by Bruce Baskin
July 11, 2017 - Mexican League (ML)
Let's start this story with a proven fact: No matter where he's pitched, Nestor Molina has been a winner. Throw out a 6-12 season in 2012 while pitching for the White Sox organization, and the Venezuelan right-hander has posted a winning record every year since his pro baseball debut in 2007, with a career MiLB record of 60-28 in his eleventh summer. Along the way, Molina was a postseason All-Star in the Class A Florida State League after going 10-3 with a 2.58 ERA for the Blue Jays' Dunedin affiliate in 2011 (his first year as a starter) prior to being sent to the Pale Hose that winter in a swap of minor leaguers. He hasn't backed into that career .682 winning percentage either, registering a 3.13 ERA over 230 appearances, 92 of them starts.
Even with an impressive background like that, the 28-year-old Molina has dialed it up at least one notch this year pitching for the Veracruz Rojos del Aguila. Molina raised his 2017 Mexican League record to 10-1 after shutting out Tabasco over six innings last Saturday en route to a 3-2 Red Eagles victory in Villahermosa, limiting the Olmecas to four singles while striking out four batsmen. It marked Molina's tenth straight win after losing an April 8 home game to Leon despite a decent start in which he gave up two Bravos runs in six innings. Consistency has been a hallmark, with only one of 18 starts not being a "quality" outing when Molina let in four Durango runs on eleven hits in six frames during a May 11 no-decision. Every time out, he gives the Rojos del Aguila a chance to win.
Last weekend's win over Tabasco lowered Molina's earned-run average to 1.41 on the season, more than a full run better than Tijuana's Carlos Hernandez at 2.44. His ERA stood at 2.54 after that rocky start against Durango, but he has lowered it in each of his next nine starts over the past two months. In that stretch, Molina's ERA has been a microscopic 0.42 with with 47 strikeouts and 17 walks over 66 innings. Molina is second in the Mexican League in strikeouts with 90 whiffs in 121.1 innings, trailing only Monclova's Josh Lowey's 108 punchouts.
Although the Veracruz roster has past and present All-Stars like first baseman Balbino Fuenmayor and outfielder Luis Suarez, Molina is clearly the main reason the Red Eagles have passed the Quintana Roo Tigres into third place in the punchless LMB South with a 37-43 record. Although being six games under .500 is nothing to write home about, Veracruz might be battling to keep out of the division cellar if manager Eddy Castro couldn't send Molina to the mound every five games. Instead, they're positioning themselves for the playoffs after finishing sixth in the LMB South in 2016.
Veracruz is one of the Liga's oldest baseball cities. The Rojos del Aguila predate the Mexican League by more than two decades, making their debut in 1903. The team is the oldest in the circuit, with six LMB pennants since 1937 while such baseball greats as Hall of Famer Martin Dihigo (who led the Red Eagles to titles in 1937 and 1938), Santos Amaro, Roberto Ortiz, Al Pinkston, Pilo Gaspar, Ramon Arano and Miguel Fernandez have worn Veracruz jerseys. Jorge Pasquel, who briefly challenged the hegemony of Major League Baseball in the 1940's, was a Veracruzano. While it's unlikely anyone in the LMB South will challenge Yucatan in the postseason this year (although defending champion Puebla has shown some signs of life lately), Nestor Molina will likely carry the Rojos del Aguila on his back to their first playoff berth since 2013.
Things have heated up considerably in the North, where Tijuana loosened Monterrey's season-long grip on first place by sweeping the Sultanes at Estadio Monterrey in a midweek series last week before going into Monclova for a weekend series with the red-hot Acereros. Monclova won the first two games of the series to stretch their winning streak to ten games before the Toros took Sunday's closer, 1-0, as Monclova starter Miguel Pena combined with three relievers for a six-hit shutout. Corey Brown's fifth-inning double off hardluck Acereros starter Mauricio Lara drove in Isaac Rodriguez with the game's lone run as Pena's record rose to 8-2 while his ERA fell to 3.12. For their part, Monterrey dropped the first two games of their home series with Mexico City before bouncing back Sunday to blank the Diablos Rojos, 8-0. Angel Castro tossed seven innings of three-hit ball to go to 10-3 on the season and Ramon Rios cracked a fifth-inning grand slam off Diablos Rojos starter Efren Delgado in the Sultanes win.
The result of all this activity is that Tijuana maintains a tenuous half-game lead over Monterrey while Monclova has moved to three-and-a-half games back in third. The Aguascalientes Rieleros hold fourth place after winning their first eight games in July before dropping a 5-4 decision to Laguna at home Sunday. Puro Beisbol editor/columnist Fernando Ballesteros calls the Railroaders "dangerous" because they have more pitching depth than most LMB teams along with solid everyday players like MVP candidate Jesse Castillo, ageless All-Star Saul Soto, outfielder Dave Sappelt and newcomer third baseman Michael Wing, who's hit .441 with five homers in his first 20 games in Rieleros togs. Suffice to say, nobody wants to face this team in the playoffs.
With former Durango outfielder Yadir Drake and his .385 batting average gone to Japan, the Cuban (who'll barely qualify for the batting title) set the bar for the rest of the Liga's hitters to catch up to. At this point, Drake's lead in the batting race appears safe. His former Generales teammate, Daniel Mayora, has moved into a tie with Monterrey's Chris Roberson for second place on the table with .367 averages. Mayora missed a couple weeks with an injury shortly after his 35-game hitting streak ended, but he's gone 6-for-14 (.429) over three games since his July 6 return. Tijuana's Brown homered Thursday and Saturday to become the first LMB batsman to reach 20 homers for the season, two ahead of Monclova's Matt Clark and Raniel Rosario of Saltillo. Brown has also gone 12-of-14 on stolen base attempts and while his .292 average will hamper his MVP aspirations, the former Oklahoma State star has been a linchpin in the Toros lineup this summer. Yucatan first baseman Ricky Alvarez' 86 RBIs are 12 ahead of Monclova second sacker Manny Rodriguez' 72, while Acereros outfielder Justin Greene is running away with the stolen base title (couldn't resist) with 38 swipes, well ahead of Mexico City speedster Carlos Figueroa's 23.
As mentioned, Veracruz' Molina (10-1/1.41/90K) is on his way to a career year and should be considered the frontrunner for Pitcher of the Year honors by keeping an at-best mediocre Red Eagles team in the playoff hunt. However, there have been a number of top pitching efforts in the 2017 LMB season. Former Mets farmhand Octavio Acosta of Mexico City won at Monterrey, 8-1, Saturday for his Liga-leading eleventh win. The 11-1 Acosta has an ERA of 2.71 with 82 strikeouts in 99.1 innings pitched. Besides Molina, Monterrey's Castro, Yohan Flande of Aguascalientes and Yucatan ace Yoanner Negrin (2016's Pitcher of the Year) have all reached the 10-win threshold. Monclova's Lowey is well out in front of Molina in the strikeout derby by a 108-90 margin and Monterrey closer Wirfin Obispo has overtaken Durango's injured Tiago da Silva in the saves department. Obispo has preserved 22 Sultanes wins while da Silva had 20 saves for the Generales before going on the shelf following a two-inning stint at Tijuana on June 11.
Coming up in the Mexican League, it'll be a crossover week as all eight LMB North teams do battle with counterparts in the South. The most intriguing midweek series appears to be scheduled for Puebla, where the Pericos will host Aguascalientes in a matchup of teams positioning themselves for postseason runs. The best series next weekend is slated for Torreon, where Union Laguna welcomes Yucatan as both teams owned by the Arellano brothers clash. It'll be the first game back at Estadio Revolucion for Yucatan's Ricky Alvarez, who was traded to the Leones late last month, touching off a firestorm of criticism among Laguna fans and lower attendance at subsequent Vaqueros home games. The numbers may rise next weekend but a festive mood is unlikely.