Saturday, February 13, 2016

Canizales talks LMP expansion, rules changes

In the afterglow of watching one of his teams win the Caribbean Series for the fourth time in six winters after setting box office records during the regular season, Mexican Pacific League president Omar Canizales shared his thoughts with ESPN Deportes about possible expansion of the eight-team circuit into the nation's capital and changes in the system used to determine the loop's six playoff teams.

Saying there's no timeline, Canizales admitted that the LMP has already looked at placing a team in Leon while he dreams of a MexPac franchise in Mexico City. "The Liga Pacifico is deeply rooted in the culture of the people of the north," Canizales told ESPN. "We have the challenge of crossing that border.  There are plans to expand to Leon and the dream is to have a team in Mexico City, although that hasn't been talked about."

Leon is a city of more than 1.5 million residents in the central Mexican state of Guanajuato that has had Mexican League teams in the past, most recently in 1991. Leon's ballpark, Estadio Domingo Santana (pictured), underwent renovations in 2014 that included work on the playing surface and in some areas within the existing structure, but the seating capacity remains at 3,000, far too small for a league that averaged nearly 10,000 fans per opening this winter.  Longtime Mexican baseball coach and scout Carlos Fragoso, who has recommended players to both the Red Sox and Yankees, says that while Leon is an open market at present, the LMB has "reserved" it as a possible franchise site should one of its 16 teams seek to move from its current locale in the future.

It would not be any easier to establish a team in the Distrito Federal, where the Mexican League Diablos Rojos have created a virtual baseball hegemony, making it tough for competitors to gain a foothold.  The Diablos could be considered the Liga's flagship franchise, given their location, history of success, the deep pockets of owner Alfredo Harp Helu and the insider power of team president Roberto Mansur.  In addition, Mexico City's best-suited facility for the sport, Estadio Fray Nano, holds only 5,200 onlookers and is controlled by the Red Devils while a new 13,000-seat ballpark is in the works.

Canizales also touched on the end to the MexPac's regular season in December, in which the Jalisco Charros were in the position of qualifying for the playoffs if they LOST their last game.  "It's necessary to improve the system of competition, although there've only been three times when a team has reached the final game needing to lose to advance to the playoffs," he said.  "Maybe a playoff game between the teams involved would provide a solution."

Friday, February 12, 2016

Piratas open training camp, Campos back for 22nd season

One of the things that makes Mexican pro baseball unique is that there's no such thing as an offseason, a Heaven on Earth for hardcore fans.  The Mexican League's Campeche Piratas opening their 2016 training camp Wednesday, just three days after the Mexican Pacific League champion Mazatlan Venados clinched the Caribbean Series title.  Is there a better place in the world to be a baseball fan than Mexico?

Twenty-two players, including twelve pitchers, turned out for the first day of camp at Parque Nelson Barrera in Campeche.  Piratas coach Roque Sanchez will be overseeing the team until manager Lino Connell arrives later this month.  Team president Jorge Carlos Hurtado Montero was also on hand along with GM Gabriel Lozano and physiotherapist Nicolas Gongora.

Gongora is a kinesiologist who has experience working with high-performance athletes in the USA and was initially hired by the Piratas over the winter to spend time with ageless pitcher Francisco Campos, who was one of the 22 players on the field Wednesday.  Gongora apparently impressed team management enough to have a larger role given to him for the coming season.  "We must leave behind the concept that baseball players are not athletes," Hurtado said. "This spring we'll have some innovations and that's why we decided to start with Nicolas Gongora, who will work with you on an individual basis, through science applied to sport, improving your athletic performance."   Gongora then told the assembled players and coaches, "Today you win the Liga."

Time will tell with the Piratas, who finished fourth in the LMB South last summer with a 53-56 record before knocking out fifth-place Puebla in a Wildcard game and stretching Yucatan to seven games in the first round of playoffs.  The 43-year-old Campos suffered through a 6-10 season with a 5.64 ERA as the man known as Pancho Ponches (liberally translates to "Mister Strikeout") recorded just 54 K's over 95.2 innings.

However, his sixth-inning punchout of Oaxaca's Yancarlo Angulo last July 9 made the Sonora native just the fifth pitcher in the LMB's 91-year history to record 2,000 career strikeouts, trailing only Jesus "Chito" Rios (2,549), Ramon Arano (2,380), Angel Moreno (2,255) and Mercedes Esquer (2,053).  Campos, who enters 2016 with 184 career LMB wins and 2,014 strikeouts, was quoted afterward in Excelsior as saying, "It's an honor to be with other pitchers who were legends to me, who were role models and who were my idols.  Now I hope to reach fourth place in strikeouts and 200 wins."

Except for stints in the Brewers and White Sox organizations between 2002 and 2004, the converted catcher has spent his entire 21-year career with Campeche.  His future selection to the Salon de la Fama is assured...if Campos ever stops pitching.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

New ballpark on drawing board in Los Mochis

The modernization of Mexican Pacific League ballparks has seen an overall upgrade or outright replacing of stadiums in most of the LMP's eight cities, and Los Mochis may be the next site for a new facility.

According to El Debate, Caneros team president Joaquin Vega, the team is currently lining up financial support for a ballpark to be built atop the parking lot adjacent to Estadio Emilio Ibarra Almada, the home of the MexPac club since the team was formed in 1947.  Emilio Ibarra held 3,000 fans when first opened but subsequent expansions have brought its current capacity to 10,840.  The stadium was badly damaged by Hurricane Paul in 1982, causing the Caneros to play day games only the following winter due to lack of floodlights.  It has seen occasional upgrades over the years but they have not been enough to keep pace with the other LMP facilities.

Vega admits that nothing has been officially authorized, but that the Caneros hope to emulate Culiacan, where the new 20,000-seat Estadio BBVA Bancomer was built next to Estadio General Angel Flores, which was built in 1948 and served the Tomateros from their inception in 1965 until January of last year, when it was razed after Culiacan's LMP finals victory.

Caneros team officials held a meeting with potential investors earlier this week in Mexico City, but it may be a hard task to line up enough private money to build the ballpark because money is already tight in the country while the peso closed Tuesday trading at $18.81 per U.S. dollar, its lowest value in years.

The upgrading of MexPac facilities began with the overhaul of Mexicali's ballpark in 2007, followed by a new stadium in Hermosillo in 2013, a move by the Guasave Algodoneros to Guadalajara's three-year-old stadium in 2014 and Culiacan's new ballpark, which opened last year. In addition, a 16,000-seater is being built in Obregon and plans are being made for a new yard in Navojoa, leaving Mazatlan as the only LMP city with no plans to replace or renovate its longtime ballpark, 54-year-old Estadio Teodoro Mariscal.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Caribbean Series post-tourney talk includes attendance, future of event

The conclusion of this winter's Caribbean Series in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic is being followed by concerns regarding declining attendance at the event.  No figures have been released for last week's seven-day tournament, although photographs taken at Estadio Quisqueya have shown swaths of empty seats at the 14,469-seat ballpark during games not involving the host Escogido Leones, who failed to win a game in four tries.

Such talk about attendance woes at the Serie del Caribe is not new, although Mexico has bucked the trend by drawing large crowds when they host the event every four years.  Next February's Caribbean Series will be in Culiacan, where the Tomateros drew 16,000 fans per game to their new 20,000-seat ballpark.  The other three countries hosting the CS on a rotating basis, however, have been another story.

La Opinion's Raul Breton reports Caribbean Baseball Confederation president Juan Francisco Puello Herrera says that ticket sales this year were better than for previous Februarys, and that while "the low attendance probably gives a bad perception to fans, the fact that they don't see much attendance in the stadium doesn't mean there haven't been good receipts at the ticket office."

Puello Herrera discounted speculation that the Caribbean Series might be shopped around to markets outside the four current host nations, including the United States.  "It's not in the immediate plans of the Confederation to bring the Caribbean Series to the U.S.  What we plan is to look at the possibility of some of our leagues that have a greater economic capacity and presence organizing the event more often."  The CS was held in Miami in 1990 at the Orange Bowl and 1991 at Bobby Maduro Stadium, both since demolished.  Puello Herrera expressed interest in returning to Miami and playing at Marlins Park in the recent past, quoted on as saying, "I think that, with a centrally located ballpark like they have, if we promote it right, things could go better over there."

Cuba returned to the Caribbean Series on a conditional basis in 2014 after an absence of more than five decades and an offer to Panama, which sent teams to the earliest tournaments, to rejoin the Confederation has been discussed.  Puello Herrera downplayed both notions.  "They're discussing the possible economic aspects of a Panama entry as well as scheduling for a six-team tournament if Cuba stays."  Cuba's status, he added, depends on relations with Cuba's Office of Foreign Assets Control as well as the nation's evolving relationship with the United States.

Puello Herrera spoke before it was learned that Cuban star brothers Yulieski and Lourdes Gourriel left the team after their semifinal loss to Mexico Saturday, something that might cause baseball or government officials on the island nation to reconsider their commitment to the Caribbean Series in the future.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Five Venados named to CS Dream Team, Bentacourt bypassed

Five members of the Mezatlan Venados, including manager Juan Jose Pacho (pictured), have been named to the 2016 Caribbean Series "Dream Team" following the MexPac champions' six-game sweep of the 58th edition of Latin baseball's annual showcase.

Pacho was named skipper of the Dream Team, which also included Mazatlan outfielder Justin Greene, catcher Sebastian Valle and pitchers Hector Daniel Rodriguez and Steven Hensley.  Here's the list of all selections:

LHP - Hector Daniel Rodriguez (MEX)
RHP - Freddy Garcia (VEN)
  RP - Steven Hensley (MEX)
    C - Sebastian Valle MEX)
  1B - Neftali Soto (PR)
  2B - Yulieski Gourriel (CUBA)
  3B - Adonis Garcia (VEN)
  SS - Juniel Querecuto (VEN)
  LF - Jose A. Martinez (VEN)
  CF - Justin Greene (MEX)
  RF - Alex Romero (VEN)
MGR-Juan Jose Pacho (MEX)

Rodriguez won both his starts for the Venados (most in the CS) and had a 2.45 ERA, Hensley had a CS-best two saves over four scoreless appearances, Valle hit .455 with 7 RBI's in three games, Greene batted .360 with three steals (most in the tournament) and Pacho won his second Serie del Caribe for the Venados.

Venezuela's Aruagua Tigres, who the Venados beat twice, also placed five members on the all-tournament squad, Santurce of Puerto Rico got first baseman Neftali Soto on the list and Cuban second baseman Yulieski Gourriel (who defected with brother Lourdes Jr. after the tournament) was also accorded Dream Team honors.  Aragua outfielder Jose "Cafecito" Martinez (son of the late Carlos "Cafe" Martinez, a seven-year MLB infielder) was named MVP of the tournament after leading all batters with 12 hits, 7 runs and a .480 average.

One curious Dream Team omission was Mazatlan infielder Yuniesky Betancourt, who was edged out as the all-tourney shortstop by Aragua's Juniel Querecuto.  Betancourt hit .438 and led all hitters with a .526 on-base percentage, eight RBI's and three doubles, scoring six times in the bargain.  For his part, Querecuto hit .259 with seven hits (four in one game against Cuba), scored twice and drove in one run, going 1-for-8 in two games against Mazatlan.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Vazquez hits walkoff HR, Venados win Caribbean Series title

Jorge Vazquez (pictured) belted a Renee Cortez pitch for a walkoff homer in the bottom of the ninth inning to hand the Mazatlan Venados a 5-4 win over Venezuela's Aragua Tigres in Sunday's title game at the 2016 Caribbean Series in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.  The roundtripper completed a Mazatlan comeback after the Tigres took a 4-2 lead in the top of the seventh inning as the Venados won their second CS title, giving Mexico its fourth crown at Latin America's baseball showcase since 2011.

Aragua's Freddy Garcia and Mazatlan's Eddie Gamboa hooked up in a low-scoring duel at the game's start, with the former Mariners All-Star allowing two Venados runs into the sixth inning and Gamboa likewise giving up a pair of Tigres runs before running into trouble in the seventh.

Mazatlan got on the board in the third when Esteban Quiroz scored from second on Chris Roberson's single to left and then Roberson, who moved to third on a Jeremias Pineda bunt, came in when Garcia let go with a wild pitch to Justin Greene.  The Venezuelans knotted it up at 2-2 in the top of the sixth when Jose Martinez' leadoff single to center was followed by a Hernan Perez line-drive homer to left off Gamboa.

Gamboa's troubles really got started in the seventh when he began by striking out Martinez, who was able to reach first when strike three fooled Mazatlan catcher Sebastian Valle.  Perez then singled up the middle, both runners advanced on Sandy Leon's bunt and Jose Martinez strolled in from third on Teodoro Martinez' single to right, giving Aragua a 3-2 lead.  Perez tried coming in from second on the play but Pineda's throw from right nailed him at the plate for the inning's second out while Leon scooted to second.  At that point, Jovany Lopez relieved Gamboa and promptly walked Juniel Querecuto on five pitches, loading the hassocks.  That brought up Alex Romero, whose flyout to Greene in center was enough to bring Perez in from third and increase the Tigres' lead to two.

It was Aragua's turn to be snakebitten in the bottom of the seventh when, with two out, Gumercindo Gonzalez gave up a single to right by Yuniesky Betancourt.  No great harm done, but Gonzalez was then replaced by Arcenio Leon to pitch to Esteban Quiroz.  Quiroz tapped a comebacker to Leon, who made a throw to first for the third out that was missed by Felix Perez, allowing Betancourt and Quiroz to motor to third and second, respectively.  At that point, Jesus Sanchez was brought in for Perez to get the final out but instead gave up a two-run single to Valle, scoring both Betancourt and Quiroz to bring the score to 4-4.
Jeremias Pineda was eventually retired on a 6-3 groundout off a pitch from Jose Miljares, the fourth Tigres pitcher of the inning.

After neither team scored in the eighth and Steven Hensley got the Tigres' third out in the top of the ninth, Vazquez (a Venados postseason reinforcement from Culiacan) led things off for Mazatlan in the bottom of the frame.  After working the count to 2-0, the 33-year-old former Yankees minor leaguer redirected a Cortez delivery over the wall in left-center for the walkoff win.

Garcia finished with 5.1 innings, allowing two runs on four hits and striking out three for the Tigres.  Gamboa tossed 6.1 frames and let in four runs (two unearned) on eight hits, including Perez' homer.  The Venezuelans actually outhit Mazatlan by a 12-7 margin as Vazquez and Roberson each posted two hits on the day.  Hensley earned the win after pitching to just one batter while Cortez was tagged with the loss under partly cloudy skies and a game time temperature of 81 degrees.

The win marks the second for the Venados under manager Juan Jose Pacho, who also led Mazatlan to the CS crown in 2005 at home.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Rodriguez, Betancourt power Venados to CS final vs. Venezuelan champs

Hector Daniel Rodriguez (pictured) pitched six innings of four-hit shutout ball and Yuniesky Betancourt had three hits, driving in four runs and scoring another to lead the Mexican Pacific League champion Mazatlan Venados to a 7-2 win over Cuba's Ciego de Avila Tigres in Saturday evening's semifinal in Santo Domingo to reach the 2016 Caribbean Series title game Sunday at 3PM Eastern against Aragua of Venezuela.

Rodriguez needed to be sharp as Tigres starter Vladimir Banos matched him over the first three innings, allowing two hits and no walks while retiring nine of the first eleven Mazatlan batters he faced.  Then came the fourth inning, in which the Venados pushed three runs across the plate to break the deadlock.  Banos gave up a leadoff double to Alex Liddi, then walked Cyle Hankerd and Jorge Vazquez to load the bases with nobody out.  Betancourt then punched a single to left to bring in Liddi from third with the game's first run, enough for Ciego de Avila manager Roger Machado to yank Banos and bring in Livan Moinelo from the bullpen.

That strategy backfired when Moinelo walked Esteban Quiroz on four straight pitches, forcing Hankerd in with Mazatlan's second run.  Yander Guevara replaced Moinelo and got Erick Rodriguez to ground into a 4-6-3 double play as Vazquez lumbered in from third to stake the Venados to a 3-0 lead.

Mazatlan scored once more in the bottom of the sixth as Vazquez and Betancourt singled to lead things off.  After Vazquez was forced out at third on a Quiroz bunt, Rodriguez drove in Betancourt from second by singling to left, making it a 4-0 game.

Terance Marin took over for Rodriguez in the top of the seventh after the latter issued a leadoff walk to Yoelvis Fiss.  Guillermo Avilles cracked a liner that was deflected by Marin's glove to short, where Betancourt was unable to make a play as Fiss moved to second and Avilles crossed first.  Osvaldo Vazquez then lined a single to left that brought Fiss to bring the Cubans to within two runs.

The Mexicans blew the game open in the bottom of the seventh.  After Chris Roberson led off with a double, Ciego de Avila reliever Yalfredo Dominguez intentionally walked Hankerd to fill the open sack at first and pitch to Vazquez, another strategy backfire when Dominguez hit Vazquez on an 0-2 pitch to load the bases for Betancourt, who smoked the first pitch he saw for a three-run double to center to give the Venados a 7-1 advantage.

The Tigres got one run back in the eighth when Alfredo Despaigne doubled Yulieski Gourriel in from first and after Esmailin Caridad walked both Lourdes Gourriel Jr. and Avilles to load the bases with two out, Jake Sanchez replaced Caridad on the hill for the Venados and struck out Vazquez on four pitches to end the inning and the Cuban threat.  Steven Hensley then pitched the ninth and, after walking Yulieski Gourriel and walking Despaigne with two out, battled Ariel Borroto for eight pitches before getting a swinging strikeout to end the game and clinch a spot in Sunday's title game.

Rodriguez earned his second win of the Caribbean Series for Mazatlan while Banos fell to 0-2 in the CS-ending loss for the Tigres.  Eddie Gamboa, who threw five decent innings in the Venados' Game Two win over Ciego de Avila Tuesday, is the scheduled starter for Sunday's championship game against Aragua.  The Venezuelan club dominated Puerto Rico's Santurce Crabbers, 13-3, in Saturday's earlier semifinal as the Tigres' Jose Martinez singled twice, tripled, homered and drove in four for Aragua.  Former MLB All-Star Freddy Garcia is the likely starter for manager Eddie Perez' Venezuelan League champs.