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Baseball Analysis   Bruce Baskin 

B a s e b a l l   M e x i c o
Monday, September 16, 2 0 1 9

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Over the years, the Yucatan Leones have traditionally been winners in Mexican League baseball because of timely hitting, consistent defense and top-notch pitching.  Power has rarely been a facet for the Merida team but 2019 has been a different year with the new Franklin ball and the Leones unleashed a barrage of homers over the weekend as the defending division champions socked eight homers while winning the first two games of the LMB South finals in Mexico City. 


Yucatan batters belted three homers Saturday against the Diablos Rojos before knocking out five roundtrippers in Sunday's Game Two 14-6 laugher, a game that was actually tied 3-3 until the Leones posted nine runs in the top of the third inning to break the contest wide open.  Three of those five Yucatan homers came in the third as two-run bombs from Sebastian Valle and Xavier Scruggs bookended a solo shot from Leo Heras.  Earlier, Alex Liddi and Luis Juarez went long for the Leones as each ended with three hits and two RBIs apiece.  Cesar Valdez was far from his best on the mound for the winners, giving up three runs on seven hits over five innings of work, but still got the win thanks to that nine-run gift in the third.  Diablos starter David Reyes was chased after allowing six runs (including three homers) in two-plus innings.


In Saturday's series opener, Leones starter Yoanner Negrin tossed seven strong innings, allowing just one run on three hits, while centerfielder Jonathan Jones cracked two solo homers and designated hitter Luis Juarez added a two-run shot in the seventh as Yucatan prevailed, 6-3.  That it was Jones who went deep twice was surprising, as the former Jays farmhand had homered just twice since late June, with his last four-bagger coming on August 6 en route to a career-high 10 homers.  Jones finished the night 4-for-4 at the plate and plated four runs.  Just to show the Leones haven't forgotten their roots, catcher Sebastian Valle (he of the 13 career stolen bases over as many seasons) swiped second base in the seventh off reliever Juan Robles.


The Leones reached the division title set by knocking out Oaxaca in five games in the first round, eliminating the Guerreros with a 3-1 win at home on Sunday, September 8 in Estadio Kukulkan as Cesar Valdez held Oaxaca to one run over seven two-hit innings and Juarez drove in the first Yucatan run with a double and later scored their second tally in the bottom of the first.  A stocky two-time All-Star out of Culiacan, Juarez batted .319 to top the .300 mark for the fourth season in a row (including twice last year) and hit 12 homers, driving in 65 runs despite two trips to the reserve list.


It was a tough way to end the season for Oaxaca outfielder Alonzo Harris, who followed up an MVP-worthy regular campaign (.343 with 39 homers, 45 stolen bases, 117 RBIs and a remarkable 131 runs over 119 games) with a .263 average in five postseason tilts during which he homered twice and scored three times in Game Four but was otherwise fairly quiet at the plate.  Guerreros catcher Erick Rodriguez, a seven-time All-Star (MVP of the 2015 ASG) likewise had a good regular season (.356/12/47 in 87 games) with another ASG appearance, but the 39-year-old Monterrey native faded in the playoffs by going only 3-for-17 with one run while playing all five games. He did steal a base in Game One after collecting only 15 swipes over his 19-year career, none since 2017.


Mexico City advanced from the LMB South semis by topping Quintana Roo, 4 games to 3.  The Diablos were on the brink of elimination after five games before winning twice at home to send the rival Tigres home to Cancun (for now).  Last Tuesday's game at Estadio Alfredo Harp Helu saw the home team come from behind with four runs in the bottom of the ninth, the last coming an a single up the middle by Carlos Figueroa off reliever Juan Noriega that was followed a throwing error by Tigres centerfielder Yordanys Linares, scoring two runs to seal a 5-4 walkoff win.  Quintana Roo starter Javier Solano had allowed run run in eight entradas before giving way to Noriega.  Game Seven on Wednesday was a slugfest, with the Diablos outlasting the Tigres, 13-11, behind Japhet Amador's 4-for-5 performance that included two doubles, three RBIs and two runs scored.  Ex-Twins minor leaguer Alex Robles had a great night in a losing cause for Quintana Roo, going 4-for-5 himself with a homer and seven RBIs, but an eight-run seventh for the Diablos gave the home team a 13-7 lead and the Tigres' four runs in the ninth weren't enough to catch up.


Quintana Roo's defeat closes their season amid speculation that the Tigres may not be long for Cancun, a popular place for tourists but not so much for baseball fans (think Florida).  Owner Fernando Valenzuela got off to a rocky start shortly after buying the heritage franchise in February 2017 when five prospects who'd belonged to the Tigres before Valenzuela and wife Linda bought the team magically appeared on Mexico City's reserve list after the sale, a move that eventually became the Rookiegate scandal.  However, Cancun has never warmed to the team and rumors are that the Valenzuelas may move them to their historic home of Mexico City even though that could mean using 5,000-seat Estadio Fray Nano, which proved inadequate for AAA baseball over the five years the Diablos used it before opening their new state-of-the-art facility this spring.





It took them seven games to do it, but the Monclova Acereros finally knocked defending champion Monterrey out of contention for a repeat pennant by winning Game Seven of their LMB North semifinal series, 5-2, last Thursday in Estadio Monclova.  By reaching the division championships,the Steelers are facing Tijuana, who needed six games to dispatch a pesky Saltillo team few were receiving few playoff projections prior to the regular season but parlayed a second-half title into the fourth and final division seed. 


The Toros then began the division title series with two wins against Monclova over the weekend, including a 5-1 victory Sunday night in Tijuana that was a scoreless tie until the Bulls exploded for all five runs in the bottom of the sixth, highlighted by a two-run single by Ricky Alvarez and a two-run homer by Jesus "Cacao" Valdez.  Francisco Peguero got one run back for the Acereros with a solo shot in the top of the seventh but Monclova was unable to catch up before their 27 outs were used up.  Tijuana starter Horacio Ramirez, a former Mariners hurler, got the win by pitching 6.1 shoutout innings while allowing just three hits.


The division title set began Saturday night in Tijuana as the host Toros shut out Monclova, 4-0, with TJ starter James Russell turning in a standout effort on the mound.  A reliever during his big league days with the Cubs, Braves and Phillies between 2010 and 2016, Russell (son of former MLB All-Star closer Jeff Russell) was signed by the Toros as a free agent in April and inserted into the starting rotation.  Although he pitched into the seventh inning three times in 18 starts and didn't compile enough innings to qualify for the ERA title, Russell had a solid campaign for Tijuana by going 8-4 with a 3.26 ERA (which would've ranked third in the LMB), striking out 66 and walking just 11 in 88.1 innings.  Facing a potent Monclova lineup that averaged .320 and a Liga-best 7.46 runs per game, Russell limited the Acereros to three hits in 6.1 shutout innings, whiffing 11 batsmen (including Chris Carter three times) and walking one before being pulled after 100 pitches.  Maxwell Leon and Isaac Rodriguez each had two hits and one run in support of Russell for the winners.


Like Mexico City in their series with Quintana Roo, Monclova went into Game Six of their series with Monterrey trailing 3-games-to-2 after losing to the Sultanes, 5-4, last Monday as Yamaico Navarro's walkoff single in the bottom of the ninth drove in Tony Campana with the game-winning run.  Campana had two singles and a double as the ex-Cub scored twice for the winners.  The two teams then moved to Monclova for Wednesday's 10-1 Acereros' drubbing of the Fall 2018 champs, with Francisco Peguero clobbering two homers en route to a three-hit night in which he scored four runs and drove in three.  Monclova starter Conor Harber let in one Monterrey one by scattering eight hits and a walk over seven frames.  That brought things to a Game Seven last Thursday and Acereros slugger Chris Carter came up big with two homers and three ribbies as Monclova clinched the series with a 5-2 win.  The former National League HR champion lofted six circuit clouts in the series.  Former Rangers prospect Adam Quintana pitched six innings of scoreless ball for the Acereros, giving up three hits and striking out five.  Quintana finished the regular season with an 8-4 record after pitching out of the bullpen until new manager Pat Listach added him to the rotation in early July for the rest of the schedule.


Tijuana had a slightly easier time of it in their series with Saltillo, who surprised observers with their second-half title under first-year helmsman Roberto Vizcarra, who has won wherever he's worked during his short managerial career.  The Saraperos trailed the Toros 3-games-to-2 after winning Game Six at home last Monday with a 5-0 shutout over the potent border team.  Former Red Sox pitcher Felix Doubront blanked TJ over 7.2 innings on six hits for the win while Juan Perez gave Saltillo a 4-for-4 night at the plate with a homer and three RBIs.  The series shifted to Tijuana for Game Six last Wednesday, and the Bulls responded with a clinching 6-4 win as Maxwell Leon, Jesus Valdez and Leandro Castro combined for six hits, two runs and four RBIs.  The Saraperos had a wide advantage in baserunners over the game, but the Toros went 5-for-7 with runners in scoring position while Saltillo were just 3-for-12 in similar situations.


While both Monterrey and Saltillo were knocked out of the playoffs last week, their respective managers may face entirely different perceptions from their team owners.  Saltillo's new managing partner Cesar Cantu has to be thrilled with both his team's unexpected on-field success and attendance increase from 4,439 per game last fall to 6,398 this year, so Vizcarra is as secure as any manager in the LMB, although skippers in Mexico may have the shortest leashes in baseball.  On the other hand, even though Sultanes skipper Robero Kelly is only a year removed from his team's first pennant since 2007 and coming off a 72-46 regular season (third-best in the Liga), co-owner Jose "Pepe" Maiz is not known for his patience in the best of times and the former Yankees outfielder may find himself on the hot seat, deserved or not.





While the Mexican League playoffs are entering their third week with four teams still playing, training camps for the Mexican Pacific League's 75th winterball season have been opening in September in preparation for next month's season openers.  The number of players and even managers reporting when camps open is typically low, but their ranks will swell in the days and weeks to come.  The revived Guasave Algodoneros, one of two new LMP franchises to join the league since last season, joined the Hermosillo Naranjeros as the first teams to open camp on September 9 at the Arturo Peimbert Camacho sports complex in the Sinaloa city. 


The Mex Pac's other expansion team, the Monterrey Sultanes, are coming into their first season with a long history in the summer game, a strong ownership in Grupo Multimedios, a veteran manager in Homar Rojas (Roberto Kelly will not manage winterball in Monterrey) and the country's largest ballpark to play in.  The Cottoneers, on the other hand, have been scrambling to assemble a team in the front office and on the playing field ever since the city of 271,196 (smallest in the LMP) was awarded a franchise after Mexican president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador leaned on league president Omar Canizales to help fulfill a campaign promise to return baseball to "The Agricultural Heart of Mexico." 


So far, so good with the Algodoneros as current Durango Generales owner Alfredo Aramburo was recruited to own the team and is said to be seeking to divest all interests in his Mexican League franchise, Rigo Beltran has been settled upon as field manager for the fledgling team, 20 players reported for the first day of training (including six catchers) and work continues to prepare 8,000-seat Estadio Francisco Carranza Limon in time for Guasave's October 13 home opener against Los Mochis.


Meanwhile, defending champion Jalisco's hopes for a repeat were dealt a blow when it was announced that slugger Japhet Amador will not be available to play for the Charros this winter.  The Mulege Giant is still playing for Mexico City in the Mexican League postseason, but will undergo surgery for an Achilles tendon injury at the conclusion of the Diablos' season and require six months to recover.  Amador hit .283 with six homers and 23 RBIs in 27 games for the Guadalajara team last season after being suspended from organized baseball for testing positive for a banned substance while playing in Japan for the Rakuten Golden Eagles.


Another massive longball hitter many had hoped would play in the LMP this winter, Chris Carter, may also end up skipping the Mex Pac campaign.  Carter was originally planning to spend the winter in Venezuela but conditions in that country have made that prospect unlikely.  Carter was picked by Obregon in July's foreigner draft and it was thought he might suit up for the Yaquis this season, but Monclova's MVP candidate (after leading the Mexican League with 49 homers and 119 RBIs) has not signed with Obregon and his LMP rights are thought to be up for trade.  The 6'4" Californian is reportedly drawing interest from teams in Japan's Nippon Professional Baseball and could be held out from playing winterball if he signs with an NPB franchise for 2020.


Finally, the Mexicali Aguilas' ballpark has a new corporate name.  Known casually as La Nida ("The Nest") since its 1976 LMP debut, the 17,000-seat facility will be hosting Aguilas baseball for a 43rd season this winter and has been the scene of the 1985 LMP All-Star Game, the 2009 Caribbean Series and qualifying games for the 2017 World Baseball Classic.  La Nida originally held 9,000 seats but was expanded to its current configuration after remodeling in 2008.  The stadium has been named at times after a fan manufacturer, a housing development firm and (for the upcoming season) a pharmacy.  Since corporate stadium and arena naming rights payments are not extended to media covering the teams playing in them, the media is under no obligation to use those same corporate names.  Thus, as a formal policy, Baseball Mexico won't so La Nida it is from this point forward.


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