Manager: Edwin Rodriguez.
WBC History: This is Puerto Rico’s first trip to the semifinals, but the club has had its moments in the World Baseball Classic before. In 2006, Puerto Rico was one of three teams to finish the first round undefeated, as they handled all comers, including international power Cuba. But in the second round, Puerto Rico went 1-2 and was knocked out when it lost its rematch to Cuba 4-3. It was a similar story in 2009. Puerto Rico again went undefeated in the first round, but again fell just short in the second round. Puerto Rico run-ruled the U.S. 11-1 in its second round opener, but a 2-0 loss to Venezuela, followed by a 6-5 loss to the U.S. in a loser bracket rematch sent Puerto Rico home. But Puerto Rico’s 8-4 WBC lifetime record heading into this year’s tournament is a sign of how well this team has played in previous WBC’s.
How They Got Here: It wasn’t easy for the Puerto Ricans. Playing a pool with the Dominican Republic, Spain and Venezuela, Puerto Rico was a heavy underdog. Instead a 6-3 win over Venezuela ensured a spot in the second round, although a loss to the Dominican Republic in the final game of pool play ensured the Puerto Rico club was the No. 2 seed. Puerto Rico was blown out 7-1 by the U.S. in its second-round opener, but they rallied to win back-to-back must win games with a come-from-behind 4-3 win against Italy and an equally nail-biting 4-3 win over the U.S.
The casual fan may think that seeing the Netherlands in the WBC semifinals is a true Cinderella story. But when comparing lineups, it becomes clear that the bigger surprise is seeing Puerto Rico survive and advance after topping both the United States and Venezuela. Catcher Yadier Molina is hitting .368/.368/.400 and outfielder Angel Pagan has done everything possible to carry Puerto Rico to the semifinals—he leads the team with a .391/.462/.565 stat line. But after them, the lineup thins out pretty quickly. Carlos Beltran is obviously better than his unimpressive stat line during the WBC indicates, but the Puerto Rico club is getting almost no production out of first baseman Carlos Rivera, second baseman Irving Falu or outfielder Alexis Rios. As a team, Puerto Rico has only one home run, so it knows it has to manufacture runs with a string of hits. With a very thin bench, it’s not like manager Edwin Rodriguez has many choices to shake things up.
Even if Yadier Molina was 0-for-20 at the plate, his work behind the plate is incredibly valuable to the Puerto Rican pitching staff. Every pitcher on the staff knows that Molina will effectively stop opponents’ running games, block most everything in the dirt and call an outstanding game. Molina’s work helps explain how Puerto Rico has advanced with a starting rotation of Giancarlo Alvarado, Nelson Figueroa, Orlando Roman and Mario Santiago. Only Figueroa, the hero of the win over the U.S. on Friday night, has ever pitched in the majors. No matter who the staff is matched up against, on paper the Puerto Rican starter will be at a disadvantage. The bullpen has been getting solid results from an equally non-descript group of minor league relievers, although in this case, it is leavened by big leaguers J.C. Romero, Fernando Cabrera and Xavier Cedeno.
Puerto Rico will be significant underdogs in the semifinals, but then, that’s the role they have filled admirably since the tournament began. Unfortunately for Puerto Rico, its top two starters—Alvarado and Figueroa—were both needed to get it to this point. Puerto Rico’s loss to the Dominican Republic on Saturday means it can’t use Alvarado for the semifinal game. Since he threw 69 pitches on Wednesday, WBC rules state he has to sit out four full days before making another appearance. The same rule means that Figueroa is done for the tournament unless there is a rainout, as he wouldn’t be eligible to return until Wednesday. The championship game is scheduled for Tuesday.
With little power but plenty of speed in the lineup, Puerto Rico will be looking for spots to run. Pagan, Eddie Rosario and even Molina and Rios are threats to run if pitchers don’t pay them enough attention. With runs at a premium, Puerto Rico will need to pick spots to steal or take extra bases.