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Baseball Analysis   Bruce Baskin 

B a s e b a l l   M e x i c o

Monday, January 29, 2 0 1 8

  January 10, 2018January 1, 2018 - December 25, 2017December 18, 2017 - December 11, 2017December 4, 2017 - December 1, 2017

Culiacan wins LMP pennant on Amezaga RBI single in 12th


Alfredo Amezaga's bases-loaded single with one out drove in Joey Meneses from third base broke a 4-all tie as the Culiacan Tomateros went on to top the Navojoa Mayos, 6-4, Sunday night in Navojoa to win Game Seven of the Mexican Pacific League championship series.  The win gives manager Benji Gil's Tomateros their eleventh MexPac pennant and a berth in the upcoming Caribbean Series in Guadalajara.  Culiacan has won two Serie del Caribes, in 1996 and 2002.  The Mayos were looking for their third LMP title since the team's inception in 1959-60 and their first since 1999-2000.


Navojoa got off to an early 1-0 lead when Leo Heras' second-inning single off Culiacan starter Sergio Mitre brought in Fernando Flores, but the Tomateros struck back in the top of the fourth when Meneses belted a Tyler Alexander delivery for a two-run homer to take a 2-1 lead.  Not do be outdone, Jesse Castillo returned the favor with a two-run blast of his own off Mitre in the bottom of the fifth to put the Mayos back ahead, 3-2, but Culiacan drew even in the top of the seventh when Justin Greene hit a bases-loaded pitch from reliever Esteban Haro off the glove of Navojoa third baseman Jovan Rosa to plate Ronnier Mustelier from third.


Castillo crunched his second longball of the night in the bottom of the eighth (this one off Derrick Loop) to push the hometown Mayos back on top, 4-3, but Sebastian Elizalde lofted a sacrifice fly with the sacks full in the top of the nine to send Jose Guadalupe Lopez home to knot the game back up and in effect send it into overtime.  After two scoreless innings, Amezaga's safety broke the deadlock for good and the visitors added an insurance run when Andy Wilkins scored on Jonathan Aceves' sacrifice fly to center, a play that drew an appeal from Mayos skipper Willie Romero on Wilkins' tag-up that was turned down by the umpires to give the Tomateros their eventual 6-4 margin.  Culiacan closer Chad Gaudin pitched a scoreless bottom of the ninth to earn the save for Casey Coleman's relief win.  Carlos Bustamante, who served up the ageless Amezaga's fateful safety, took the loss for the Mayos, who used eleven pitchers in the must-win game.  The Tomateros used six hurlers themselves as a full house of 11,500 at Estadio Manuel "Ciclon" Echeverria watched a game that went 5 hours and 11 minutes.


After opening the title series with two losses at home last weekend, the Mayos stayed alive by winning two of three contests in Culiacan to bring the finals back to Navojoa and the last remaining old-school ballpark in the MexPac, now that facilities in Mazatlan and Los Mochis are being modernized.  The Mayos won last Tuesday's first game at Estadio Tomateros, 4-2, as the Mayos' 13-hit attack was keyed by a two-run Rosa homer and a solo blast from Alejandro Gonzalez.  The visitors then knotted the series up at two games apiece one night later with a 5-3 triumph led by Paul Leon's two-run homer and run-scoring single.


The Tomateros fought back Thursday by topping Navojoa, 5-3, as Leon scored the go-ahead run in the bottom of the seventh on a Flores single.  Wilkins contributed two hits (including a solo longball) and two RBIs for the Tomateros, raising his average in the title series to .462.  Three consecutive sellouts drew 56,130 to the ballpark in Culiacan before the series moved back north to Navojoa for Game Six with the Tomateros holding a 3-games-to-2 lead.


Back home to end the series one way or another, the Mayos took a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the third on Saturday's Game Six when Alejandro Gutierrez socked a solo homer to straightaway center off Tomateros starter Edgar Gonzalez and made it 2-0 one frame later on a bases-loaded walk to Heras that brought in Max Ramirez from third.  The Mayos lead held until the top of the eighth when a Fernando Perez solo homer put Culiacan on the board and a subsequent two-run single from LMP batting champion gave the visitors a 3-2 lead, but Leon's homer in the bottom of the ninth knotted the game up and Randy Arozarena's walkoff single ended the game with a Navojoa win to force Sunday's  deciding game.


The Tomateros will be joined in Guadalajara by the Anzoategui Caribes of Venezuela, who beat Lara in six games for the crown, and the defending champion Caguas Criollos, who won their second straight Roberto Clemente League title in Puerto Rico by topping Santurce, 2 games to 1, in their final series capping a season abbreviated by Hurricane Maria.  Two more teams will be determined this week.  The Granma Alazanes took a 3-games-to-2 lead over Las Tunas in the Cuban National Series finals with a 3-2 win Sunday night.  In the Dominican League championship series, the Cibaenas Aguilas have won two of three games against Licey in their best-of-7 set. 


The Caribbean Series will open Friday.



Tucson, El Paso interests explore potential LMB franchises


Citing his league's return to Laredo, Texas via the newly-moved Dos Laredos Tecolotes, Mexican League president Javier Salinas says there's interest in bringing LMB teams to at least three more cities in the USA.  According to Puro Beisbol, Salinas said "Cities like Tucson, San Ysidro, California and El Paso want to have a Mexican League team, on both borders, and there is a history between us and Laredo that was formed in 1930.  I think this will be a watershed and I think that together, we are going to be able to make a very good story out of this."


Tucson would seem a natural location for ann MXL beachhead in the States.  The southern Arizona city has a metropolitan population of one million people (of whom about 40 percent are Hispanic), no viable in-season competition for the sports entertainment dollar after the popular University of Arizona baseball team finishes their home schedule in May and TWO ballparks (Hi Corbett Field and Kino Veterans Memorial Stadium) that have both hosted MLB spring training games and AAA teams.  Mike Feder, who organizes the Tucson Baseball Fiesta every October, is a two-time Pacific Coast League Executive of the Year and knows how to operate a team.  From this standpoint, Tucson is the best open market north of the border for the Liga, although baseball historically has received lukewarm interest there.


El Paso would certainly rate as prime territory for Mexican League expansion.  While similar in population to Tucson, with a million people residing in El Paso's metropolitan area, the market swells to more than 2 million when Greater Juarez is factored in.  Arguably a better baseball town than Tucson, minor league ball has been a constant part of El Paso's summer fabric since 1930 and 9,725-seat Cohen Stadium is available.  The problem?  El Paso's already got a AAA team, the PCL's Chihuahuas, playing at a newer facility, Southwest University Park (7,500 capacity).  That team finished fourth in the PCL attendance derby with 544,668 fans attending 69 games, an average of 7,894 per opening.  Does anyone imagine MiLB president Pat O'Connor doing nothing if an LMB team comes to El Paso?  Neither do I.  The answer might be to set up across the border at 15,000-seat Estadio Juarez Vive with a heavy marketing effort in Texas, but I'm not convinced that O'Connor would allow that, either.


That leaves San Ysidro, which sits across the Mexico-California border from Tijuana and has a population of 28,000 with neither a history of pro ball or a suitable ballpark for even a Rookie league team.  While San Ysidro has easy access to the lucrative San Diego market to the north, one could expect Tijuana Toros owner Alberto Uribe to raise a hand at an Assembly of Presidents meeting and say, "Hey, wait a minute!" if San Ysidro is even considered in jest for an MXL franchise.  Not likely to happen at this point.


After all is said, Tucson would appear to be the clearest destination for the Mexican League as their second set of footprints in the fertile-but-untapped Southwest USA market.  It's obvious that Salinas is willing to listen but it'll ultimately be up to investors anywhere to blaze that trail first.



Tim Johnson named new Tigres skipper for 2018


It's been quite a year for Tim Johnson.  After starting 2017 as manager for the San Luis Algodoneros, a Puebla Pericos affiliate playing in the Class AA North Mexico League (or LNM), the former Brewers infielder and Blue Jays manager found himself summoned to Puebla in early June to replace Von Hayes as the Pericos helmsman with the team holding a 26-28 record.  He went on to take the defending champions to a 30-26 mark the rest of the way for a second-place finish in the LMB South, a division playoff title and a berth in the Serie del Rey against eventual winners Tijuana for the second year in a row.  Johnson did this with a roster decimated when owner Gerardo Benavides transferred most top players on the 2016 champions to his hometown Monclova Acereros, who were eliminated in the first round by Monterrey.  His reward?  Being let go in favor of Lorenzo Bundy during the offseason.


Johnson has shown he's nothing if not a survivor, however, and Quintana Roo Tigres owner Fernando Valenzuela was obviously impressed enough when Johnson's Pericos eliminated the Tigres in the playoffs last August to hire him in Cancun for 2018.  Johnson will take over the reins from Hector Hurtado, a former MXL catcher for 22 years who himself had assumed team leadership during last season when manager Roberto Vizcarra (who led the Tigres to two pennants, including their 12th and last flag in 2015) was sacked.


Johnson takes over a team with a glorious past but an uncertain future.  The Valenzuelas are locked in battle with the Mexico City Diablos Rojos over five prime Tigres prospects who were transferred to the Diablos while sales negotiations with former owner Carlos Peralta were ongoing, a move former Tigres exec and current Diablos GM Francisco "Pollo" Minjarez called a "gentleman's agreement.  Two of those prospects were subsequently sold to the Texas Rangers for a combined US$2.7 million, money the cash-strapped Valenzuela's could use in Cancun.  A complaint has been filed with Minor League Baseball and Fernando has said that he would consider putting the Tigres back up for sale if he is not given restitution.  The Diablos have reportedly offered US$500,000 but were turned down.


On the field, the Tigres are a team in transition, too.  Many veterans have been shown the door over the past two years to make the team younger.  Still, some longtime LMBers like Carlos Gastelum, Sergio Contreras and Pablo Ortega are still on the roster.  Johnson will not have the communication problems with players that helped sink Wally Backman as manager in Monclova (Johnson was considered as Backman's replacement at the time) and he has the luxury of playing in the weaker LMB South, although Mexico City swapping places with Leon make it a tougher division.  On the other hand, he takes over a heritage franchise that has never caught on in either Puebla or Cancun since moving out of Mexico City in 2002 and is now operating with precarious finances since the Valenzulas' two partners bailed on them not long after the sale, leaving the former Cy Young winner solely responsible for a team no longer receiving the sort of largesse from the State of Quintana Roo that Peralta enjoyed.


Again, Johnson has shown resilience ever since his tall tales of service in Vietnam led to his firing in Toronto after a winning 1998 season.  He has bounced between Mexican and independent teams in the US ever since, always finding work.  He's shown he can win south of the border, copping a Mexican League title with Mexico City in 1999 and Mexican Pacific League titles leading Hermosillo in 1989-90 and 1991-92.  Winning either MXL pennant in 2018 with the Tigres is highly unlikely and the snake-bitten franchise may have to be willing to settle for resilience themselves.


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