by Bruce Baskin
June 30, 2005 - Mexican League (ML)
While the Mexico Tigres have not lost their hold on first place in the Mexican League's Southern Division, the Campeche Piratas are quietly making up ground after a slow start out the second-half gate to sneak up to within just three games of their rivals from Puebla. The Pirates have won four straight games to move past Tabasco into second place in the LMB South after the defending Liga champs won the first half crown fairly handily. The Tigres continue to blast the baseball at a .348 team clip, but they may start to be looking warily over their shoulders as the pitching-strong Pirates slowly close the gap between the top two teams.
Up in the LMB North, the division-leading Tijuana Potros are breathing a little bit easier with a four-game advantage over Monterrey's second-place Sultanes. The northern teams have overall been rather marginal so far in the second stanza of the season, but Tijuana is rolling merrily along with a solid 19-9 record (including a 10-5 mark away from home). Even more impressive is that the Colts are getting the job done without injured first baseman Randall Simon, who has missed 20 games. Even with the recent absence of Simon and a late return to Mexico from Japan of fellow Potro slugger George Arias, Tijuana leads the LMB with 140 homers in 84 games thus far in 2005. Conversely, South cellar-dwellers Cancun have rung up only 62 dingers in as many games. Langostero pitchers could stand a good chance in court if they ever filed a "lack of support" lawsuit against their batters. Cancun trails the Liga in a number of offensive categories, including batting (.270), and their 390 runs are 51 behind the 441 amassed by Monterrey, the LMB's next-worst scoring team.
In all, batters are still ruling the Mexican League pitchers, although hurlers have somewhat slowed the stream of runs that were pouring over the plate in the season's opening weeks. Thirteen of the Liga's 16 teams are batting .300 or better, while 13 clubs show team earned-run averages of 5.00 or higher (with eight allowing more than six scores per outing). Cy Young never pitched in Mexico.
One batter in particular had a game to remember recently. Monclova outfielder Ricardo Saenz tied a Liga record with four homers in a game Tuesday night against Aguascalientes, matching a mark previously set by Derek Bryant, Roy Johnson and Miguel Ojeda. Saenz also drove in eleven runs, tying another LMB record set in 1949 by Lonnie Sommers. The 43-year-old is batting .305 this season with 15 homers and 68 homers for the Acereros.
1) TIJUANA POTROS (19-9)
The Potros are finally getting some pitching, but make no mistake that it's the Tijuana batters that are carrying this team. Besides Simon (.363/22/71) and Arias (.305/15/55), the Colts are getting good offensive years out of Derrick White (.373/19/77) and Carlos Valencia (.307/25/71). Alonso Beltran (7-4) and Hugo Castellano (7-2/3.94) have been the team's top pitchers. If Simon and Arias ever get in the lineup together for an extended time, look out!
2) MONTERREY SULTANES (14-12)
The thing about the Sultanes is that they're doing okay despite not being a very good-batting team. Credit the pitching staff, as Monterrey's 4.89 ERA is the only one in the North lower than five runs per game. While Isauro Pineda (6-4/4.81) has been the top starter, Miguel Rubio and Sergio Mora have combined for a 13-2 record out of the bullpen. Edgar Quintero (.338/12/51) leads in batting, while Bubba Smith tops the team with 18 homers.
3) SALTILLO SARAPEROS (15-13)
The Sarape Men have played marginal baseball in the second half despite a decent mix of pitching and hitting. Steve Bourgeois (6-3) leads the Liga with a 2.83 ERA, and Rigo Beltran (9-4/4.04) has been solid all season. Mario Valenzuela (.370/22/78) and Jayson Bass (.370/15/65 are having standout seasons, but Saltillo is hoping for better production from Morgan Burkhart (.306/15/48), who has been slowed by a hand injury from earlier this year.
4) MEXICO CITY DIABLOS ROJOS (14-13)
The Red Devils have the batting to keep pace with Tijuana, but they simply need their pitchers to step it up. Roberto Mendez (.345/17/51), Roberto Saucedo (.339/26/83), Ray Martinez (.328/19/62) and Victor Bojorquez (.298/22/75) are an excellent core to an explosive lineup, but hurlers Roberto Ramirez (10-5) and Claudio Moreno (8-7) need help. Of interest is closer Jose Silva, who has two wins and 15 saves despite a 6.51 earned-run average.
5) SAN LUIS TUNEROS (13-14)
After a dismal first-half showing, San Luis has been a pleasant surprise in the second half of the campaign. While the Tuneros aren't setting the world on fire, teams can't overlook them anymore. Sparkplug Darryl Brinkley's .362 average leads the team's hitters, and veteran Pat O'Sullivan (.334/22/80) has been a steady power source. Sharnol Adriana may be one of the Liga's most-underrated players. He's hitting .347 with 16 homers and 15 steals.
6) MONCLOVA ACEREROS (13-15)
Another LMB North team in dire need of an offensive infusion, the Acereros have nonetheless won five games in a row. Infielder Guillermo Garcia is .351/24/87 despite being the one Monclova batter that pitchers want to avoid, although Fernando Rodriguez (.325) has hit well and Saenz had a game for the ages Tuesday. While closer Bill Simas (4-4/2.78 with 15 saves) is doing well, the Steeler starters are nothing to write home about.
7) AGUASCALIENTES RIELEROS (12-16)
A so-so offense has been improved greatly by recent arrival Jose Nieves. The ex-big league shortstop is hitting .379 with 22 RBIs in just 25 games, giving power-hitting Eduardo Rios (.321/26/92) a little support near the top of the order. All-Star Game MVP Rontrez Johnson (.370) and catcher Alex Delgado (.352) are fine, but the Railroaders' team ERA of 6.35 hurts because Aguascalientes doesn't have enough hitters to simply outscore teams.
8) LAGUNA VAQUEROS (11-17)
Another former major leaguer named Nieves has been a big addition to an LMB team. Melvin Nieves is batting .429 with seven homers in just 12 games for Laguna, but they'll need more to overcome an underpowered lineup and weak pitching staff. Ramon Espinosa (.352), Cornelio Garcia (.344/10/57) and Raul Lopez (.341/13/66) are decent players, but how much can they (or anyone) do when Vaquero pitchers allow a league-high 7.22 runs per game?
1) MEXICO TIGRES (17-7)
Like Aguascalientes and Laguna, the Tigres have no pitching. Unlike those two teams, however, they DO have enough batting to make up for it. Carlos Gastelum (.400) and Javier Robles (.391) stand 1-2 in the Liga batting race, Jorge Vasquez (.371/27/78) leads the LMB in homers and vet Matias Carrillo (.360/14/71) has been making pitchers pay since (it seems) before Cortes landed. One decent pitcher of note: Alejandro Armenta is 11-1 with a 4.37 ERA.
2) CAMPECHE PIRATAS (15-11)
The Piratas are 7-3 over their last ten games and are starting to make things rather interesting in the LMB South. Roberto Vizcarra's .340 average leads a decent lineup featuring ex-MLBers Ruben Rivera (.338/16/58) and Bill Selby (.332/22/82). Francisco Campos (8-3/2.87) leads the Liga with 125 strikeouts in 116 innings, and Juan Alvarez (8-2/3.23) is a strong Number 2 starter. If anyone can catch the Tigres, here's the most likely team to do it.
3) TABASCO OLMECAS (14-11)
Like San Luis in the North, Tabasco has been a Southern surprise in the second half after a tepid first half. The Olmecas have some nice hitters like Carlos Sievers (.346/15/76), Julian Yan (.276/23/70) and Donzell McDonald (.297 with 38 steals), but the key has been an underrated but deep starting staff including Osvaldo Fernandez, Joel Vargas, Juan Delgadillo and ageless Jesus Rios, who have combined to go 23-16 with a sub-4.00 ERA. A scary team.
4) OAXACA GUERREROS (14-14)
Felix Jose (.368/19/86) is in the middle of an MVP-type, but the Guerreros will have to win more for him to get it. Jose has had some support from Christian Quintero (.351), Angel Pena (.318/19/72) and ex-Cub Chad Meyers (.321/11/51), too. In all, Oaxaca batters put runs on the board as easily as their pitchers allow them. Carlos Pulido, Francisco Madero and Eleazar Mora each have five wins, but only Pulido (4.59) allows fewer than five runs per game.
5) PUEBLA PERICOS (13-15)
After a wretched start to the second half, the Parrots have won four straight to pull close to .500. Imagine where they'd be without Eric Knott. Knott (11-3/3.38) leads the LMB in wins, and in 112 innings he's allowed just 13 walks. Even fungo batters don't hit the strike zone like that. Unfortunately, Puebla's only other decent pitcher is Jason Jacome (5-5) as no other Perico hurler has more than three wins. Manny Martinez (.343/18/73) leads the batters.
6) VERACRUZ ROJOS AGUILAS (11-13)
Like Oaxaca's Felix Jose, Willis Otanez (.379/23/91) is having an MVP season for a marginal team. While Otanez hasn't been quite as consistent as Jose, he may be a little more potent and is capable of carrying a team on his back. Not that the rest of the Veracruz lineup consists of guys named Moe, Larry and Curly, but this is definitely Otanez' club. Former LMB pitching leader Sixto Baez (3.93 with 16 saves) has been strong out of the bullpen.
7) YUCATAN LEONES (11-16)
While Yucatan's 4.54 earned-run average is the Liga's lowest, they don't have enough power to capitalize on it. Juan Palafox (8-4/4.34) heads a staff including Alfredo Aceves (7-7/4.42) and closer Alejandro Carrasco (2-0/2.98 but only six saves). Willie Romero (.370), Eddy Diaz (.331), Pedro Castellano (.322) Luis Arredondo (.330 with a Liga-high 42 steals) and Scott Bullett (.306/19/69) can all hit, but they need someone to drive them in.
8) CANCUN LANGOSTEROS (8-18)
A long season just gets longer for the languid Langosteros, who are just 1-12 on the road in the second half. This is a team with little hitting, no power and undernourished pitching. Liu Rodriguez is hitting .344 and Rudy Pemberton leads the Lobstermen with eleven homers, but there's no juice here. Fireballing closer Lino Urdaneta (4-3/3.49/13 saves) is the best pitcher on a staff featuring luckless Hector Chavarria (0-9). The sun's real nice, though.
MEXICAN BASEBALL ROAD TRIP: Aguascalientes
As we make our tenth stop in a 15-city tour of Mexican League cities, we head north from San Luis Potosi to Aguascalientes, a city of over 600,000 located in the north central region of the country. While one wouldn't necessarily equate Aguascalientes with Veracruz or Cancun as a place to have a good time, it certainly contains some of the elements: Several of Mexico's best fiestas occur here (and they happen frequently), it sits amid Mexico's grape-growing region and has a reputation for producing some of the nation's best wines and especially brandys, and, as its name suggests, there are a number of relaxing underground thermal hot springs to bathe in. One could certainly do worse.
While most of the cities we've visited on the road trip thus far are steeped in centuries-old histories, it does not appear to be the case with Aguascalientes. The entire center of the city is undermined by a series of tunnels and catacombs carved out long ago by a still-unknown civilization, but sadly these are not available to the public for viewing. The tunnels have given Aguascalientes the nickname of "The Perforated City" among Mexicans. Visitors interested in history will have to settle for numerous colonial-era buildings around the central Plaza la Patria, including a nice cathedral and the Neo-Classical government palace (which is notable for a series of four impressive murals by Chilean artist Oswaldo Barra Cunningham, who learned his craft from the great Diego Rivera. Aguascalientes is also known in the art world as the hometown of the prolific Jose Guadalupe Posada, whose macabre skeletal drawings often served as political commentaries during the presidency of Porfirio Diaz in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. For decades an important industrial and agricultural center ever since the so-called "Porfiriano" brought railroad trains to town, Aguascalientes is primarily a manufacturing center nowadays, with companies from Japan and the United States setting up shop locally alongside Mexican corporations.
Aguascalientes is also home to the Mexican League's Rieleros (or "Railroaders") during the spring and summer. The Rieleros, who have won just one pennant in their history, play their home games in the 10,000-seat Estadio Municipal. While the Rieleros are struggling through another tough season, that doesn't seem to be keeping fans away from the ballpark as just over 5,000 people per game are coming through the turnstiles in 2005.
NEXT VISIT: Torreon/Gomez Palacio (Laguna)
MAESTROS OF MEXICO: Carlos Soto, Catcher-First Baseman (1973-71)
One of the most consistent power hitters in the Mexican League during his 19-year career, Carlos Soto was born November 3, 1952 in San Pedro, Coahuila. The 6'1" 200-pound right-handed batter broke into pro ball with Class A Ebano of the Mexican Center League in 1972, batting just .223 in 32 games. He improved the next year with Ebano, hitting .319 with eight homers and a league-high 58 RBIs before a late-season call-up to the Mexico City Red Devils. Soto was then signed by the Cleveland Indians organization for 1974 but spent a lost year in the Gulf Coast League that year, batting .294 but only getting into 12 games. He went home to Mexico in 1975 and spent the rest of his career in the Liga.
After two seasons in a little-playing backup role, Soto broke out with a good year in 1977 for Nuevo Laredo by hitting .317 with 19 homers and 87 ribbies for the Tecolotes. He turned in several similar campaigns before a six-year run between 1983 and 1988 in which Soto belted 140 homers and drove in 407 runs over 657 games, mostly for Nuevo Laredo. While he hit over .300 twice in his final three seasons, Soto had lost his power and only stroked 34 homers in that time before wrapping up his career for San Luis Potosi in 1991. He hit .301 for his Liga career (topping the .300 mark nine times), notching 264 homers and 1,043 RBIs. Soto played for three pennant LMB winners. He also performed 12 seasons of winter ball in the Mexican Pacific League, leading the LMP with 17 homers in 1985-86.
Soto shuttled defensively between catcher and first base for most of his professional career before sticking to the initial hassock most of his final five seasons. Surprisingly, he is not a member of the Mexican Baseball Hall of Fame, although he was on the ballot this year.
Next Maestro: Ramon Bragana
THIS EDITION'S TRIVIA QUIZ
Q) Can you name the American-born player who came to Mexico in his 40's and went on to become the only man ever to win four consecutive Liga batting titles?
LAST EDITION'S TRIVIA QUIZ ANSWER
A) Diego Segui, who led the American League in earned-run average as a member of the Oakland A's in 1970, tossed a seven-inning perfect game for the Cordoba Cafeteros on June 21, 1978, whitewashing the Nuevo Laredo Tecolotes, 5-0. The previous year, Segui threw the first regular season pitch ever for the Seattle Mariners on Opening Night at the Kingdome against the California Angels, and remains the only player to suit up for both the M's and Seattle Pilots (for whom he won 12 games in 1969).
After coming to Cordoba in 1978, the rubber-armed Segui pitched eight years in the LMB before retiring in 1985 at the age of 48. He went 96-61 in Mexico with a 2.91 ERA.