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MONCLOVA CLINCHES LMB NORTH TOP SEED, SOUTH A TOSS-UP
To the surprise of nobody, the Monclova Acereros clinched first place in the Mexican League North Division last week and will sail into the Fall season playoffs with the best record in the circuit. The Steelers have led the LMB North practically since the second season opened in July and even the surprising midseason replacement of first-year manager Carlos Garcia with ex-Tijuana skipper Pedro Mere did nothing to halt the team's bid to become Monclova's first Liga pennant-winners. The Acereros will have home-field advantage throughout the postseason.
The Acereros ran their season record to 41-12 Sunday by clobbering Dos Laredos, 16-2, in front of 5,058 fans at Estadio Monclova as starter Jason Gurka (a former Rockies and Angels pitcher) tossed five innings of one-run ball to extend his ledger to 6-0 on the campaign. Gurka had a 1-2 record with a 3.18 ERA in relief appearances for the Orioles' AAA Norfolk affiliate this year before coming to Monclova just as the Fall schedule opened. After only one start since 2014, the 30-year-old lefty from Texas was inserted into Monclova's rotation August 3 and has won five times in six starts. Gurka was given a lead Sunday when Cade Gotta smacked a leadoff homer in the bottom of the first inning off Tecolotes starter Alex Sanabia to launch a five-run opening entrada. Reigning MVP Jesse Castillo went 4-for-6 with a double, three runs scored and another two driven in while Erick Aybar and former Nationals infielder Danny Espinosa each had three hits. Espinosa, who had four RBIs, is with his fifth organization in 2018 after suiting up for Yankees, Blue Jays, Dodgers and Phillies teams since spring training. He arrived in Monclova in mid-August after being released from the Phils' AAA Lehigh Valley affiliate.
With Sunday's blowout, the Acereros have won seven of their past ten game and enter their final three-game series of the regular season at home against Dos Laredos with a seven-game lead over Tijuana (34-19), who has won nine of their last ten contest to go two-and-a-half games ahead of third-place Monterrey (32-22). The Toros need to win just once in their final home set with the Sultanes at Estadio Gasmart to clinch homefield advantage in the first playoff round against either Monterrey or Dos Laredos, who enters the week with a 31-23 mark. Fifth-place Aguascalientes (24-29) was knocked out of mathematical contention Sunday by losing 8-7 to Saltillo when the Saraperos' Christian Zazueta scored the tiebreaking run on an Anthony Carter wild pitch in the top of the ninth. Both teams, along with Durango and Union Laguna, will be done playing after Thursday night's season-ending games.
While the LMB North playoff participants (if not the seedings) have been determined, things are much hazier in the South. Yucatan's 4-2 home win over Tabasco vaulted the defending champion Leones (30-23) past Mexico City (29-23) into first place by a half-game. The Lions got a good start from Jose Samayoa (6 IP, 1 R, 2 H, 5 SO) while sending Olmecas opener Thomas Melgarejo to the showers with a three-run fifth inning. Mexico City dropped out of first after the Diablos Rojos dropped a 1-0 heartbreaker at Puebla Sunday as the Pericos' Sergio Perez singled off Patrick Johnson to bring in Daniel Sanchez from third with the game's only run in the bottom of the third. Puebla stater Josh Outman blanked the Diablos on two hits over seven innings for the win as the Parrots raised their record to 29-24, one game out of first.
Below the leaders, fourth-place Leon has faded over the past few weeks and the Bravos are now 25-26 after holding off Oaxaca, 8-7, Sunday. Leon took an 8-4 lead into the bottom of the ninth before Dustin Geiger socked a leadoff homer off Bravos closer Joe Colon and Jaime Brena and Samar Leyva stroked run-scoring singles before Colon struck out Yuniesky Betancourt with the bases loaded to end the contest. Leon is three games ahead of Oaxaca and Quintana Roo and while neither the Guerreros nor Tigres are likely to catch up the Bravos with only three games left, one of them might force a single play-in game with the Guanajuato club (who would serve as host). Both Campeche and Tabasco are out of the running.
Needless to say, there are a few important midweek series starting Tuesday on the docket. In the LMB North, Monterrey visits Tijuana to determine the second playoff seed in that division in a matchup of likely first-round opponents. In the South, Yucatan will make the short hop from Merida to Cancun for three games with the Tigres, who have played well of late but are only 9-18 at home for the Fall season. Mexico City visits Leon for three games and Oaxaca welcomes Puebla. If a play-in game is required, it'll take place next Saturday with first round series set to begin Tuesday, September 10.
BETANCOURT HITTING .406, TAKES BAT RACE LEAD
Former MLB shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt has taken advantage of a late performance dip by Yucatan centerfielder Leo Heras to gain the lead in the Mexican League batting derby. Betancourt, who hit .367 with 11 homers in 56 games for Oaxaca during the Spring season, went 3-for-3 against Leon Friday to raise his current average to .417, was 1-for-8 the rest of the weekend to drop to .406, still good enough to lead the LMB by five points over Mexico City outfielder Yeison Asencio, a three-time postseason All-Star while playing in the Padres minor league system. Heras has gone 7-for-35 over his last ten games to see his average plummet from .449 to .385 and now ranks fifth in the Liga, with Yucatan teammate Everth Cabrera just ahead in fourth at .386.
Monterrey first baseman Felix Perez homered against Tijuana last Tuesday and went deep Sunday in Durango to bring his season total to 16, two longballs ahead of Saltillo’s Leandro Castro and Dustin Geiger of Oaxaca. A native of Cuba, like the aforementioned Betancourt, the 33-year-old Perez spent five seasons in the Red Sox system (and was a 2014 International League midseason All-Star for Louisville) before coming to Monterrey one year later. After only playing 28 games for the Sultanes in 2017, Perez was let go and signed by Aguascalientes in the offseason and immediately rewarded the Rieleros by leading the LMB with 15 homers in the Spring season. After knocking out another 10 roundtrippers in 28 games for Aguascalientes this Fall, he was dealt back to Monterrey early last month in a five-player deal that send first baseman Ricky Alvarez and pitcher Nestor Molina to the Railroaders.
Perez' 52 RBIs rank third in the LMB behind Monclova's Francisco Peguero's 57 and the 54 of Puebla outfielder Delmon Young, who led in ribbies most of the season but drove in just one run over the Pericos' three-game weekend series at Mexico City. After it looked like Aguascalientes outfielder Tony Campana might have an easy run to the stolen bases title much of the season, the former Cub has been surpassed by both Johnny Davis of Dos Laredos and Monclova outfielder Cade Gotta. A Southern League postseason All-Star last year while in the Brewers organization, the 28-year-old Davis (who stole 52 bases for Biloxi in 2017) swiped four bases against Monclova last weekend, including three steals in Saturday's game, to lift his season total to 26 in 31 attempts. Gotta, who won a Southern League Player of the Week award earlier this year with the Marlins' AA Jacksonville affiliate, stole six bases against the Tecos in the same series and now has 24 for the Fall. Campana pilfered two bases against Saltillo over the weekend but now stands third behind Davis and Gotta in steals with 23.
One-time Diamondbacks starter Edgar Gonzalez gave up two runs in 5.1 innings to earn the win for is hometown Monterrey Sultanes in Sunday's 11-4 triumph in Durango to bring his season record to 7-2. The 35-year-old Gonzalez is now tied with Mexico City's Patrick Johnson for the Liga lead in pitching wins. Since picking up the W against Puebla on August 16, Johnson has lost two of his last three starts, including a 1-0 defeat at the hands of the Pericos on Sunday in which he allowed the game's only run and scattered six hits while striking out seven over six innings. Six pitchers are tied for third with six wins apiece.
Monclova's Andre Rienzo pitched a scoreless inning in relief against Dos Laredos Sunday after tossing six shutout innings in his last start on August 26 against Aguascalientes to bring his league-leading ERA down further to 0.78, nearly a full run per nine innings fewer than teammate Wilmer Rios, who is second in the LMB at 1.76. While he's been obscured on his own pitching staff by Rienzo and Josh Lowey, the 24-year-old Rios (son of Salon de la Fama member Jesus "Chito" Rios, who won 21 games for the Tigres in 1989) has cobbled together a breakout campaign with the Acereros by going 6-0 and leading the Liga with an 0.87 WHIP. Rios has allowed just six walks in 56.1 innings pitched.
Campeche veteran Orlando Lara struck out eight Quintana Roo batters Saturday in six innings of a Piratas' 6-4 loss to the Tigres, running his season strikeout total to 64 over 61.1 frames and taking over leadership of the LMB in that category. The 33-year-old Lara, who whiffed 12 Leon batsmen in seven innings on August 9, was one of three pitchers to overtake former strikeouts leader Enrique Oquendo of Puebla last week. Oquendo hasn't pitched since August 26, when he struck out three Mexico City hitters in three innings to bring his season total to 57. Jose De Paula of Monterrey (61) and Leon's Guillermo Moscoso (59) are second and third, respectively. Monterrey closer Wirfin Obispo earned a save at Durango Saturday, giving him 14 in 15 opportunities this Fall. That's two more saves than Leon's Joe Colon and Josh Lueke of Monclova. Three other pitchers, including 2017 Reliever of the Year Chad Gaudin (who now pitches for Yucatan after being released earlier this year by Monclova) have 11 saves each.
THREE's (MORE) COMPANY: CARIBBEAN SERIES FIELD GROWS TO 8
Beginning in 2020, the Caribbean Series will expand from its current five-nation format to eight with the additions of Colombia, Panama and Nicaragua to the Crown Jewel of Latin Baseball. The three new entrants will join the fun when the Serie del Caribe is scheduled to be played in Puerto Rico. The Caribbean Professional Baseball Confederation, aka COPABE, made the announcement after holding their general convention last week in Miami.
Panama sent teams to the original Caribbean Series for twelve years prior to its discontinuation in 1960 after Cuba dropped out following their revolution and the ascension of Fidel Castro, a former pitcher who pulled his countrymen out of all pro baseball competition after taking power. Panama hosted the CS three times (1952, 1956 and 1960) and won the event in 1950 with American manager Way Blackburn leading the Carta Viejo Yankees to a 5-1 record in that tournament. When the Serie del Caribe resumed play in 1970, Panama was dropped from the competition and the Mexican Pacific League champion added as a replacement. Last year, Panama was tentatively added by COPABE to the CS as a "guest" country for the February 2019 tournament planned for Barquisimeto, Venezuela.
Nicaragua and Colombia, who have competed along with Panama and Mexico in the Latin American Series, have never played in the Caribbean Series. Mexico sends its champion from the winter league operating in the state of Veracruz to the LAS, which was played last January in Managua, Nicaragua and won by the host Chinandega Tigres (who were managed by current Saltillo Saraperos skipper Len Picota). The Acayucan Tobis, champions of the Veracruz State League, finished second.
COPABE president Juan Francisco Puello Herrera was quoted as saying the organization will meet in September to determine how the newcomers will be integrated into the Caribbean Series. Speculation is that the champions from the three winter leagues would play each other in a preliminary competition to determine which one would join the existing five teams at the full CS. When Cuba returned in 2014, it was on a conditional basis and that island nation's full membership has not been granted and nor have they been added to the rotation of host sites. The future of the Latin American Series may be cast into doubt if three of its four participating national winterball leagues move up to the Caribbean Series.
The Caribbean Series has long been a centerpiece of Latin baseball but the event has struggled both artistically and financially the past few years. The talent level of teams has dropped exponentially with fewer prospects being sent south of the border by Major League Baseball organizations, who instead have shown a preference for the more antiseptic and controlled atmosphere of the Arizona Fall League or even the lesser-quality Australian Baseball League. As well, the combination of power attendance and political turmoil in some countries has made the CS less viable in those locations. Barquisimeto had to drop out from hosting the event last February, with Guadalajara stepping in to fill the void, and while there's been much brave talk about Barquisimeto's readiness to host the upcoming Serie del Caribe, Venezuela's economy has not improved and continued political unrest there have people wondering if there will be another move. Word for months has been that Mazatlan and its refurbished Estadio Teodoro Mariscal are preparing to welcome teams and fans should plans in Venezuela fall through again.
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