Playoffs heat up in winter leagues

Led by Pablo Ozuna, Andy Dirks and Fernando Tatis, the Escogido Leones have taken a commanding three-and-a-half game lead midway through the Dominican League’s four-team, 18-game semifinal round-robin en route to their second berth in the finals in the last three seasons.

The trio is batting a collective .352 as the Leones, who have only hit one home run in the first eight games, are batting .297 as a team.

Escogido’s bullpen has also risen to the occasion as Jose Cabrera has been a perfect 3-0 in four outings while Fernando Rodney and Nelson Payano have shared closer duties without mishaps.

The Leones are pitted against the Aguilas Cibaeñas, Licey Tigres and the defending champions Toros del Este in the semifinal, which has seen an influx of major league players enter action, including unsigned free agents Wilson Betemit, Miguel Tejada, Miguel Batista and Ronny Paulino.

The Aguilas, which began the round-robin with a 3-1 mark, have dropped four straight despite having the top postseason hitter in Hector Luna and are 0-3 in one-run games. The Aguilas were heavily favored to win the championship this season, but are currently a half-game back of the Toros for the second berth in the finals.

Dessens announces his retirement

Former pitcher Elmer Dessens, who pitched parts of 14 seasons with nine teams in the majors, announced this week he was retiring from baseball. Dessens leaves with a career mark 52-64 mark with an ERA of 4.44 in 1,174 innings. He last saw action in the majors with the New York Mets in 2010. Once touted as the right-handed version of Fernando Valenzuela, Dessens had his best season with the Cincinnati Reds in 2000 when he went 11-5 with 85 strikeouts.

Elsewhere in the Mexican Pacific League, the semifinal picture became clear on Friday as the Guasave Algodoneros clinched the final spot with a dramatic 8-5 victory over the defending champion Ciudad Obregón Yaquis with a five-run rally started against Obregon reliever Luis Ayala.

Obregón, which had already clinched a semifinals berth, and Guasave will join Culiacán, which enjoyed a a solid pitching performance from Oliver Perez to eliminate the Navojoa Mayos, and Mexicali, behind veteran Jorge Campillo, which eliminated the potent Hermosillo Naranjeros.

Franco seeks second consecutive title

The Anzoategui Caribes are off to a 4-0 start in the Venezuelan League’s semifinal round-robin as the Julio Franco-managed team looks to become the first team to win consecutive titles since the Aragua Tigres won three in a row from the 2006 to 2009.

Led by stellar pitching performances from Jared Wells and Renyel Pinto and offensive contributions from Alexi Amarista, Gustavo Molina, Rene Reyes and Jose Castillo, the Caribes have a one-game lead over the La Guaira Tiburones, who led the standings at the end of the regular season and are looking for their first title in 26 years -- the longest such drought in the Caribbean leagues.

La Guaira continues to enjoy solid offense from Oscar Salazar and Gregor Blanco while starter Armando Galarraga pitched five innings of one-hit ball in his semifinals debut.

The Magallanes Navegantes, Zulia Aguilas and Aragua round out the semifinal round-robin field.

Cintron fined and suspended in Puerto Rico

Alex Cintron, who played parts of nine seasons in the majors with Arizona, the Chicago White Sox, Baltimore and Washington, was fined an undisclosed amount and suspended for 15 games after an altercation with home plate umpire Roberto Ortiz while playing for the Carolina Gigantes in the Puerto Rico League.

It was Cintron’s second such incident in less than a year, a reason why PRBL president Sadi Antonmattei said the league will "come down hard" on the player.

It is the second high-profile suspension in the Caribbean leagues this season as Yorvit Torrealba was suspended for 66 games in the Venezuelan league for a similar incident with an umpire.

Cintron’s suspension may not have an effect stateside as he voluntarily retired from the majors last May while playing in the San Diego Padres organization.

Elsewhere in the Puerto Rican league, the Mayagüez Indios and Ponce Leones will begin this week a best-of-five series to decide who will play the Caguas Criollos in the finals. The economically-strapped Puerto Rican League was pared down to four teams at the start of the season.