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The Tijuana Toros punched their ticket to a fourth consecutive berth in the Mexican League North Division championship series by sweeping Aguascalientes in four LMB North semifinal games last week. Manager Pedro Mere's men beat the Rieleros, 6-3, Sunday in Aguascalientes to clinch the series after league batting champ Isaac Rodriguez slapped an RBI single and a Jose Vargas fielding error at third base resulted in two more Toros runs to give the defending champions the lead for good.
Tijuana won last Wednesday's opener at home, 3-2, with pinch-hitter Maxwell Leon's RBI single in the bottom of the ninth ended the game. The Toros took Game Two on Thursday, 5-3, behind Kyle Lobstein's 5.2 innings of two-run pitching before prevailing in Saturday's contest at Estadio Alberto Romo Chavez, 4-0, with starter Manny Barreda contributing 5.1 frames to the shutout. Tijuana also defeated the Railroaders (in six games) to win their division semi set last August.
All three of the remaining division semifinal series have teams one win away from advancing to the second round. The other LMB North matchup has Monterrey leading Monclova, 3 games to 1, following Sunday's 10-8 Sultanes road win. Arturo Rodriguez belted a three-run homer for the winners while former Yanks prospect and NPB infielder Ramiro Pena collected four hits, including a homer. Monclova won the opener last Wednesday, 7-0, behind Josh Lowey's seven strong innings (1 hit, 5 strikeouts and no walks) but the Sultanes have since won the last three. Marco Tovar hurled five scoreless innings in Thursday's 6-3 Sultanes triumph as Agustin Murillo added three hits, a homer, two runs and three RBIs. Roberto Kelly's troops won Saturday in Estadio Monterrey, 7-3, behind Jose De Paula's seven frames of one-run pitching and Sebastian Elizalde's two-run roundtripper. Game Four is Monday night in Monterrey as Lowey returns to the mound for the Acereros against Sultanes starter Jorge Reyes.
In the LMB South, Yucatan has Leon on the ropes with a 3-games-to-1 lead and Game Four scheduled Monday night in Merida. The Leones won the first game, 5-0, in Leon Wednesday as starter Jose Samayoa lent six innings to the whitewash effort. The Bravos came back one night later for a 3-1 win with Cedric Hunter hitting an RBI double and later scoring himself to give Alejandro Soto (7.2 IP/1R) a 2-0 lead before throwing his first pitch. Yucatan then copped wins in two games at Parque Kukulkan over the weekend, winning a 10-4 contest Saturday as Sebastian Valle's three-run bomb in the fifth lent support to Yoanner Negrin, who allowed three runs in seven frames. On Sunday, Art Charles socked a two-run dinger while Valle and Jesus Valdez combined for six hits and three ribbies in a 6-4 Leones win. Monday night's game will see Samayoa back on the hill for Yucatan to face the Bravos' Bryan Evans.
Quintana Roo has archrival Mexico City one win away from elimination in the other LMB South semifinal, leading by a 3-1 margin. The Diablos won last Wednesday's Game One, 7-6, as Alexei Ramirez went 4-for-5 for the winners with a run and two RBIs. Alonzo Harris swatted two homers for the Tigres, who've come back to win the next three games, starting with Thursday's 12-4 drubbing in Estadio Fray Nano in which they scored five runs in the top of the first and pulled away. Francisco Cordoba pounded two homers for Q-Roo before homering both Saturday and Sunday in Tigres wins. Saturday saw skipper Tim Johnson's crew take a 9-2 Game Three win over Mexico City in Cancun with ageless wonder Pablo "Padre Tiempo" Ortega (41, to be exact) going the distance and allowing two runs on four hits. Javier Solano then tossed seven innings and struck out eight for Quintana Roo in a 2-0 shutout Sunday as Cordoba hit his fourth homer in three games. Barry Enright will get the Game Five start Monday night for Quintana Roo while Mexico City sends out Octavio Acosta.
Not all Mexican League activity was limited to the playing field last week. The Tabasco Olmecas rewarded manager Alfonso "Houston" Jimenez for taking a roster that had "cellar dweller" written all over it to a 24-33 record to finish two games behind fifth-place Puebla by firing him. The Villahermosa team also had a surprisingly robust (for them) first half at the gate as the usually-moribund franchise came in sixth in the Liga attendance derby by averaging 3,432 fans per opening. Tabasco drew 1,437 per night last year, by far the worst in AAA and often with only hundreds in the stands. Vicente Palacio will succeed Jimenez at the helm of the Olmecas, but it may never really matter who the manager is in Tabasco.
The firing is only the second of the season in the LMB (Eddie Castro was canned in Dos Laredos last month), a show of remarkable restraint among league owners more given to acting like George Steinbrenner than Connie Mack when it comes to letting managers go with the obligatory official statement of thanks for a job well done (but not done well enough).
Acereros' Castillo wins second straight MVP award
Monclova Acereros slugger Jesus “Jesse” Castillo has been named the Most Valuable Player for the Mexican League’s 2018 Spring season after leading the circuit with 57 RBIs, coming in second with 13 homers and finishing third in batting with a .378 average. He also was tops among LMB batters with 48 bases on balls and third in both extra-base hits (29) and total bases (128). Castillo, who came to the Steelers from Aguascalientes in an off-season trade that sent second baseman Tim Torres to the Railroaders, was also the Liga’s MVP last summer after posting a .342/20/82 campaign with the Rieleros.
The 35-year-old Mexicali native has spent 15 seasons in the Mexican League, playing in Yucatan, Veracruz and Tabasco as well as Aguascalientes and Monclova after debuting with the Leones as a 21-year-old in 2004 and going 1-for-2 in four games. The 6’1” first baseman has belted 111 homers with 247 doubles and 689 ribbies for his career to augment a .322 batting average, but his career trajectory has been an interesting one. After never hitting more than nine homers or driving in more than 64 runs through the 2013 season, Castillo caught fire with Aguascalientes in 2014 by socking 17 roundtrippers and knocking in 91 baserunners for the Rieleros that year. That kicked off a four-year stretch during which Castillo averaged 16.5 homers, 76.5 RBIs and batted .345 over 430 regular season contests.
Besides his back-to-back season MVP awards, Castillo was voted the MVP of last summer’s All-Star Game. He’s played in seven midsummer classics since 2007 and is expected to make an eighth appearance next month at Parque Kukulkan in Merida, Yucatan.
Will Fernando Valenzuela attend his Salon de la Fama induction?
Perhaps the most beloved player in modern Mexican baseball history, Fernando Valenzuela will be inducted into the Salon de la Fama after the new facility in Monterrey is opened later this summer. But is El Toro himself going to be on hand for the honors?
Puro Beisbol editor Fernando Ballesteros reports that Valenzuela, who now owns the Quintana Roo Tigres of Cancun along with his wife Linda, is so embittered from the Rookiegate scandal, in which five of his Tigres prospects were reportedly transferred to the Mexico City Diablos Rojos while the Valenzuelas were in the process of purchasing the legacy team from former owner Carlos Peralta, that the former Dodgers Cy Young Award winner may skip the ceremonies in which he’ll be honored along with Ricardo Saenz and Daniel Fernandez in the first Salon induction since the old facility (also in Monterrey) was shut down in 2012 after 40 years on the Cuauhtemoc Brewery grounds.
The sticking point, according to Ballesteros, is that Diablos owner Alfredo Harp Helu has also bankrolled the new Salon facility. While it’s likely that contents in the Mexican baseball HOF would still be in storage without Harp’s financial contributions, the Valenzuelas continue to be outraged over the sleight-of-hand loss of their prospects (two of whom were sold by the Red Devils to the Texas Rangers last summer for a combined $2.7 million) to the billionaire’s team.
The LMB office has largely adopted a “What-Me-Worry?” approach to the Rookiegate scandal, which has done nothing to mollify the Valenzuelas (who have been reportedly upset enough to consider selling the franchise as a result). Liga president Javier Salinas, who’s been stronger in his marketing efforts than his leadership of the 13 team owners within the loop, is facing a sticky situation between his richest owner (the two 2018 seasons have been named after Harp) and another owner who is a nationwide baseball icon. There appear to be no easy solutions.
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