn't so important to either the Leon front office or Arturo Blanco, the Potosinos transportation company majordomo and one of the MXL's wealthier owners. Ballesteros reports that Monclova allowed a week for the Bravos' June installation check to arrive before taking Zazueta back for a nanosecond prior to shipping him off to the Tecos in exchange for pitcher Jose Pina, a useful righty who's gone 45-37 with a 3.52 ERA in six seasons pitching for mostly dreadful teams in Tabasco, Veracruz and Dos Laredos (he was 4-5 with a 4.07 ERA this Spring for the Tecos, who had the worst record in the Liga at 18-39. The two-time All-Star is a much better pitcher than even his decent stats would indicate and the 6'2" Dominican will finally give Acereros star Josh Lowey a decent complement in the starting rotation. While their moves were definitely draconian, it's hard to blame Monclova for making them after a second straight first-round playoff exit. Owner Gerardo Benavides has proven that, if nothing else, he is a hands-on guy who'll make a move at the drop of a hat to improve his hometown team (often at the expense of his Puebla franchise).
But what of the Bravos? This would be embarrassing to any self-aware ballclub seeking to build credibility among an already-skeptical fan base. Manager (as of this week) Luis Rivera will likely move Niko Vasquez (.341/10/36) back to his natural position of shortstop with little drop-off in production, but he's left with former Diamondbacks prospect Joe Munoz, a 2014 Midwest League all-star, at third base for Fall 2018 after Munoz played just seven games for Tijuana and Leon in Spring. The bigger question mark may be regarding what credibility the Bravos have with Leon baseball fans after letting one of their best players leave with nothing in return but even more egg on its face after yet another front office snafu.
One more note worth passing along. Ballesteros reports that Zazueta may choose to not report to Dos Laredos, one of the few franchises more rudderless than the one he was reclaimed from. This may all end up in the lap of Liga president Javier Salinas, who certainly doesn't need any more problems in what has been a tough first year for the former Liga MX soccer marketer after replacing Plinio Escalante at the top of the circuit last September.
Managerial firings: Firova out in Monclova, Sandoval canned in Oaxaca
|Former Monclova Acereros manager Dan Firova|
Owner Gerardo Benavides has proven with both the Acereros and Puebla that he has an affinity for hiring managers with Major League Baseball backgrounds such as Wally Backman, who was brought in to Monclova for a disastrous term last despite the former Mets second baseman only having enough prior experience speaking Spanish to order off the menu at Taco Bell. Hired last December, Firova was seen as a compromise choice of sorts, possessing a less-extensive MLB background but also a Mexican-American who'd both played and managed successfully in the Liga in past years (winning Manager of the Year laurels in 2000 with the Quintana Roo Tigres). Language and experience in baseball south of the border were not concerns with the former catcher from Texas.
The Acereros finished a disappointing 29-27 in the Spring 2018 regular season, coming in fourth in the LMB North before a first-round playoff exit at the hands of Monterrey. While fault for failing to meet expectations may lie more with a dissension-ridden clubhouse of transient ballplayers yo-yoing between Monclova and Puebla (star second baseman Manny Rodriguez left the team and was subsequently traded to Quintana Roo) or a pitching staff that allowed more men to reach first base than Stormy Daniels (Josh Lowey notwithstanding), but it's easier to scapegoat a manager and that appears to be what may happening with Firova. His firing, which has been reported in the Mexican baseball media, had not been officially confirmed by either the Acereros or MXL offices as this story was written and no replacement has been announced.
The firing of Sandoval in Oaxaca was not so surprising. The 49-year-old Los Mochis native spent 14 seasons between 2000 and 2013 with Mexico City and remained as a coach or manager in the Diablos system before owner Alfredo Harp Helu send him to manage the billionaire's other Liga team in Oaxaca this year. The Guerreros serve a similar, if not as direct, role to the Diablos that the Kansas City A's used to serve as the New York Yankees' de facto Class AAA affiliate in the American League (which both teams conveniently played in). Sandoval took Oaxaca's perennial red-headed stepchild team to a last-place finish in the LMB South at 22-35. While he had more talent than Castro in Dos Laredos or Jimenez in Tabasco had to work with (including such notables as Yuniesky Betancourt, Adan Munoz and Erick Rodriguez), Sandoval's roster reflected the old wartime song, "They're Either Too Young or Too Old," and sank out of contention early.
Sandoval will be replaced at the Guerreros helm by Cuban Jose Alvarez, the former Durango manager who was recently hired to manage Mazatlan this winter in the Mexican Pacific League. Alvarez won two Gulf Coast League rookieball pennants and one Class A Florida State League title between 1986 and 1990 managing in the Dodgers system. He spent 2017 as the helmsman in Durango, keeping the newborn Generales at .500 while the team played their first month on the road while their ballpark at home was being readied, but the team ran out of steam the rest of the season as players missed paychecks as the schedule played out (many were traded to save costs) and Durango missed the playoffs.