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CASTRO OUT AS MEXICO MANAGER WEEKS AHEAD OF OLYMPICS
With little more than a month prior to the planned opening of the Tokyo Olympics, Juan Gabriel Castro has been fired as manager of Mexico's Olympic baseball team. Castro himself tweeted that he had been relieved of his duties, as has the team's general manager, Kundy Gutierrez.
“Just to give you the very sad and unfair news that we received today,” Castro's tweet opened, “the FEMEBE (Engineer Enrique Mayorga) and the president of the Mexican Baseball League (Horacio de La Vega) made the decision to let us know that they do not want us to continue leading the team.
“The details? Many of you already know them, but in a little while we will let you know the same ones through this and many other means. Thank you and we remain at your service.”
Castro has been serving as a member of the Philadelphia Phillies coaching staff this season under manager Joe Girardi. He led Mexico in the 2019 Premier12 tournament as the Verdes Grande qualified for their first-ever Olympic baseball appearance after replacing Dan Firova at the helm weeks before the tournament began. Gutierrez, a 42-year-old Mexican American, had been the National Team GM after a career in the construction business. Mayorga has been the head of FEMEBE (Mexican Baseball Federation) since 2017 while de la Vega was hired to run the Mexican League in late 2019, replacing Javier Salinas.
At least one Mexican journalist speculates that president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador had a hand in the exits of Castro and Gutierrez. Both had complained publicly about expected funds for the trip to Mexico not being released by CONADE (National Commission for Physical Culture and Sport), an agency charged with overseeing Mexico's Olympic effort this summer.
CONADE's director, Ana Guevara, is a 44-year-old former Olympic track athlete from Sonora who served in the Mexican Senate before being appointed by AMLO to her current post in late 2018. Both Guevara and Lopez Obrador have past political ties to the National Action Party (PAN). While it would not be out of the realm of possibility that Lopez Obrador, a self-described baseball fanatico, was involved in Castro's and Gutierrez' firings, there is no evidence that he had a hand in the move.
The firings have created a backlash among the players. Tito Escobar of El Jonronero tweeted that more than two dozen of the 100 players under consideration for Mexico's Olympic team have opted out of the trip to Tokyo in protest: “They tell me more than 30 renowned players and considered in the Mexican baseball pre-selection list, that after what happened with Castro and with GM Kundy Gutierrez, they get off the boat due to the mismanagement of the FEMEBE and the rest of those involved. They prefer not to attend.”
Castro's replacement has not been named and Ii's a safe bet that this episode is far from over.
ROJAS FIRED AS MONTERREY SKIPPER, GASTELUM BROUGHT IN
The often-referenced “Mexican Managerial Merry-Go-Round” was fired up just two weeks into the 2021 season, but this time the Mexican League's Monterrey Sultanes have done a housecleaning that included their front office as well as their manager and coaches.
After the legacy team won just two of their first eight games on the abbreviated schedule, manager Homar Rojas was fired last Wednesday, with the usual “wishing you the greatest of success in the projects you decide to undertake in the future” line inserted into the team's press release announcing the veteran skipper's removal. Rojas managed the Sultanes' Mexican Pacific League team last winter before taking over their Liga club after Roberto Kelly decided to not manage this summer due to stated concerns over the pandemic.
One of Rojas' coaches, Antonio Aguilera, ran the team on an interim basis before Sergio Gastelum was brought in to manage the Sultanes. Then Aguilera was summarily fired, along with pitching coach Arturo Gonzalez (an LMB legend whose 232 career wins ranks sixth among Liga hurler) and all other members of Rojas' staff after Gastelum arrived with five coaches of his own. Puro Beisbol editor Fernando Ballesteros reports that two of the fired coaches are considering suing the Sultanes, who are co-owned by the Grupo Multimedios conglomeration and longtime Monterrey baseball figure Jose “Pepe” Maiz, a member of Mexico's 1957 Little League world champions.
Gastelum is expected to shake up the playing roster as well, and he'll have a new front office working with him toward that end. In addition to the firing of Rojas and his staff, the purge included both sports director Manuel Flores and sports manager Grimaldo Martinez. Flores was replaced as sports director by Jesus Valdez, Junior (son of longtime Mazatlan GM Jesus “Chino” Valdez, who now holds a similar role with the expansion Veracruz Aguilas). Valdez will oversee both of Monterrey's LMB and Mexican Pacific League teams. Martinez was let go to make room for Manuel Velez, who will serve as an advisor for the Sultanes' Sports Directorate.
Monterrey began the season with five consecutive losses for the first time since 1978 and were tied with Durango for the LMB North basement when Rojas was fired after a 14-3 road loss last Tuesday to the Dos Laredos Tecolotes. The Sultanes ranked ninth in the Liga with a .283 team batting average but the pitching was second to last among the 18 teams with a 7.15 ERA.
Gastelum has jumped on and off the merry-go-round since leading Oaxaca to an unexpected appearance in the Fall 2018 Serie del Rey, where they ironically lost to the same Monterrey team he's now managing after finishing the regular season with a 26-30 record and having to win a play-in game at Leon to qualify for the playoffs. Following a 2019 season in which the Guerreros finished second in the LMB South with a 68-51 mark before a first-round playoff loss to Yucatan, the 42-year-old Obregon product was named manager of the Mexico City Diablos Rojos.
The former star infielder (who played 22 years in the LMB) led the Red Devils in training camp last year before the 2020 season was canceled due to the Wuhan virus, then was let go after team eecutive Miguel Ojeda was sent back to the dugout after a front office battle that resulted in GM Francisco “Pollo” Minjarez' firing.
TOROS, PERICOS LEAD TIGHT EARLY LMB STANDINGS
Tijuana and Puebla have taken the lead in their respective Mexican League divisions after two-plus weeks of the LMB's 66-game 2021 schedule, but nobody is running away with things as three teams are within two games of the Toros in the LMB North while only a game-and-a-half separates the Pericos from four other squads in LMB South.
Tijuana completed the weekend with an 11-4 record with a 7-6 loss Sunday in Monterrey after winning the first two games of the series. The final contest was tied at six runs apiece going into the bottom of the ninth inning, when the Sultanes loaded the bases off Toros reliever Josh Corrales, who then gave up a walkoff walk to Ramon Rios on five pitches to push Andres Martin across home plate to complete Monterrey's first win in three games under new manager Sergio Gastelum. The Sultanes went 2-0 under interim helmsman Antonio Aguilera before he was sent packing Friday in last week's team housecleaning.
Expansion team Guadalajara is a game behind Tijuana with a 10-4 ledger after taking two of three games in Mexico City. The first two tilts were slugfests, with the Mariachis taking an 8-7 Friday win as Adrian Gonzalez up-the-middle single in the top of the 14th scored Luis Sardinas from second with what proved to be the winning run the go-ahead run. One night later, Guadalajara piled up 20 hits en route to a 10-5 victory with Gonzalez, Niko Vasquez and Beau Amaral each collecting three hits (and Amaral scoring three times). The Diablos avoided the sweep Sunday with a 7-3 triumph, capping a weekend in which the two teams combined for 40 runs on 75 hits over the three-game set.
In the LMB South, Puebla held on to first in the standings at 10-5 despite losing two of three weekend games in Leon. The Bravos outscored the Pericos, 5-3, Sunday thanks in part to ageless Chris Roberson, who homered, doubled, walked and scored three times in a 3-for-3 afternoon batting second ahead of another former longtime Monterrey star, Agustin Murrilo.
With the win, Leon won for the eighth time in their last ten games to pull within a game of Puebla at 9-6, also trailing 9-5 Mexico City and 8-5 Yucatan.
The Leones have leveled off after a hot 8-0 start to the season by spllitting their last ten contests, including a solid 9-2 win in Merida Sunday over rival Quintana Roo. Yucatan got solo homers from both Art Charles and Humberto Sosa, who'd gone hitless his first seven games before going 2-for-3 Sunday as a seven-run sixth broke the game wide open. The Tigres outhit the Leones by a 12-9 margin hurt themselves by only batting 2-for-9 with runners in scoring position and leaving nine baserunners stranded.
As might be expected in the early season (especially in a hitter's league like the LMB), batters are ahead of pitchers. Even though only five teams are hitting above the .300 mark after 15 games, with Guadalajara leading the way at .356, twelve teams have collective ERAs above 5.00. Durango's staff is allowing a generous 8.79 per game, which might explain their 4-11 record.
Tijuana second baseman Isaac Rodriguez heads a list of 14 batters at .400 or above with a .473 average after 14 games, ahead of Guadalajara's Vasquez (.465) Eliezer Ortiz of Aguascalientes (.458). Oaxaca infielder Orlando Pina and Saltillo first baseman Henry Urrutia are tied for the lead with seven homers each and Guadalajara's Sardinas is tops with 21 RBIs, two up on three other batters who have 19 ribbies each. Reigning MVP Alonzo Harris of Oaxaca leads the LMB with 11 stolen bases, four more than TJ's Rodriguez.
Two hurlers are tied for the lead with three wins apiece, although neither has much else to brag about. Guadalajara starter Masaru Nakamura is 3-0 but with an ERA of 5.53 while Puebla middleman Yosshel Hurtado's 3-0 record comes with a 9.45 ERA after eleven appearances. Nakamura toiled nine seasons in Japan's NPB for the Nippon Ham Fighters before making his Liga debut this season. Pitching hasn't been totally hapless in the LMB thus far in 2021. Seven starters sport ERAs below 2.00, with Tigres veteran Wilfredo Boscan's 0-0 record after three starts betraying his 0.53 ERA. Oaxaca's Hector Hernandez is 0-2 and 7.29 after four starts, but his 25 strikeouts in 21 innings leads the loop. Three closers have five saves each: Tijuana's Fernando Rodney, Carlos Bustamante and Laguna's Jenrry Mejia. Rodney is still the roller-coaster ride he was in MLB with four walks over seven innings in as many appearances, but he's also whiffed eight batsmen and has a 1.29 ERA.