Monday, August 6, 2018

MONCLOVA OPENS SIX-GAME LEAD IN LMB NORTH

Monclova outfielder Francisco Peguero
The surprising exit of new manager Carlos Garcia three weeks into the Mexican League's Fall 2018 season has done nothing to stem the Monclova Acereros' tide after former Tijuana skipper Pedro Mere took over the reigns of the team with the Steelers holding a 14-5 record at the time.  Since his arrival two weeks ago, Mere has piloted the Acereros to a 9-2 record (including a current five-game win streak), giving Monclova an MXL-best 23-7 overall record and a six-game lead over Tijuana and Dos Laredos in the North Division standings.

After opening a midweek series with a 4-3 loss at Monterrey last Tuesday, Monclova topped the Sultanes twice to win the set before moving to Tijuana for a weekend trio of games, sweeping Mere's former Toros squad.  The Acereros broke out out the brooms after a 7-3 win Sunday at Estadio Gasmart in a contest where the home team was leading 3-0 after Dustin Martin led off the bottom of the second inning with a homer and Xorge Carrillo doubled in Francisco Perez from third with the third run of the frame.  The TJ lead held until the Acereros began chipping away at it, starting with a Rudy Amador RBI single in the top of the fourth and Francisco Peguero's solo homer one inning later.  Back-to-back RBI singles from Cade Gotta and Erick Aybar in the top of the fifth gave Monclova a 4-3 lead.  The Acereros went up 7-3 in the top of the eighth, thanks in part to Gotta's run-scoring single, and Peguero closed the scoring for the night with his second solo bomb in the ninth off ex-Seattle Mariners closer Tom Wilhelmsen.  Wilmer Rios pitched five innings to earn the win for Monclova, raising his record to 2-0 in six starts although his ERA rose to 2.76 after Tijuana plated all three runs off Rios over 5.2 innings pitched.

The sweep at the hands of the Acereros was apparently enough for Toros management to fire the team's manager for the second time this season, as Lino Rivera was cut loose Monday.  Rivera was brought in between the Spring and Fall campaigns to replace Mere, who lost his job after Tijuana despite leading the Bulls to a 33-23 finish and a second-place finish before being ousted by Monterrey in the North finals.  Rivera gives way to former Padres infielder Oscar Robles, who spent a number of seasons playing for Tijuana before retiring after last season.  Robles, who has never managed before, was hired earlier this year to the top post next winter with the Obregon Yaquis.

Surprising Dos Laredos pulled into a tie with Tijuana for second in the LMB North, with both teams showing identical 17-13 records.  The Tecolotes dropped the first two games of their weekend road series in Monterrey before posting a 4-3 win over the Sultanes Sunday.  The loss vaulted the Tecos into their tie with the Toros while bumping Monterrey into fourth at 16-14.  First-year Tecos manager Felix Fermin, who managed the Sultanes through last summer before being replaced by Roberto Kelly in the offseason, has been given much credit for Dos Laredos' ascension in the North after a number of mediocre seasons in Veracruz as members of the South Division, but veteran catcher Juan Apodaca deserves some accolades as well.  A former Red Sox and Cubs farmhand, Apodaca was a highly-regarded backstop the past three seasons in Tijuana before being dealt to the Tecos in time for the Fall campaign after fellow catcher Xorge Carrillo joined the Toros from the Mets system.  Apodaca has justified Dos Laredos' faith by hitting .337 with six homers in 23 games thus far while contributing his usual solid play behind the plate.

Meanwhile, the LMB South has been the more competitive division this fall.  The Leon Bravos top the standings with a 17-11 record, two games ahead of defending champion Yucatan (16-14) and two-and-a-half games up on Mexico City and Puebla, both of whom have 15-14 marks.  Even last-place Quintana Roo, whose 9-21 register is the MXL's worst, is only six-and-a-half games out of fourth.  The Bravos clobbered Tabasco by a 12-2 count Sunday as Marco Jaime and Cedric Hunter combined for six hits and four RBIs while Israel Nunez socked a two-run homer off Olmecas starter Thomas Malgarejo in the fourth to help Leon starter Rogelio Martinez lift his record to 3-1 with an ERA of 1.23.  Melgarejo absorbed the loss in his first start to fall to 0-1 while his own ERA ballooned to 9.00 after five appearances.

None of the pending midweek series have the look of classics, although the most interesting one has the Yucatan Leones hosting Puebla in Merida, with both squads in playoff contention but only separated by a half-game in the LMB South standings.  The pickings may be even slimmer among next weekend's three-game sets, but the most intriguing may be in Saltillo, where the Saraperos host rivals Monterrey Friday through Sunday.  Once one of the MXL's flagship teams, Saltillo has struggled on and off the field ever since the Ley family (owners of Culiacan's Mexican Pacific League franchise) sold the club in 2013 after 14 seasons, including two pennants and four division titles.  Under current owner Rene Rodriguez, the Saraperos have missed the postseason the past three seasons but manager Len Pecota has the team at 15-14, a half-game behind the fourth-place Sultanes and very much in postseason contention for September.

EX-MLBer BETANCOURT HITTING .411, THIRD IN MXL BAT RACE

Oaxaca Guerreros infielder Yuniesky Betancourt
During his 14 seasons in Major League Baseball between 2005 and 2013, Cuban expat Yuniesky Betancourt was a starting shortstop during stops in Seattle, Kansas City and Milwaukee, never an All-Star but a decent batter with occasional power (a .261 career average and 80 home runs, including three 13+ homer seasons) and a defensive player equally capable of spectacular and maddening play in the field and on the basepaths.

The 36-year-old Betancourt has had some success playing winterball with Mexicali in the Mexican Pacific League since his 2012-13 debut with the Aguilas, helping the border team to a 2016-17 MexPac pennant and winning a Caribbean Series title in 2016 as a pickup with Mazatlan as the Venados won all seven games they played.  Curiously, Betancourt was left off the all-tournament team despite batting .438 with six runs and driving in eight more.  Betancourt has since moved around the infield, playing third and first base as well as shortstop and often hitting in the neighborhood of .300.

However, it's with his current Mexican League team in Oaxaca this year that Betancourt has excelled at the plate.  After hitting .367 with 11 homers for the Guerreros in the Spring and ranking among the MXL's top ten batters in both categories, Betancourt has caught fire in the Fall and now holds third place in the Liga batting derby with a .411 average.  He's ripped pitchers for a sizzling .538 mark over his last ten games, going 21-for-39 with 13 RBIs (including a 4-for-5 night with three ribbies last Thursday at home against Quintana Roo) to pace a Guerreros batting order hitting .303 as a team, fourth in the circuit, for manager Joe Alvarez.  A fellow Cubano, Alvarez has the perpetual also-rans in fifth place in the LMB South with a 14-16 record, a game-and-a-half behind Mexico City and Puebla, who are tied for third at 15-14.

Betancourt trails only Yucatan infielder Everth Cabrera (.441) and Campeche outfielder Asael Sanchez (.438) among Liga batsmen while Quintana Roo third baseman Brian Hernandez rounding out a quartet of .400 hitters as the former Angels minor leaguer has a .402 average.  Yet another Cuban product, Aguascalientes first baseman and onetime Reds farmhand Felix Perez, leads the circuit with ten homers after knocking out five longballs in six games for the Rieleros between July 28 and August 3.  Former MLB outfielder Delmon Young knocked in six runs for Puebla during a midweek home series against Yucatan to bring his season RBI total to 38, best in the MXL, and Aguascalientes outfielder Tony Campana swiped two bases last week to help the ex-Cub maintain his Liga swipes leadership with 17 to go along with a .342 average and 25 runs in 30 contests.

Monclova pitcher Andre de Rienzo continued his strong start to the Fall season by tossing five shutout innings at Monterrey last Thursday against a good Sultanes batting order.  Although the Brazilian did not earn the win, he did lower his LMB-leading ERA to 0.32 in six starts for the Acereros.  Mexico City right-hander Patrick Johnson has won his last four starts and five of six in the Fall schedule to take the victories lead with a 5-0 record.  The former Rockies/Pirates/Marlins minor leaguer has a perfect 8-0 record in 2018 since joining the Diablos Rojos from their little sisters in Oaxaca as part of a May 4 trade.  Puebla's Enrique Oquendo has put up consistent strikeout totals over his six starts (between 6 and 8 per outing) to head the whiff list at 40 over 32.1 innings of work.  Oquendo was 2-0 in 12 appearances for the Pericos as a reliever in the Spring season before being converted into a starter by Pericos manager Lorenzo Bundy for the Fall, under whom he's gone 2-1 with a 4-18 ERA.  Three closers are tied with nine saves to top the loop: Leon's Joe Colon, Josh Lueke of Monclova and Wirfin Obispo of Monterrey.  A former Cleveland reliever, Colon has yet to allow an earned run for the Bravos in 13 outings since joining the team on July 5.  He's has been a major contributor to Leon's first-place position in the LMB South standings for manager Luis Carlos Rivera, a former Braves and Orioles pitcher who took over the team last summer and led them to a playoff berth.


DANIEL FERNANDEZ OUT AS CAMPECHE SKIPPER

Romulo Martinez (l) and Daniel Fernandez in Campeche
The Campeche Piratas fired manager Daniel Fernandez last Monday after the team got off to a 10-14 start to the Mexican League's Fall season, with six one-run losses among the 14 defeats.  While that was hardly the worst record in the MXL at the time (the Piratas were sixth in the LMB South), the team's board of directors were obviously galled after Campeche suffered a 23-4 loss at the hands of Puebla (completing a three-game sweep for the Pericos in the process) the day before Fernandez was given the axe.

A native of Cuidad Jose Cardel, Veracruz, the 52-year-old Fernandez is considered one of the top batters in Mexican League history.  During his LMB career, the former outfielder posted a .323 average over 26 seasons between 1983 and 2008 (all but one year spent with Mexico City) and his 2,648 total hits are tied for fifth on the all-time list with Roberto Vizcarra, a longtime infielder who later managed Quintana Roo to the 2014 MXL pennant and currently is dugout boss of the Mexican Pacific League's Jalisco Charros.

Fernandez had initial success as manager in Mexico City, leading the Diablos to a 66-39 record and the Liga pennant in 2008, his first year at the helm.  He was sacked as Red Devils skipper one year later despite taking the Diablos to an LMB-best 70-35 mark before falling to the Laguna Vaqueros in the first round of the playoffs.  He was 5-16 over a short 2010 stint in Tabasco and went 54-49 in 2011 as the Veracruz manager before taking the Rojos del Aguila to the pennant with playoff wins over Tabasco, Quintana Roo and Aguascalientes, going 12-6 over the three series.  For whatever reason, that wasn't enough to keep his job in the port city and Fernandez went on to manage partial seasons in 2013 for Yucatan and 2016 for Laguna before being hired to run the Piratas this year.  Campeche finished seventh in the LMB South during the spring with a 22-34 record.

Romulo Martinez, who had served as Fernandez' batting coach in Campeche, was named interim manager for the team.  Upon his promotion, Martinez was quoted as saying, "What ended it was the three defeats in Puebla.  It killed us emotionally, but from now on I will speak with all the players and start from scratch.  I'm confident that we'll move forward."  A 51-year-old product of La Guaira, Venezuela, Martinez had the Piratas batting .300 as a team (fourth in the MXL) prior to his ascension to the manager's post.  He's also managed in Mexican Pacific League with Los Mochis on an interim basis when Luis Sojo went to a World Cup, and has also led teams in the Italian Baseball League for ten seasons.

In Martinez' first week as Piratas skipper, Campeche lost two of three games in a midweek series at Leon before being swept in a three-game weekend set at Mexico City. A permanent manager in Campeche is expected to be announced but no timeframe has been publicly discussed.