SAN FRANCISCO—Japan's run of World Baseball Classic dominance is over, ended in a sloppy display of poor baserunning, jumpy hitting and Puerto Rican passion.
Puerto Rico scored a run in the first, added two more on a long homer by Alex Rios in the seventh and used six pitchers to hold off Japan, winning 3-1 in the first WBC semifinal at AT&T Park. Puerto Rico gets a night off and plays the winner of Monday's second semi between the Netherlands and the Dominican Republic.
Puerto Rico now has eliminated Venezuela (first round), the United States (second round) and Japan (semifinals). It's quite a string of success for a team with more active minor leaguers (11) than major leaguers (10).
"There's a lot of emotions," Puerto Rico manager Edwin Rodriguez said. "We know that a lot of people down in Puerto Rico are watching and this win is huge. The way these guys have been playing and performing is a huge . . . accomplishment for the people in Puerto Rico—not only for the players and youngsters, but also for the whole country."
Japan won the first two WBCs, beating Cuba in the 2006 final and South Korea in 2009. But Japan couldn't reach the final this year as minor league veteran Mario Santiago stymied the Samurai offense into the fifth inning before departing with forearm tightness.
The mostly Japan-friendly crowd of 33,683 got excited any time Japan mounted any threats against the five Puerto Rico relievers that followed but only scratched for a run in the eighth off Mets farmhand Randy Fontanez, who posted a 4.90 ERA last year in the low Class A South Atlantic League.
Japan scored a run off Fontanez in the eighth with a triple by Takashi Toritani and single by Hirokazu Ibata. Seiichi Uchikawa followed with a single, bringing Japan's top slugger, catcher Shinnosuke Abe, to the plate to face lefthanded-throwing ex-big leaguer J.C. Romero.
But Uchikawa took the bat out of Abe's hands; he took off for second while Ibata stayed put, and Puerto Rico catcher Yadier Molina ran Uchikawa down and tagged him out. Abe then grounded out to second to end the threat.
Japan manager Koji Yamamoto, through a translator, said the play was supposed to be a double steal, attempting to take advantage of Romero's slow delivery. Ibata missed the sign to go. "It failed," he said, "but I do not regret the attempt."
Romero walked a batter in the ninth, but veteran minor leaguer Fernando Cabrera, who also has big league time, struck out Sho Nakata and retired ex-big leaguer Kaz Matsui on a flyout to center to end the game.
Indians infielder Mike Aviles, Puerto Rico's starting shortstop, had an RBI single with two outs in the first inning off Kenta Maeda to give Puerto Rico a 1-0 lead. Aviles then singled to lead off the seventh off left-hander Atsushi Nohmi, and Rios crushed a hanging changeup for a two-run homer to make it 3-0 Puerto Rico.
"It was a very exciting at-bat," Rios said. "Actually the pitch that I hit, I saw it earlier in that at-bat. He threw that changeup, and then he repeated that changeup in the third pitch, and that's the one that I saw. And I guess I put a good swing on it and the ball went out. That gave us a three-run lead.
"It was a very, very emotional at-bat. When we had that lead . . . it gave (the pitchers) a little cushion."
Maeda, considered one of Japan's co-aces, went five innings, giving up four hits and one run, but Puerto Rico ran itself out of several opportunities, hitting into two double plays on hit-and-run tries and having a runner caught stealing.
He was out-pitched by Santiago, who pitched for the SK Wyverns in the Korean Baseball Organization last year and who has signed with the Dodgers as a minor league free agent this offseason. Santiago said he trained in Okinawa last year with the Wyverns against Japanese hitters, giving him a good idea of how to attack them.
Until he left early, Santiago kept Japan off-balance, working with a quick tempo, pitching inside with his upper-80s fastball. He retired the first 10 batters in order and said he followed whatever instructions Yadier Molina gave him.
Red Sox farmhand Jose de la Torre did likewise, pitching quickly, getting two strikeouts to end the fifth with two runners on. Astros lefty Xavier Cedeno struck out Abe with Uchikawa at third in the sixth, after Uchikawa's sinking liner was misplayed in center field by Angel Pagan into a triple.
Overall, Japan left seven runners on, and Puerto Rico's six pitchers struck out eight.
"I think the key today was really following Yadier Molina," Santiago said. "We all know he's the best major league catcher. It was all about following his (tempo), which was quick, and that's what we did, just follow through on that."
Puerto Rico's execution was far from flawless. But it was better than Japan's on this Sunday night by the Bay, and now a nation supposedly in decline as a baseball power is one victory away from a World Baseball Classic championship.