by Bruce Baskin
February 10, 2020 - Mexican League (ML)
CULIACAN WINS LMP FINALS IN 7, ON TO PUERTO RICO
Former Yankees infielder Ramiro Pena belted a pair of homers and drove in five runs while starter Anthony Vazquez combined with four relievers to toss a shutout as the Culiacan Tomateros blasted the Mazatlan Venados, 11-0, on January 30 in Game Seven of the Mexican Pacific League Championship Series. An overflow crowd of 20,000 looked on at Estadio Tomateros as Culiacan ran away with the deciding game to win the set, 4 games to 3, to win their second pennant in three seasons and 12th LMP flag overall while punching their ticket to the Caribbean Series, which was scheduled to open February 1 in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
The Tomateros finished the regular season with a 37-29 overall record, fourth-best in the MexPac, but put together a playoff run during which they eliminated Mexicali in five games in the first round and outlasted Los Mochis in seven games before meeting Mazatlan in the title series. The Venados opened with a six-game win over Hermosillo and knocked out top seed Obregon in seven games to reach the championship series, which began January 22 in Culiacan.
The Tomateros drew first blood in the series opener by bopping the Venados, 6-2, thanks in part to fifth-inning homers from Pena, Dariel Alvarez (a two-run shot) and Efren Navarro, the first two coming off Mazatlan starter Irwin Delgado. Delgado also served up a third-inning roundtripper to Joey Meneses but was deadlocked in a 1-1 game with Culiacan starter Manny Barreda until the roof fell in for the visitors with the Tomateros' four-run outburst in the fifth. Barreda earned the win while Delgado was tagged with the defeat.
Game Two on January 23 didn't go any better for the Venados, as Culiacan held on for a 4-3 win to go up 2 games to 0. Meneses whacked his second homer in as many nights in the bottom of the second to put the Tomateros up, 1-0, but the two teams jousted all the way into the seventh frame, when Sebastian Valle socked a four-bagger for Mazatlan in the top of the inning to pull the Deer into a 3-3 tie. However, in the bottom of the seventh, Pena ripped a two-out double to left off Venados reliever Mitch Lively, who was then replaced by Roman Pena. The next batter, Sebastian Elizalde, then lined a 1-1 pitch to right, scoring Ramiro Pena to give the Tomateros a 4-3 lead they would maintain the final two innings for the victory.
The series shifted to Mazatlan for the next trio of games, with Game Three on January 25 resulting in a 7-0 Venados win as Juan Pablo Oramas scattered five hits and striking out seven Culiacan batsmen in seven innings to earn the win. The batting star for the home team was Ricky Alvarez, whose two-run homer in the bottom of the third gave the Venados a 3-0 lead and bases-loaded bloop single to left one frame later plated two more runs made it a 6-0 Mazatlan advantage, leaving it to Oramas and four relievers to carry the shutout to its conclusion. Tomateros starter Anthony Vasquez, who dished up Alvarez' longball, was saddled with the defeat.
Mazatlan evened things up at two games apiece on January 26 with their second whitewash in as many nights (and the third such game of the series), 3-0, behind a strong Game Four outing by Edgar Torres. The 23-year-old Puebla native was a middleman for Durango during the 2019 Mexican League season before going 4-6 as a starter with the Venados. He went 6.1 scoreless innings and allowed just three hits while walking none before giving way to Daniel Guerrero and two other relievers as Tiago da Silva nailed down the save in the ninth. The game was scoreless until the bottom of the sixth, when Mazatlan cobbled together three runs on two singles, three walks and two wild pitches off Culiacan starter Manny Banuelos (who took the loss) and two relievers.
The Tomateros bounced back on January 27 to pick up the first win by a visiting team in a 3-2 Game Five win over the Venados in ten innings. Mazatlan's Jorge Flores led off the bottom of the first with a walk and later came around to score on a Carlos Munoz single to give the Deer an early 1-0 lead. The score held until a sloppy top of the eighth, when Culiacan tied the game on an RBI single by Rico Noel, who advanced to second on the play. Noel subsequently stole third and then scored the go-ahead run on a Ramiro Pena sacrifice fly. The Venados knotted the game at 2-2 when Alberto Baldonado gave up a bases-loaded walk that pushed Anthony Giansanti in from third, but Culiacan went ahead for good in the top of the tenth when another Noel single (this one off da Silva) brought in Christian Zazueta with the eventual game-winner. Derrick Loop tossed a scoreless tenth to save the win for Baldonado.
The series resumed with a January 29 Game Six in Culiacan. Mazatlan earned THEIR first road win by topping the Tomateros, 6-2, tying the finals in a game that was closer than the score indicated. The Venados went up 1-0 in the top of the first when Edson Garcia scored on Ricky Alvarez' bases-loaded dribbler off Culiacan starter Zack Dodson to third, where Zazueta chose to throw to Pena at second to force Carlos Munoz. A Ramon Rios homer off reliever Loop in the top of the seventh gave the Deer a 2-0 lead but the game was blown open in the top of the eighth, when the visitors scored four more times (with veteran Chris Roberson clubbing a three-run homer) to make it 6-0. A two-run Efren Navarro double in the bottom of the ninth put the Tomateros on the board but it was too little, too late. Mitch Lively got the win after pitching eight shutout innings of five-hit ball, striking out seven. Dodson took the loss despite giving up only one run on four hits in five entradas.
That led to a deciding Game Seven on January 30, a contest that was basically over by the end of the first inning when Culiacan scored four runs and never looked back. The damage was done when Meneses and Alvarez poked back-to-back RBI doubles, followed by an Elizade homer that scored Alvarez. All came off Mazatlan starter Oramas, who showed none of his Game Three magic (although he did last into the third. The Venados did not lack for baserunners, gathering eleven hits and three walks off Tomateros starter Vasquez. However, they went 1-for-9 with runners in scoring position en route to leaving 13 runners stranded on bases in what was a less-than-artistic shutout for Culiacan manager Benji Gil's team (but one they gladly took as a pennant-clincher).
The Tomateros had precious little time to celebrate their win. The team immediately packed their gear and headed out to San Juan, Puerto Rico for the Caribbean Series. Culiacan's first Serie del Caribe game was scheduled less than two day days after clinching the LMP pennant with a Saturday afternoon game against the Dominican League champion Este Toros at 2:30PM in Estadio Hiram Bithorn.
CUBA NO, COLOMBIA SI IN SIX-TEAM CARIBBEAN SERIES FIELD
The Caribbean Series will feature a six-team field for the second year in a row, but there will be a first-time entrant in Puerto Rico after another country bowed out of the competition.
Cuba, a charter member of the original Caribbean Series from 1949 until it was halted after the 1960 tournament, when Cuban dictator Fidel Castro (ironically a lifelong baseball fan and former player) ended professionalism in his county and withdrew seven-time CS winners Cuba from the competition. The tournament was resumed in 1970, with Mexico and the Dominican Republic replacing Cuba and Panama in the four-nation lineup that also included Venezuela and Puerto Rico. Panama returned on an emergency basis last winter, hosting the event in the nation's capital and stunning the baseball world by winning it.
Cuba had returned to the CS lineup on a conditional basis in 2014 and their National Series champions Pinar de Rio winning the event one year later in San Juan. The island nation even altered their National Series schedule so their champion could participate in the Serie del Caribe (the 2019-20 CNS championship was won by Matanzas), but the Cuban Baseball Federation pulled out of the Caribbean Series for this year, citing difficulty in obtaining travel visas to Puerto Rico in time for the event, leaving the tournament with only five national winterball champions.
Pro baseball in the South American nation dates back to at least 1948. Since 2013, the champion of the Colombia Professional Baseball League has taken part in the Latin American Series, a lower-tier competition similar to the CS won by LCBP champions twice (in 2014 and 2015) that had been scheduled to take place in Panama City last month but ended up being cancelled due to CS "call-ups" to Panama and Colombia plus the apparent demise of the Veracruz Winter League in Mexico, leaving Nicaragua as the only nation able to send a team to the competition.
Like Panama, Colombia is playing in the CS on a provisional basis until it can prove capable of competing with existing Serie del Caribe nations both on the field and in the ability to host the event in the future. The LCBP is headed by former MLB shortstop Edgar Renteria, who has a 12,000-seat ballpark named after him in Barranquilla. While the LCBP pennant-winning Monteria Vaqueros are not expected to contend for a Caribbean Series title this year, expectations were similarly low for the Panamanian champion Herrera Toros last February and all they did was win the tournament. This year, the Panamanian Professional Baseball League (Probeis) will send the expansion Chiriqui Astronautas to San Juan hoping the Cinderella slipper still fits.
While the CS will feature relative newcomers from Panama and Colombia, four mainstays will be back in the lineup. The Lara Cardenales will represent Venezuela for the second year in a row and sixth time overall. The Cardenales began playing in 1942 and have at times featured players like Cecil Fielder, Shawn Green, Felix Hernandez and late Hall of Famer Roy Halladay. The Lara roster this winter included some players familiar to fans of Mexican baseball: 2017 LMB Pitcher of the Year Nestor Molina, Leon Bravos third baseman Carlos Rivero and outfielder Yordanys Linares, who has played in both the LMB and LMP. Lara is managed by former infielder Luis Ugueto, who spent parts of two seasons with the Seattle Mariners.
The Dominican champion Este Toros, formerly known as the Este Azucareros, are one of the younger teams in the Caribbean Series, having only played since 1983. Based in La Romana, the Toros are playing in their third CS (and first since 2011). Este has a distinctly Mexican flavor to their roster, starting with manager Lino Rivera, who pitched for Monclova in the early 2000's before taking over as Acereros manager in 2004. He went on to manage in Yucatan for several years, including the 2006 Mexican League champion Leones. Among Rivera's Toros players are current Monterrey closer Wirfin Obispo, Aguascalientes reliever Anthony Carter, Unon Lagna starter Frankie de la Cruz and a quartet of outfielders who've played in Mexico: Felix Pie, Junior Lake, Jordany Valdespin and Ruben Sosa.
The host Santurce Cangrejeros need no introduction to Latin baseball fans. The team goes back to 1939 and has over the years featured Hall of Famers Willie Mays, Willard Brown, Roberto Clemente, Satchel Paige, Monte Irvin, Orlando Cepeda, Tony Perez and Reggie Jackson. Santurce has won 16 league championships over the years and copped five Serie del Caribe titles. While the current incarnation of the Cangrejeros don't have any Cooperstown-bound players on their roster, manager Jose Valentin does have a solid crew of ballplayers including 2017 Caribbean Series MVP David Vidal (who plays for the Mexico City Diablos in the summer), former Cleveland pitcher and two-time WBC hurler Giovanni Soto, ex-MLB infielder Ivan DeJesus Jr. and onetime MLB outfielder Ray Fuentes. Playing in their home ballpark, Santurce should be one of the favorites going into the CS.
The Culiacan Tomateros arrived in San Juan on the heels of their 12th Mexican Pacific League pennants, eight of them under the late Francisco "Paquin" Estrada and three more under current skipper Benji Gil. Estrada led Culiacan to two Caribbean Series titles. While pro baseball in the Sinaloa city dates as far back as 1945, the current Tomateros franchise was founded in 1975 and has consistently contended tor championships ever since. Although Culiacan hasn't had the list of Hall of Fame players Santurce has, they've had contributions over the years from such Mexican baseball stalwarts as Nelson Barrera, Francisco Campos, Karim Garcia, Luis Alfonso Cruz, Cy Acosta, Sid Monge, Luis Ayala and Salome Barojas. This winter's edition has been led offensively by Joey Meneses, Christian Zazueta, Rico Noel, Sebastian Elizalde and MexPac MVP Dariel Alvarez while the pitching has been paced by closer Alberto Baldonado, starters Manny Barreda and J.C. Ramirez and swingman Aldo Montes.
This year's Caribbean Series will consist of five tripleheaders between February 1-5 at Hiram Bithorn Stadium for the first round of games in which teams will meet each other once, followed by a semifinal doubleheader on February 6 and the championship game on February 7 at 8:00PM.
2020 CARIBBEAN SERIES SCHEDULE
Saturday, February 1: Monteria (COL) at Lara (VEN) 10AM, Culiacan (MEX) at Este (DOM) 2:30PM, Chiriqui (PAN) at Santurce (PR) 8PM.
Sunday, February 2: Monteria (COL) at Chiriqui (PAN) 10AM, Santurce (PR) at Culiacan (MEX) 2:30PM, Lara (VEN) at Este (DOM) 8PM.
Monday, February 3: Chiriqui (PAN) at Culiacan (MEX) 10AM, Este (DOM) at Monteria (COL) 2:30PM, Santurce (PR) at Lara (VEN) 8PM.
Tuesday, February 4: Chiriqui (PAN) at Este (DOM) 10AM, Culiacan (MEX) at Lara (VEN) 2:30PM, Monteria (COL) at Santurce (PR) 8:00PM.
Wednesday, February 5: Lara (VEN) at Chiriqui (PAN) 10AM, Monteria (COL) at Culiacan (MEX) 2:30PM, Este (DOM) at Santurce (PR) 8PM.
Thursday, February 6: Fourth Place at First Place 2:30PM, Third Place at Second Place 8PM.
Friday, February 7: Winner Semi One vs. Winner Semi Two 8PM.
DARIEL ALVAREZ NAMED MEXPAC MVP FOR 2019-20
Jalisco Charros outfielder Dariel Alvarez has been named the Most Valuable Player of the Mexican Pacific League for the 2019-20 season. The native of Camaguey, Cuba received 71.1 percent of ballots cast for the award, beating out Jesus "Cacao" Valdez of Obregon, Culiacan's Sebastian Elizalde and Yadiel Hernandez of Hermosillo.
Alvarez, who is a reinforcement with Culiacan in Puerto Rico for the Caribbean Series, had a banner year with the Charros. He led the MexPac with 16 homers (the most for a single LMP season since Obregon's Jesse Gutierrez whacked 20 longballs in 2011-12) and 56 RBIs while compiling a .301 batting average. Alvarez also led the Mex Pac in total bases (135) and slugging percentage (.527) while striking out just 35 times in 281 plate appearances. His MVP season comes on the heels of a Mexican League campaign split in which he hit .288 with 18 homers and 80 RBIs in 117 games for Tijuana and Saltillo.
The 31-year-old Alvarez had quite a journey before coming to Mexico. He debuted at 17 with his hometown Camaguey Ganaderos of the Cuban National Series in 2006-07 and went on to play six winters with the Ranchers, including a huge 2010-11 campaign that saw him bat .363 with 20 homers and 81 ribbies in 90 games. One year later, Alvarez defected to Mexico and played one season in the Veracruz Winter League, batting .354 for the Tuxpan Tigres in 2012-13. Scouts from seven MLB organizations attended a 2013 workout in Fort Lauderdale, Florida but it was the Baltimore Orioles (who did not have a representative at the Florida workout) who outbid everyone to sign him.
That began a quick rise for Alvarez through the Baltimore system, beginning with the Orioles' Gulf Coast League Rookie team for three games in August 2013 (he hit .444) and two weeks at Class A Frederick of the Carolina League (.436 in ten games), nine games at Bowie of the Class AA Eastern League (a wall-hitting .194) and a month with Surprise of the Arizona Fall League (.239 in 19 games) before presumably collapsing from exhaustion. Alvarez spent the next three seasons bouncing between Bowie and Norfolk of the AAA International League, generally batting between .275 with occasional power and earning midsummer call-ups to Baltimore in 2015 and 2016 (hitting a combined .250 with a solo homer off Kansas City's Danny Duffy over 14 games).
However, things went south in 2017 when the Orioles attempted to convert Alvarez into a pitcher. He'd tossed a few innings in relief for Camaguey before defecting, but the experiment resulted in Tommy John surgery that caused him to miss the entire 2017 season and his 2018 release after struggling in two appearances out of the bullpen for the O's GCL affiliate. Alvarez spent last winter in Guadalajara with the Charros, returning to the outfield and hitting .315 with 14 homers (second to Navojoa's Jovan Rosa) before signing with Tijuana prior to the 2019 LMB season.
Other postseason award-winners in the LMP are Los Mochis righthander Yoanys Quiala as Pitcher of the Year, Obregon skipper Sergio Gastelum copped his second consecutive Manager of the Year trophy, Hermosillo infielder Alex Robles was tabbed Rookie of the Year, Obregon pitcher Samuel Zazueta for Reliever of the Year,
EX-MLB P, VERACRUZ STATE LEAGUE FOUNDER ELVIRA MURDERED
A former Milwaukee Brewers pitcher and the only Mexican to pitch a no-hitter in Japan before founding a winter league in his home state of Veracruz after his retirement has been murdered, along with his 20-year-old son. Narcisco Elvira and his son were reportedly driving on a road outside the town of Paso del Toro on January 28 when armed men ambushed their car. Eyewitnesses to the attack said the two victims tried to flee the scene on foot but were gunned down after the assailants opened fire. The elder Elvira was 52 years old while son Gustavo was 20.
The incident marks a tragic end to what had been a fascinating life inside and outside baseball for Elvira, who was born October 29, 1967 in Tlalixcoyan, Veracruz. As a 19-year-old lefthander, his rights were sold by Mexican League Leon Bravos to the Milwaukee Brewers in December 1986. The Brewers assigned Elvira to Beloit of the Class A Midwest League in 1987 and he went 3-0 with a 1.67 ERA in four starts for the Snappers that year. Elvira was called up to the big club late in the 1990 season and made his debut on September 9, giving up a run on two hits with a strikeout pitching the ninth inning of a home loss to Detroit. Elvira made three more relief appearances that month, including 2.1 scoreless innings against the Yankees in what would be his last MLB game on September 28, finishing his abbreviated major league career with an 0-0 record and a 5.40 ERA over five innings with six strikeouts and five walks.
After spending the 1990's bouncing between MiLB and the Mexican League (mostly with Monterrey), Elvira was signed by the Kintetsu Buffaloes of Japan's Pacific League in 2000 at age 32. In two years with the Osaka club, primarily as a starter, he was a combined 7-8 with a 4.79 ERA but made history as the first Latin American pitcher to toss a no-hitter when he banked the Seibu Lions on June 20, 2000. Elvira was no stranger to no-nos, having hurled TWO of them for Monterrey in 1999. He later pitched two years in South Korea with the Samsung Lions, going 13-6 with a 2.50 ERA in 2002, before returning to Mexico for good to pitch for Campeche. Elvira's last full season with the Piratas was in 2006, although he did come out of retirement at 41 to make two appearances (one of them a start) for Minatitlan in 2009 before hanging up his spikes for good.
After his playing career concluded, Elvira went into ranching at home in Veracruz, employing about 100 people. He made headlines in 2015 when he was kidnapped by men who claimed they were with the Gulf drug cartel, and was held captive for 23 days until police found him chained to a tree. He said that the time that he had given up hope when his captors told him the ransom hadn't been paid. Despite that incident, Elvira stayed in Veracruz. "I like it here," he once said, "to be with my people, those who saw me grow up. I wanted to be back here with them."
Even though he was no longer a pitcher, Elvira was never far from baseball. When the original Veracruz Winter League folded after the 2015-16 season, he stepped up and organized the four-team Veracruz State Baseball League for the 2016-17 winterball campaign. The LBEV did not operate at the same level as its predecessors, relying on homegrown prospects playing a weekend-only schedule in front of sparse crowds, but Elvira was able to bankroll them through two seasons with the Xalapa Chileros and Acayucan Tobis, respectively, winning pennants and competing in the Latin American Series. The LBEV shut down after sisters Regina and Fabiola Vazquez Saut, co-owners of the Acayucan team and politicians affiliated with the PRI, restarted the LIV in 2018 for one season before that circuit apparently closed down this winter due to financial instability.
FERMIN COMMISSIONED AS NEW FIELD GENERAL IN DURANGO
While most North American baseball fans remember Felix Fermin as a smooth-fielding shortstop who was once traded for a future Hall of Fame shortstop, their counterparts in Mexico think of Fermin as a former big leaguer who's gone on to be a pretty good manager capable of putting together winning teams under sometimes less then ideal conditions. The 56-year-old Dominican well get another chance to spin silk out of a cow's ear after being picked as the Durango Generales' new helmsman.
Durango will be Fermin's sixth managerial stop in the Mexican League since he began as Monterrey's dugout boss in 2007. That would turn out to be El Gato's longest tenure leading an LMB team, as he spent four mostly-successful seasons directing the Sultanes' on-field fortunes. His first season was his best as Fermin managed Monterrey to a Liga-best 69-39 record and the Liga pennant. Fermin had a solid second year in 2008 as the Sultanes won their second consecutive LMB North title (after coming in third at 64-46) and reaching the Serie del Rey, where they lost to the Mexico City Diablos Rojos in five games, but the team struggled to a 51-56 season in 2009 and missed the postseason altogether. Despite a 2010 rebound that saw Monterrey finish second in the North at 58-49 and winning their first round playoff series before falling to Saltillo in the division championship series, Fermin was fired after the season. Despite that setback, managers with 242-188 records and one pennant at their last stop usually find work in Mexico and it only took Fermin a year to land his next job.
Instead of working for an established team with a storied past in a city that has historically supported its team, however, he took the reins of the Carmen Delfines, a 2012 LMB expansion team in a resort city with no history of baseball beyond four years in the late 1960's when the Cameroneros played in the long-forgotten Class A Mexican Southeast League. Although Fermin had a handful of decent players like ex-Rangers outfielder Ruben Mateo and former Rays starting pitcher Tim Corcoran, the Delfines stumbled to a 51-60 record and a fifth-place finish in the LMB South. Things went much better in Carmen's second year as the Delfines finished first in the LMB South at 63-46, thanks in part to Mateo's .322/37/119 season and the addition of ex-Yankee outfielder Ruben Rivera (.313/22/80 with 23 steals), but lost to fourth-place Veracruz in the first playoff round. Carmen reached the playoffs again in 2014 with a 57-54 regular season and a play-in win over Oaxaca, but the Delfines were bounced in the first round by Quintana Roo and after a 51-59 season in 2015, Fermin was bounced to the unemployment line. Ironically, the Delfines lasted one more season in Carmen until the team itself was bounced to (wait for it) Durango, where they became the Generales in 2017.
Fermin has since managed in Monterrey (again) in 2016 and 2017, leading the Sultanes to an aggregate record of 140-80 but losing to archrival Tijuana in the MLB North finals both years, which led to owner Jose Maiz firing him a second time. El Gato then led Dos Laredos to a 33-24 record in the Fall 2018 season before losing to Monclova in five games in their first-round series. Despite a respectable 21-15 record six weeks into the 2019 season, Tecos owner Jose Antonio Mansur replaced Fermin with Alfonso "Houston" Jimenez, yet another former MLB shortstop who led Dos Laredos to a 39-45 mark the rest of the way. Fermin didn't stay jobless long, however. Two days later, he was brought to Aguascalientes to take over for the deposed Joe Alvarez, who left the Rieleros at 17-22. Despite toiling for one of the LMB's most perpetually-underfunded franchises, Fermin was able to coax the Railroaders to a 17-8 record in August (best in the Liga that month), including a six-game winning streak to salvage an otherwise lost 54-64 season, with a 37-42 register under Fermin.
And now it's on to Durango for the peripatetic Fermin, who will be replaced in the Aguascalientes dugout by former Baltimore pitcher Luis Carlos Rivera. Oh, that shortstop that the Seattle Mariners traded to Cleveland (along with designated hitter Reggie Jefferson) so they could install El Gato at the same position in the Kingdome? A 26-year-old career .252 hitter named Omar Vizquel, Tijuana's new manager and someone who'll likely be selected to Cooperstown before his ten years of BBWA eligibility are over.
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