by Bruce Baskin
September 11, 2018 - Mexican League (ML)
OAXACA WINS PLAY-IN GAME; PLAYOFFS OPEN MONDAY
The playoff matchups for the Mexican League's fall season have been set after the Oaxaca Guerreros took a 26-30 record and a fifth-place South Division finish to Leon for a wild-card came (necessitated by the Guerreros finishing one game behind the Bravos in the standings) and beat the 26-28 Bravos by a 7-6 score to slip into the Liga's final remaining postseason berth.
It was a disappointing finish to the year for the Bravos, who had led the LMB South in recent weeks despite a makeshift infield and seemed in position to continue playing after the regular season ended. Instead, Leon will be sitting out the playoffs while Oaxaca celebrates their first postseason appearance since 2015. It almost didn't turn out that way for the Guerreros, who fell behind 2-0 in the bottom of the second inning Saturday after the Bravos' Marco Jaime singled in Felix Pie and Michael Bernal off Oaxaca starter Jose Carlos Medina.
The Guerreros fought back with three runs in the top of the fourth when Jay Austin stroked a leadoff double and scored on a Dustin Geiger single, after which Henry Urrutia belted a homer to right against Leon opener Guillermo Moscoso to give the visitors a 3-2 advantage. Moscoso settled down to retire the side and post two more scoreless frames before his Bravos teammates came back in the bottom of the sixth. A Pie solo homer to tie the contest was followed by Medina's exit from the mound in favor of reliever Carlos Felix. Bernal then greeted Felix with a double, moved to third on a Geiger fielding error of a Brandon Macia grounder, then came in to put Leon ahead, 4-3, on Israel Nunez' infield single.
Leon manager Luis Carlos Rivera sent former Oaxaca All-Star Alejandro Soto to the mound for the top of the seventh, a move that immediately backfired when Soto served up a leadoff homer to Julian Ornelas that knotted the game back up. The score stood at 4-4 until the top of the ninth, when the Guerreros put three runs on the scoreboard off Bravos closer Joe Colon. Yordanys Linares put Oaxaca ahead for good by whacking a two-run double off Colon with two out and then plated the Guerreros' final run on an Austin single.
The Bravos battled gamely in the bottom of the ninth. Jaime singled in Antonio Ruiz after Ruiz had been waved to second on a balk called against Oaxaca pitcher Scott Shuman, a call that brought Shuman down from the mound and Guerreros manager Sergio Gastelum out of the dugout for a calm discussion with the umpires that led to Shuman and Gastelum both being elected (Jaime's single came off Ozzie Mendez). Eduardo Arredondo then hit a fielder's choice grounder to first that got Jaime called out at second for the first out of the inning. Arredondo was replaced by pinch-runner Luis Medina, who advanced to third on a Quincy Latimore single and scored on a Cedric Hunter sacrifice fly to center to bring Leon to within a run, but the game (and season) ended when Erick Casillas was brought in from the bullpen to replace Mendez and struck out Niko Vasquez swinging to send the Bravos and 3,489 in the stands at Parque Domingo Santana home wondering what might have been.
The wild finish climaxed a fall schedule in which the placement of teams in the LMB South remained in doubt until the final days. Defending champion Yucatan (32-24) slipped into first place on the final day of the regular season Thursday when the Leones took a 7-4 win at Quintana Roo while Leon outlasted Mexico City (31-24) by a 9-8 count on Latimore's RBI single in the bottom of the tenth. Puebla slipped down the stretch by dropping all three games of a series at Oaxaca to come in third at 29-27, two games ahead of Leon and three up on Oaxaca.
The LMB North playoff field had already been determined heading into last week's final series, but three more games were required for seeding purposes. While Monclova (42-14) easily won the division, Tijuana (35-21) had to win seven of their last ten games to come in second by a game-and-a-half over Monterrey (34-23) while Dos Laredos (33-24) ended up in fourth after losing 10-5 in Monclova Thursday while the Sultanes prevailed in a 10-9 slugfest that took 12 innings to complete in Tijuana to break a deadlock with the Tecos for third. Unlike Oaxaca in the South, fifth-place Aguascalientes (25-30) was too far behind Dos Laredos to force a wild-card game.
With the regular season in the taillights, the playoffs will open with four games Monday night. Puebla will be at Mexico City for one LMB South semifinal while Oaxaca visits Yucatan to open the other. Monterrey hosts Tijuana in a North semi series and Monclova will open at home against Dos Laredos. All playoff series will be best-of-7 affairs throughout the postseason.
CAMPECHE'S ROSARIO OVERTAKES BETANCOURT FOR BAT CROWN
It's been a tough couple years for Campeche Piratas outfielder Olmo Rosario. The 38-year-old Dominican received a 50-game suspension prior to the 2017 season after testing for amphetamines during the previous year, leading to his release from the Tijuana Toros. Rosario eventually signed with Leon in late May 2017 but was released by the Bravos three weeks later after batting just .174 over 13 games. He was picked up by Campeche almost another three weeks and went on to hit .378 with five homers in 30 games, good enough to be brought back for another year in the Walled City.
Rosario turned in a good Spring season for the Piratas, hitting .319 with nine homers in 56 games, but he really stepped things up in the Fall campaign to win the Mexican League batting championship with a .408 average. Rosario finished the season with a 14-game hitting streak (including a .600 average over his final ten games) to bring his season average up 48 points from .360 on August 19 to sneak past Oaxaca's Yuniesky Betancourt's .406. Betancourt was hitting .417 on September 1 but collected just six hits over his final five games to drop into second in the batting race. Yelson Asencio of Mexico City came in a distant third at .386.
Felix Perez of Monclova belted two homers last Thursday in the Acereros' final game against Tijuana to finish with 19 longballs over 55 games to win his second consecutive home run title after sending 15 balls to the street in Spring to lead the LMB. Perez finished ahead of Oaxaca's Dustin Geiger (15) and Leandro Castro of Saltillo (14). Both Perez and Geiger were traded in the Fall midseason while Castro was signed by the Saraperos as a free agent in May a month after being released by Dos Laredos. Perez tied with teammate Francisco Peguero for the Liga RBI title with 60 apiece (Puebla's Delmon Young was third with 56 ribbies) while Dos Laredos' Johnny Davis stole 28 bases in 34 attempts to beat out Monclova's Cade Gotta (25) and Tony Campana (24) of Aguascalientes in that category.
Brazilian Andre Rienzo pitched one scoreless inning in relief for Monclova last Tuesday against Dos Laredos to finish the season with a 0.76 ERA, easily the lowest among qualifiers in the loop. Acereros manager Pedro Mere only brought Rienzo out of the bullpen twice since his last start on August 26 against Aguascalientes to rest the 30-year-old righty for the playoffs. Terance Marin of Dos Laredos finished second to Rienzo with a 2.12 ERA while Aguascalientes' Francisco Del Rosario was third at 2.24.
Marin returned to organized baseball after not pitching in 2017 and finished the LMB's Fall season on a high note by winning five of his last six starts to tie with Monterrey's Edgar Gonzalez and Patrick Johnson for most wins with seven each. Gonzalez will be well-rested for the playoffs after not having pitched since a September 4 victory at Durango while Johnson has been held out since a September 2 loss at Puebla. Seven more pitchers finished with six wins.
Orlando Lara of Campeche (who himself hasn't pitched since September 1) took his first strikeout title with 64 in 61.1 innings to record the most ponchadas among Liga hurlers, with Monterrey's Jose De Paula (61) finishing second while Leon's Guillermo Moscoso and Enrique Oquendo (58) tied for third. Wirfin Obispo on Monterrey only pitched once in relief last week and even though he didn't record a save, the Sultanes closer ended the calendar with 14, enough to lead the LMB. Joe Colon (Leon), Chad Gausin (Yucatan) and Josh Lueke (Monclova) each had eleven saves to tie for second.
The Tijuana Toros led the Mexican League attendance with 252,668 fans attending 27 home games for an average of 9,358, which was higher than any full-season Class AAA team north of the border (Charlotte of the International League was next at 8,980). Monterrey was second in the LMB with an average of 7,616 while Yucatan came in third at 6,985 but the Fall schedule was not kind to most Liga teams at the turnstiles. Seven of the LMB's 16 teams drew fewer than 3,000 people per opening, with Campeche's 855 average bringing up the rear and Tabasco not a lot better at 1,151 per night.
LMB TO DROP TWO-SEASON FORMAT, TUESDAY GAMES IN 2019
Although a press release from the Mexican League last week has termed their two-seasons-in-one-year experiment a "success," apparently it wasn't successful enough as a format to keep around for a second year. The LMB announced it will abandon this year's approach of two separate 57-game regular seasons with full playoffs starting in late March and finishing in October to return to a single-season format. However, as often seems the case with the Liga, it won't come without complications.
On the surface, the move seems a wise one. The LMB will play two halves for a total of 120 games per team for the regular season. Similar to other leagues in Mexico, teams will be awarded points on the basis of where they finish in the standings each half, with the accrued totals determining playoff seeding. The number of games will be most since the Mexican League played a 120-game schedule in 2001 but since Minor League Baseball's two other Class AAA leagues had 140-game schedules this year, the six-game increase is not a big deal (especially with a month's worth of playoff games being eliminated). However, the LMB Assembly of Presidents' decision to drop Tuesday as a game day south of the border is going to have far-reaching consequences.
Mondays have been travel days for years in Mexican baseball and that will not change. However, the Liga has decided to create a second consecutive off-day each week before teams play between Wednesdays and Sundays, starting with a two-game series and concluding with a three-game set. The result will be tighter travel schedules, more days during the season when ballparks are closed and a schedule stretching from March into November, which is when the playoffs will conclude. Even the playoff format will be expanded from the current eight teams to twelve participants, with the top two finishers in each division getting a first-round bye while the next four teams battle it out to advance to the division semifinals (effectively adding another layer to the playoff format to make it a four-tiered process to win a pennant).
The moves appear to be a shot across the bow of the winter Mexican Pacific League, whose season traditionally begins in mid-October. The LMP has already had to scramble for players to begin their upcoming 2018-19 season because the current Mexican League playoff system stretches into October, with the MexPac increasing the number of foreign players allowed per team from six to 12 this winter. Next year's Mexican League playoff format would stretch about a full month into the LMP's season, severely curtailing the availability of domestic talent for the winter circuit. Some observers believe the extended Mexican League season in 2019 is in response to the MexPac seeking to expand into current LMB markets, such as Monterrey and Tijuana. The latter has had winterball teams in the past, but none were long-lasting. In fact, the former Tijuana Potros hold a rather unenviable distinction of twice winning pennants (1987-88 and 1990-91) but not being allowed to compete the following winter due to what was termed "unfair competitive practices." Following their second DQ, Tijuana joined the financially-troubled Guaymas Ostioneros and left the MexPac, leaving the league with an eight-team lineup ever since.
As always, the most affected people with the Liga's reformatting may be the players, who have never unionized and enjoy few rights in Mexican baseball. In a country where the per capita income is generally between US$10,000-14,000 per year (depending on your source), many players perform year round because jobs that can bring in US$3,000-5,000 per month are very far and few between. The new LBM format could seriously curtail a player's availability to continue earning money between November and February, especially if Liga teams (who own a player's rights in Mexico) decide to make a player unavailable for winterball because of "exhaustion," something often used by Major League Baseball organizations for their minor league players.
No official response has come out of the Mexican Pacific League's new offices in Guadalajara but it's hard to imagine LMP president Omar Canizales doing nothing. We shall see.
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