Liriano leads Leones to DR championship

Liriano leads Leones to DR championship

Despite struggling in the Major Leagues the past two seasons after undergoing elbow surgery, left-hander Francisco Liriano has been a star in the Dominican Winter League.

And it was never more evident than Thursday night, when the Twins pitcher struck out 10 batters over five scoreless innings to lead Leones del Escogido to a 5-3 win over Gigantes del Cibao to claim the Dominican League title in the deciding ninth game of the series at Julian Javier Stadium in San Francisco de Macorís.

It marked just the fifth time in the league's storied history that the series reached a Game 9, and with the win, the Leones will now head to next week's Caribbean Series against the league winners from Venezuela, Mexico and Puerto Rico on Margarita Island in Venezuela.

Liriano allowed just one hit in his five innings of work, improving to 3-1 with a 0.49 ERA in seven playoff starts along with 47 strikeouts in 37 innings.

But he was far from the only big leaguer to help the Leones to the title on Thursday, as Reds outfielder Wladimir Balentien started the scoring with a solo home run in the second inning and Rangers infielder Joaquin Arias went 2-for-4 with an RBI single.

A's prospect Alex Valdez drove in two runs, including an important insurance run in the ninth inning to pad the Leones' lead. He also scored a run in the ninth on a sacrifice fly by Freddy Guzman, the former Yankees outfielder and current free agent.

His big ninth inning came after the Gigantes made the game interesting with two runs in the bottom of the eighth to get within one run of the Leones with a solo homer by former Dodgers prospect Saul Soto and an RBI single by Indians farmhand Lucas Montero.

But former A's reliever Santiago Casilla threw a scoreless ninth inning for the save to give the storied club its 14th Dominican League title.

Now, the Leones del Escogido will head to the Caribbean World Series, which they won in 1988 and '90.

They'll have to wait to find out who they will play as the championship series in the other three countries are still being played.

In Venezuela, Leones del Caracas beat Navegantes del Magallanes, 6-3, on Thursday to extend the series to a deciding Game 7. Caracas was backed by a home run by Mariners second baseman Jose Lopez in Game 6 and a dominating performance by former Blue Jays starter Gustavo Chacin, who tossed seven scoreless innings.

In the Mexican Pacific League, Hermosillo leads Mazatlan in the best-of-seven series, 3-2, after winning on Wednesday behind big league pitcher Edgar Gonzalez's complete-game five-hit shutout.

And finally in Puerto Rico, Indios de Mayaguez have a 3-1 lead over Criollos de Caguas in the best-of-seven series after Caguas won, 9-2, Thursday night.

Rhett Bollinger is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.