Coming into the World Baseball Classic semifinals, Team Puerto Rico had knocked Venezuela out of the first round of the tournament and the United States out in the second round. After Sunday night's game in San Francisco, Puerto Rico can add Japan to the list of giants they've slain.
Behind a stellar pitching effort from Mario Santiago and five relievers, as well as a two-run home run from Alex Rios, Puerto Rico defeated two-time defending champion Japan 3-1 to advance to the WBC Finals on Tuesday night.
Puerto Rico had gotten this far by getting exceptional pitching performances from unexceptional pitching. Two days after beating the United States behind the strong pitching of long-time major league journeyman Nelson Figueroa, Puerto Rico turned to Mario Santiago, a long-time Royals farmhand who spent 2012 pitching in Korea. Working mostly with a fastball and a cutter between 84 and 88 mph, Santiago retired the first ten Japanese hitters he faced before allowing a one-out single to DH Hirokazu Ibata. Santiago also allowed a lead-off single to Hayato Sakamoto in the fifth, but then exited the game with forearm tightness after retiring the next batter. In 4.1 scoreless innings, Santiago struck out two and was charged with walking the batter he started pitching to before he exited.
Meanwhile, Team Puerto Rico got off an early 1-0 lead when Japanese ace Kenta Maeda had trouble throwing strikes in the first inning. Maeda issued two one-out walks and after recovering to strike out Yadier Molina, Mike Aviles connected off Maeda for a two-out single, scoring Irving Falu.
Maeda would regain his footing and pitch well the rest of the way for his five innings. He allowed one run on four hits. Maeda walked two and struck out three.
Going into the sixth inning, Maeda was still 15 pitches short of the 95 pitch limit, but Japanese manager Koji Yamamoto decided to go to his bullpen anyway and called upon Atsushi Nohmi. Nohmi got through the sixth inning OK, allowing only a two-out single to Carlos Beltran.
Yamamoto left Nohmi in the game to pitch the seventh. After a lead-off single to Mike Aviles, the next batter, Alex Rios, crushed the first pitch down the left field line, but foul. After Nohmi missed with the second pitch to make the count 1-1, Nohmi hung a 76 mph off-speed pitch and this time Rios did not miss. He launched a two-run moon shot into the left field bleachers and Puerto Rico took a 3-0 lead.
Japan had one chance to get back in the game during the bizarre bottom of the eighth inning. Puerto Rico manager Edwin Rodriguez brought Mets minor leaguer Randy Fontanez, who has pitched one game above low-A, out of the pen to start the inning. With one out, second baseman Takashi Toritani knocked a Fontanez pitch into center field that Pagan misplayed into a triple. Hirokazu Ibata singled Toritani home and after outfielder Seiichi Uchikawa singled to right, Japan now trailed 3-1 with two on, one out and their best hitter, catcher Shinnosuke Abe, at the plate.
Here's where things get really bizarre. With the game on the line, Rodriguez summoned his best pitcher, long-time major league veteran J.C. Romero, from the bullpen. Japan manager Yamamoto thought Romero was slow to the plate and called for a double-steal.
It was a questionable call in any case with Yadier Molina behind the plate, but the move really backfired when Ibata missed the sign and stayed on second. Uchikawa was hung up between first and second and Molina ran out to infield dirt and tagged Uchikawa out personally without a throw. After Abe grounded out to second base, Japan's only chance to win was gone. Abe really had a brutal game at the plate, going 0 for 4 and he looked bad in all four ABs.
There's been some debate as to how to score the Molina play, whether it is a caught stealing or a pickoff, since you can't steal an occupied base. But as of right now, it's a caught stealing, 2 unassisted. Never seen that before on a steal of anything other than home.
Romero issued a one-out walk in the ninth, but Fernando Cabrera came out of the pen and got Sho Nakata strike out and pinch-hitter Kazuo Matsui to fly out and end the game.
With that, two-time champion Japan was eliminated, and they all lined up on the field to bow in respect to the fans and to their opponents. Team Puerto Rico advances to the WBC Finals on Tuesday night against the winner of the Dominican Republic/Netherlands game. Even Edwin Rodriguez, in a post-game interview, admitted that he never thought it was possible for his team to go this far before the tournament started. Now they are just one win away from a World Baseball Classic Championship.
I'll be back with a preview and a game thread for the Dominican Republic/Kingdom of the Netherlands game later tonight. The game is at 8 pm Central and, as always, is televised on the MLB Network.