Vaya con Rios: Puerto Rico KOs two-time champ
Two-run blast in seventh helps bring end to Japan's reign in Classic
SAN FRANCISCO -- The World Baseball Classic reign for the Land of the Rising Sun is at an end.
The sun set for Japan in a tournament full of upsets and surprises on Sunday as Puerto Rico won, 3-1, at AT&T Park on the strength of a two-run homer by Alex Rios, sending the Puerto Ricans on to the championship game on Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT.
They will play the winner of Monday night's semifinal between the undefeated Dominican Republic and Kingdom of the Netherlands at 9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT. Both games can be seen in the U.S. on MLB Network and ESPN Deportes.
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"This means a lot," Puerto Rico manager Edwin Rodriguez said. "That's a lot of emotions. We know that a lot of people down in Puerto Rico are watching and this win is huge. The way that 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 for the whole country."
Japan won the first two Classics, defeating Cuba, 10-6, at San Diego in 2006 and Korea, 5-3, in 10 innings at Dodger Stadium in '09. Japan was the only returnee this year from the '09 final four. The Japanese sorely missed right-hander Daisuke Matsuzaka, the MVP of the first two Classics, who is trying to make the Indians roster this spring and declined to play.
Puerto Rico and the Dutch are in the championship round for the first time. P.R has already lost to the D.R. twice this year, once in each of the first two rounds. Italy and Chinese Taipei also made it to the second round with Korea, Mexico, Canada and Venezuela going home early. Those four countries must qualify for the round of 16 of the Classic in 2017.
On Sunday, Puerto Rico won its third elimination game in the last five days, the win over Japan coming after knocking out Italy and the U.S. from the tournament.
For the first time, the Japanese competed with no current Major Leaguers, while Puerto Rico had a lineup full of them, including Rios, Mike Aviles, Angel Pagan, Carlos Beltran and Yadier Molina. It might be appropriate that the only Japanese player with big league experience, Kaz Matsui, was sent up to pinch-hit and flied out to center on the first pitch he faced to end the game.
Prior to it, the legendary Sadaharu Oh and Tatsunori Hara threw out the first pitches simultaneously off the AT&T Park mound. Oh, the all-time king with 868 homers all hit in the Japan leagues, managed the 2006 Classic-winning Japan team. Hara, the current manager of the defending Japan Series-winning Yomiuri Giants, was skipper of the '09 team.
This year's manager, Koji Yamamoto, wasn't up to the task. At the end of the game, as is their custom after a loss, the Japanese lined up along the third-base line in front of their dugout and bowed in unison to the Puerto Ricans as they were celebrating on the field.
"The opponent was a great team today," Yamamoto said. "The hitters were good. They played really aggressively. And the pitchers were especially really good. So it was really hard for us to find the opportunity or seize the opportunity. In that sense, you either win or lose in any game, and today our opponent was better."
Right-hander Mario Santiago shut down the Japanese on two hits and left for precautionary reasons because of forearm stiffness with one out and a runner on second in the fifth inning after tossing 61 pitches. A starter can go as far as 95 pitches in the championship round. Afterward, Santiago said he was fine and could've continued if needed. He wasn't needed as five Puerto Rican relievers combined to shut the Japanese down.
"This game was big for me and big for my family," Santiago said on the field after he was credited with the win. "Everybody in Puerto Rico is happy. Nobody was thinking that we were going to be here. This game was big for everyone."
Puerto Rico took a 1-0 lead in the first inning on an Aviles single off Japanese starter Kenta Maeda, who pitched five innings of four-hit ball and was replaced after throwing 80 pitches.
Rios homered deep to left after Aviles singled to open the seventh off reliever Atsushi Nohmi. The White Sox right fielder had a lackluster Classic going into that at-bat. It was his first homer, extra-base hit and RBIs of the tournament.
"For us, this is like Spring Training," Rios said. "We're still in a preparation phase. We have to understand that we're not at our maximum. We have to work on our approach and the game and do our job as well as we can. We can't just be worried about mechanics. It's just the approach. Thanks to our results, which were favorable tonight, we have done well."
The Japanese had a scoring threat with two out in the sixth when right fielder Seiichi Uchikawa tripled to left-center beyond a lunge by Pagan, who seemed to misjudge the liner. But Uchikawa was left on third when left-handed reliever Xavier Cedeno came in and whiffed veteran catcher Shinnosuke Abe.
The Japanese did score in the eighth when second baseman Takashi Toritani hit a one-out triple and scored on Hirokazu Ibata's single. But after Uchikawa singled to put runners on first and second, Japan ran itself out of the inning. The runners were in motion with Abe at the plate and left-hander J.C. Romero on the mound. Ibata went back to second, but Uchikawa got hung up between the bases. Molina simply ran him down for the tag out. Abe grounded out to end the inning.
"The motion of the pitcher was slow," Yamamoto explained. "You could see that 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 with Abe as the hitter, moving to the next base was the right attempt. It failed, but I don't regret the attempt."
It proved to be Japan's undoing. The sun this year on the Japanese has set.
Barry M. Bloom is national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.