Winter Wonders: Playoffs Update

Mazatlan rallies in Mexico behind new manager




Mazatlan of the Mexican Pacific League aims to become a perennial Caribbean Series contender. Over the last 15 years, the club has earned a berth to the Series in 1993, when it lost to Puerto Rico's Santurce, and reached the Latin American equivalent of the World Series in 2004-2005, when it also served as the host city and won the Caribbean Series title.

The Deer were swept by Hermosillo in the Mexican Pacific League championship series in 2006 and started slowly during the first half this season, prompting the firing of manager Juan Jose Pacho by Mazatlan general manager Jesus "Chino" Valdez in late November. The club brought in Eddie Diaz, who was on the coaching staff of Aguilas in the Dominican Winter League, and Diaz quickly has positioned the club for another Caribbean Series berth.

Originally signed as a 16-year-old by the Yankees, Diaz retired as a player in 1987 and moved on to a scouting career with the Braves and Indians briefly before getting out of the game altogether, taking a job in real estate. But Diaz returned to manage in several developmental leagues in Mexico before landing a job with Campeche in the Mexican League in 2005.

Diaz has been a revelation of sorts for Mazatlan, and has been the main source behind their dramatic turnaround. The Deer went 17-18 before his arrival, but finished 36-30 overall and swept their best-of-seven, first-round playoff series against Guasave to earn a berth in the league semifinals.

"I'm an old-fashioned guy who really believes in chemistry and motivation," Diaz said. "If you play hard for me, I don't care how talented you are or what kind of pedigree you have, you're going to play. It was tough coming in here. The timing was tough; I think I only knew two players. But once you go in and lead by example, players will respond to that. I don't want to be loved by my players, I just want them to respect me and respect the game."

Mazatlan has responded to Diaz' leadership, as the skipper came in and played to the team's strengths. Without much power to speak of, Diaz turned to the running game, and the club finished with 42 steals after swiping just 12 bags in the first half.

With the help of pitching coach Sid Monge, the bullpen finally came together as well, led by 35-year-old lefthander Jose Luis Garcia (1-0, 3.15) and closer Gabe DeHoyos, who finished the 2007 season in Kansas City with the Royals.

DeHoyos, 27, went 1-0, 0.61 for Mazatlan during the season, using an 88-92 mph sinker, slider and splitter.

"The bullpen was really bad when I got here, but everybody picked it up and got it in gear pretty quick," Diaz said. "Sid Monge had a lot to do with that, but the players also had a sense of accountability. We're not going to score a ton of runs, but this game has always been about pitching and defense to me, and pitching and defense is how we're going to win."

The team has also seen its fair share of prospects over the course of the year, as Pirates third baseman Neil Walker, Dodgers infielder Francisco Lizarraga and Marlins outfielder Eric Reed all played roles for the Deer. Walker made the largest contribution, hitting .268/.315/.409 in 149 at-bats with four homers, good for third on the team. But players such former big leaguer Derrick White, Mexican League veterans Heber Gomez, Robert Saucedo and catcher Miguel Ojeda have had more to do with the club's long-term success.

"We have good pitching and guys who can make all the plays behind them," Diaz said. "And we'll take some chances offensively. We've had a good run, but it's not over. We're hoping to bring another championship to the city of Mazatlan."

CARIBBEAN DREAMS

• Lefthander Dana Eveland moved on to his third organization in the last three years when he was included in the package that sent Dan Haren from the Athletics to the Diamondbacks. Eveland is coming off a great season in Mexico during which he went 4-2, 2.51 with 69 strikeouts in 61 innings for Mexicali. But scouts still have questions about Eveland's impact in the big leagues. "He's always carved guys up in the minor leagues—not just succeeded, but dominated—and struggled when he's been called up," said a scout from a National League club. "He gets a lot of swing-and-miss with the slider in the minors and he had it in Mexico, but to me, it's starting to sound like a broken record." In 41 career appearances in the big leagues for Milwaukee and Arizona, Eveland is 2-4, 7.55 in 64 innings.

• After finishing atop the Dominican Winter League standings during the regular season, Gigantes was falling apart in the round-robin tournament with a 3-7 record. Estrellas was leading the pack in the postseason with five games remaining at press time.

• In the Venezuelan Winter League, Caribes went 39-24 to finish in first place in the regular season but got off to a 2-5 start in the postseason round-robin, despite hitting 11 home runs in those first seven games. Catcher Eliezer Alfonzo, who led the league with 15 home runs in the regular season, had hit three more in the round-robin.