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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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            With fewer than three weeks remaining in the Mexican League's regular season, many teams looking ahead to the playoffs have started bringing in pitching help. One is coming from Japan, another from Taiwan and one more is returning to Mexico after being buried in the minors despite exemplary numbers at the AAA level.


            The expansion Veracruz Aguilas have purchased 28-year-old Kodai Hamaya from the Ibaraki Astro Planets of Japan's independent Challenge League. Hamaya was a Planets teammate of former LMB and LMP outfielder Dariel Alvarez. The left-handed Hamaya pitched between 2014 and 2018 in NPB for the Rakuten Golden Eagles as well as a brief stint with Yokohama in 2019, going 3-1 with a 7.25 ERA over 40 appearances (all but one in relief). He also spent one winter in the MexPac, going 3-0 with a 1.44 ERA as a starter for Mazatlan in 2019-20. Hamaya will become the second Japanese pitcher to appear in the LMB this season, joining Guadalajara's Masaru Nakamura.


            Mexico City bolstered their mound staff by picking up former Los Angeles Angels starter J.C. Ramirez, who was released earlier this month by Taiwan's Fubon Guardians. A six-year veteran of MLB, the 30-year-old Nicaraguan had a 3.43 ERA and 1.18 WHIP for the CPBL club over 57.2 innings at the time he was let go. Ramirez will be making his Mexican League debut with the Diablos Rojos, but he has winterball experience in Venezuela in with Culiacan in the LMP, for whom he went 4-2 with a 1.74 ERA in 2020-21.


            Former Red Sox pitcher Hector Velazquez has returned to Mexico by signing with Monclova after being released by Houston despite pitching well in relief for AAA Sugar Land, the Astros' top affiliate. An Obregon native, Velazquez was 1-1 with a 1.46 ERA for the Skeeters in 14 appearances after posted an 11-7 record in 89 games for Boston between 2017-19.


            The 32-year-old righty made his first start for the Acereros last Friday night in Mexico City, tossing four shutout innings before allowing a run in his fifth and final entrada during an 8-7 loss to the Diablos. Velazquez allowed six hits and two walks, striking out three in his first outing for the defending champions since 2016, when he pitched for Monclova after spending six summers in Campeche. With former AL Cy Young Award winner Bartolo Colon out of the Steelers lineup for a week after taking a line drive off a knee in his latest start, Velazquez' acquisition from the Astros' organization gained in importance even before his first pitch.


            Monclova will need both Velazquez and Colon as they try to catch up to Guadalajara in the LMB North standings. The Mariachis lead with a Liga-best 34-12 record, four games ahead of 32-18 Tijuana. The Acereros and Saltillo are tied for third at 29-22 apiece while Aguascalientes (20-23), Dos Laredos (22-27), Union Laguna and Monterrey (both 20-27) battle for the final two playoff slots. Durango, at 15-37, are the only North Division team out of contention for the postseason.


            In the LMB South, Mexico City has won six straight and nine of their last ten to take a commanding seven-game lead with a 22-16 mark. Yucatan has dropped seven of their past ten but still possess second place at 26-23. Veracruz (25-25) is third, ahead of Puebla (23-24) while Tabasco and Quintana Roo (24-26 each) are tied for fifth. Campeche (21-26) dropped games Saturday and Sunday after winning seven of their previous eight but still hold a one-game lead for seventh over 22-29 Leon. Oaxaca is showing their first sign of life all season by winning seven of their last ten games, but still bring up the rear at 18-31 overall.


            Guadalajara's Niko Vasquez holds a slim lead over Tito Polo of Durango in the batting race, .413 to .409, as the only two regulars in the LMB still above the .400 mark. Saltillo's Rainel Rosario has caught up with Leon's Xavier Batista in the home run derby at 15 apiece, two ahead of five others at 13 (including Rosario's Saraperos teammate Kennys Vargas). MVP candidate Henry Urrutia, another Saltillo slugger, is now just one RBI behind Tijuana's Leander Castro, 53 to 52. The stolen base lead has been taken by a first baseman, with Quintana Roo's Reynaldo Rodriguez showing 18 swipes in 24 attempts, one more than Tijuana's Isaac Rodriguez, who will likely be in Tokyo for the Olympics for the rest of the regular season.


            Both Guadalajara starter Masaru Nakamura (7-0) and Aguascalientes reliever Anthony Vizcaya (7-1) have seven wins to lead the Liga, one ahead of Bartolo Colon (6-1) of Monclova and Tabasco's Ignacio Marrujo (6-3). Veracruz' Dylan Unsworth continues to top LMB starters with a 2.57 ERA but was placed on the Aguilas' reserve list last Thursday, two days after signing to pitch this winter with Cibao of the Dominican League. Puebla's Jose Valdez is 5-0 and leads the circuit with 58 strikeouts in as many innings pitched, two more than Mexico City's Hector Hernandez. Tijuana closer Fernando Rodney has converted 14 saves in 17 opportunities to lead Carlos Bustamante of Monclova by one in that category. Worth noting is that Tabasco closer Fernando Salas (1-0 with 11 saves) has yet to allow a single run in 20 outings for manager Pedro Mere's surprising Olmecas.





            After having achieved his final baseball goal by representing Mexico in the upcoming Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Adrian Gonzalez will retire from the game after finishing the current Mexican League season with the Guadalajara Mariachis. The 39-year-old first baseman made the announcement last week.


            “For me, this is my last season,” Gonzalez said. “They (the Mariachis) want to convince me to keep playing, but I also have to dedicate my life to my family so hopefully I can close with a medal and a championship.”


            The first player selected in the 2000 MLB draft by the Florida Marlins (receiving a $3 million signing bonus), Gonzales made his big league debut in 2004 with the Texas Rangers and went on to play 15 seasons in the majors, appearing in five All-Star Games, winning four Gold Gloves and appearing in the postseason five times. He began experiencing back problems in 2017 while playing for the Los Angeles Dodgers and ended up with the New York Mets in 2018 before being released in June of that year. Gonzalez concluded his major league career with a .287 batting average, 317 homers and 1,202 RBIs over 1,929 games.


            The man nicknamed El Titan, whose father David was a ballplayer in Obregon and spent much of his youth growing up in Tijuana, has also played for Mexico in all four World Baseball Classics between 2006 and 2017. After not playing in 2019 or 2020, Gonzalez signed a one-year contract with the expansion Mariachis, eyeing a chance to play in Tokyo this summer after Mexico qualified during the Premier12 tournament in 2019.


            "Since Mexico qualified for the Olympics, I told myself it was a great opportunity to say goodbye,” Gonzalez explained at a press conference held with Mexican Olympic manager Benji Gil (who also manages Guadalajara's LMB entry) and Mariachis team president Rafael Tejeda. “I wondered what I had to do to be there, and it was not to stop working. That motivated me. I didn't want to be selected for my career but for work. For me it was total dedication to the Mariachis and to show that I deserve to be part of the National Team. For everything I've had, I thank my family and the fans.”


            The 6'2” 215-pounder has batted .340 for Guadalajara with six homers and 41 RBIs over 43 games. Like the rest of his Verdes Grande teammates, who open Olympic play July 30 against the Dominican Republic, Gonzalez may not return from Japan before the LMB playoffs get underway. The Mariachis lead the LMB North standings and while they haven't mathematically clinched a postseason slot, they're currently 14 games ahead of sixth-place Union Laguna and Monterrey with 15 games remaining in the regular season.





            Even though they find themselves in the thick of a battle for a playoff berth in the Mexican League's South Division, the Quintana Roo Tigres will have to play the rest of the 2021 regular season (and the entire postseason, if they qualify) away from Cancun.


            After playing the Tabasco Olmecas at Estadio Beto Avila on Sunday, the Tigres are having to vacate the ballpark for the duration of the schedule so the State of Quintana Roo can begin work on renovating the 40-year-old facility. Being planned are reconfiguring corridors, replacing seating and otherwise making movement within the stadium easier for fans attending games.


            Estadio Beto Avila, one of two ballparks in the LMB named after the former Cleveland Indians star and two-time American League batting champion (who attended opening ceremonies in Cancun), was unveiled on November 23, 1980. The 4,500-seater was used by teams in a local league as well as the Cancun Marlins of the semipro Peninsula League.


            However, the ballpark had been all but abandoned by the time an earlier incarnation of the Puebla Pericos moved to the region in 1996 and played as the Quintana Roo Langosteros, splitting home games between Cancun and Estadio Nachan Ka'an in Chetumal for two seasons. Estadio Beto Avila underwent some remodeling at that time, although light towers had not yet been installed for their first home game against Yucatan on March 14.


            After Chetumal gained its own Mexican League franchise when the Poza Rica Petroleros shifted there in 1998, the Langosteros were renamed the Cancun Langosteros and played all home games at Estadio Beto Avila through the 2005 season before moving to Poza Rica after Hurricane Wilma wrecked the ballpark in October of that year. Estadio Beto Avila underwent extensive renovations in 2006, with capacity more than doubled to its current 9,500-seat configuration.


            The Angelopolis Tigres rewarded the effort by moving to Cancun prior to the 2007 season after six tepid campaigns in Puebla. The team has remained since, appearing regularly in the playoffs and winning LMB pennants in 2011, 2013 and 2015. Success on the field has not translated to success in the ticket office, with the heritage franchise annually finishing in the bottom half of the attendance derby. Former Dodgers Hall of Famer Fernando Valenzuela bought the team from Carlos Peralta in early 2017 (after Peralta had threatened to pull the team out of the LMB altogether), but has struggled since the ink on sales documents had even dried.


            Last winter, Valenzuela explored moving the Tigres to San Luis Rio Colorado near the Arizona border last winter until the State came up with subsidies (and apparently renovation of the ballpark they play in), so the franchise will remain in Cancun for at least the near future. With pandemic-inspired seating limitations in place, the Tigres have drawn 38,186 fans (13th in the 18-team loop) over 29 home games for an average of 1,317 per opening.


            Renovations at Estadio Beto Avila are expected to be complete in time for the beginning of the 2022 season. For now, the Tigres have to reschedule their remaining home series against Yucatan and Veracruz to those teams' home venues while trying to hold off hard-charging Campeche for the sixth and final LMB South playoff berth, starting with three games against the Piratas this week in the Walled City.


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