Puerto Rico thwarts Japan's bid for WBC three-peat

Published: Monday, Mar. 18, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1C
Last Modified: Sunday, Apr. 14, 2013 - 8:11 am

SAN FRANCISCO – More than once Sunday, with Japan threatening to score, its fans rose from their seats and began jumping up and down, making the lower levels of AT&T Park resemble a spirit section. Some brought flags and costumes. Others, in the left-field bleachers, brought brass instruments and drums that gave a sonorous backdrop to Japan's at-bats.

But their noise was met with mostly silence from the field, as Puerto Rico brought in six pitchers who combined to hold Japan scoreless until the eighth inning in a 3-1 victory. And with that, Puerto Rico advanced to the final of the World Baseball Classic on Tuesday while eliminating the only champion the tournament has known.

Alex Rios hit a two-run homer off Atsushi Nohmi in the seventh to open up a 1-0 game. Japan brought the go-ahead run to the plate in the eighth before committing a gaffe on the basepaths that undid the rally.

Former major leaguer Kaz Matsui made the final out with a fly ball to center, where the Giants' Angel Pagan, playing at home, gloved the ball to bring Puerto Rico streaming out of its dugout. Puerto Rico awaits the winner of today's game between the Netherlands and the Dominican Republic, which has yet to lose a game in the tournament.

"There's a lot of emotions," Puerto Rico manager Edwin Rodriguez said. "We know a lot of people down in Puerto Rico are watching. This win is huge."

It is the first WBC final appearance for Puerto Rico, which fell short of the championship round in each of the first two WBCs. Both were won by Japan, which was seeking a three-peat. The Netherlands and Dominican Republic will be playing for their first trip to the title game.

"In this case, our opponent was really superior in pitching and hitting," Japan manager Koji Yamamoto said. "So we were cornered, in a sense."

Puerto Rico's starter, Mario Santiago, who has made four starts above Double A in his professional career, held Japan hitless over the first three innings. Japan starter Kenta Maeda, meanwhile, who had not allowed a run in 10 WBC innings, walked the second and third hitters he faced.

It hurt Maeda two batters later, when Mike Aviles blooped a two-out single into center field to drive in Irving Falu and give Puerto Rico a 1-0 lead.

Maeda, who posted a 1.53 ERA in 206.1 innings last season in Japan, settled down to scatter three singles over the next four innings.

He departed, though, still trailing 1-0, as Japan's hitters were stymied by Puerto Rico pitchers working quickly and not letting them get comfortable in the box. Santiago carried a shutout into the fifth before leaving with right forearm tightness and giving way to Jose De La Torre and Xavier Cedeno, who kept the shutout through seven.

"I'm really happy," said Santiago, who earned the win. "I know people in Puerto Rico must be so proud of our team."

Japan broke through in the eighth with three consecutive hits to bring slugger Shinnosuke Abe to the plate representing the go-ahead run with Hirokazu Ibata on second base and Seiichi Uchikawa on first.

Puerto Rico countered with left-hander J.C. Romero. But on the second pitch, Uchikawa broke for second and Ibata didn't move. Puerto Rico catcher Yadier Molina ran to the bag and tagged Uchikawa. Abe grounded out to end the inning.

Yamamoto said he called a double steal, and Ibata froze after getting a bad jump.

"It failed," Yamamoto said. "But I don't regret the attempt."

Call The Bee's Matt Kawahara, (916) 321-1015. Read his Bay Area Baseball blog at blogs.sacbee.com/bay-area-baseball/. Follow him on Twitter @matthewkawahara.

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