Monday, May 20, 2019

LAGUNA SINKS SLOWLY IN THE NORTH, LOSE 6TH IN ROW

Michael Crouse of Laguna swingin' in the rain
As Monclova (29-10) and Tijuana (28-11) continue their battle for the Mexican League's North Division lead and Mexico City (21-15), Oaxaca and Puebla (both 22-17) engage in a three-way battle for first in the LMB, the 13-23 Union Laguna Algodoneros lost their sixth straight game Sunday, dropping a 7-6 decision at Leon as the Bravos' Cedric Hunter and Liga batting leader Felix Pie both belted solo homers in the fourth inning off Laguna starter Pedro Fernandez.

It's been a tough season so far in Torreon for the Cottoneers and first-year manager Jonathan Aceves, an ex-catcher who took the reins of the Algodoneros from Ramon Orantes (who is now skipper in Tabasco).  Union Laguna has combined an ineffective offense with a poor pitching staff in a team effort to fall into the cellar, 14.5 games behind first-place Monclova and a half-game behind 15-24 Durango.

Let's begin with a look at the Algodoneros at the plate.  Among the LMB's 16 teams, Union Laguna ranks at or near the bottom of the table in all three Triple Crown categories: Batting (.286 for 16th), homers (38 for 15th) and RBIs (195 for 13th) while outranking only Durango in stolen bases (12 in 25 attempts) as the Algodoneros' 5.75 runs-per-game average is better than only Quintana Roo (5.58) and Campeche (5.53).  The lone offensive category in which Laguna rates among the league's best is a dubious one: The Algodoneros' 309 strikeouts (8.58 per game) is second only to Durango's 358 for the most whiffs in the circuit.

Helmsman Aceves is not completely without weapons.  Outfielder Francisco Ferreiro has quietly moved into fifth place in the LMB's batting derby with a .396 average while playing in all 36 games through last weekend.  A 29-year-old Culiacan native, Ferreiro was a Saltillo reserve between 2014 and 2017 before signing with Laguna as a free agent just before the LMB's Fall 2018 season, during which he hit .316 in 31 games before becoming a first-time starter this spring.  Outfielder Michael Crouse is only batting .256 but the former Jays farmhand from British Columbia leads the team with nine homers and 29 RBIs.

One familiar face on an otherwise no-name roster is first baseman Dustin Geiger, who signed with the Algodoneros on May 3 after his release from Yucatan.  The one-time MiLB Organizational All-Star from the Cubs system who represented Durango in last summer's LMB midseason showcase is batting .286 with two homers over his first eight games with Laguna.  However, in a league where 12 teams are batting higher than .300, the Algodoneros only have three starters above that mark.

Algodoneros starter Frankie de la Cruz
Then there's the Laguna pitching, which (like the offense) is struggling.  Among pitching Triple Crown figures, the Cottoneers are tied with Tabasco for 14th in the Liga with 13 wins (Campeche in the South has 12), last in strikeouts ( 203) and next-to-last with a 7.85 ERA.  As with their offense, Laguna ranks high in pitching in two less-than-positive categories: their 31 hit batsmen trail only Yucatan's 39 while their 1.85 WHIP is the Liga's third-highest.

With all the mound mess surrounding them, two pitching staff members have pitched well for Aceves:  Starter Frankie de la Cruz is 4-1 and sixth in the league with a 3.19 ERA while setup man Roman Pena is 0-0 but has a better (if non-qualifying) ERA of 2.84 in 22 outings from the bullpen.  Pena and de a Cruz, a 2017 All-Star for Saltillo amid an 11-4 campaign, are the only two pitchers on the Algodoneros staff with an ERA under 4.80.

While it's far too early to count a team out for a postseason berth, Union Laguna is not looking like a team on the verge of contention anytime soon.  There are simply too many holes for Aceves and GM Francisco Mendez to fill for the Algodoneros to bring a pennant to Estadio Revolucion for the first time since 1950.


ATTENDANCE UP IN 15 OF 16 MEXICAN LEAGUE CITIES

Stands packed for a Tijuana Toros home game
Six weeks and 288 games into the 2019 Mexican League season, a cursory look at attendance figures shows that 15 of the Liga's 16 teams have seen an increase in average crowds from the Fall 2018 season.

The numbers are encouraging for an organization that suffered a downturn in attendance last year after the 114-game single schedule was scrapped in favor of two 57-game Spring and Fall seasons, each with full eight-team championship playoffs.  While turnout at LMB games in the Spring season was little different from previous full seasons, things went downhill during the second tournament as attendance plummeted leaguewide. For the first time in several years, no Mexican League team averaged more than 10,000 per opening in the Fall 2018 campaign, with Tijuana leading the pack at 9,358.  Monterrey, Yucatan and Monclova also topped the 5,000 mark but there were also seven teams that pulled in fewer than 3,000 fans per game, with Campeche only generating 855 turnstile clicks nightly.

The two-seasons-per-year concept has worked very well for Liga MX soccer (LMB president Javier Salinas' former employer) Apertura and Clausura tournaments in Mexico, but the philosophy failed to catch on with baseball fans and the experiment was scrapped after one year.  A more traditional 120-game schedule split into two halves from April through August with an eight-team playoff for September was adopted for the current season.

Whether it's interest in the Liga's return to a single season, the added attention to baseball brought on by Mexican president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador's vocal and activist love for the game or a return of the LMB's historic perception as a hitter's paradise, every team except Union Laguna has seen an increase in home attendance figures.  Crowds in Tijuana have increased to 11,862 per opening to lead the LMB while Monterrey is up to 10,665, or 3,000+ higher than last Fall when the Sultanes won the pennant.

Mexico City has benefitted from the opening of Estadio Alfredo Harp Helu, as turnout for Diablos Rojos games has tripled from 2,463 to 9,093.  Yucatan, Saltillo, Monclova and Puebla are all averaging between 5,000 and 9,000 while Quintana Roo, Durango, Dos Laredos and Tabasco sit in the 3,000-5,000 range.  Attendance in Villahermosa for Olmecas games has trebled from 1,151 to 3,090.

The numbers are up in Campeche, too
There are still five teams averaging less than 3,000 fans per night, however.  One of those is Union Laguna, the only franchise to see attendance go down from last fall, but the drop from 3,372 to 2,904 is not all that precipitous.  Even Campeche, which was a train wreck last Fall, has gained from the extra interest. Attendance at Estadio Nelson Barrera for Piratas games has risen from an embarrassing 855 average last fall to a pulse-confirming 2,224 per opening.

It remains to be seen if these increases are long-term in nature or just excitement over the first month of the season.  None of the eight teams hosting at least one series last week saw an uptick at the gate, but in the wake of last Fall's bomb at the box office, the Liga office in Mexico City has to be encouraged that things have at least returned to normal and that their outreach efforts in the digital arena (e.g., the Quien es Quien yearbook is now available for free downloading on the LMB website) are beginning to pay dividends.  Whatever the cause, the effect in the stands has been positive.


Cuarto Bat WRITER'S TOP 6 MEXICAN BALLPARKS (PART 4)

A writer for Mexican baseball website Cuarto Bat, Yasser Trujillo, posted a column in April about his picks for the top six ballparks in the Mexican and Mexican Pacific leagues.  Here is the third part of a series in which we bring you a translated version. You'll find their site at CuartoBat.com, where fans can download a free copy of their February magazine.

3. Estadio Sonora, Hermosillo

Never before has the analogy "an oasis in a desert" been so accurate. And it is within about 10 minutes of leaving the city of Hermosillo, next to the airport and already in desert territory, the Estadio Sonora emerges from the sand.  It resembles the "Pinacate Crater", an emblematic place located in a desert ecological reserve of the state. That natural structure was recreated for the spectacular exterior design of the home of the Naranjeros de Hermosillo.

The implementation of the internal corridor with a view to the field so you do not miss the action if you go to the bathroom or the food area was a completely innovative concept on this side of the border.  It should be remembered that 360 ballparks exist in the United States since the 1950s.

The televisions in each column meant great detail for the fan. Its food area was the largest in 2013, when it was inaugurated.  It laid the foundations for future venues with automated turnstiles to enter through via your physical ticket or on your cell phone, and also with the official store next to the main entrance.

It has a particular and emblematic theme that welcomes you when you arrive in the area with a cactus garden, flower arrangements, and artificial paths that recreate the reddish and ocher Sonoran desert. In addition, it presents several photographic spots and monuments that celebrate the idols of the franchise.

Pioneer in the wave of the new top-level stadiums in Mexican baseball, it is home to the most winning team in the Mexican Pacific League. Estadio Sonora was the initial experiment to change the paradigm of ballparks in this country. At the time it was the best stadium in Mexican baseball.

The Naranjeros were not only the first in Mexican baseball to have a first world stadium according to the needs of the 21st century. They have also been the only team in this wave of new properties to launch their resplendent home with a championship.