by Bruce Baskin
August 30, 2022 - Mexican League (ML)
TIJUANA, SULTANES ADVANCE TO LMB NORTH FINALS
It took them six games to do it, but the Tijuana Toros took one step closer to repeating as Mexican League pennant-winners by defeating 2020 champion Monclova in their Northern Division semifinal series. Tijuana clinched their 6-games-to-2 set victory last Friday with a 12-5 pounding of the Acereros at home before 17,193 fans in a jampacked Estadio Nacional.
The Toros led 5-0 after two innings after Leandro Castro's two-run homer capped a three-run first against Monclova starter Eduardo Vera. Castro then rapped a bases-clearing double off Wilmer Rios, who came on in relief, in the second. Efren Navarro's three-run roundtripper in the fourth off Ernesto Zaragosa, who took over for Rios, made it an 8-0 contest and TJ's win was all but assured.
The Acereros did score three runs in the sixth as 13-year LMB veteran Chris Roberson contributed an RBI single while former Cubs All-Star Addison Russell's two-out homer in the eighth off Tijuana reliever Sam Dyson accounted for Monclova's final two runs. Humberto Mejia got the win by pitching five innings of three-run ball while the loss went to Vera.
The Acereros had actually taken a 2-games-to-1 lead last Monday with an 11-7 win thanks to a six-run seventh featuring homers by Chris Carter and Keon Broxton after trailing 5-0 earlier in the tilt. Tijuana then won the next three games, starting with Tuesday's 15-2 drubbing in Monclova as Junior Lake, Felix Perez and Castro each had three hits and three RBIs. Perez then clubbed two more homers one night later, driving in four runs in a 9-2 Toros win as a third straight sellout crowd of 8,500 looked on at Estadio Monclova, setting up Friday's series-closing game in TJ.
Monterrey won the first two games of their LMB North semi set with Dos Laredos before dropping a 4-2 contest last Monday as Balbino Fuenmayor's two run homer in the top of the 13th off Sultanes reliever Miguel Aguilar held up to give the Tecolotes their lone win before 15,062 onlookers at Estadio Monterrey. Tuesday's starter Cristian Castillo gave Monterrey skipper Roberto Kelly five innings of one-run pitching while Orlando Calixte singled, doubled and scored twice in a 5-1 Sultanes win with 15,395 in the stands at home and Monterrey ended the division semi set on Wednesday with a solid 7-2 triumph with Zoilo Almonte's RBI double in the second giving the Sultanes a 2-1 lead that they would never relinquish. The midweek date and a rain delay dropped attendance to 12,160 but co-owner Jose "Pepe" Maiz had to be happy with the three-game turnout exceeding 42,000 in Mexico's largest ballpark.
The Sultanes and Toros were scheduled to open the LMB North championship series Monday night at Tijuana in what has become perhaps the most bitter rivalry in the Mexican League over the past few years. Monterrey owner Maiz (a firm believer in relying on homegrown talent) has taken deep exception to Toros owner Alberto Uribe and family paying large amounts of money to import foreign players to the border city, a sentiment the 1957 Little League World Series champion likely harbors towards Monclova's similarly free-spending owner Gerardo Benavides.
Whatever the front office methodology, Tijuana and Monterrey finished 1-2 in the LMB attendance derby this year and it would surprise nobody if more than 50,000 fans attend the first four games of this series, which marks the sixth time in the Toros' nine years of existence that they have met the Gray Ghosts in the postseason. Monterrey holds a 3-2 lead in that context but Tijuana's LMB North title wins in 2016 and 2017 were what touched off the rivalry that transcends the playing field.
DIABLOS BASH PUEBLA, FACE YUCATAN FOR SOUTH TITLE
The Mexico City Diablos Rojos won the Mexican League South Division regular season title in no small part to an offense that produced 7.3 runs per game (highest in the LMB) with a .320 team batting average, which ranked fourth in the circuit as the Red Devils were the only LMB South club among seven who topped the .300 mark. That the capital city congregation's playoff hopes would sink or swim on the strength of their bats was a foregone conclusion, but Mexico City has put on a postseason fireworks that has been nothing short of awesome.
In sweeping both their first round and division semifinal series, the Diablos outscored Veracruz and Puebla by an aggregate 94-45 score, an average of 11.75 per game. The Aguilas were able to hold Mexico City to 8 and 4 runs over the final two games of their opening round set, but the Pericos allowed 57 runs (14.25 per game) during the Diablos' broom job in their series. To their credit, Puebla averaged 7.5 runs in their division semi but when your pitchers allow 63 hits (including 13 homers) over four games, you're not likely going to win many games.
The Diablos closed out their dominant series win last Wednesday by throttling the Pericos, 15-5, in Puebla. After a scoreless first inning, Mexico City torched Pericos starter Kurt Heyer and reliever Braulio Torres-Perez for nine runs on nine hits, including Julian Leon's fourth homer of the series (a two-run bomb off Heyer) and a three-run shot by Juan Carlos Gamboa off Torres-Perez in the fourth. Danny Ortiz, who has hit 94 longballs in 265 games over three seasons in Puebla, captured the spirit of the thing with solo homers off starter William Cuevas in the fourth and reliever Edgar Torres in the sixth but the visitors were up 12-1 when the latter shot came and the outcome of both game and series were no longer in doubt.
After going 1-for-8 over the first two games against the Pericos, veteran slugger Japhet Amador went 7-for-9 (including a homer and a double) with five runs and five RBIs to finish the semis with a .477 average. The hottest bat, however, belonged to Diablos catcher Julian Leon. A 28-year-old former Dodgers and Angels minor leaguer, Leon followed up a decent but unremarkable regular season (.301 with 8 homers in 48 games) and an 0-for-7 performance over two games against Veracruz in the first round with a dominant series against Puebla, batting 10-for-18 (.556) with four homers, 13 RBIs and 6 runs.
It's unlikely that Leon and the Diablos will match their output against Yucatan in the LMB South divisional finals. Since joining the Liga in 1954, the Leones have built their reputation on pitching and defense. Both were on prominent display in their series-ending 6-0 Game Five win over Quintana Roo last Thursday in Cancun. Starter Henderson Alvarez, a 2014 All-Star with Miami who led the National League with three shutouts that year, tossed a complete game shutout for the Leones, scattering five singles over nine innings, striking out five and walking none while his defense played errorless ball and turned a pair of double plays as he won his second game against the Tigres. Thirteen-year veteran catcher Luis Juarez socked a three-run homer in the top of the first and that was all Alvarez would need.
Alvarez won Game One as well, a 9-1 laugher on August 20 that featured a three-run homer by Art Charles. Game Two on August 21 was more of the same, with another Charles three-run blast keying a 5-4 win. The series shifted to Cancun for the next three games, starting with a homer-filled (8 HRs between the two teams) 11-8 Yucatan win last Tuesday in which the Leones were their own worst enemies, with the visitors batting 5-for-19 with runners in scoring position and leaving 13 runners on base. The Tigres showed some fight with a 6-4 Game Four win last Wednesday as Ramon Bramasco lined a dramatic two-run walkoff homer to right center off reliever Tim Peterson on a 1-2 count with two out for the triumph. A former University of Washington shortstop, Bramasco hit one regular season homer for the Tigres after hitting no roundtrippers in three collegiate seasons. All three games at Cancun's refurbished Estadio Beto Avila drew in excess of 9,000 fans, nearing the facility's listed 9,500-seat capacity.
Like their counterparts to the north, the Diablos and Leones have a long history of facing each other over the past seven decades, albeit without the intensity that marks the Tijuana-Monterrey rivalry. Despite both clubs being in the Mexican League for so long, Mexico City and Yucatan have met only 12 times in the playoffs. Although the Diablos have a 7-5 overall advantage, the Leones have topped Mexico City twice (2019 and 2021) for the LMB South championship. This year's South Division title set will open Tuesday night in Mexico City.
All division championship series games will be available via streaming. The Tijuana-Monterrey LMB North title set is being carried on various ESPN and Star+ channels while the Mexico City-Yucatan LMB South series can be watched on Fox Sports 2, Claro Sports, TUDN, AYM, ViX+, Azteca Deportes, and Sipse. Both series will be streamed live and on-demand on Jonron.TV, as will next month's Serie del Rey between the two division champions.
ROBERTO OSUNA NOW PITCHING IN JAPANESE LEAGUES
One pitcher who started the 2022 season strong for Mexico City but is not likely to pitch for the Diablos Rojos during the playoffs is former MLB All-Star closer Roberto Osuna.
A nephew of one-time reliever Antonio Osuna, who pitched in 411 games over 11 major league seasons between 1995 and 2005, the younger Osuna had established himself as one of the game's top closers by averaging 31 saves over a five-year period, gaining an All-Star Game selection in 2014 with Toronto and leading the American League with 38 saves in 2019 for Houston, although a domestic violence charge that was settled out of court hastened his exit from Canada.
However, the Sinaloa native came down with an elbow injury that erased his 2020 season after just four appearances and the Astros placed him on waivers following the campaign after he turned down Tommy John surgery in favor of a rest-and-rehab approach. After holding a showcase in the Dominican Republic the following March but receiving no offers from an MLB team as a free agent, Osuna then signed with the Diablos Rojos two months later. He spent the rest of the abbreviated 2021 Mexican League season in Mexico City, going 3-0 with 12 saves in 24 appearances and turning in a 1.09 ERA (striking out 27 batters with just three walks in 24.2 innings).
After spending the winter pitching for his hometown Jalisco Charros in the Mexican Pacific League (5-2/11 saves/1.26 ERA in 28 appearances) and making four scoreless outings in the Caribbean Series, Osuna was back in Diablos Rojos togs this season. He got off to a hot start for the Red Devils and was 2-0 with six saves and a 1.35 ERA after his first 12 appearances when he got a call from Japan's Chiba Lotte Mariners of NPB's Pacific League and signed a contract with the team on June 11. Terms were not available.
Osuna, who turned 27 in February, has since pitched for both the Marines' Eastern League affiliate, giving up a pair of runs over three innings in as many relief appearances, but has spent most of the past ten weeks with the big club, where's he's been teammates with Mexican National Team member Brandon Laird, former Rangers center fielder Leonys Martin and one-time Marlins infielder Adeiny Hechavarria.
After 20 games out of the bullpen for the Marines (who are fifth in the Pacific League with a 56-59 record), Osuna is 3-0 with five saves, nine holds and a 0.90 ERA. Continuing to exhibit the pinpoint control he showed in Mexico City, the righty has struck out 23 NPB batters and issued just two walks over 20 innings pitched. The NPB regular season lasts into the first week of October, meaning Osuna's return to the Diablos Rojos for the playoffs is highly unlikely.
• Discuss this story on the Mexican League message board...
Mexican League Stories from August 30, 2022
- Baseball Mexico - OSC Original by Bruce Baskin
- Baseball Mexico - OSC Original by Bruce Baskin
- Baseball Mexico - OSC Original by Bruce Baskin
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the writer(s), and do not necessarily reflect the thoughts or opinions of OurSports Central or its staff.