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Monday, April 9, 2 0 1 8
Four teams bunched one game apart atop LMB South
While the Monterrey Sultanes were able to maintain their three-game lead in the Mexican League North Division over the past week, only one game separates the top four teams in the LMB South in what's been a very competitive start out the gate for what has been considered the weaker of the Liga's two eight-team divisions.
The Quintana Roo Tigres continued to surprise many observers by holding on to a tie for first with Yucatan in the South after a 12-6 win Sunday in Durango to lift their Spring 2018 record to 11-4. Third baseman Brian Hernandez had five of the Tigres' 20 hits on the night, doubling twice and scoring two runs while driving in two more. The Leones kept pace with an 8-3 victory over Union Laguna in Torreon as former MLB All-Star Freddy Garcia tossed five innings of four-hit ball for the victors, allowing one unearned run for Garcia's first LMB win in three decisions.
Sitting one game behind the leaders with identical 10-5 records are the Mexico City Diablos Rojos and Puebla Pericos. The Red Devils completed a three-game home sweep of defending champion Tijuana with a 3-1 win over the defending champs Sunday. Ricardo Valenzuela's two-run single with the bases loaded in the fourth inning broke a scoreless tie and starter Luis Niebla (4 IP, 0 R) combined with closer Jean Machi and two other relievers to make the lead stand. Puebla stayed even with the Diablos by recording a 7-2 triumph in Monclova over their big-brother Acereros, thanks to Jesus Arredondo's three-run homer in the third and starter Rogelio Bernal's 6.2 innings of one-run pitching against his former teammates. Oaxaca, Leon, Tabasco and Campeche are all under .500 and in danger of falling out of contention early in the shortened format, but the LMB South overall has fared better thus far in 2018 than they collectively showed last summer.
Monterrey struggled a bit on the road against South teams last week, dropping two of three games against Tabasco in Villahermosa before rebounding to win twice in Campeche, maintaining their three-game LMB North leadership with an 11-4 record after winning eight of their first nine games of the year. The Sultanes missed their chance for a three-game sweep of the Piratas Sunday by dropping a 6-4 contest as Uriak Marquez had three hits with a run scored and another driven in for the hosts. Even so, Monterrey is up three games on the only other North team with a winning record, the 8-7 Aguascalientes Rieleros, who rode a two-hit shutout from starter Guillermo Trujillo and four relievers. Olmecas opener Alejandro Astorga (2 R, 4 H) pitched seven strong innings but lacked support in absorbing a tough loss.
Dos Laredos, Tijuana and Durango are all tied for third in the LMB North with 7-8 marks while Monclova sits a game behind in sixth at 6-9, but the season has gotten off to bad starts in Saltillo (5-10) and Union Laguna (3-12). Mexican baseball has never been the most secure for managers and drumbeats in Torreon and Gomez Palacios for Algodoneros skipper Ramon Orantes' replacement only got louder after Sunday's home loss to Yucatan and Freddy Garcia.
None of the upcoming midweek series would make the menu at a five-star restaurant, but the most interesting set may be when Monclova visits Merida to take on Yucatan in a matchup between two the Liga's top teams. Next weekend's fare looks more palatable, with longtime rivals Mexico City and Monterrey squaring off in the northern city for three games.
Ricky Alvarez off to torrid start in first year with Sultanes
It would be hard to blame first baseman Ricky Alvarez if he got off to a slow start with Monterrey this spring. After all, the Sultanes are the Tijuana-born slugger's third Mexican League team since he was traded by Laguna to Yucatan late last June in a seven-player swap even though he was leading the LMB with 75 RBIs in 66 games and mentioned often in early MVP conversations. Alvarez cooled off over 43 games with the Leones, playing home games in Merida's pitching-friendly Parque Kukulkan, and finished the 2017 campaign with a .311 average and 17 homers to go with his 105 RBIs to nudge out Satillo's Rainel Rosario by one ribbie for the crown.
What ended up a solid season by any standard wasn't enough to keep Alvarez in Yucatan, however, as he was a centerpiece in a major offseason deal between the Leones and Sultanes that sent Alvarez and outfielder Francisco Lugo to Monterrey for shortstop Walter Ibarra and designated hitter Luis Juarez. Rather than struggle to fit in with yet another new team or wonder what it takes to keep from having to change teams, the 5'11" 220-pounder is off to a torrid start for the Sultanes. Alvarez hit three homers over the weekend in Campeche to take LMB lead with six roundtrippers in his first 15 games while his four RBIs at Estadio Nelson Barrera on Saturday and Sunday gave him 16 for Spring 2018 to put him in a five-way tie at the top in that category. With a .410 average, the former Tigers farmhand ranks sixth on the batting derby table. Now in his seventh Liga season after debuting with Monterrey back in 2012, Alvarez has LMB career totals of .293/82/365 over 552 games while going 50-of-69 on stolen base attempts. In short, it doesn't appear to really matter whose uniform Ricky puts on because he's going to produce for that team.
Leading the LMB bat race through last weekend is Tijuana outfielder Maxwell Leon, a journeyman utility player who spent five years in the Detroit Tigers system before his 2011 LMB debut with Minatitlan, where he hit .341 with 14 homers and 43 RBIs in 57 games for the Petroleros. While the Mexico City native didn't approached those numbers over his subsequent six seasons with four teams, Leon has proven to be a useful player who can plug a defensive hole while offering a .290 hitting average with some gap power. Leon has taken the lead in the Mexican League batting race with a .515 average, 33 points higher than Durango's Yadir Drake and 53 points up on Drake's Generales teammate, newcomer Dustin Geiger. Drake and Geiger are tied with Alvarez, Quintana Roo's Brian Hernandez and Monclova's Manny Rodriguez (who else?) for the RBI lead with 16 each while Tijuana's Justin Greene and Jeremias Pineda of Dos Laredos are knotted up at eight stolen bases in what is already shaping up to be a tight race for both 2018 seasons in Mexico.
Four Liga pitchers are carrying identical 3-0 records, but the hurler who's gotten the most out of the least amount of time on the mound is Yucatan middleman Jesus Barraza, who has yet to be scored upon over eight innings in seven appearances out of the Leones bullpen. Monterrey's Marco Tovar has a 0.96 ERA in three starts (tops among LMB starters) while Puebla's Mitch Lamson's effectiveness has been an even 2.00 per nine innings. Javier Solano of Monterrey, the fourth 3-0 hurler and a past Mexican Pacific League Pitcher of the Year, saw his ERA rise to 4.20 after being touched for four runs on ten hits in five innings at Tabasco last Wednesday. Josh Lowey's 24 strikeouts for Monclova is one better than the 23 of Tiago Da Silva, who is in Durango's starting rotation after being one of the LMB's top closers in 2017. Three men are tied with four saves apiece: Yucatan's Ronald Belisario, Anthony Carter of Aguascalientes and Campeche's Pedro Rodriguez.
Villanueva swats three homers in single game for Padres
Third baseman Christian Villaneuva's impressive major league debut for San Diego after a September callup last year (.344 with four homers and 7 RBIs in 12 games) wasn't enough to keep the Padres from reacquiring former first-round draft pick Chase Headley to play some third base at Petco Park in 2018 along with incumbent starter Cory Spangenberg, another onetime first round pick who hit .264 with 13 homers and 11 steals in 2017. The crowded situation at the hot corner carried over throughout spring training, when there was some speculation that Villanueva might be sent back down to AAA El Paso (for whom the Guadalajara product was .296/20/86 over 109 contests while splitting time between third and first base).
Villanueva, who has appeared in two winterball seasons with Obregon (winning BBM's Most Valuable Player award in 2015-16 for his play with the Yaquis), ended up sticking with the parent club and has been the starter at third for most games thus far. While he's had his ups and downs, like most rookies, Villanueva solidified his standing by belting three homers in a home game against Colorado on April 4 as the Padres topped the Rockies, 8-4. With his trio of longballs, Villanueva became the fourth Mexican-born player to whack three homers in a single MLB game, joining Erubiel Durazo (2003, 2005), Vinny Castilla (1999, 2002) and Roberto Avila (1951). For the record, he went deep with two homers off Colorado starter Kyle Freeland in the second and fourth innings while touching Antonio Sentazela with a three-run blast in the seventh. All three roundtrippers were to left field at Petco Park, one of the hardest ballparks to homer at in MLB.
After the game, San Diego manager Andy Green sagely allowed as to how Villanueva's outburst would probably earn a little more playing time. Word does travel and pitchers are now working the 26-year-old a lot more carefully than they might have and the subsequent five games have seen him go 3-for-18 at the plate with eight strikeouts to drop his batting average from .429 to .240. Still, no matter what Villanueva does the rest of the season (or his career, for that matter), he'll have had a night that precious few of his countrymen have experienced at the highest level of the game.
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