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B a s e b a l l M e x i c o
July 3, 2 0 1 7
LMB: Drake going to Japan, Greene traded to Monclova, Johnson heads to Leon
The Durango Generales offense suffered a huge blow last week when All-Star outfielder Yadir Drake signed a contract with Japan's Nippon Ham Fighters for the rest of the 2017 season. A onetime refugee who defected from Cuba to Mexico on a raft, the 27-year-old Drake signed a half-season deal with the Hokkaido team for a reported 1.5 million yen (or about US$133,000), according to the Japan Times. The deal culminates what has been an incredible rise for Drake, who was leading the Mexican League with a .385 average (four points ahead of Monterrey's Chris Roberson) over 71 games with a month to go in the regular season while contributing 14 homers and 61 RBIs.
The Generales gave Drake his release last Thursday so he could sign with the Fighters, whose manager, Hideki Kuriyama, said, "I'm expecting big things from him, to act as a spark for our comeback in the second half of the season." The team is currently fifth in the Pacific League standings with a 30-44 record. Drake will be joining infielder Brandon Laird, the reigning league MVP who played for Mexico in this year's World Baseball Classic. Another familiar name on the Fighters is pitcher Luis Mendoza, a former MLB hurler from Veracruz who is currently 2-6 with a 3.82 ERA. Mendoza has never pitched in the Liga, but spent parts of six winters pitching for Obregon in the Mexican Pacific League.
Meanwhile, Saltillo has traded their sarape for a white flag by sending their leadoff batter, All-Star outfielder Justin Greene, to the Monclova Acereros in what is likely a salary dump for the Saraperos, who are struggling in both the standings (last in the LMB North with a 31-44 record) and at the gate, where the team is averaging 5,482 fans per game at Estadio Francisco I. Madero, respectable by Mexican League standards but a far cry from when the team was averaging twice as many turnstile clicks just over a decade ago. The Saraperos were built into an LMB powerhouse during the 14 years the team was owned by the Ley family (who also own the Culiacan Tomateros of the MexPac), but the franchise has been sold twice since 2013 and the current squad under owner Nerio Rodriguez has not bene popular among local fans, not shocking for a last-place entry.
Like Drake, Greene is a legitimate contender for MVP with a .365 average (fourth in the LMB), 63 runs scored (tied for third with Mexico City's Ramon Urias) and 37 stolen bases, far and away the most in that category. Greene has also belted 10 homers this season, including a roundtripper during his Monclova debut Saturday in Campeche in which he went 3-for-5 with three runs scored. Greene had his winterball season shortened last October 29 in a game for the Obregon Yaquis when he bunted a ball into his own face, causing a fracture and ending his campaign. The South Carolinian was leading the LMP with 11 steals at the time. To make room for Greene, Monclova shipped outfielder Julio Borbon (who recently tied a Liga record with six hits in a nine-inning game) to the Puebla Pericos.
There was one more player move that was somewhat surprising when Puebla released first baseman-pitcher Dan Johnson, who knuckleballed his way through five hitless innings in a June 24 start, his first in Mexico. Johnson's second start four days later against Laguna ended early after he allowed five runs on as many hits in one inning. He'd been productive at the plate for the Pericos since his mid-May arrival, batting .298 with seven homers and 22 RBIs in 32 games. Perhaps the former MLBer wanted to continue pitching but if he does, he'll be doing it for the Leon Bravos, who signed and activated him as a free agent on July 2, one day after Puebla manager Tim Johnson let him go. There shouldn't be much issue with Dan Johnson taking the mound in Leon, where the Bravos (owners of the worst record in the Liga at 26-47) are 13th of 16 LMB teams with a 5.27 ERA under manager Luis Rivera.
Don't think it hasn't escaped notice that Drake, Greene, Borbon and Johnson have all been featured in Baseball Mexico recently, but I'm not ready to declare a BBM Jinx quite yet. But just in case, I stuck an LMB logo atop this story. Whatever jinx the Liga has this season was likely self-inflicted. There's no jinx in Monterrey, however, as the Sultanes have won seven games in a row (including road sweeps in Campeche and Tabasco last week) to take a two-and-a-half-games lead over Tijuana in the LMB North. Monclova is solidly in third place while just two games separate Aguascalientes, Mexico City and Union Laguna in the battle for fourth and fifth places. The Mexican League has added a wild card playoff game between fourth and fifth place teams in each division. Yucatan (48-26) is ten-and-a-half games ahead of 39-38 Puebla in the LMB South standings. Quintana Roo is in third while Veracruz holds fourth.
There are only four games between the remaining four teams for the fifth and final playoff berth, but the concern in Tabasco may be more about survival than postseason contention. The Olmecas had a disastrous homestand last week, drawing 2,337 fans to their three-game series against Monclova, had their Friday opener against Monterrey postponed due to power problems at Parque Centenario 27 de Febrero and pulled in 1,194 spectators to a Saturday doubleheader before just 178 warm bodies were in the seats for Sunday's 5-0 loss to the Sultanes. That's an average attendance of 742 for five dates as interest in Villahermosa continues to dwindle. Mercifully, the Olmecas will play a midweek series in Oaxaca, where the Guerreros aren't exactly packing them in either but at least they're drawing a fairly steady 2,500 per opening.
In the LMB batting race, Drake's numbers in Durango will qualify him for a few weeks after his departure for the Far East, and his .385 average still has the nod over Monterrey's Roberson at .381. Corey Brown of Tijuana leads the loop with 18 homers, two more than four players tied for second with 16 roundtrippers: Aguascalientes' Jesse Castillo, Matt Clark of Monclova, Alex Liddi of Tijuana and Saltillo's Rainel Rosario. Ricky Alvarez appears to be adjusting to his new Yucatan team, driving in nine runs during last week's road trip to bring his season RBI total to 85 (14 ahead of Monclova second baseman Manny Rodriguez in second). Greene's 37 steals in 52 attempts put him atop that table with 14 more than Mexico City's Carlos Figueroa.
Among pitchers, Diablos Rojos righty's Octavio Acosta's breakout year continues as he tossed seven innings of three-hit shutout ball against Oaxaca Sunday to win his third straight start, becoming the first LMB hurler to reach double figures in wins. The 10-1 Acosta, a former Mets farmhand, is also sixth in strikeouts (74 in 92.1 IP) and ninth in ERA (2.92). Veracruz ace Nestor Molina leads the Liga with a 1.48 ERA after holding potent Tijuana to one run in 16 innings over two starts last week. The 9-1 Molina is tied with six others for second in wins while his 86 strikeouts are second to Monclova's Josh Lowey, whose 104 K's (including 11 whiffs in a seven-inning stint last Tuesday in Tabasco) have given him a nice cushion. Lowey recorded 47 strikeouts and just nine walks over 32 innings for his last five starts. With Durango closer Tiago da Silva shelved with a shoulder injury, Wirfin Obispo of Monterrey has gained the saves lead after going 5-for-5 in opportunity situations between June 25 and Jult 2. Obispo now has 22 saves to da Silva's 20.
There will be a couple of midweek series worth watching this week. The biggest will be in Monterrey, where the Sultanes will try to stretch their seven-game skein with a series against second-place Tijuana, while Campeche is in Veracruz in an attempt to gain ground on the Rojos Aguilas. Next weekend's top series may be in the LMB South, when Puebla is in Merida for three games against Yucatan, although the Oaxaca-Campeche series at Estadio Nelson Barrera Romellon will be important for both teams in the playoff battle going on in that division.
Mexican League standings (as of Monday, July 3)
NORTH DIVISION: Monterrey 53-23, Tijuana 51-26, Monclova 43-30, Aguascalientes 43-35, Mexico City 41-36, Union Laguna 40-36, Durango 33-44, Saltillo 31-44
SOUTH DIVISION: Yucatan 48-26, Puebla 39-38, Quintana Roo 34-37, Veracruz 33-42, Oaxaca 30-45, Campeche 29-45, Leon 26-47, Tabasco 26-49
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