Monday, October 21, 2019

HEIMLICH OFF TO SIZZLING START FOR CANEROS

It's been a long, hard road for Luke Heimlich.  In the wake of revelations in 2017 that he had earlier pled guilty in 2012 to child molestation charges (causing hm to miss the College World Series with his
Luke Heimlich was 2018 National Pitcher of the Year
Oregon State University teammates after leading the nation with an 0.81 ERA and winning the Pac-12 Pitcher of the Year award), he came back for his senior season to go 15-1 for the Beavers was named the National Pitcher of the Year in 2018, following in the footsteps of past winners like Stephen Strasburg, Trevor Bauer and Aaron Nola.  Heimlich later disavowed his guilty plea, stating he wanted to spare his family from a long trial.

Ordinarily a left-handed pitcher with his bonafides is a hot property but instead, Heimlich was passed over in all 40 rounds of that June's draft and had to scuffle for a job.  He signed with the Lamigo Monkeys of Taiwan's Chinese Professional Baseball League that August but despite its own scandal-ridden past, the CPBL office disallowed Heimlich's contract three days later because of his background.  An earlier post-draft trial with the Kansas City Royals was also aborted after public pressure.  Although he completed conditions of his plea deal, the Puyallup, Washington native was forced to sit out the rest of the 2018 season while pondering whether his chance would ever come.

That chance arrived this year via the Dos Laredos Tecolotes, who signed him to a contract with a good conduct clause in early March.  After the Mexican League office vetted Heimlich and subsequently allowed the deal to go through, he made his debut on April 9 by allowing two runs on back-to-back solo homers by Viosergy Rosa and Michael Crouse in the second innings during five innings of work against Union Laguna in Torreon.  Heimlich was initially inconsistent after almost a year off, but he got stronger as the season went on and flashed a 2.84 ERA over his final eight starts to finish 8-7 with a 4.58 ERA to tie with Saltillo's Felix Dubrount for eighth in the LMB in that category while coming in ninth with 109 strikeouts in 118 frames, tying Yucatan's Jose Samayoa.  All things considered, it was an encouraging beginning at the AAA level for the 23-year-old hurler, and Heimlich has gotten off to an even better start playing winterball with the Los Mochis Caneros.

Heimlich pitching for the Dos Laredos Tecolotes
Thus far in the young Mexican Pacific League season, Heimlich has yet to allow a run in 12 innings over two starts for the Caneros, allowing six hits and striking out nine opposing batsmen in picking up both wins.  The six-footer has struggled with his control, walking seven, but he's obviously adjusting to pitching south of the border and flashing signs of why he was college baseball's best pitcher a year ago.  After blanking visiting Guasave over six innings in Los Mochis' 5-0 home opener win on October 12, Heimlich tossed three-hit scoreless ball against the Algodoneros last Friday in Guasave (the Caneros won, 2-0) before being pulled after plunking leadoff batter Arturo Rodriguez in the bottom of the seventh.  His next start will come this week at home against a stronger Mazatlan team but at this point, Heimlich is tied for the LMP lead in wins with relievers Linder Castro of Jalisco and Mexicali's Edgar Gamez, has the most innings pitched among pitchers who have yet to allow an earned run and is tied with two other pitchers for fourth in strikeouts.

Heimlich has been one of the reasons Los Mochis is second in the Mex Pac with a 5-2 record, trailing only 5-1 Culiacan in the first-half standings.  The Tomateros have been winning by battering opposing pitchers into submission with a team .341 average (no other LMP team is above .296) along with a creditable 3.06 ERA, which ranks fourth in the circuit.  Catcher Ali Solis' .412 average and seven RBIs both rank among individual batting leaders, while third baseman Ronnier Mustelier's nine ribbies are tops in that category.  Obregon's Jose Aguilar leads the Mex Pac with a .500 batting average, his Yaquis teammate Paulo Orlando is the home run leader with three roundtrippers and yet another Culiacan player, Rico Noel, is tops with five stolen bases.  While Heimlich has been the dominant starter in the loop thus far (his seven walks also lead the LMP), Hermosillo reliever Trey McNutt has the most saves with three in as many appearances.  A 30-year-old Oakland farmhand, McNutt has eight strikeouts with one hit allowed over three innings of work.


MEXICAN WINTER LEAGUE TO OPEN PLAY TUESDAY IN MAZATLAN


An LIM press conference in Mazatlan last Thursday
After a two-year absence, a reconfigured and trimmed-down Mexican Winter League will begin its 2019 season this Tuesday with a doubleheader in Mazatlan.

The LIM was last seen on the field in 2017, when the Mexico City Diablos Rojos led the six-team field during the regular season with a 29-16 record before holding off fourth-place Salamanca over all five games of their first-round playoff series and topping Oaxaca in the title set, 4-games-to-1.  Current Diablos Mexican League manager Victor Bojorquez, was the helmsman of the LIM champions while another ex-Mexico City star and manager, Jose Luis Sandoval, was the Guerreros skipper.  However, the cost of operating six teams in as many cities proved more than the corresponding fan support could handle and the Liga Invernal ceased operations after the Diablos' December 17 Game Five win at Oaxaca's Estadio Eduardo Vasconcelos and the LIM went on a two-year hiatus.

The newest iteration of the Mexican Winter League will feature four teams of mostly rookies and prospects augmented by an occasional veteran representing Mexico City, Oaxaca, Puebla and Monterrey, with all contests played in Mazatlan at the Benito Juarez Sports City.  This time around, managers will include former MLB infielder Jose Macias (a Panamanian) for the Red Devils and yet another former Diablos stalwart, ex-outfielder Ivan Cervantes, leading the Guerreros.  Still one more ex-Mexico City star and manager, four-year big league catcher Miguel Ojeda, will oversee the circuit as an extension of his current position as the Diablos deputy president.

Benito Juarez Sports City, home of the new LIM
Each of the four teams will have 30-man rosters when play opens October 22 with Mexico City taking on Monterrey and Puebla squaring off with Oaxaca.  However, although two games per day will be scheduled through the abbreviated season, they will not be doubleheaders.  Instead, contests will be played concurrently on adjoining fields with game times of 1PM local time.  As with the LMB and LMP, the LIM schedule will run from Tuesdays through Sundays for six weeks for a total of 36 games per team when the schedule concludes December 1.  Since there will be no playoff, the season champion will be determined by the regular season standings.


OSCAR ROBLES OUT AS MANAGER IN TIJUANA

Oscar Robles watches pregame batting practice
In most baseball leagues, when a manager leads his team to the best record in the league and the top playoff seed in his division, he usually receives a contract extension with an accompanying raise.  However, doing that in Tijuana only got Oscar Robles a pink slip with accompanying thanks and well-wishes from the Toros front office.

Such is life for managers in the border city and Mexican baseball in general.  A Tijuana native who started 80 games at either shortstop or third base and pinch-hitting in 21 more for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2005 (batting .272) between stints in the Mexican League before his 2017 retirement as a player, Robles took over as dugout boss for the team in the Fall 2018 season after Pedro Mere was fired.  Mere's unforgivable sin after taking the Bulls to the border city's first pennant in 2017?  Finishing second to Monterrey in Spring 2018 with a 33-23 record before losing to the Sultanes in the LMB North championship series.  Mere went on to become manager in Monclova for the Fall 2018 schedule and led the Acereros to a league-best 42-14 record but lost the LMB North title set (also to Monterrey), then was let go by owner Gerardo Benavides on July 1 with Monclova showing a 44-25 season record.  Mere is now manager in Tabasco.

Robles levitates a bat during a 2009 WBC game
Let's get back to Robles.  In his managerial debut less than a year after playing his last game, he led the Toros to a second-place finish in the LMB North during the Fall 2018 season with a 35-21 ledger before falling to Monterrey in the first playoff round in a heated seven-game series.  This year, TJ tied Monterrey for first in the first half with a 40-20 record, then came in at 35-25 for third place in the second half for an overall 75-45 mark to tie with eventual champ Monclova for best in the Liga.  However, the Toros lost to the Acereros in seven games for the division title and that apparently sealed his fate in his birthplace (Robles actually played high school ball in San Diego) despite an overall 110-66 record with the team.  Sic transit gloria.

For his part, the 43-year-old Robles (who is a candidate for Manager of the Year) was measured about losing his job.  "I knew that if I didn't reach the Serie del Rey I would be dismissed, both me and my coaching staff" he told TVC Deportes. "I could say everything I have to say, but I better keep quiet."  In announcing Robles' exit, the Toros press release included the usual platitudes whenever a Mexican team lets its manager go: "The Toros de Tijuana club appreciates and recognizes the work of Oscar Robles both in his career as a player achieving the title in the 2017 season and in his position as manager.  We wish him success in his future projects."

Given how managers in Mexican baseball are recycled to a degree that would bring a smile to the most ardent environmentalist, it's safe to say that Oscar Robles will manage again.  And again.  And again... 

Monday, October 14, 2019

135,000+ ATTEND NINE LMP WEEKEND HOME OPENERS

Two presidents: Canizales and AMLO
The Mexican Pacific League opened its 75th season over the weekend, including the Mex Pac debut of Monterrey and the return of Guasave to the LMP.

Monterrey's first game was on the road in front of a full house of 17,000 in Mexicali.  The Sultanes took an early three-run lead in the top of the first inning on a leadoff homer from minor league veteran Wynton Bernard and a two-run shot by former Angels farmhand Eric Aguilera and went on to hold off the Aguilas, 4-3.  Edgar Gonzalez, who also pitches for the Sultanes in the summer, got the win by tossing five innings of two-run ball while former LMP Pitcher of the Year Javier Solano (who allowed both first-inning homers) absorbed the loss for Mexicali.

Guasave's re-entry into the Mex Pac began well enough, with Mexican president Miguel Andres Lopez Obrador on hand to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at Estadio Francisco Carranza Limon accompanied by LMP president Omar Canizales.  However, the pregame ceremony may have been the evening's highlight as visiting Los Mochis converted six innings of one-run pitching by starter Yoanys Quirala into an 8-1 win. Carlos Soto was plunked by a Jake Paulson pitch in the top of the second to push the Caneros' first run across the plate and Jesus Arredondo scored on Andres Ayon's 4-6-3 double-play grounder to provide the Caneros with what proved to be the winning run.

Culiacan's season lidlifter went a little better as the home Tomateros topped rival Mazatlan, 9-4, as the hosts broke a 4-4 tie with five runs in the bottom of the eighth inning, thanks in no small part to a bases-loaded triple by Tomateros shortstop Jose Guadalupe Chavez, the number nine hitter in the Culiacan batting order. The game was played in front of a packed house of 20,000 fanaticos at Estadio Tomateros, the largest crowd of the nine home openers played over the weekend (Sunday's Jalisco at Obregon lidlifter was postponed due to rain).  In all, 135,621 patrons bought seats to inaugural games for the 2019-20 LMP season for an average of over 15,000 per opening. Only Monterrey, with 14,230 at their opener, had tickets remaining.

As is usually the case in Mexican baseball, there are a number of new managers in the Mex Pac this winter.  While most are the same names who've been recycled so often they'd earn an award from the Environmental Protection Agency, one less than familiar name is Mexicali skipper Bobby Dickerson.  Dickerson has, in fact, managed the Aguilas in the past (he took the Eagles to the playoffs in 2009-10 before losing to Obregon in the first round), but is better known as a former Baltimore Orioles third base coach who helped develop such players as Manny Machado after managing in the Cubs system for much of the 2000's. Dickerson and Machado were reunited when the former was hired as Philadelphia’s infield coach this year.

More familiar managerial figures to longtime observers of Mexican baseball are Benji Gil (Culiacan), Juan Jose Pacho (Mazatlan) and Homar Rojas (Monterrey).  Gil and Pacho have led their respective current LMP teams to pennants in the past while Rojas is perennially on short lists when teams are hiring. Vinny Castilla, arguably the most productive Mexican-born player in Major League history, has taken the reins in Hermosillo; Rigo Beltran, who bounced around the majors and Japan between 1997 and 2004, is the dugout boss in Guasave; and longtime catcher Adan Munoz, who took over for the Quintana Roo Tigres over the summer, has been picked to run the show in Navojoa.  Back in the saddle are Roberto Vizcarra (defending champion Jalisco), Victor Bojorquez in Los Mochis and Oaxaca's Sergio Gastelum.

The circuit was formed in 1945 as the Pacific Coast League (not to be confused with the 116-year-old American AAA league of the same name and underwent a pair of name changes over the subsequent 25 years before settling on its current moniker in 1970.  While the LMP did not become part of the Caribbean Series until that year and experienced little success and won only three CS championships over its first 32 years as a participant, Culiacan’s 2002 title began a stretch in which the Mex Pac won six crowns in a 14-year stretch (the last coming in when Mazatlan swept their way to the 2016 championship in Santo Domingo).  In addition, the LMP has undergone tremendous growth under Canizales over the past decade and now has a higher attendance average than any other minor league, summer or winter, on the continent, with nearly 10,000 clicking the turnstiles per game. Fans are attending games at new or modernized ballparks in every Mex Pac market except Navojoa, where there’s talk about renovating 49-year-old Estadio Manuel “Ciclon” Echeverria.  

MEXICAN PACIFIC LEAGUE
Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico
Email: medios@lmp.mx
Website: www.lmp.mx
Facebook: @lmpbeisbol
PRESIDENT: Omar Canizales
SPORTS MANAGER: Christian Veliz
ADMINISTRATOR: Remigio Valencia
DIRECTOR OF UMPIRES: Oscar Marin

CULIACAN TOMATEROS
Email: comunicacion@tomateros.com
Website: www.tomateroscom.mx
Facebook: @clubtomateros
CEO: Hector Ley
Sports Manager: Mario Valdez
Manager: Benji Gil
Ballpark: Estadio Tomateros (20,000)

GUASAVE ALGODONEROS
Email: contacto@losalgodoneros.mx
Website: losalgodoneros.mx
Facebook: @AlgodonerosDeGuasavemx
President: Alfredo Aramburo
Sports Manager: Francisco Lizarraga
Manager: Rigo Beltran
Ballpark: Estadio Francisco Carranza Limon (10,000)

HERMOSILLO NARANJEROS
Email: contacto@naranjeros.com.mx
Website: www.naranjeros.com
Facebook: @ClubNaranjeros
CEO: Arturo Leon Lerma
Sports Director: Derek Bryant
Manager: Vinny Castilla
Ballpark: Estadio Sonora (16,000)

JALISCO CHARROS
Email: contacto@charrosjalisco.com
Website: www.charrosjalisco.com
Facebook: @CharrosBeisbolOficial
President: Salvador Quirarte
Sports Manager: Ray Padilla
Manager: Roberto Vizcarra
Ballpark: Estadio de Beisbol Charros (13,000)

LOS MOCHIS CANEROS
Email: prensa@caneros.net
Website: www.caneros.net
Facebook: @verdesxsiempre
President: Joaquin Vega
Sports Manager: Carlos Sosa
Manager: Victor Bojorquez
Ballpark: Estadio Emilio Ibarra Almada (12,000)

MAZATLAN VENADOS
Email: info@venadosdemazatlan.com
Website: www.venadosdemazatlan.com
Facebook: @VenadosdeMazatlan
President: Jose Antonio Toledo
Sports Manager: Jesus “Chino” Valdez
Manager: Juan Jose Pacho
Ballpark: Estadio Teodoro Mariscal (16,000)

MEXICALI AGUILAS
Email: prensa@aguilasdemexicali.mx
Website: www.aguilasdemexicali.mx
Facebook: @aguilasdemexicali
President: Dio Alberto Murillo
Sports Manager: Luis Alfonso Garcia
Manager: Bobby Dickerson
Ballpark: La Nida (17,000)

MONTERREY SULTANES
Email: sultanesoficial@gmail.com
Website: www.sultanes.com.mx
Facebook: @SultanesOficial
President: Jose Maiz
Sports Manager: Miguel Flores
Manager: Homar Rojas
Ballpark: Estadio Monterrey (22,061)

NAVOJOA MAYOS
Email: mayosbeisbol@mayosbeisbol.com
Website: www.mayosbeisbol.com
Facebook: @OficialMayosBeisbol
President: Victor Cuevas
Sports Manager: Lauro Villalobos
Manager: Adan Munoz
Ballpark:  Estadio Manuel “Ciclon” Echeverria (11,500)


OBREGON YAQUIS
Email: yaquis@yaquis.com.mx
Website: www.yaquis.com.mx
Facebook: @YaquisdeObregon
President: Rene Arturo Rodriguez
GM: Manuel Velez
Manager: Sergio Gastelum
Ballpark: Nuevo Estadio Yaquis (16,000)





SALINAS OUT, GABRIEL MEDINA PICKED AS INTERIM LMB PRESIDENT


To the surprise of nobody, Javier Salinas is no longer president of the Mexican League.  After two often-rocky years, the former Liga MX professional soccer marketing executive from Michoacan has been replaced by LMB Director of Planning and Strategy Gabriel Medina on an interim basis.


Former Mexican League president Javier Salinas
Salinas was initially hired by the Liga on May 15, 2017 to replace the retiring Plinio Escalante after first serving as a de facto co-president with Escalante through the conclusion of the recently-begun season. He immediately inherited the Rookiegate scandal involving Quintana Roo Tigres prospects who found themselves on the Mexico City Diablos Rojos protected list after the February 2017 purchase of the Tigres by former Cy Young Award winner Fernando Valenzuela and wife Linda Burgos.  Salinas eventually ruled in favor of the Valenzuelas and ordered the Diablos to pay them money received from the Texas Rangers in exchange for two of the former Tigres prospects along with the return of the rights of the prospects (at last report, the Cancun team was still waiting for both their money and prospects).


Then there was the two-season format the Mexican League used in 2018.  While attendance and revenue levels were little changed from 2017 during the LMB's Spring season and playoffs, but interest plummeted during the Fall 2018 miniseason.  The experiment was abandoned and replaced with this year's two-half, 120-game regular season based on standings points (which, to Salinas' credit, was largely successful).  Another controversy ensued when the Rawlings ball that had been used in the Liga was replaced by one manufactured by Franklin that apparently had a rabbit at its core instead of cork, as home run totals skyrocketed in 2019 in a league already known as being hitter-friendly while causing unrest by pitchers.


The final nail in Salinas' coffin was probably the agreement he brokered between the LMB and Major League Baseball after the latter had frozen the signing of Mexican prospects owned by Liga franchise in the wake of misdeeds involving those teams and MLB scouts.  At first the deal was lauded for re-opening the path to the big leagues for young Mexican ballplayers, but it was subsequently discovered in the fine print that in order for MLB teams to collect a 35 percent commission from the sale of their players (who now receive signing bonuses directly instead of receiving a cut of what their LMB team was paid by Major League organizations, as was the case in the past), that player has to have been on the Mexican League roster for one year.


Interim LMB president Gabriel Medina
Since the vast majority of teenage Mexican ballplayers aren't ready for AAA baseball, the Liga teams who own their rights have largely been able to sign prospects south of the border without an LMB team collecting a commission.  Developing prospects to sell to MLB teams has developed into a cottage industry for some Mexican teams, and the loss of commissions under the new agreement has cost them tens of millions of pesos. Given that most of those teams had been Salinas supporters, including newly-crowned champion Monclova (whose owner, Gerardo Benavides, essentially handpicked Salinas), the loss of significant revenues from prospect sales meant lost backing for the beleaguered league president and it was a matter of time before a change was made.


In taking over for Salinas, Gabriel Medina has more baseball experience than his predecessor brought to the president's office.  Medina, who has also worked as a FOX Sports commentator, started with the Mexican League nine years ago in their communications and marketing department and eventually worked his way up to Director of Planning and Strategy.  He has been actively involved in behind the scenes LMB affairs and a constant presence at Assembly of Presidents meetings, including one last month in Monterrey at which Salinas was not present (considered a bad omen for Salinas' future).


Medina will fill the president's position while a permanent leader is sought.  Some Mexican baseball scribes have speculated that a new president will likely be announced at December's baseball winter meetings in San Diego.


VERDES GRANDE PREMIER12 TEAM CHOSEN; CASTRO TO MANAGE


Javier Salinas, Juan Castro and Edgar Gonzalez
The Mexican National Baseball Team has released its 28-man roster for the upcoming World Baseball Softball Confederation Premier12 tournament, which will be held in November with opening round action at venues in Mexico, Taiwan and South Korea.  Mexico will be in Group A with the United States, Dominican Republic and The Netherlands when the four teams congregate in Guadalajara between November 2nd through the 5th. The top two finishers in each group will advance to the Super Round in Japan for round-robin play, with the championship game slated for the Tokyo Dome on November 17.  This marks the second Premier12 tournament, with teams vying for berths in next summer's Olympic Games in Tokyo. Guadalajara will be the only city outside Asia to host games.


Mexico's manager in the Premier12 tourney will be former MLB infielder Juan Castro, who was named in August to replace former catcher Dan Firova at the helm of the Verdes Grande, currently ranked sixth in the WBSC.  A 47-year-old Los Mochis native who spent 17 years in the majors, Castro has managed in both the Mexican and Mexican Pacific leagues while his eight coaches include veteran skippers Lorenzo Bundy, Mario Mendoza and Hector Estrada.  Castro played for Mexico's 2006 World Baseball Classic inaugural team and was a coach with the 2013 WBC entry.


While no current Major League Baseball players are on the Verdes Grande roster (including Sergio Romo, Oliver Perez, Alex Verdugo, Joakim Soria and Luis Urias), Mexico's roster has a mix of Mexican League players, minor league veterans and three players in Asian leagues, several with past big league experience. Tijuana will send five players to Guadalajara next month, many of whom spent time under Castro during his Quixotic 2017 stay in the Gateway to Mexico, while newly-crowned champion Monclova also will be represented by five players.  The most prominent members are second baseman Esteban Quiroz, first baseman Efren Navarro, Monclova closer Carlos Bustamante, Acereros outfielder (and Serie del Rey MVP) Noah Perio and a pair of third basemen, former MLBer Christian Villanueva of the NPB Yomiuri Giants and current Acereros cornerman Jose Vargas.


Matt Clark while playing for Brewers
An X-factor on the roster is designated hitter Matt Clark, whose mother is Mexican, has shown light-tower power at times over four LMB seasons since 2017, hitting .316 with 27 homers and 87 RBIs in 79 games this summer for the Bravos.  The 2008 NCAA home run champ as an LSU player was traded twice and loaned once en route to playing for four teams in 2018 before signing with Leon as a free agent in April. He suffered a fractured wrist after being struck by a Matt Gage pitch during a June 5 game in Mexico City, adding injury to insult as the Diablos Rojos went on to post a ridiculous 29-0 win over the Bravos.  Clark came back on July 31 and hit .351 with six homers over his last ten games and has had plenty of rest since, so the 6'5" 230-pounder could be a force in home run haven Guadalajara. However, he did struggle in 17 games for the hometown Jalisco Charros of the Mex Pac in 2017-18, batting .200 with two homers in 17 games. Before coming to Mexico, Clark was 5-for-27 (.185) in 16 games for Milwaukee in 2014, his lone MLB season and is one of just three players to belt three homers among five or fewer career big league hits (Keith McDonald and Ed Salicki are the other two, with McDonald dialing 9 on all three of his safeties).


Mexican National Team Premier12 roster
Pitchers (14): Manny Barreda (Tijuana LMB), Brendan Bernardino (Tijuana LMB), Carlos Bustamante (Monclova LMB), Humberto Castaneda (Houston A), Jesus Cruz (St. Louis AAA), Felipe Gonzalez (Monterrey LMB), Justin Kelly (Monclova LMB), Orlando Lara (Tijuana LMB), Adam Quintana (Monclova LMB), Horacio Ramirez (Tijuana LMB), Arturo Reyes (Rays AAA), Fernando Salas (Philadelphia AAA), Eduardo Vera (Nationals AAA), Ryan Verdugo (Uni-President CPBL).
Catchers (2): Armando Araiza (Mexico City LMB), Ali Solis (Monterrey LMB).
Infielders (7): Phillip Evans (Chicago Cubs AAA), Jorge Flores (Yucatan LMB), Efren Navarro (Hanshin NPB), Esteban Quiroz (San Diego AAA), Javier Salazar (Tijuana LMB), Jose Vargas (Monclova LMB), Christian Villanueva (Yomiuri NPB).
Outfielders (4): Jesus Fabela (Mexico City LMB), Jonathan Jones (Yucatan LMB), Juan Perez (Saltillo LMB), Noah Perio (Monclova (LMB).
Designated Hitter: Matt Clark (Leon LMB).
Manager: Juan Gabriel Castro.
Coaches (8): Martin Arzate (Monclova LMB), Lorenzo Bundy (Monclova LMB), Hector Estrada (Oaxaca LMB), Santos Hernandez, Mario Mendoza, Ruben Niebla (Cleveland), Humberto Sosa (Yucatan), Gil Velazquez (Arizona).

Monday, October 7, 2019

MONCLOVA COMEBACK WINS CLINCH CITY'S FIRST FLAG

Mexican League champion Monclova Acereros
Monclova's Erick Aybar socked a three-run homer in the bottom of the fifth inning and stroked a go-ahead RBI double one frame later as the Acereros went on to beat Yucatan, 9-5, last Wednesday at home in Game Seven of the Serie del Rey, giving the Steelers their first Mexican League pennant after debuting in the LMB in 1974.  The two teams came into Monclova with Yucatan holding a 3-games-to-2 lead in the series, but the Acereros responded with a pair of wins at a sold-out Estadio Monclova to take the flag from the grasp of a Leones team looking for their second title in three seasons.  Monclova had to win three consecutive Game Sevens versus Monterrey, Tijuana and finally Yucatan over 21 playoff contests in order for owner Gerardo Benavides two bring a title to his hometown team, which was formed by his grandfather 45 years ago.

The Acereros had pulled even with Yucatan at three wins apiece by virtue of their 6-2 Game Six win last Tuesday night.  Bruce Maxwell grounded a single to left to score Noah Perio in the bottom of the first to give Monclova an early 1-0 lead that held up until the top of the fifth, when Walter Ibarra's RBI single tied it up and a Jorge Flores sacrifice fly to center plated Xavier Scruggs with Yucatan's go-ahead run.  Perio tied the contest back up with a solo homer off Leones starter Yoanner Negrin in the bottom of the fifth and Francisco Peguero's three-run bomb against reliever Manny Parra in the seventh put Monclova ahead for good.  Alex Mejia's run-scoring safety in the eighth added an insurance run as former Detroit middleman Al Albuquerque came out of the bullpen to toss 1.2 scoreless innings with three strikeouts for the win.  Acereros starter Spencer Jones lasted one out into the fifth inning, giving up two runs on four hits with five strikeouts in a decent pitching battle with Negrin.  The 2016 Pitcher of the Year went six entradas on 107 pitches and allowed a pair of runs on five hits before Leones manager Geronimo Gil replaced him with Parra, a move that boomeranged with Peguero's longball.  Aybar and Mejia each had two hits for the winners while Perio scored three times.  Ibarra and Scruggs had two singles apiece for Yucatan.

Monclova's Serie del Rey MVP Noah Perio
That brought things to Wednesday's season-ending Game Seven.  Yucatan jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the top of the first when Alex Liddi clubbed a two-run homer off Monclova starter Conor Harber.  Perio belted a Jose Samayoa pitch for a two-run roundtripper in the bottom of the third to knot the game up, but Sebastian Valle lined a three-run homer to left off Harber in the fifth to put the Leones back on top with a 5-2 advantage.  Aybar, an All-Star and Gold Glove-winner during a seven-year stint as the Los Angeles Angels' starting shortstop, crashed his three-run circuit clout in the fifth off Leones reliever Miguel Pena, who was immediately yanked by Gil after hurling just five pitches (one too many) to even the score back up.  Aybar's double off the luckless Parra in the sixth put the Acereos ahead for good, and Monclova padded their lead with two runs in the seventh and one more in the eighth for the final margin of their title-clinching victory.  Aybar ended up with four RBIs while Maxwell and Jose Amador had three-hit nights for the Acereros.  Valle finished with two hits and three ribbies for Yucatan.  Zach Phillips struck out two batters in the top of the sixth and was awarded the win after Aybar's double gave his Monclova mates the last lead change of the night.  A former reliever for the Orioles, Marlins and Pirates, Phillips made the most of his limited work in the Serie del Rey by winning two games over four innings in five outings and did not allow a run in eleven postseason appearances.

Monclova manager Pat Listach
The finals MVP award went to Noah Perio, who went 11-for-25 (.440) with three homers, scoring eight runs and collecting seven RBIs against Yucatan.  A Marlins 39th-round draft pick in 2009 who also played in the Dodgers and Padres systems, Perio was released by Puebla on June 9 after batting .233 in 22 games after signing with the Pericos as a free agent in April.  Monclova picked him up one day later and while he hit better for the Acereros the rest of the regular season (.295 with 9 homers in 55 games), the 27-year-old Californian was an unlikely postseason hero on a roster with several former MLBers like Aybar, Maxwell, Chris Carter and Eric Young, Jr. along with former Mexican League MVP Cesar Tapia and LMB All-Star Game MVP Jose Amador.

Besides Benavides, Monclova manager Pat Listach received a measure of vindication when his team copped the pennant.  After a playing career that saw him win the 1992 American League Rookie of the Year award with Milwaukee en route to a six-year MLB stint, the Arizona State grad coached in the majors with the Nationals, Cubs and Astros before managing the Mariners' AAA Tacoma affiliate for four seasons before he was let go following the 2018 season.  Listach was hired in Monclova on July 1 to replace the fired Pedro Mere, a curious move because Mere had the Acereros at 44-25 overall at the time.  Listach went 31-20 over the rest of the regular season and we all know how the playoffs went for him.  Benavides has shown a proclivity for hiring former Major League players as manager (including one, Wally Backman, who could not speak Spanish, a helpful skill in Mexico).  This move worked out fine, but Listach should savor the off-season as much as he can because no manager's job in Mexico is ever safe, even on the heels of a championship season.


PROCESCO's PEREYRA:  48-YEAR-OLD P DIAZ A NATURAL SURVIVOR

When Durango Generales pitcher Rafael Diaz entered a 2-2 game in the bottom of the tenth inning on the road against his former Tijuana Toros teammates on April 6, it was the first game of his 22nd season pitching in the Mexican League.  And a game he'd likely love to forget, as the 48-year-old righthander allowed a walkoff homer to leadoff batter Logan Watkins.  It would be that kind of year for Diaz, who was 0-2 with an 8.53 in 13 relief outings before being released May 25.  He has not pitched since and the only man in LMB history with more than 100 career wins (102) and saves (106) faces an uncertain future in a sport that's meant a paycheck since 1990, when he went 4-3 and 3.02 for Montreal's Short-Season A Jamestown affiliate in the New York-Penn League.  The four-time All-Star became a baseball survivor after life had prepared him for such a grinding existence, sometimes harshly.

There are many good baseball writers in Mexico.  Fernando Ballesteros, David Braverman, Hector Bencomo, Salo Otero, Bambino Sedano and Dean of cronistas Enrique Kerlegend rank among the best and there are others.  However, the most prosaic baseball writer south of the border may be Beatriz Pereyra of Mexico City's Proceso. Her August 25 feature on Diaz contains a frequent Angellesque elegance that even Google Translate couldn't butcher into submission.  With as little editing and guessing done as possible (a few sentences couldn't be ungarbled), here is Pereyra's piece in its entirety:

Pitcher Rafael Diaz was with Durango iin 2019
MEXICO CITY (Proceso) - Rafael Díaz Adame was encouraged by three things to be a professional baseball player: his paternal grandmother, who raised him and insisted on taking him for three years to a baseball league in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua; the Fernandomania that he witnessed as a teenager in the Dodgers stadium, every time his father's salary was enough for a ticket; and Nolan Ryan, the pitcher of five thousand 714 strikeouts and seven games without a hit or run in the majors.

As a starter or reliever pitcher, Díaz has spent 22 seasons in the Mexican Baseball League (LMB). He is now 49 years old. He is the oldest player on Mexican diamonds in the last decade.

Skin tanned by the sun shows a few wrinkles at the corners of the eyes. The odd gray hair looks out from his dark fine hair. His right shoulder is intact. Same elbow of the same arm. The 1,552 innings thrown in summer baseball did not dent him.

He reached 1,067 strikeouts with fastballs up to 97 miles per hour in his years of splendor that time diluted to 88. He has also lived on the curve and the change of speed, and from a slider he wanted to learn from Chito Rios, with much work that he went through, before he eventually invented it himself.

“I asked coaches and players how to throw and it didn't come out, the ball didn't move. I throw the curve with the knuckle inwards and break the wrist at the end of the pitch. I practiced the slider like I hold the curve, but I threw it as if it were a fastball. It began to move better and better. No one believed how I hold the ball because it is not the typical way for a slider. ”

Is that why his right arm is intact? Dr. Cuauhtémoc Reyes, a famous orthopedist in Mexican baseball, assured him that yes, the angle with which he throws him does not stress his joints.

U.S. abuse

Rafael Díaz takes care of his arm with the care of a collector. He just gets off the mound and already brings his five-pound dumbbells: He does two sets of five repetitions with side and front lifts lying face down on the massage bed. He must strengthen shoulder and elbow. Then a bag of ground ice is placed, but not for more than 20 minutes. It’s been the same ritual for 31 years.

The rest of his body receives a similar treatment: He sleeps between seven and nine hours a night, gets up very early, eats protein and carbohydrates, zero sweet drinks, only drinks water. His physical condition is envied by rookie players.

“If a team is still interested in my services, I will continue to compete,” says Diaz. “When I see that I can no longer pitch because my performance drops or my arm can no longer work, it will be the time to say goodbye.  I have had my bad games. I know myself, I know how I am physically and mentally and I try to show coaches and managers that I can still compete. ”

On May 22 he was deactivated from the Durango Generals' roster, the fifth team he has played with in the LMB. A very high 8.53 ERA with two games lost in 12 and two-thirds innings took him away from a baseball field where he had been uninterrupted for four decades.

Diaz pitching for Tijuana Toros
But Rafael Díaz not only has the steel physique, his will is indestructible. Only in this way is it explained how a little boy who barely walked could grow up without a father, because he abandoned him. Only then is it explained that a child can also resist the abandonment of his mother, surrendered by poverty, to leave him together with his little brother Jorge in the hands of his paternal grandmother. Only in this way can one explain how a person can find comfort in the wastelands of a gray city of Juarez and have the encouragement to play with bats and balls as if nothing bad happened.

His grandmother did not delay in taking her grandchildren to the children's league when the children asked her to. Rafael, nine years old, did not understand the rules, but he played by pure instinct because the baseball comes from the blood of the maternal uncle, Alfredo, who wore the Chihuahua Dorados uniform.

In the summer of 1982, Rafael's father returned to Ciudad Juarez for his kids, putting them in a van under the back seat. The three crossed through the San Ysidro checkpoint in Tijuana until reaching East Los Angeles, the Hispanic neighborhood - populated mostly by Mexicans - where Mr. Díaz was already established for several years. In a house with only one room, perhaps about 40 square meters (or 431 square feet), Diaz lived with the father's new wife, her three children and little Alice, Rafael's half-sister.

The senior Diaz made a living as a furniture assembler. Despite the shortcomings, there was always a little money to go to Dodger Stadium to see Fernando Valenzuela, the winner of the Cy Young Trophy and Rookie of the Year in 1981, who threw complete games and dominated his rivals with his indecipherable pitches.

Nothing more inspiring than seeing a dark Sonoran, the migrant countryman, conquering American territory. Rivers of Latinos turned to the stadium and the Anglo-Saxons also surrendered to El Toro de Etchohuaquila. The pride of being Mexican swelled in Diaz's chest.
Rafael does not forget that his first major league game was the Dodgers against the Houston Astros, a starters duel between Valenzuela and Nolan Ryan. The speed of the Texan's fastball alerted Rafa's senses. He dreamed awake to be like him.

On the fields of the Los Angeles Belvedere League, he spent his teenage afternoons. Thanks to Fernandomania, baseball grew tremendously among the Hispanic community. Rafa did not speak English. In high school, Mexican Americans bullied him.

“They called me Indian, illegal. I was frustrated because sometimes I didn't understand what they were saying, but I knew they insulted me,” Diaz recalls. “They threw my food on my back, my athletic teammates didn't even talk to me and they hid my uniform. I had no friends. I became very fierce because it never left me. The ones that bothered me were the Mexican Americans, unfortunately. Everyone who came from Mexico and did not speak English was caught up.”

And if at school the conditions were unbearable, in their neighborhood they were somewhat worse. Díaz grew up surrounded by gangs. It was the time of the power struggle between Mexicans and Salvadorans. The Mara Salvatrucha reigned.

Afterwards, the elder Díaz's marriage dissolved. The boys and their father moved to Bell, just outside Los Angeles. It's another violent and insecure Hispanic neighborhood, where gang members also wanted to recruit Diaz, but they couldn't.

Rafael enrolled in high school, where he became an athlete. His height and speed served him for baseball, but coach Bob Morony took him out of class for not catching balls with both hands.

“I had to wait until my third year of high school to play baseball. I went with a friend to see if we’d stay on the school team. Now I did grab the ball with both hands in left field and I threw it to second base. The coach was impressed and asked me: 'What's your name? Why didn't you play? 'Because you ran me off,' I told him. He laughed and said: 'Tomorrow you come…' That's how I stayed on the team.”

Diaz is only LMBer with 100 wins and 100 saves
Rafael Díaz's talent put him on the radar of the Montreal Expos. With 6-foot height, 205 pounds and a right arm touched by the finger of God, he was about to graduate from high school. Talent hunters followed prospects like honey bees.

The famous scout Jethro McIntyre phoned the Diaz house. Rafa didn't even know what a scout was. That is why he did not understand why there were some gentlemen in the stands who pointed a radar gun at the games.

Diaz recounts that McIntyre called and said: “‘We got you in a draft round and we want to talk to your parents to sign you’. I said: ‘Oh, yes, thanks,’ and I hung up. My dad asked me who it was and I told him that, well, Mr. McIntyre, because I was signed by the Montreal Expos. I just knew the Dodgers, the Giants and the Angels, the teams in California. Who knew what the Expos and the draft were? My dad didn't know either and he said: ‘Oh, well.’

“McIntyre called again, went to the house and explained. We didn't have money for me to go to college, my future was to work or sign with the Expos. They gave me a 20 thousand dollar bonus and my dad opened his eyes. ”

Facing his idol

It was 1989 when Diaz arrived at the Rookie League in Bradenton, Florida, where the Montreal Expos shared a complex, with stadium and dormitories, with the Atlanta Braves and the Pittsburgh Pirates.

As a player in formation in the Minor Leagues, Díaz earned around $500 a month for those years. He traveled in second-level trucks, slept in the worst motels and ate where he could. In Bradenton he shared a bedroom with nine other young players.

“That year was super bad for me and there I said I no longer do it,” remembers Diaz. “I was in Triple A and they sent me down to Double A. Better that I go now. The pitching coach told me to go home, think about it and make a decision. However, I changed my attitude and said to myself: ‘That it is not for me. Especially because of the place where I came from and for the things that have happened, I will continue to work and I will not give up. I started doing well and finished that year at Triple A. ”

For seven years Rafael Diaz stung stone, but the majors were not in his destination. In 1995 he became a free agent. During the winters he had been playing with Los Mochis in the Mexican Pacific League. Francisco “Chico” Rodríguez had become his friend and suggested playing in the LMB. He recommended Diaz to the Monterrey Sultanes, with whom he debuted in the 1996 campaign. In 2003, he was signed by the Saltillo Saraperos and stayed for 10 seasons pitching to the best catchers he’s had: Noé Muñoz and Jonathan Aceves.

Is he satisfied with his career? Diaz failed to reach the majors, but in Mexico he consolidated a career. “There are many better pitchers than me,” he replies. “What fills my heart is that they have noticed the way I gave myself. That makes me proud. I have tried to be an example of consistency. I don't know if I succeeded. I don't consider myself an idol, just a surrendered player.

“Look at an example: Fernando Valenzuela. I was with him in Navojoa (with the Mayos). It was my second year in the Pacific League. I would be about 19 years old. Out of nowhere on the bus, the man got up and said: 'I will leave it for you'. And me: ‘Why, what did I do to you?’ 'You, pochito,' he told me. He thought I was a little pocho because I spoke English. You know, the Mexican versus the pocho and vice versa. It has always been that way.

“I got up and said: 'I respect him, but I will defend myself.' The veterans told him to calm down because I had done nothing, to leave me alone. But Valenzuela insisted: 'No, no, worthless pocho.'

“And that's when I stopped having idols. I don't like to be considered an idol, nor do I consider myself. Admire the work of the players yes, but do not idolize. We all have negative things. ”

Valenzuela did not cut like Rafael Díaz's mother, but he broke his heart. The player tells this episode while wearing a Dodgers cap. “He was one of the reasons why I wanted to be a baseball player. The root was my grandmother, but I wanted to continue playing for him. In the children's leagues in Los Angeles, we wore the Dodgers uniform. I have never liked to be told a lot. I have told the journalists, the players and they don't understand it. They keep telling me a lot.”

Reunion

Next stop for Diaz: Salon de la Fama?
He was seen again by his mother, Margarita Adame, 20 years after she left that room built with cardboard walls attached with Coca-Cola tacks and corks, heading to her grandmother's house. Pushed by the curiosity of his eldest son to meet his maternal grandmother, Diaz and his wife were encouraged to return to Ciudad Juarez. He walked the same streets in search of his mother.

The cardboard room no longer existed. He approached a woman to ask if she knew where to find Margarita. "Who is looking for her?" He asked. "I am Rafael, her son." She turned yellow. "I am your mother," she replied. And Rafa also turned yellow.

In her second marriage, Margarita Adame gave birth to Julio Daniel Frías, El Maleno, the star striker of the Ciudad Juarez Indio when football fever helped lower crime rates during the six-year term of Felipe Calderón.

When asked what is the best thing baseball has given him, Diaz answered, “Having seen my country. If it had not been for that reason I would not know about the people and their customs. In baseball I have cried and laughed. It has been my escape to my past, to what my life has been.”

Tears interrupt the story. They get stuck in the throat. Rafael Díaz swallows. “On the hill I forget everything. I have always been very explosive. Many people don't know what I've been through, they just know the player, but not the person. My baseball career has been very beautiful, but my personal life very difficult. I still carry my past. Until I break my past, I will not have peace.”