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Baseball Analysis   Bruce Baskin 

B a s e b a l l   M e x i c o
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            After winning their respective semifinal series, the Culiacan Tomateros and Hermosillo Naranjeros split the first two games of the Mexican Pacific League championship series last weekend at Estadio Sonora in Hermosillo. Game Four through Six are set for this week in Culiacan, beginning Monday night.


            Hermosillo opened the title series last Friday with a 2-1 knucklebiter win as Ryan Verdugo outdueled J.C. Ramirez in a battle of past and future Chinese Professional Baseball League pitchers. Verdugo pitched the CPBL's first perfect game for the Uni-President Lions in 2018 while Ramirez is slated to join Mexican hurler Manny Banuelos with the Fubon Guardians this summer.


            For his part in this matchup, Verdugo tossed seven scoreless innings and scattered five hits. His Orangemen teammates staked him all the runs he'd need with two in the bottom of the first frame. Norberto Obeso opened with a single, moved to second on a Jose Cardona sacrifice fly and scored on Yadiel Hernandez' double. Hernandez then took third on an Isaac Paredes single and plated another run on Victor Mendoza's slow-rolling infield single to second.


            Ramirez, a somewhat surprising Game One starter after struggling in the postseason, settled down to pitch five scoreless innings through the sixth but the Tomateros had no luck against either Verdugo or reliever Robinson Leyer. Culiacan put a run on the scoreboard in the top of the ninth when Joey Meneses doubled off LMP Reliever of the Year Fernando Salas and Efren Navarro singled him, but Salas held the fort the rest of the way for the save. Obeso finished the night with two of Hermosillo's eight hits while seven different batsmen had one hit apiece for the visitors.


            Culiacan came back Saturday night by pulling away with a 6-1 win over the Naranjeros to tie the series at a game apiece. Game Two started out as another pitching duel, this time between the Tomateros' Anthony Vasquez and Hermosillo's Juan Pablo Oramas, the Mex Pac's Pitcher of the Year. The Orangemen opened the scoring in the bottom of the third when Obeso bounced into a groundout to second, plating Jasson Atondo from third, but Culiacan knotted the contest up at 1-1 in the top of the fifth when Navarro launched a high fly off Oramas that cleared the right field fence. That would be the only run Oramas allowed and he left the game after six innings having given up two hits and striking out eight.


            Vasquez held up his end by letting in the single run in the third before exiting with one out in the seventh. By then, however, the Tomateros had given him a 3-1 lead in the top of the inning when MVP Sebastian Elizalde homered to right center off reliever Marcelo Martinez, who also gave up a run-scoring single to Alexis Wilson. Then, Yoelkis Guibert's two-run bomb against another reliever (Heriberto Ruelas) keyed a three-run eighth to give the defending champs a 6-1 advantage that stayed firm when Sasagi Sanchez and Alberto Baldonado held the Naranjeros scoreless the rest of the way to close out the win. Elizalde added an RBI single in the eighth to finish the night with two hits and two ribbies for Culiacan. Veteran Luis Alfonso Cruz, an ex-MLB and NPB infielder who turns 37 next month, went 3-for-4 with a double and triple for the Naranjeros but produced no runs.


            Game Three is slated for Monday night in Culiacan's Estadio Tomateros at 7:00PM local time. Cesar Vargas will be on the mound for Hermosillo while Edgar Arredondo gets the start for the Tomateros.


            Culiacan reached the finals by defeating Obregon, 4 games to 2, in one of the semifinals. That series ended last Tuesday with a 3-0 shutout at Estadio Yaquis in Obregon as Arredondo tossed six innings of scoreless ball, allowing five hits and striking out four Yaquis batters. Arredondo had finalized a minor league contract with the Arizona Diamondbacks one day earlier.


            Hermosillo punched their ticket to the championship series by topping Monterrey, 6-3, also last Tuesday. The Naranjeros' Vargas and Monterrey's Edgar Gonzalez were locked in a 1-1 game through five innings, after which both were pulled by their respective managers. Hermosillo responded to Gonzalez' absence by posting five runs in the sixth inning, thanks in part to Julian Leon's two-run single and a Jasson Atondo RBI double. The Orangemen won the series, 4 games to 2, as every playoff series this winter has been decided in six games.





            The Mexican Pacific League has announced the final two winners of its individual awards for the 2020-21 regular season. Culiacan outfielder Sebastian Elizalde topped the closest balloting of the five categories in being named Most Valuable Player while Guasave's Oscar Robles led the balloting for Manager of the Year.


            A product of former LMP franchise site Guaymas, Sonora, Elizalde had a solid year at the plate for the defending champions, batting .282 on 48 hits over 46 games, including 13 doubles and 11 homers, and driving in 45 runs while stealing 12 bases in 18 attempts. He appeared among league leaders in a number of categories, finishing third in RBIs, tying for third in roundtrippers and tying for fourth in steals.


            Elizalde, who broke into winterball with Hermosillo in 2010-11 and spent five seasons with the Naranjeros before being traded to the Tomateros prior to the 2016-17 season, is wrapping up his tenth LMP season playing against his former team in the championship series. He has lifetime marks of .294 with 39 homers and 205 RBIs in 414 Mex Pac games, swiping 62 bases in the process. He's also hit .267 over nine games for Culiacan in the 2018 and 2020 Caribbean Series.


            During the summer, Elizalde has put in six Mexican League seasons (five for Monterrey before being sent to Mexico City in 2019) sandwiched around five years in the Cincinnati system between 2014 and 2018. The 29-year-old was a Reds organizational All-Star pick in 2014 and represented Daytona in the Florida State League All-Star Game one year later. Elizalde was a .277 hitter with 41 homers as a Reds minor leaguer, topping out at AAA Louisville, while his LMB career numbers are .299/58/248 in 679 games.


            Elizalde garnered 30 percent of votes for Mex Pac MVP, beating out Obregon's Sebastian Valle (21%), Japhet Amador of Jalisco (17%), Mazatlan's Isaac Paredes (12%), Yadir Drake of Guasave (11%) and Jalisco's Dariel Alvarez (9%). He becomes the tenth Culiacan player to win the Hector Espino Trophy, the first since Luis Alfonso Cruz did it in 2011-12.


            A former Dodgers and Padres infielder, Robles won the Benjamin “Cananea” Reyes Trophy as top manager after leading Guasave to a winning record (31-26) and a third seed in the postseason with 14.0 playoff points, a remarkable achievement with the second-year Algodoneros (who finished 26-37 and out of the playoffs in 2019-20 while finishing last in the loop with a .234 team batting average and 4.44 ERA).


            This winter, the Cottoneers saw their collective BA rise to .286, second in the LMP, while their team ERA of 3.43 was also second and a full run better than in 2019-20. Robles, who was the Mex Pac's Rookie of the Year in 1995-96 as a shortstop with the original Guasave Algodoneros, led his team into the playoffs but fell in six games to Culiacan in the first round.


             A 44-year-old Tijuana native, Robles obtained 36% of the total votes, more than double than Bronswell Patrick (Mexicali), Juan Navarrete (Hermosillo) and Sergio Gastelum (Obregón), who finished with 17% each. Jalisco helmsman Roberto Vizcarra and Gerardo Álvarez of Monterrey obtained 8% and 5% percent, respectively.


            All winners of Mex Pac awards were selected by a nebulously-titled specialized press after the league had told fans that they would be making the picks in online voting. No definition of “specialized press” has been given nor whether fan ballots were even considered in the tabulations.





            After last summer's Olympic Games in Tokyo were postponed until this year due to the ongoing pandemic, the London Times reports that the Japanese government held a closed-door meeting with top sports officials from that country to recommend outright cancellation of the worldwide event. The Mexican National Baseball Team is slated to take part in the Olympics after qualifying during the WBSC Premier12 tournament last winter.


            However, the International Olympic Committee refuted the Times report in a statement issued last Friday. "Some news reports circulating today are claiming that the government of Japan has privately concluded that the Tokyo Olympics will have to be canceled because of the coronavirus,” said the IOC. “This is categorically untrue...All parties involved are working together to prepare for a successful Games this summer."


            According to organizers in Tokyo, Japanese prime minister Yoshihide Suga has told them that he's determined to hold the Olympics this July and August as rescheduled and that meetings are ongoing to ensure the Games move forward with strict protocols in place to prevent further outbreaks of the Wuhan virus, which has caused the postponement or outright cancellation of major sporting events across the globe since last spring.


            "All our delivery partners including the national government, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee, the IOC and the IPC are fully focused on hosting the Games this summer," the organizers said. "We hope that daily life can return to normal as soon as possible, and we will continue to make every effort to prepare for a safe and secure Games."


            The pandemic is said to have infected nearly 100 million people worldwide (including nearly 26 million active cases), with over two million deaths, according to Worldometers. Japan is 39th on the site's nation-by-nation list with 356,074 total cases (65,617 active) and 45th with 4,934 deaths. Mexico ranks 13th on the same list with over 1.75 million total cases (297,125 active) and 4th overall with 149,084 deaths.


            Olympics baseball is scheduled to open Wednesday, July 28 in Fukushima's Azuma Stadium and conclude with Bronze and Gold Medal games on Saturday, August 7 at Yokohama Baseball Stadium. Mexico is one of four nations to have already qualified for the six-team field along with South Korea, Israel and host Japan. The remaining two participants will be determined at Americas and Final Qualifiers sometime this year, although dates and venues have yet to be released.


            Should the Olympics proceed as hoped, former MLB infielder Juan Gabriel Castro will manage the Mexican entry. Whether or not baseball is played in Tokyo this summer, Castro has already got his regular job lined up since the Philadelphia Phillies announced he'll be back in 2021 as a member of manager Joe Girardi's coaching staff. A native of Los Mochis, Castro spent 17 years as a player for five teams in the majors before retiring during the 2011 season. He spent time coaching in the Dodgers organization (including two years under Dave Roberts in Los Angeles) and was a coach on Mexico's 2013 World Baseball Classic team for manager Rick Renteria.


            Castro has managed in the Mexican Pacific League for Mexicali and was hired away from the Dodgers to work as sports director for the Mexican League's Tijuana Toros in 2018, but left the team after first being fired, then brought back as a coach but not paid during the month of February and never having his new role (if any) defined by the front office before leaving the team in frustration. Castro was named manager of the Grandes Verde in August 2019 prior the Premier12 tournament and caught on with Philadelphia for 2020. the Phils have given him permission to take a month off for the first time Mexico takes part in Olympics baseball, a sport scheduled to be discontinued in 2024.


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