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MEXICAN LEAGUE ADDS 2 TEAMS, TO PLAY 66 GAMES IN '21
At a press conference at the National Palace in Mexico City last week, the Mexican League announced the expected addition of two teams for the 2021 season while unveiling plans for a reduced schedule next year with a May 20 opening date. Mexican president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador led the event, in which it was announced that both Veracruz and Guadalajara will be returning to give the circuit a total of 18 teams.
The Veracruz Aguilas ownership group is headed by Bernardo Pasquel, grand-nephew of controversial LMB strongman Jorge Pasquel (whose story has been touched upon here and elsewhere). One of the younger Pasquel's investors is former MLB All-Star Adrian Gonzalez, who is expected to be active in bringing ballplayers to the Gulf Coast team, while the sports manager will be Jesus “Chino” Valdez, who has filled that role with the Mazatlan Venados for several years. Veracruz' 7,782-seat Estadio Universitario Beto Avila, which opened in 1992 and underwent renovations in 2006, will receive modifications in anticipation of the LMB's return.
The Veracruz entry can trace their roots to 1903, when the original Aguilas played their first game, and lay claim to being an ancestor of Mexico's first formal team. Although Veracruz has long been fertile ground for baseball players and the Aguilas have won six Mexican League pennants over the years (most recently in 2012), that hasn't translated to fans in the stands. LMB teams have come and gone over the decades, most recently after the 2017 season when Veracruz' last team moved to Nuevo Laredo and was rechristened the Tecolotes. While the Aguilas can proudly point to their city's history, they'll still have to convince people to buy tickets in 2021.
Guadalajara hosted three Mexican League franchises between 1949 and 1995, all known as the Jalisco Charros. The second incarnation won pennants in 1967 and 1971 but the city's LMB teams had to play at the substandard Estadio Tecnologico while losing the battle for fans to soccer's Chivas team, arguably the most popular sports team in the country. The Charros were revived in 2014, but this time it was for the Mexican Pacific League, where the team has become popular among locals while winning the 2018-19 LMP pennant and hosting a number of important baseball events in the six years since.
However, the Mariachis are already encountering difficulties. The team's investors are led by Carlos "Calo" Valenzuela, a contractor whose Dynamica company has built ballparks in Mexico City, Obregon and Hermosillo while refurbishing existing facilities in Mazatlan and Los Mochis. There appear to be no formal ties with their winterball counterparts, although Valenzuela has been a director with the Charros. The Mariachis recently received word that the mayor of Zapopan (where Estadio Charros sits) is not yet willing to allow them to play at the 16,500-seat facility. Pablo Lemus Navarro told the Mural newspaper of Zapopan that he has issues over the Mariachis being named for Guadalajara and not Jalisco or Zapopan while the team gave his government no formal notice until after the presidential announcement. Lemus says the new club will have to go through both City and State governments to modify an agreement that currently allows the Charros (who own the stadium) to host a maximum of 90 games over five months at the formerly state-owned facility. Ironically, it was Valenzuela's own firm that renovated Estadio Charros into a ballpark prior to that team's 2014 move from Guasave.
Meanwhile, at the same press conference, it was announced that the Mexican League will delay its 2021 season opener to Thursday, May 20 while shortening its regular season schedule to 66 games due to the pandemic before launching into a twelve-team postseason after the season finale on Thursday, August 5. Playoffs will consist of four stages in 2021: a First Round, Division Semifinals, Division Championships and the Serie del Rey. It's assumed the First Round will involve the third through sixth place teams in each division, with the top two teams given a bye to the Division Semis. The Liga will sport two nine-team divisions next year, with Guadalajara entering the North Division and Veracruz joining the LMB South.
VILLANUEVA HEATS UP AS CHARROS CLIMB LMP STANDINGS
When Christian Villanueva returned home to Guadalajara last month after a second difficult season, he was hoping to regain his batting eye and batting stroke while playing winterball for the Jalisco Charros. Two recent games for the former Mexican Pacific League MVP indicate that the 29-year-old third baseman is getting his groove back.
Villanueva went 4-for-9 with a homer in his first two games of December before a dry spell that saw him collect two hits over his next five game as he watched his batting average fall to .233 after nine games. Then Los Mochis arrived at Estadio Charros for a three-game series last Friday and the former Padres starter feasted on the struggling Caneros over the next two nights, going 4-for-6 with three homers to score six runs and drive in nine as his batting average rose 53 points to .286.
Villanueva's recent resurgence coincided with the activation of relief pitcher Sergio Romo, a three-time World Series winner with San Francisco who is a free agent after pitching for Minnesota this year. Romo made his season debut for the Charros last Thursday, tossing a scoreless tenth inning of a wild 9-8 win at Obregon in which the score was tied at 3-3 heading into the eleventh. Both teams scored four runs that frame, then Jalisco scored twice in the top of the twelfth and held on for the win.
One night later, Jalisco second baseman Manny Rodriguez homered and doubled twice in a 12-3 thrashing of Los Mochis. Rodriguez moved into third place on the Mex Pac's all-time doubles list with 215 while his 118th career roundtripper places him twelfth in that category. After finishing the first half in sixth place with a desultory 15-14 record, manager Roberto Vizcarra needs top performances from Villanueva, Romo and Rodriguez in the second half to move up in the standings and earn more playoff points.
Right now, Jalisco is tied with surprising Guasave for second place with 9-5 records, a game-and-a-half behind 10-3 Mexicali. While Aguilas catcher Xorge Carrillo is their only batter raking among the LMP's Top 20 (he's 19th at .312), Mexicali's pitching has been rock-solid and currently is second to Hermosillo's 3.47 team ERA with a 3.51 mark. Eduardo Vera and Miguel Pena have led manager Bronswell Patrick's mound staff with identical 3-0 records and 2.11 ERAs while vet Javier Solano is also 3-0 record with a 2.53 ERA in nine starts.
Hermosillo's Yadiel Hernandez continues to lead the league with a .353 batting average. Guasave's Erusbel Arruebarrena is tied with Leandro Castro of Los Mochis and Monterrey's Dustin Peterson with 10 homers apiece. Dariel Alvarez of Jalisco is tops with 36 RBIs and Obregon's Alonzo Harris continues to lead baserunners with 20 steals despite not playing for the Yaquis in nearly three weeks. Harris has been listed on the Obregon roster again, but still nothing about his status on the LMP website.
Among pitchers, Mexicali's aforementioned Vera and Solano are 1-2 in the LMP with ERAs of 2.11 and 2.53, respectively. Luis Ivan Rodriguez remained at 6-0 after not pitching for Jalisco last week, but Hermosillo's Juan Pablo Oramas moved into a tie for the wins lead by beating Culiacan last week to go to 6-2. The Tomateros' Manny Barreda leads with 46 strikeouts but was placed on the Reserve List last Thursday. In a battle for the saves lead, Fernando Salas of Hermosillo and Guasave's Geno Encino are tied with 12 apiece, one more than Alberto Baldonando of Culiacan.
PITCHING, MACIEL HOMER GIVE BARRERAS COPA JUNTOS TITLE
The 2021 Copa Juntos por Mexico tournament is in the books, with fans watching an exciting championship game online as Team Nelson Barrera held off Team Alfredo Ortiz, 3-2, last Saturday behind closed doors at Estadio Alfredo Harp Helu in Mexico City. The Ortiz squad had finished first in the four-team first round with a 16-9 record, three games ahead of the 13-12 Barreras, to earn an automatic berth in the title game. On the other hand, the Barreras had to win a 9-3 semifinal contest Friday against third-place Team Daniel Fernandez to advance to Saturday's final tilt.
The Barreras took a 1-0 lead in the championship game on Jose Maciel's run-scoring sacrifice fly in the top of the second inning, but the Ortizes came back with a pair of counters via three doubles off Barrera starter Oscar Valenzuela in the bottom of the third to go up by a 2-1 count. At the top of the next frame, Jose Macias hit a one-out single off Ortiz starter Eteban Bloch, who then allowed a two-run homer by Maciel that barely cleared the left-field wall to put the Barreras back on top, 3-2. From that point, Valenzuela and relievers Ariel Gracia and Jesus Navarro combine to shut down Ortizistas over the final six innings to seal the win and the Copa Juntos title.
Valenzuela earned the win after allowing two runs and striking out six batters over five innings while Navarro was awarded the save with a hitless ninth, but the real winners may have been the Oaxaca Guerreros. The tournament was a showcase for prospects from the Guerreros and Mexico City who'd trained at the Alfredo Harp Helu Academy in Oaxaca, but it was the two teams representing the Warriors, who usually play second fiddle to the Diablos (both LMB franchises are owned by billionaire Harp), playing in the championship game.
In the event's third-place game, Team Daniel Fernandez topped Team Jose Luis Sandoval, 5-4, as both teams were managed by their Salon de la Fama namesakes. Team Nelson Barrera was managed by Jose “El Toro” Macias, a former MLB infielder whose son Jose Jr. played on his team, while Team Alfrdo Ortiz was led by current Guerreros skipper Erick Rodriguez. The Barreras lost six games in a row and were in last place before a late surge vaulted them into second heading into the semifinal.
The best all-round batter in the tournament was arguably Omar Zeleny of Team Ortiz, who finished third in batting with a .432 average while leading all hitters with 32 hits, 25 runs scored and nine stolen bases. Team Barrera's Mikell Granberry hit .365 with 31 hits, including 15 doubles and three homers, while driving in 21 runs. Barrera's Gracia had the best ERA at 0.64 while leading in strikeouts with 35 over 28 innings. Bloch of Team Ortiz won three games, finished second with a 1.45 ERA and 31 strikeouts, and was tops in WHIP at 0.84.