The Mexican National Baseball Team currently sits sixth in the World Baseball Softball Confederation's latest rankings, but they entered the lion's den last weekend when they traveled to Osaka for a two-game series against the number one team in the world, Japan, in the Samurai Series. The set served as a warmup of sorts for both teams months ahead of November's Premier12 tournament, which will be a qualifier for next year's Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo.
As host team, Japan will have a berth in the 2020 Games regardless of how they do next winter, but the series was a crucible for the Mexicans and new manager Dan Firova, who replaced Enrique "Che" Reyes at the helm after the Puebla Pericos would not allow their new skipper to make the trip to the Far East. When the dust settled, Mexico had won one of the two tilts along with an added measure of respect from baseball observers around the globe.
Mexico won Saturday's opener, 4-2, in come-from-behind fashion. Japan took a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the first when Masataka Yoshida singled in Seiji Uebayashi and added another run in the fourth when Takuya Kai pushed Yoshida across with a singleton. The Verdes Grande put their first score on the board in the top of the sixth after Victor Mendoza crossed home plate on a Luis Juarez single to make it a 2-1 contest but the game really took a turn in the Mexicans' favor one inning later.
An Ali Solis double in the top of the seventh brought in Jose Juan Aguilar to knot the score at 2-2. Solis then scored Mexico's go-ahead run on a single by Chris Roberson, a naturalized Mexican citizen who was not on manager Dan Firova's original roster. The Mexicans plated an insurance run in the eighth on a Luis "Cochito" Cruz single that drove home Joey Meneses, who'll be playing his first season in Japan this year with the Orix Buffaloes in Osaka after winning MVP honors in the AAA International League last summer. Reliever Javier Cota earned the win for Mexico while Jake Sanchez held the hosts scoreless to pick up the save.
Japan turned things around Sunday with a 6-0 shutout over Mexico to earn the series split. The key blow for the home team came early when Yoshida belted a first-inning grand slam off Verdes Grande starter Manny Barreda as Japan staked opener Juri Hara a 5-0 lead heading into the second frame. Hara, who got the win, combined with six relievers on the six-hit whitewash and Barreda absorbed the defeat. Mexico got two-hit nights from Mendoza and Juarez while Roberto Lopez and Xorge Carrillo each contributed one hit apiece.
The Samurai Series was well-attended, with good crowds both nights at the 36,000-seat domed stadium. Saturday's contest brought in 28,933 spectators while another 28,622 fans clicked the turnstiles Sunday night, very respectable numbers for an exhibition series a month ahead of the regular season.
According to Puro Beisbol writer Bambino Sedano, one of the off-field highlights for the visitors came when a Japanese fan, 24-year-old Ryu Ishibashi, traveled about 500 miles from Sendai to Osaka to meet Juarez, his Mexican baseball idol who had three hits in the series. Juarez invited Ishibashi (who hopes his favorite someday plays for his Rakuten Golden Eagles) to have dinner with him and teammates Mendoza and Aguilar. In return, Juarez received a shirt featuring a drawing Ishibashi made of the Yucatan slugger.
EX-NCAA PITCHER OF YEAR HEIMLICH SIGNS WITH TECOS
The NCAA's 2018 Pitcher of the Year, Luke Heimlich, has signed a free agent contract with the Mexican League's Dos Laredos Tecolotes. While the presence of a left-handed hurler with such bonafides represents a baseball coup of sorts for the Tecos, the Oregon State University product also brings no small amount of controversy to the border team.
On the field, there's little question that Heimlich has the chance to be a Mexican League standout. After turning in an 11-0 record with a 0.66 ERA as a senior at Puyallup (WA) High School, he was named Washington's 2014 Gatorade Player of the Year. Playing collegiately for west coast powerhouse Oregon State, Heimlich was selected the Pac 12 Pitcher of the Year in 2017 as a Junior after leading the nation with an 0.81 ERA, and he followed that up with a standout Senior campaign last year in which he was named NCAA Pitcher of the Year on the heels of a 16-3 record with a 2.42 ERA (also winning his second consecutive Pac 12 POY award).
However, Heimlich is bringing considerable baggage to Nuevo Laredo with him. During the 2017 season, it was discovered that he had pled guilty as a 15-year-old to sexually molesting his six-year-old niece. The revelation created a firestorm that resulted in Heimlich being left behind in Corvallis when the Beavers travelled to the College World Series in Omaha, where Oregon State was eliminated by Louisiana State in the semifinals. He did make the trip to the CWS last June, when the Beavers won their third NCAA title, but lost both his decisions to North Carolina and Arkansas, the latter in Game One of the title series (which would prove to be the final competitive game he's pitched to date).
After slipping through the MLB amateur draft in both 2017 and 2018, Heimlich began looking for work as a free agent. The Kansas City Royals considered signing him last year, but backed off after protests were raised. He did eventually sign a contract with the Latigo Monkeys of Taiwan last August, but the Chinese Professional Baseball League voided the deal due to his criminal record and may be facing the same outcome with the Mexican League office.
LMB president Javier Salinas told the New York Times, "He's not registered in the league. We have to analyze his case." Salinas added, "It's very difficult to see him registered in the Mexican League." Tecos owner Jose Antonio Mansur says the Liga took the unusual step of requiring Heimlich to sign a letter vowing good behavior. "I'm not a judge," Mansur told the Times. "I'm just a businessman and I'll give him an opportunity. If he was guilty, he's already been judged. I'm just looking from here on forward."
For his part, Heimlich (who has since said he was innocent but pled guilty to spare his family from a drawn-out public legal process) had one of two charges dropped, was placed on two years' probation, took court-ordered classes, wrote a letter apologizing to his niece (now 14) and had to register for five years as a Level I sex offender, in which he is considered a low risk to the community and unlikely to become a repeat offender.
ROCKIES, D-BACKS PLAY TWO EXHIBITION GAMES IN MONTERREY
The Colorado Rockies and Arizona Diamondbacks were south of the border over the weekend for a pair of Major League Baseball exhibition games at Estadio Monterrey, home of the Mexican League Sultanes.
In Saturday's opener, Mike Tauchman went 3-for-4 with a pair of RBI singles and a run and Roberto Ramos hit a run-scoring double and a solo homer to lead Colorado to an easy 5-1 win. Four Rockies pitchers combined on a four-hitter as reliever Jeff Hoffman tossed four scoreless innings to earn the victory, allowing just two hits and striking out five Arizona batsmen. Diamondbacks starter Taylor Clarke was tagged with the loss after giving up a pair of runs on five hits over 3.1 frames. The game was far from a sellout, as 9,372 fans were in the stands of the 22,061-seat ballpark.
Arizona came back Sunday with a 5-2 triumph. This time, it was the Snakes' pitchers who shone on the mound as the Rockies were limited to three hits. D-backs starter Matt Koch allowed one run on one hit in four innings, striking out three with no walks. Nick Green came on for three more strong entradas, giving up one run on two hits while Braden Shipley pitched two perfect innings and struck out four for the save. The game was tied 1-1 in the bottom of the third when Arizona's Eduardo Escobar lashed a double to right that brought in Tim Locastro with the go-ahead run. The Diamondbacks picked up a pair of insurance runs in the eighth on Idelmaro Vargas' two-run homer off Rockies reliever Ben Bowden. Koch took the win for Arizona while Colorado starter Tyler Anderson was tagged for the loss. Attendance was a little better Sunday as 10,746 watched the action.
A pair of Mexican-born former MLB performers served as "ambassadors" for the two teams. Oaxaca native Vinny Castilla, who is currently a special assistant to Colorado general manager Jeff Bridich after a successful playing career as a third baseman and will manage Hermosillo in the Mexican Pacific League next winter, was on hand as the Rockies ambassador. Erubiel Durazo, born in Hermosillo and a one-time Sultanes first baseman who hit .364 in the 2001 World Series for Arizona's only championship team, represented the Diamondbacks. He was joined by another D-Backs '01 hero, Luis "Gonzo" Gonzalez, a Tampa product who hit .325 with 57 homers and 142 RBIs that year.
The visit of two Major League teams to Monterrey was not all sunshine and lollipops, however. The Hitazo website (edited by respected Mexican baseball writer Hector Bencomo) says the occasion also served as a platform for about 50 fans who appear to have purchased lifetime passes to events in Estadio Monterrey when the facility was completed in 1990. Through legal representative Oscar Martinez, the group claims that the contracts they signed 29 years ago gives them free entry to any event held at the ballpark for fifty years, including the Colorado-Arizona series. Instead, they say, the Sultanes, who hosted last weekend's two-game set, are charging them 9,900 pesos (about US$500) for two annual box tickets and another 5,000 pesos (US$250) for parking in 2019. According to Hitazo, Sultanes co-owner Jose Maiz has refused to comment on the impasse.