|Luke Heimlich was 2018 National Pitcher of the Year|
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|
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|
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|
OSCAR ROBLES OUT AS MANAGER IN TIJUANA
|Oscar Robles watches pregame batting practice|
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|
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...