by Bruce Baskin
September 6, 2022 - Mexican League (ML)
LEYVA KEEPS LEONES ALIVE; OJEDA SUSPENDED
The Mexican League South Division Championships are moving back to Mexico City for Game Six on Tuesday after pitcher Elian Leyva's masterful outing Sunday in Merida kept his Yucatan Leones afloat in their battle with the Diablos Rojos, who lead the best-of-7 series, 3-games-to-2.
Leyva, a two-time Mexican Pacific League Pitcher of the Year (including last winter), tossed seven shutout innings of one-hit ball Sunday as the Leones outlasted the Diablos, 2-0, in front of a third consecutive sellout crowd of 14,917 at venerable Parque Kukulkan. Leyva struck out eight Mexico City batters before leaving the scoreless tie after the top of the seventh. In the bottom of the frame, Art Charles lined a two-run homer to straightaway center field off Diablos reliever David Huff, who'd replaced starter Jeffry Nino after the latter had whitewashed Yucatan over the first six entradas. Charles' blast was enough as three Yucatan relievers held Mexico City scoreless over the final two innings with Jorge Rondon striking out the dangerous Roberto Ramos looking to end the contest, after which fans in Merida danced and sang in the ballpark's esplanade during a postgame concert by bands El Fresca and La Sentencia.
The series opened last Tuesday at Estadio Alfredo Harp Helu in the nation's capital with an 11-10 Diablos win in eleven innings. The contest featured five homers among the 36 combined hits from the two combatants, but it was a bases-loaded walkoff single from Jesus Fabela off Rondon that scored pinch-runner Antonio Castaneda that ended the tilt in the bottom of the eleventh as 14,528 fanaticos looked on. Juan Carlos Gamboa socked two homers for the winners, including a grand slam in the bottom of the first inning, while Charles belted a roundtripper for the Leones in the top of the tenth.
After a Tuesday rainout, Game Two of the LMB South title set was played last Wednesday as the Leones triumphed, 15-8, and did something Puebla was unable to achieve in their division semis against Mexico City: Hold the Diablos to less than 10 runs. As 18,851 watched, Yucatan scored 12 times between the third and sixth innings to take a 12-6 lead and never looked back. Yadir Drake homered and drove in four runs for the Lions while Luis Juarez went 3-for-5 and two RBIs. Moises Gutierrez led the Red Devils with two hits (including a homer) and two ribbies as every starting batter for both teams had at least one of the game's combined 31 hits except for Diablos catcher Julian Leon, the Puebla series hero who struck out three times. Sic transit gloria.
The series shifted to Merida for Game Three last Thursday, with the visiting Diablos taking an 8-3 win behind the bats of Julian Ornelas (who went 4-for-5 with two homers, scoring four runs and driving in three) and Gamboa, who had three hits, including an RBI single. Cristhian Adames hit a solo homer for the Leones while pinch-hitter Lazaro Alfonso socked a two-run bomb in the ninth to give the home crowd of 14,917 something to cheer about but it was too little, too late. Diablos reliever Huff got the win after going 2.1 scoreless innings and striking out four Yucatan batsmen while Leones starter Henderson Alvarez (5 innings, 4 runs) took the loss.
Another rainout delayed Game Four until Saturday, which saw another Mexico City road win in front of one more full house of 14,917 at Parque Kukulkan, albeit by a closer 6-5 score. The Leones led, 4-3, after one inning thanks to Josh Fuentes' two-run single, but the Diablos tied the tilt in the fifth and a Fabela bunt scored Gutierrez with the go-ahead run one frame later. Ramos had a resourceful night for the Red Devils as the former KBO star drove in three runs and scored once on a double, a sacrifice fly and a plunking by Hunter Cervenka while Gamboa stroked a two-run single in the first. Francisco Haro came out of the bullpen to replace starter Humberto Sosa two outs into the first and pitched 6.1 scoreless innings (allowing two hits and striking out 11) for the win. Jake Thompson, normally a starter for Yucatan, took the loss in relief after giving up Fabela's run-scoring sacrifice bunt during his two-inning stint as the Diablos found themselves one win away from the Serie del Rey going into Leyva's season-saving heroics on Sunday. Game Six is set for 8PM Eastern on Tuesday in Mexico City.
Not all the drama in the series has been on the field. Former big league and Liga catcher Miguel Ojeda, who managed Mexico City to their last pennant in 2014 and is now the team's sports manager, was suspended for a year by LMB president Horacio de la Vegas after it was discovered the Diablos used a television camera in center field to steal signs from Yucatan catcher Sebastian Valle during the first two games of the series at Estadio AHH. The Leones front office told de la Vega of their suspicions last week and after an investigation, Ojeda received his suspension Sunday, as did Diablos TV producer Marco Antonio Avila Toledo.
SULTANES SWEEP CHAMPS, ON TO SERIE DEL REY
Given the sometimes-heated nature of the rivalry between the Monterrey Sultanes and the defending Mexican League champion Tijuana Toros over the past few years, there was much anticipation going into their LMB North Championship Series last week. As it turned out, the anticipation exceeded the event as the Sultanes swept the Toros in four straight games to advance to the pennant-deciding Serie del Rey later this week.
Monterrey took the first two games at Tijuana's Estadio Nacional, opening the series last Monday with a 6-2 win over the Toros in front of 10,081 spectators. The Sultanes were paced offensively by homers from Sebastian Elizalde and Zoilo Almonte and Orlando Calixte's 3-for-5 night at the plate as starter Yohander Mendez turned in a strong five innings for the winners. Mendez, who was 7-0 and led the LMB with a 2.78 ERA during the regular season, gave up just one run on a Nick Williams triple in the fifth while striking out eight to earn the win as Agustin Murillo's RBI single in the eighth accounted for the Toros' other run. TJ starter Nick Struck didn't have a bad outing, going five innings and giving up 2 runs on 3 hits, but he couldn't match Mendez' mound mastery (no extra charge for the alliteration).
Game Two on Tuesday in Tijuana was more of the same as strong Monterrey pitching keyed a Sultanes road win, this time by a 4-1 count. It was mostly a pitcher's duel except for one pitch: Toros starter Manny Barreda dished up a three-run homer to Calixte in the top of the fourth that decided the game for all intent and purposes. Leandro Castro broke up Monterrey's shutout bid in the seventh with a solo homer off reliever Juan Gamez with 15,313 watching at Estadio Nacional, but the night belonged to the Sultanes pitching staff. Julio Teheran has had a great postseason thus far for manager Roberto Kelly's troops as the former Braves starter threw six innings of two-hit baseball in blanking the potent Toros. Barreda went five frames and struck out eight while allowing five hits, but took the loss for Tijuana.
After a travel day, the series resumed at Estadio Monterrey as 17,241 were in the stands for a 2-1 knucklebiter win in 13 innings for the Sultanes last Thursday. The game was scoreless heading into the bottom of the seventh, when Elizalde scored from third after a Javy Guerra pitch eluded Tijuana catcher Xorge Carrillo. Guerra had relieved Toros starter Humberto Mejia after Elizalde opened the inning with a single, but promptly hit Zoilo Almonte with his first pitch, advancing Elizalde to second. Guerra gave himself a little breathing room by inducing Victor Mendoza to ground into a 3-6-1 double play as Elizalde moved to third on the play but Carrillo mishandled a pitch while he pitched to Calixte. Murillo tied the game in the top of the ninth by coming in from third on a bases-loaded forceout at second on a grounder from Nick Williams. The two teams battled for three more scoreless innings until Mendoza's walkoff single off Kyle Lobstein in the bottom of the 13th brought in Gustavo Nunez with the game-winner, giving the Sultanes a 3-games-to-1 advantage.
The series (and Tijuana's season) ended last Friday as Monterrey completed the sweep with a 12-11 home win with a sellout crowd of 21,000 fans in the stands. After allowing four runs over the first three games, the Sultanes pitching basically took the night off as a Junior Lake solo homer in the top of the ninth gave the Toros an 11-9 lead. Former MLB All-Star Fernando Rodney took the mound in the bottom of the inning and was one out away from the save after getting the first two Sultanes.
As anyone who's followed Rodney's career knows, however, two outs are never enough as the 45-year-old righty (second to Monterrey's Neftali Feliz with 22 saves in the regular season) then gave up singles to Nunez and Jose Cardona and walked Elizalde to load the bases. Rodney then walked Almonte to score Nunez, making it an 11-10 Tijuana lead, then gave up a single to Mendoza to plate Cardona with the tying run and Elizalde with the game winner in what could well have been Fernando's last pitch in Tijuana togs, given the capricious nature of Toros owner Alberto Uribe. Uribe may also be wondering why manager Homar Rojas left a struggling Rodney in to face Mendoza while leaving Struck, a successful long-time reliever in Mexico until last year who hadn't pitched for four nights, in the bullpen. Managers have been fired for less in Tijuana.
With the win, the Sultanes will be well-rested when they seek the franchise's eleventh pennant since 1943 and their second under Kelly, who took them to a title in 2018. The Serie del Rey is scheduled to open Friday night.
MEXICO CITY TO HOST TWO MLB GAMES IN 2023
The San Diego Padres and San Francisco Giants will meet in a two-game series at Mexico City's Estadio Alfredo Harp Helu in Mexico City on April 29 and 30 next year. Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association made the announcement last week. The games, which will serve as Padres home games, will represent the first-ever regular season series played in Mexico City. In 2016, the Padres hosted Houston in a two-game exhibition series at Fray Nano Stadium in Mexico City.
The Mexican Series games next April mark the fourth time the Padres have traveled to Mexico for regular season games: They've also been a part of three MLB visits to Monterrey, including a three-games series against the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2018, the 1999 season-opener against the Colorado Rockies and a three-game series against the New York Mets in 1996. These games will be the first games in Mexico for the San Francisco Giants in their long history. In 2004, they traveled to San Juan, Puerto Rico for a three-game regular season series against the Montreal Expos, who played part of their home schedule at Estadio Hiram Bithorn that season prior to moving to Washington a year later.
"The Padres are excited to return to Mexico and play in the first regular season series in Mexico City in MLB history," said San Diego CEO Erik Greupner. "We are fortunate to have a loyal and passionate fan base in Mexico, and it will be an honor to showcase our team in Mexico's capital city at the beautiful new ballpark built by and named after Padres minority owner Alfredo Harp Helú."
"It will be an honor to represent Major League Baseball, as well as San Francisco, at historic Mexico City for the first time ever," said Giants President and CEO Larry Baer. "We look forward to bringing the Giants and Padres rivalry to a passionate sports fan base and it will be a great opportunity to introduce the Giants to an international audience to further develop new fans across all of Mexico."
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