SAN FRANCISCO—Koji Yamamoto will have some explaining to do when his World Baseball Classic team gets back to Japan.
Yamamoto faced the Japanese media alone Sunday night after his team lost 3-1 to Puerto Rico. No players to take questions—just the manager, alone, with his headset for translations.
His predecessors as Team Japan managers, Sadaharu Oh and Tatsunori Hara, were on hand and threw out the first pitches, and they had returned to Japan at the end of previous Classics as champions. Yamamoto will return not just without a championship, but with several curious decisions to explain.
The first postgame question set the tempo for the session, as a reporter asked in Japanese, "It was very unfortunate. First of all, could you please tell us the reason for losing?"
Yamamoto graciously credited Puerto Rico's pitching, specifically starter Mario Santiago, who pitched into the fifth and retired the first 10 Japanese hitters in order, making it "really hard to seize the moment," according to the translator.
Then the reporter asked about two Yamamoto decisions that backfired: keeping lefthander Atsushi Nohmi in to face Mike Aviles and Alex Rios, both righthanded hitters, to start the sixth inning, and an eighth-inning baserunning snafu that eliminated a first-and-second, one-out rally.
Nohmi had retired Yadier Molina to end the sixth, and Yamamoto simply said, "He's pitching well, so I kept him." That decision backfired after Aviles singled to start the sixth and Rios homered deep to left on a 1-1 changeup.
The eighth inning play was a more spectacular failure, because Japan had an air of desperation as it rallied against Randy Fontanez, a low Class A Mets farmhand. After Fontanez retired Nouhiro Matsuda, he allowed three straight hard hits—a triple to Takashi Toritani, an RBI single to Horikazu Ibata and another single to Seiichi Uchikawa. That brought lefthanded-hitting Shinnosuke Abe to the plate and J.C. Romero out of the Puerto Rico bullpen. With an 0-1 count, Japan's runners got the sign to "go if you can," to double steal. Uchikawa took off for second base, but Ibata didn't get a good jump and stayed put. [Editor's note: Japanese readers have clarified the postgame remarks of manager Yamamoto, prompting this update to the story.]
Catcher Yadier Molina held the ball, ran at Uchikawa and eventually tagged him out as Ibata held tight to second. Two pitches later, Abe hit a grounder to the right side that Irving Falu smothered, and Falu threw out the slow-running catcher to end the inning.
Just like that, the rally was over, and Yamamoto had to explain why Abe—MVP of Japan's Central League in 2012 and a nine-time Nippon Professional Baseball all-star—had the bat taken out of his hands, particularly with Molina behind the plate defensively, perhaps the world's best defensive catcher.
"There was a sign that the double steal can be attempted," Yamamoto said via a translator. "And Ibata's start was a little delayed and that was what happened . . . The motion of the pitcher was (slow). As you can see through the video; I could see it from the video. And if there's an opportunity, we were saying that the players should run. And Abe was the hitter and moving forward to the next base is the right attempt."
It figures that Molina would be involved in the game's most crucial play. In the words of Puerto Rico manager Edwin Rodriguez, Molina controlled the game even while going 0-for-4 at the plate.
He did it by managing a pitching staff with no active major leaguers, calling pitches and getting all his pitchers to work quickly. Reliever Jose De La Torre (Red Sox) virtually quick-pitched Nobuhiro Matsuda en route to striking him out to end the fifth, and all Puerto Rico's pitchers pitched aggressively, even though De La Torre was the only one to break 90 mph consistently. They also showed no fear of burying breaking balls in the dirt, knowing that Molina would block them.
"Yadier's leadership, that's something you can't quantify and that's what we saw today," Rodriguez said. "We saw the energy, we saw the intensity, the way that he plays, the control of the entire game. That's why Yadier is the best in the world."
Fellow big league Alex Rios added, "He's a great catcher as you can see. He knows how to keep the (tempo), he knows how to obviously call great games. He's the leader . . . We have accomplished so much in part with the way he calls the games and the way he manages the pitchers."
Puerto Rico has hardly dominated in the Classic; it had to rally late with the help of three defensive miscues at shortstop to beat Italy in the second round, and won its two Pool 2 games by one run apiece, 4-3 against Italy and the United States. It has lost three games, two to the Dominican Republic and one to the U.S. But it also has five wins, three coming against baseball powers Venezuela, the U.S. and now Japan, the two-time WBC champs. All three victories eliminated those countries.
And it was hardly perfect Sunday night. Puerto Rico hit into two double plays when trying to hit-and-run in the first three innings, had Jesus Feliciano get caught stealing in the fifth and left eight runners on base, including the bases full in the eighth when it could have broken the game open. Even center fielder Angel Pagan, who plays at AT&T Park with the Giants, misplayed two balls in center field, both turning into triples when one should have been a single and the other perhaps a double. But Japan never made Puerto Rico pay for its mistakes.
Puerto Rico would love another shot at the Dominican Republic, which has won two matchups so far in the 2013 Classic between the two teams. But it also would stand a much better chance of winning the WBC if the upstart Netherlands upset the Dominicans on Monday.
"Anything can happen," Rios said. "We have seen this when we played against Venezuela, U.S., now with Japan, you know? We have to take advantage of the situation and see the results."
Is the World Baseball Classic ready for a Puerto Rico vs. Netherlands championship game? No one could have seen that coming, and yet that final is one result away from happening.