by Bruce Baskin
July 25, 2017 - Mexican League (ML)
Former Diamondbacks prospect Cyle Hankerd scored from third base when Tabasco third baseman Kristian Delgado bobbled Jorge Cantu's grounder in the top of the sixth inning to break a 3-3 tie and the Tijuana Toros went on to post a 7-3 win over the Olmecas Sunday to stretch their season-high Mexican League winning streak to 13 games. Dustin Martin's three-run homer in the seventh gave TJ their final margin of victory as former MLB pitcher Horacio Ramirez got the win to raise his record to 3-2 in his ninth start of the year after missing ten weeks between April and June due to injury.
The contest was played in front of a cozy gathering of 960 fans at Villahermosa's Estadio Centenario 27 de Febrero, where the Olmecas have been plagued by poor attendance and a faulty ballpark lighting system all season. The 67-28 Toros have the best record in the circuit and hold a three-and-a-half-game lead over 63-31 Monterrey in the LMB North standings with 15 games left in the regular season. The Sultanes have mostly kept pace with their own six-game win string. Manager Pedro Mere's Toros have found July to their liking, winning 18 of 20 contests thus far. Tijuana opened the month with a five-game winning streak before losing a pair of games in Monclova, then launched their current run with a 1-0 win over the Acereros July 9 to avoid the sweep. Since then, they've reeled off consecutive sweeps against South Division weak sisters Campeche and Tabasco, first in a six-game homestand and then another six on the road.
The LMB North's top four teams have made hay in their two weeks of cross-divisional play. Besides TJ's 12-0 run, Monterrey had a record of 9-3 against Veracruz and Oaxaca, as did Monclova (who played the same two clubs), while overachievers Aguascalientes posted an 8-4 mark against defending champion Puebla and Leon to continue the North's season-long mastery over their counterparts to the south. Tijuana, Monterrey, Monclova and Aguascalientes are well out in front of the rest of the LMB North pack and all but assured playoff berths.
That dominance has not applied to the Yucatan Leones, however. The LMB South leaders drew Union Laguna and Durango as their crossover opponents and came away winning 8 of 12 games. Yucatan has brought in Monterrey coach Juan "Chico" Rodriguez to replace the fired Willie Romero as manager after coach Oswaldo Morejon filled in for a couple games. Rodriguez was a Salon de la Fama shortstop during his 20-year Liga playing career, mostly with Veracruz and Aguascalientes. Romero will manage in Navojoa next winter but has not landed with another LMB team yet. That will likely change for someone with his credentials. Puebla went 7-5 against Aguascalientes and Saltillo so it wasn't a total wash for the southern sides. Teams will play only within their divisions over the final five series of the regular season schedule.
Romero isn't the only former helmsman looking for work. The Quintana Roo Tigres relieved manager Roberto "Chapo" Vizcarra of his duties following a series-opening 3-1 loss at home to Union Laguna. Vizcarra was in his fifth season running the Tigres and had been quite successful over his first four, winning two pennants and posting a 182-122 record after taking over the team late in the 2013 season. However, 2017 was not kind to the Sonora native as Quintana Roo was 36-49 after losing 12 of their first 14 games this month (including a nine-game losing skid). Vizcarra, who will remain with the Tigres organization working with prospects, was replaced by third base coach Hector Hurtado. A former catcher who managed the ill-fated Reynosa Broncos last season, Hurtado led Quintana Roo to a four wins over his first five games. The beleaguered team, which has been plagued by financial problems off the field under new owner Fernando Valenzuela, is now in a virtual tie for third with Veracruz in the LMB South at 40-50. With the bottom four teams in the division fading to the finish line, both the Tigres and Rojos del Aguila are almost sure bets to join Yucatan and Puebla in the postseason.
Former Durango outfielder Yadir Drake's .385 average compiled before his exit to Japan (where paychecks presumably arrive on time) has made the LMB batting title the Cuban exile's to lose. A former Drake teammate with the Generales, third baseman Daniel Mayora, now plying his trade in Monterrey, is second at .375. Mayora was hitting .425 in his first nine games with the Sultanes but did not play during their weekend home series with Oaxaca as veteran Agustin Murillo manned the hot corner. Mayora's absence from the lineup was not felt too acutely as manager Felix Fermin's squad, who lead the Liga with a collective .317 average, put 30 runs and 45 hits on the scoreboard in the Sultanes' three-game sweep of the Guerreros.
Tijuana outfielder Corey Brown pummeled two homers against Tabasco to give him a league-leading 22 for the season, one more than Aguascalientes infielder Jose Vargas. A Ventura, California product, the 29-year-old Vargas is making his Mexican League debut in 2017 after spending three years in the White Sox system and another six playing independent ball, but he's making up for lost time after joining the Rieleros, homering in five straight games earlier this month and socking his 21st longball in 69 games Sunday against Leon. Yucatan's Ricky Alvarez is regaining his stroke in Merida following his midseason trade from Laguna. He had two homers and six RBIs last Tuesday against Durango and is hitting .366 over his last ten games with the Leones while his 97 ribbies lead Monclova's Manny Rodriguez by 13 in that category. Monclova centerfielder Justin Greene had three stolen bases last week to bring his season total to 45 swipes, continuing to run away with the steals title (I'm not tired of that line QUITE yet).
Veracruz ace Nestor Molina had a no-decision Friday at Monclova in his first start in eight days, but pitched well (7 IP, 1 ER, 9 K) to lower his Liga-leading ERA to 1.62 and crack the century mark in strikeouts at 104. The 11-1 Molina has singlehandedly kept the Eagle Reds in playoff contention and is the frontrunner for BBM's Summer Pitcher of the Year award. Monclova's Josh Lowey hasn't been as dominant as in year's past at 7-5 with a 3.08 ERA, but the Floridian is cruising to his third straight strikeout title with 121 ponches over 108 innings. Mexico City hurler Octavio Acosta was reached in Campeche for three runs on nine hits over 5.1 innings in Saturday's no-decision, but still leads the loop in wins with a 12-1 record in the Guasave product's breakout year. There's a spirited competition for the saves crown among five closers going down the stretch. Chad Gaudin (Monclova) and Wirfin Obispo (Monterrey) are tied for the lead with 25 saves each, one ahead of Jason Urquidez (Tijuana) at 24 while Tiago da Silva (Durango) has 22 and ex-MLBer Jose Valverde (Aguascalientes) has 21. Da Silva may have trouble gaining ground with Generales management white-flagging the season via the jettisoning of stars Drake and Mayora, but Urquidez has been solid all year while Valverde has been the linchpin of an otherwise marginal Rieleros pitching staff, converting his 21 saves in 24 opportunities.
With the Liga's interdivisional games concluded until the Serie del Rey in September, the rest of the regular season schedule becomes doubly important as playoff contenders will now play head-to-head over the final five series. The biggest midweek faceoff will undoubtedly be in Tijuana, where the Toros host a Monterrey side they've been unable to shake off despite TJ's dozen straight wins. While this series won't settle the question of who wins the LMB North's top seed, it'll go a long way in that direction. There are more than one series that matter next weekend. Tijuana will be on the road to take on an Aguascalientes team playing well under manager Homar Rojas. While the Rieleros may be the fifth-best team of the five given a realistic shot at the pennant, they may also be the squad that nobody wants to draw in the postseason. They've been finding ways to win all year long.
An intriguing LMB South weekend matchup will be Yucatan at Puebla. The Leones have led the division almost wire-to-wire this year and while the ouster of Romero (the defending two-time Manager of the Year) is a bit of a headshaker, the less-volatile Rodriguez has kept the team winning. The Pericos, for their part, were emaciated following their 2016 pennant-winning campaign when owner Gerardo Benavides transferred Puebla's core players to his newly-purchased Monclova team, but they've hung in there this season and have played better since former Blue Jays skipper Tim Johnson took the reins from Von Hayes earlier this season. The Parrots will not be a pushover.
One interesting sidebar is that Benavides is now making noises about possibly moving the Pericos to either Juarez or Nuevo Laredo next season, disappointed with attendance figures in Puebla this year (3,051 per game, a decline of 29 percent from 2016) but apparently not connecting the dots as to why. Veracruz owner Jose Antonio Mansur has made similar comments about relocating the Rojos del Aguila to the Texas border. Puebla and Veracruz are two of the LMB's longest-standing cities, although franchises have come and gone in both over the years.