Edwin Rodríguez, manager of the underdog Puerto Rico team, put together a game plan against the two-time defending World Baseball Classic champions Japan and stuck to it, and Álex Ríos hit a two-run homer to give Puerto Rico a 3-1 win in the WBC semifinals. The loss by Japan eliminated them from the competition and ensured that there will be a new world champion.
Kenta Maeda, Japan’s star pitcher, did not allow a run in either of his starts in the first or second rounds, but struggled with the feel of his pitches early in the game. Maeda shook the rosin bag after almost every pitch, polishing the ball in hopes of improving his release.
Maeda clearly felt uncomfortable in a rocky first inning, walking Irving Falú and Carlos Beltrán with one out to put a runner in scoring position for the heart of the order. He struck out Molina on three pitches, the last a beautiful slider, but could not get Mike Aviles for the third out.
Aviles stroked a base hit to centre field, and Falú turned on the wheels and raced home to give Puerto Rico a 1-0 lead. The RBI-single tied Aviles for second among run producers, one behind David Wright.
That was all in the inning for Puerto Rico, as Maeda settled down with a grounder from Álex Ríos, and journeyman right-hander Mario Santiago took the hill for Rodríguez. Puerto Rico’s skipper had drawn up a strategy that Santiago and five relievers executed perfectly: pitch quickly and avoid letting the Japanese hitters find their rhythm.
Santiago did just that in the first, needing only about 12 seconds in between pitches to deliver the next toss and, as the game wore on, it was clear that the plan was working. As is common in Japan, the Samurai lineup has complicated batting stances which involve multiple moving parts, and Santiago mowed down the first 10 batters he faced.
After the first, Maeda matched Santiago’s zeroes, using a double play to end the second and start the third inning. Maeda was not nearly as efficient as his opponent, though, exiting after the fifth inning having thrown 80 pitches.
Santiago had to leave in the fifth after injuring himself in the previous frame fielding a groundball. José de la Torre entered with Hayato Sakamoto on second and one out, and gave Japan its first rally by walking Sho Nakata. The Boston Red Sox’ prospect recovered, showing off his impressive arsenal by striking out the next two batters swinging.
Atsushi Nohmi got three outs in the sixth and Japan once more sent a runner into scoring position in the bottom half of the inning. With two out, Seiichi Uchikawa tripled to left centre when Ángel Pagán misjudged his base hit and let it go by him to the wall.
Southpaw Xavier Cedeño came in to face Japan’s cleanup hitter, Shinnosuke Abe, and struck out the lefty on four pitches. Cedeño used the same approach as Santiago had, firing in pitches before Abe was comfortable in the box.
Puerto Rico took advantage of Japan’s inability to push runners over in the previous two frames in the seventh. Aviles stroked his second hit of the night to right and Ríos took Nohmi’s 1-1 offering deep into the night, watching in disbelief as the longball landed about a dozen rows in the left centre field bleachers.
The upstarts continued to threaten against reliever Tadashi Settsu. With two out, Jesús Feliciano walked and Pagán laced a safety to right centre to put runners on the corners. Toshiya Sugiuchi got Japan out of the jam, but the damage had been done and Puerto Rico had a 3-0 lead.
Cedeño continued to deal in the seventh, ending the frame with his second K, and Puerto Rico was six outs away from the improbable victory.
The Puerto Rican offence, which had struggled for most of the Classic, almost added another insurance run in the eighth, loading the bases with one out on an error, a nine-pitch walk to Aviles, and a single to Ríos, but Tetsuya Yamaguchi got the final two outs to keep Japan’s deficit at three.
Takashi Toritani made use of AT&T Park’s spacious alleys to rip a triple to right centre. Hirokazu Ibata, the MVP of second round play in Tokyo, blooped a single to right to plate Toritani, and Japan finally showed some life. Uchikawa rapped a one-base hit to right with one out to put runners on first and second, and Rodríguez dipped into his pen for J.C. Romero.
Romero, who closed out Puerto Rico’s victory over the United States only two days’ earlier, entered to face Abe. Japan ran into trouble before the at bat was complete, though, as Ibata missed a double steal sign and only Uchikawa took off for second.
Yadier Molina, Puerto Rico’s catcher, ran out almost all the way to second base to tag Uchikawa, and the Samurai now only had one out to plate the runner. Romero would deny Abe the chance to play hero with a ground ball to the far right side for which Rodríguez had Falú positioned perfectly. The second baseman dove into the hole behind first base, snared the ball, and threw with his back to the ground to nail Abe.
Despite two Ks from Yamaguchi in the ninth, Japan could not narrow the gap against Romero and Fernando Cabrera in the latter half of the frame. Puerto Rico mobbed the field to celebrate its victory in its first-ever appearance in the World Baseball Classic semifinals.
Santiago, who pitched last year in Korea, earned the victory, giving up only two hits in 4 1/3 shutout innings, striking out two and failing to issue a base on balls. De la Torre and Cedeño both hurled 1 1/3 scoreless frames, while the run was charged to Randy Fontañez. Romero got three outs and Cabrera the final two, earning his third save of the WBC in the process.
Maeda dropped to 2-1 in the Classic despite surrendering one run on four hits and two free passes in five frames. He struck out three to augment his tournament-leading total to 18, six more than the next closest. Five other pitchers toed the rubber for the losing side.
Ibata and Uchikawa both had two hits for the Samurai, who mustered just six hits and two walks off Puerto Rican pitching. The team struck out eight times, left seven on base, and were 1-for-6 with runners in scoring position. Abe, the most highly regarded hitter in the lineup, was 0-for-4 and left three runners stranded.
Puerto Rico banged out nine hits and earned four free passes in its victory. Aviles reached base three times and had two safeties, joining Ríos and Pagán as the leader in that category. The team struck out only six times against Japan’s vaunted pitching staff.
Japan will have to wait until 2017 to avenge their loss in the semifinals and finishes 5-2 in the 2013 WBC. They are 17-7 in the three editions of the Classic, the most wins by any team. Puerto Rico now has 13 victories in the tournament, fourth most all-time.
Rodríguez and his men will await the results of the other semifinal matchup between the Netherlands and the Dominican Republic and have a day off to set his pitching staff. Puerto Rico will play in its first championship game, with first pitch scheduled for 1 a.m. GMT on Mar. 20.
We will have news and analysis of the final two games of the 2013 World Baseball Classic, so check back for all your coverage.