Records Continue to Fall in Dominican
But where Diaz broke the record is almost as historic as the record itself because the standard fell not in Santiago, where Diaz plays for the Aguilas Cibaenas, but in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where Aguilas was playing Santurce of the Puerto Rican league in the first-ever exchange series between the two islands’ winter leagues.
The “interchange games” were partly designed to welcome the Puerto Rican league back after it suspended play for the first time in six decades last winter because of financial problems. The Dominican League sent Licey, Aguilas and Estrellas to Puerto Rico while playing host to Arecibo, Ponce and Carolina of the Puerto Rican League. And the Dominicans got the better of the matchup, winning seven of the 12 games, including four of the six at home.
Diaz’s homer, which came in a 4-3 loss that dropped Aguilas two games back of front-running Gigantes in a tight pennant race , surpassed a record set by Dick Stuart in 1957-58, then equaled by Freddy Garcia in 1998-99. And it joins a slew of records to fall this winter, including team marks for most runs in a game, most walks, most homers and individual career records for hits and runs, which were broken by the ageless Luis Polonia.
But while Diaz -- a minor league free agent who hit .282 with 25 homers and 107 RBI last season in Triple A -- is having a fine winter, leading the league in homers and RBI (42) while batting .318 through 40 games, the Angels' Erick Aybar is arguably having a better one. A week ago, after being hit twice by pitches in the same game with Gigantes, Aybar charged the mound, touching off a melee that forced umpires to suspend the game and threatened to land several players, including
Aybar, in legal trouble. The Angels shortstop next took his frustration out on opponents, hitting for the cycle -- and scoring the winning run – two games later and in December he’s batting .429, ranking second in the league in batting (.359) and third in hits (51).
Angel teammate Kendry Morales, playing for Gigantes, would be leading the league in hitting at .411 but he’s a few plate appearances shy of qualifying for the batting race.
On the pitching side, the Dodgers' Ramon Troncoso has thrown well back home, going 3-0 with a 2.25 ERA for Azucareros del Este. Three of Troncoso’s four appearances have been starts. But Azucarero teammate Angel Berroa, whom the Dodgers once hoped would be their answer at short, is struggling, hitting just .224 in 16 games.
Three years ago the Marlins called Anibal Sanchez to the majors at midseason and the precocious right-hander responded with a fabulous rookie season that included 10 wins and a no-hitter against the Arizona Diamondbacks. He’s struggling for an encore, though. His sophomore season was shortened by injury, and then last year, he made only 10 starts, losing half of them and posting a 5.57 ERA.
Sanchez is having even worse luck back home in his native Venezuela, where he’s allowed 15 hits and eight earned runs in 6 1/3 innings for Magallanes.
Former Angel Matt Perisho is also faring poorly in his comeback attempt. Pitching for Margarita, the 33-year-old left-hander has a 8.31 ERA in five games, having allowed 10 baserunners in 4 1/3 innings. He last appeared in the majors in 2005 with Boston.
One comeback that is going well is that of Maicer Izturis, the Angels' opening day shortstop last spring who battled Aybar for playing time until both went down with injuries. Izturis, whose season ended Aug. 14 with a thumb injury that required surgery, started playing for Margarita in late November and is hitting .294 in 10 games.
Also playing well for the Angels in Venezuela is minor league pitcher David Austen, who leads the league in wins (five) and ERA (1.41) while averaging a league-low 0.92 runners allowed per inning for La Guaira. Austen, a right-hander, was 3-4 with a 5.91 ERA while splitting his time between Triple A Salt Lake City and Double A Arkansas last summer.
First-place Caracas, meanwhile, got the game of the year from Arizona prospect Juan Gutierrez, who tossed a one-hit shutout of Caribes on Saturday in the seven-inning opener of a doubleheader.
The Dodgers’ outfield is crowded enough this coming summer, but Xavier Paul is showing that he’ll merit consideration in the future. Paul, who hit .316 at Triple A Las Vegas last season, leads the Mexican League in runs with 37, is fifth in the league with a .397 on-base percentage and is batting .293 for Mexicali.
Mexican-born Freddy Sandoval, the Angels’ Minor League Player of the Year, has overcome his slow start with an eight-game hitting streak that has him batting .306 at Mazatlan, which leads the second-half standings by a half-game over Los Mochis.
Puerto Rican League
Former major leaguer Eduardo Perez, the son of Hall of Famer Tony, was officially announced as the manager of the Ponce franchise just hours before the team’s first game so you might excuse the fact he lost three of his first four games. But the team has won 13 of 18 since -– including a weekend sweep of Escogido and Azucareros in the the Dominican -- to take a 1 ½-game lead over Santurce.
Santurce’s Geraldo Valentin, a Double A outfielder with Seattle, leads the batting race with a .380 average and is second on the island with six steals. Major league free agent Bruce Chen is the ERA leader at 1.29 after five starts with Mayaguez.
-- Kevin Baxter
Photo (top): Victor Diaz, left, is congratulated by Manager Felix Fermin, right, and pitching coach Gilberto Rondon, after hitting a solo home run in the second inning of the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico inter-league game against Cangrejeros de Santurce in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Sunday. Credit: Andres Leighton / Associated Press
Photo (inset): The Angels' Erick Aybar. Credit: Charles Krupa / Associated Press