by Bruce Baskin
September 2, 2019 - Mexican League (ML)
LMB PLAYOFFS OPEN TUESDAY; TJ, DIABLOS TOP SEEDS
It came down to the final week of the regular season, but the eight-team Mexican League playoff field and matchups have been determined. The Tijuana Toros have earned the number one seed in the North Division while the Mexico City Diablos Rojos are tops in the LMB South heading into Tuesday's Division Semifinal series. However, most attention last week was focused on whether the Puebla Pericos would finish close enough to the Quintana Roo Tigres in the overall standings to force a wild-card game for the fourth and final berth in the South.
Saltillo won the second-half title in the LMB North by finishing with a 38-21 record to collect eight playoff points, bringing their season total to 12 and clinching the fourth seed in the division. Monclova was second at 36-24, picking up seven points for the half and earning the second seed with 13 overall points, but it was third-place Tijuana (35-25) who got the top seed in the LMB North with 13.5 points after the Toros tied for first with Monterrey in the first half. Both teams were awarded 7.5 points and while the defending champion Sultanes fell to fourth in the second half with a 32-26 mark, their 12.5 overall points nudged out Saltillo for the third seed. Monclova and Tijuana tied for the best season won-lost record in the Liga, both finishing at 75-45 over two halves. Dos Laredos (8 points), Aguascalientes (6.5), Durango (4.5) and Union Laguna (2) finished out of the money, although the Rieleros put up a good fight in August by winning 17 of their final 25 games (including a six-game win streak between August 18-24).
While the North lacked playoff intrigue over the last week of the regular season, Puebla had a mathematical chance of forcing a wild-card game against Quintana Roo going into their final series in Mexico City while the Tigres wrapped up in Tabasco. Although the seventh-place Pericos were 21-32 and had no chance of catching up in points, playoff qualifiers occur when a fifth-place team in the overall standings finishes within the fourth-place club. The Parakeets' window was open because their season record of 55-58 was two-and-a-half games behind 59-57 Quintana Roo in fourth, meaning Puebla had a puncher's chance of forcing the extra game. Both teams won their openers last Tuesday, however, meaning the Pericos' season was in effect over. Puebla lost their final two games in the nation's capital while the Tigres went on to sweep the Olmecas and clinch the division semis cleanly and are the South's #4 seed with 10 overall points.
Yucatan followed a tepid first half by winning the second half with a 40-20 record, giving them 12 points for the year. Mexico City and Oaxaca tied for the points lead with 13 apiece, but the 67-49 Diablos got the nod for #1 seed by posting a better overall record than the 68-52 Guerreros. Puebla finished fifth with 8 season points, followed by Leon (6), Campeche (5.5) and Tabasco (4.5). Longtime Campeche pitcher Francisco "Pancho Ponches" Campos officially retired as a player after 25 LMB seasons, all but part of one season with the Piratas. A converted catcher, the Guaymas native was put on the Reserve list one day after his July 2 win over Union Laguna, a 12-5 triumph in which the righty became the 14th hurler to record 200 Liga career wins. Campos is the only man to ever win the Pitching Triple Crown in both the LMB and Mexican Pacific League.
The playoffs open with a full slate of games. In the LMB North semifinals, Monclova will be in Monterrey and Saltillo will visit Tijuana while the LMB South semis have Yucatan playing in Oaxaca and Quintana Roo traveling to Mexico City. The latter is a resumption of Mexican baseball's most storied rivalry with the added twist of the Tigres reportedly being open to a possible offseason move from Cancun to Mexico City, where they played over four decades and won eight pennants. Game Two will be played Wednesday at the same venues. All Mexican League playoff series are best-4-of-7 matchups. Home field advantage in the Serie del Rey championship finals will likely go to a North team, as Monclova (75-45), Tijuana (75-45) and Monterrey (72-46) all finished with better regular season records than South leader Mexico City (67-49). On the other hand, Saltillo (66-53) would've been fourth overall in the LMB South behind the Diablos, Oaxaca (68-51 and Yucatan (66-52). The Tigres finished 62-57 for the year, assuring them a Game Seven away from home at every step.
MAYORA WINS BAT TITLE, HARRIS ONE HR SHY OF 40/40 CLUB
Durango's Daniel Mayora stayed hot at the end of the season while Leon outfielder Felix Pie's slide wrapped up with a 4-for-17 run at the plate over his final five games as Mayora pulled away to win the 2019 Mexican League batting title by ten points over the ex-Oriole. Mayora went 16-for-31 over his last ten appearances to finish with a .391 average along with a career-high 19 homers and 93 RBIs for the Generales. Conversely, Pie hit .200 in HIS last ten outings to come in at .381 after sporting a .403 average as recently as August 10. Despite his late-season fade, the 18-year pro veteran (a three-time Futures Game pick while a Cubs minor leaguer) had career highs in batting, homers (22) and RBIs (80). Monclova's Francisco Peguero finished third in the batting table with a .380 average.
Monclova first baseman Chris Carter had a monster first year in Mexico, belting 49 homers and driving in 119 runs to lead the LMB in both categories. The ex-National League home run champ also led in slugging percentage (.709), on-base-plus-slugging-percentage (1.1581), bases on balls (115) and strikeouts (156) and didn't miss a game all season. Carter also scored 113 runs for the Acereros but saw his average drop to .293 after going 3-for-17 over his last seven games. The massive Californian would be a front-runner for MVP honors if Oaxaca outfielder Alonzo Harris hadn't turned in one of the best all-around offensive performances in recent Liga seasons.
A 30-year-old Mississippian who spent six years in the Mets system, Harris hit .343 for the Guerreros while belting 39 homers and stealing 45 bases, just missing becoming the first 40/40 player in Mexican League history. The 2017 Atlantic League Player of the Year while playing with York, Harris led the LMB with 131 runs scored while his 117 RBIs were second only to Carter in that category. He also topped the circuit with 324 total bases, his .691 slugging percentage was also second to Carter and his 45 steals trailed only former teammate Johnny Davis' 54 swipes. Davis' contract was sold to Tampa Bay on August 29 and he finished with the Rays' AA Southern League affiliate in Montgomery. All in all, it was a good year for batters in the Mexican League, even though the bats cooled down a little. Ten of the LMB's 16 teams hit an aggregate .300 or better (with Mexico City leading the way at .323) and all but two teams averaged at least one homer per game as Monclova, Saltillo and Tijuana hit 190+ homers over 120 games. The Acereros averaged an astounding 7.47 runs per game.
Accordingly, LMB pitchers may be forgiven if they started wearing suits of armor on the mound. Tijuana's 4.41 team ERA was nothing to write home about but it was the lowest in the Liga as eleven teams turned in ERAs of 5.41 or higher as just three pitchers with enough innings to qualify for the ERA title were below 4.00. Union Laguna's staff were particularly battered by the new Franklin ball, as the Algodoneros coughed up 12.18 hits and 8.28 runs per contest, both league highs. Numbers like these, taken in perspective, show just what a great year Yucatan right-hander Cesar Valdez had.
Valdez, who previously spent time in MLB with Arizona, Oakland and Toronto, went 15-2 for the Leones to easily lead the Liga in wins while also taking the ERA title with a relatively-microscopic 2.26 ERA along with an equally-low 1.06 WHIP. also best in the league. Valdez didn't lose his first game until June 28 (nearly three months into the season) and allowed more than two runs just four times in 24 starts after being shelled for five runs on ten hits over five innings in his first start of the year on April 5 at Monterrey. Beginning with the LMB's Fall season last year, Valdez has gone a combined 23-2 for the Leones and the winterball Licey Tigres of the Dominican League. He also finished fifth in strikeouts with 122 whiffs in 147.2 innings (Leon's Yasutomo Kubo was tops with 154 punchouts) and is the easy choice for Pitcher of the Year. Roman Mendez of Dos Laredos earned saves in his last two outings to finish with 32 to top Monterrey closer Wirfin Obispo by two for most in the LMB while Tijuana middleman Jesus Pirela's 30 holds easily led in that category.
TOROS TOP LMB IN ATTENDANCE, CROWDS UP FROM FALL 2018
Following a moribund Fall 2018 season during which Mexican League attendance fell to alarming levels in some markets during the Fall season, 15 of 16 LMB teams witnessed growth at the game this summer as the average per opening snuck over the 5,000 mark. However, that increase doesn't tell the complete story as several Liga franchises continue to struggle at the gate.
Tijuana led the league in attendance for the second season in a row with 677,464 fans clicking the turnstiles for an average of 11,291 per opening, an increase of nearly 2,000 per game from last Fall's 9,358. The Toros were the only team in Minor League Baseball to average double figures in attendance this year. Defending champion Monterrey was second at 546,804 for the season, averaging 9,593 per game, while Yucatan was third with an 8,673 average for a total of 520,350 over 60 dates. Mexico City saw a huge increase in ticket sales with the opening of Estadio Alfredo Harp Helu. The Diablos averaged just 2,613 fans per game in Fall 2018 for their final season at Estadio Fray Nano before pulling in 7,156 aficionados at their new state-of-the-art ballpark in 2019, a jump of 274 percent.
Every team but Monclova saw an increase in attendance from last Fall. The Acereros finished fifth in the league after dipping from a 6,017 average in Fall 2018 to 5,917 this year, a negligible difference. Even though they finished dead last for the third season in a row (including Spring 2018), Campeche went from a nadir of 855 warm bodies per game last Fall to a 1,743 average over 50 dates this year, more than doubling the number of spectators at Estadio Nelson Barrera. Across the Liga, attendance totalled 4,603,163 fans over 913 playing dates in 2019 for an average of 5,042 per opening. In comparison to the LMB's average of 3,914 per contest last Fall (1,675,165 over 428 openings in the second short season in 2018), crowds went up 29 percent this year.
The LMB office in Mexico City can be justifiably happy with their attendance gains this year, but the 94-year-old loop still has work to do. Overall attendance during the Spring 2018 season was better, with three teams averaging double figures: Monterrey (12,878), Tijuana (10,123) and Yucatan (10,060). Twelve LMB teams drew better last Spring than they did in the Fall as fan interest plummeted in many Liga cities after the Spring playoffs concluded just days before the Fall season began. The combined attendance numbers for the Spring and Fall seasons in 2018 were 3,785,858 for 920 games, an average of 4,115 per date. The Spring average of 4,290 shows that while teams at the top were drawing well, those eleven teams pulling in less than 4,000 a night kept the overall totals down. In 2017, the LMB's last full schedule before the two-season format was tried last year, league attendance was 4,042,605 (for an average of 4,695).
In his recent Out 27 column posted on Puro Beisbol, David Braverman (one of Mexico's most respected baseball writers) decries the disparity between the Haves and Have Nots of the Mexican League, saying that one result is that fans of Have Not teams have steadily lost interest in spending a night at the ballpark, even in cities with a long history of baseball. Braverman names Aguascalientes, Durango, Dos Larendos and Union Laguna among LMB North teams as that division's Have Nots, joined by Campeche, Tabasco and Leon in the LMB South.
"At the start of the campaign, the owners promise competitive teams, announce hirings and there is optimism," says Braverman. "But within a few weeks everything changes and fans begin to be absent from the stadiums and, little by little, that communion between team and grandstand is lost...What's next for those losing places? What's next for a league that can't balance its forces? What follows for those cities where the board has thrown in the towel, putting the franchise on sale?"
Braverman points an accusatory finger at embattled LMB president Javier Salinas, saying the Have Nots are "the usual losers in a Mexican League that has refused to progress, that has lived two years in the midst of false promises and cheap verbiage, an absolute baseball illiteracy among the leader and some of his squires."
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Mexican League Stories from September 2, 2019
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