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Baseball Analysis   Bruce Baskin 

B a s e b a l l   M e x i c o
Monday, October 21, 2 0 1 9

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It's been a long, hard road for Luke Heimlich.  In the wake of revelations in 2017 that he had earlier pled guilty in 2012 to child molestation charges (causing him to miss the College World Series with his Oregon State University teammates after leading the nation with an 0.81 ERA and winning the Pac-12 Pitcher of the Year award), he came back for his senior season to go 15-1 for the Beavers was named the National Pitcher of the Year in 2018, following in the footsteps of past winners like Stephen Strasburg, Trevor Bauer and Aaron Nola.  Heimlich later disavowed his guilty plea, stating he wanted to spare his family from a long trial.


Ordinarily a left-handed pitcher with his bonafides is a hot property but instead, Heimlich was passed over in all 40 rounds of that June's draft and had to scuffle for a job.  He signed with the Lamigo Monkeys of Taiwan's Chinese Professional Baseball League that August but despite its own scandal-ridden past, the CPBL office disallowed Heimlich's contract three days later because of his background.  An earlier post-draft trial with the Kansas City Royals was also aborted after public pressure.  Although he completed conditions of his plea deal, the Puyallup, Washington native was forced to sit out the rest of the 2018 season while pondering whether his chance would ever come.


That chance arrived this year via the Dos Laredos Tecolotes, who signed him to a contract with a good conduct clause in early March.  After the Mexican League office vetted Heimlich and subsequently allowed the deal to go through, he made his debut on April 9 by allowing two runs on back-to-back solo homers by Viosergy Rosa and Michael Crouse in the second innings during five innings of work against Union Laguna in Torreon.  Heimlich was initially inconsistent after almost a year off, but he got stronger as the season went on and flashed a 2.84 ERA over his final eight starts to finish 8-7 with a 4.58 ERA to tie with Saltillo's Felix Dubrount for eighth in the LMB in that category while coming in ninth with 109 strikeouts in 118 frames, tying Yucatan's Jose Samayoa.  All things considered, it was an encouraging beginning at the AAA level for the 23-year-old hurler, and Heimlich has gotten off to an even better start playing winterball with the Los Mochis Caneros.


Thus far in the young Mexican Pacific League season, Heimlich has yet to allow a run in 12 innings over two starts for the Caneros, allowing six hits and striking out nine opposing batsmen in picking up both wins.  The six-footer has struggled with his control, walking seven, but he's obviously adjusting to pitching south of the border and flashing signs of why he was college baseball's best pitcher a year ago.  After blanking visiting Guasave over six innings in Los Mochis' 5-0 home opener win on October 12, Heimlich tossed three-hit scoreless ball against the Algodoneros last Friday in Guasave (the Caneros won, 2-0) before being pulled after plunking leadoff batter Arturo Rodriguez in the bottom of the seventh.  His next start will come this week at home against a stronger Mazatlan team but at this point, Heimlich is tied for the LMP lead in wins with relievers Linder Castro of Jalisco and Mexicali's Edgar Gamez, has the most innings pitched among pitchers who have yet to allow an earned run and is tied with two other pitchers for fourth in strikeouts.


Heimlich has been one of the reasons Los Mochis is second in the Mex Pac with a 5-2 record, trailing only 5-1 Culiacan in the first-half standings.  The Tomateros have been winning by battering opposing pitchers into submission with a team .341 average (no other LMP team is above .296) along with a creditable 3.06 ERA, which ranks fourth in the circuit.  Catcher Ali Solis' .412 average and seven RBIs both rank among individual batting leaders, while third baseman Ronnier Mustelier's nine ribbies are tops in that category.  Obregon's Jose Aguilar leads the Mex Pac with a .500 batting average, his Yaquis teammate Paulo Orlando is the home run leader with three roundtrippers and yet another Culiacan player, Rico Noel, is tops with five stolen bases.  While Heimlich has been the dominant starter in the loop thus far (his seven walks also lead the LMP), Hermosillo reliever Trey McNutt has the most saves with three in as many appearances.  A 30-year-old Oakland farmhand, McNutt has eight strikeouts with one hit allowed over three innings of work.





After a two-year absence, a reconfigured and trimmed-down Mexican Winter League will begin its 2019 season this Tuesday with a doubleheader in Mazatlan.


The LIM was last seen on the field in 2017, when the Mexico City Diablos Rojos led the six-team field during the regular season with a 29-16 record before holding off fourth-place Salamanca over all five games of their first-round playoff series and topping Oaxaca in the title set, 4-games-to-1.  Current Diablos Mexican League manager Victor Bojorquez, was the helmsman of the LIM champions while another ex-Mexico City star and manager, Jose Luis Sandoval, was the Guerreros skipper.  However, the cost of operating six teams in as many cities proved more than the corresponding fan support could handle and the Liga Invernal ceased operations after the Diablos' December 17 Game Five win at Oaxaca's Estadio Eduardo Vasconcelos and the LIM went on a two-year hiatus.


The newest iteration of the Mexican Winter League will feature four teams of mostly rookies and prospects augmented by an occasional veteran representing Mexico City, Oaxaca, Puebla and Monterrey, with all contests played in Mazatlan at the Benito Juarez Sports Complex.  This time around, managers will include former MLB infielder Jose Macias (a Panamanian) for the Red Devils and yet another former Diablos stalwart, one-time outfielder Ivan Cervantes, leading the Guerreros.  Still one more ex-Mexico City star and manager, four-year big league catcher Miguel Ojeda, will oversee the circuit as an extension of his current position as the Diablos deputy president.


Each of the four teams will have 30-man rosters when play opens October 22 with Mexico City taking on Monterrey and Puebla squaring off with Oaxaca.  However, although two games per day will be scheduled through the abbreviated season, they will not be doubleheaders.  Instead, contests will be played concurrently on adjoining fields with game times of 1PM local time.  As with the LMB and LMP, the LIM schedule will run from Tuesdays through Sundays for six weeks for a total of 36 games per team when the schedule concludes December 1.  Since there will be no playoff, the season champion will be determined by the regular season standings.





In most baseball leagues, when a manager leads his team to the best record in the league and the top playoff seed in his division, he usually receives a contract extension with an accompanying raise.  However, doing that in Tijuana only got Oscar Robles a pink slip with accompanying thanks and well-wishes from the Toros front office.


Such is life for managers in the border city and Mexican baseball in general.  A Tijuana native who started 80 games at either shortstop or third base and pinch-hitting in 21 more for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2005 (batting .272) between stints in the Mexican League before his 2017 retirement as a player, Robles took over as dugout boss for the team in the Fall 2018 season after Pedro Mere was fired.  Mere's unforgivable sin after taking the Bulls to the border city's first pennant in 2017?  Finishing second to Monterrey in Spring 2018 with a 33-23 record before losing to the Sultanes in the LMB North championship series.  Mere went on to become manager in Monclova for the Fall 2018 schedule and led the Acereros to a league-best 42-14 record but lost the LMB North title set (also to Monterrey), then was let go by owner Gerardo Benavides on July 1 with Monclova showing a 44-25 season record.  Mere is now manager in Tabasco.


Let's get back to Robles.  In his managerial debut less than a year after playing his last game, he led the Toros to a second-place finish in the LMB North during the Fall 2018 season with a 35-21 ledger before falling to Monterrey in the first playoff round in a heated seven-game series.  This year, TJ tied Monterrey for first in the first half with a 40-20 record, then came in at 35-25 for third place in the second half for an overall 75-45 mark (tied with eventual champ Monclova for best in the Liga).  However, the Toros lost to the Acereros in seven games for the division title and that apparently sealed his fate in his hometown despite an overall 110-66 record with the team.  Sic transit gloria.


For his part, the 43-year-old Robles (who is a candidate for Manager of the Year) was measured about losing his job.  "I knew that if I didn't reach the Serie del Rey I would be dismissed, both me and my coaching staff" he told TVC Deportes. "I could say everything I have to say, but I better keep quiet."  In announcing Robles' exit, the Toros press release included the usual platitudes whenever a Mexican team lets its manager go: "The Toros de Tijuana club appreciates and recognizes the work of Oscar Robles both in his career as a player achieving the title in the 2017 season and in his position as manager.  We wish him success in his future projects."


Given how managers in Mexican baseball are recycled to a degree that would bring a smile to the most ardent environmentalist, it's safe to say that Oscar Robles will manage again.  And again.  And again...


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