Alex Rios' home run was a cause for celebration for the Puerto Rican team.
Puerto Rico defeated the two-time defending World Baseball Classic champion Japan 3-1 Sunday night at AT&T Park in San Francisco.
No need to blink, you read that correctly.
The Puerto Rican team that came out of Pool C as the runner-up and survived two elimination games in Round 2, winning each by just one run, stifled Japanese hitting over nine innings of play to advance to the championship game. It will play the winner of Monday night's Netherlands versus Dominican Republic matchup.
Starting pitcher Mario Santiago was brilliant, retiring the first 10 batters he faced and throwing 4.1 innings of shutout baseball before being removed due to right forearm tightness. Santiago seemed frustrated to depart as he only allowed two hits but was dealing with some discomfort after his hurried put-out of Japanese slugger Shinnosuke Abe to conclude the third inning.
The Puerto Rican bullpen savored the win and held the Japanese bats at bay, tossing 4.2 innings of one-run baseball. Jose De La Torre, Xavier Cedeno, J.C. Romero and Fernando Cabrera combined for 4.1 scoreless innings of relief. Randy Fontanez was the only reliever to struggle, allowing one run on three hits in one-third of an inning.
Alex Rios charged up his struggling swing, going 2-for-4 with two RBI, including a towering two-run home run in the top of the seventh, which opened up a 3-0 lead for Puerto Rico, deflating the largely Japanese crowd. Rios had been just 3-for-24 in the WBC with no extra-base hits or RBI.
Kenta Maeda, the 2010 Sawamura Award winner (the Japanese equivalent of the Cy Young Award), took the hill for Japan, throwing five innings and conceding just one run on four hits. However, he took the loss after back-to-back walks and a Mike Aviles single drove in the first run for Puerto Rico in the top of the first.
Japan, which managed just eight base runners in the game, threatened in the bottom of the eighth inning after leadoff hitter Takashi Toritani tripled to center and was driven in by Hirokazu Ibata. Seiichi Uchikawa followed with a base hit to bring the go-ahead run to the plate in the form of Abe, who led the team in home runs (two), RBI (seven) and total bases (13) during the WBC.
An uncharacteristic base running blunder by a normally disciplined Japanese team spoiled what could have been the most important at-bat of the game. Uchikawa was caught between bases, misreading a steal sign while Ibata remained at second and was chased down by catcher Yadier Molina.
It was an astounding upset for Puerto Rico, which will play in the championship game Tuesday night. Japanese media members outnumbered their Puerto Rican counterparts by more than five to one (335 to 66) but would ultimately be disappointed with the outcome.
What has made this Puerto Rican team so durable? So reliable? So tenacious?
Danny Knobler of CBSSports.com insists it's the catcher, Molina—and for good reason.
Puerto Rico has knocked out WBC heavyweights Venezuela, USA and now Japan, largely due to the success and tenacity of its pitching staff. Over its last two games, Puerto Rican pitchers have allowed just three runs and 12 hits in 17 innings of work. They dominantly handled the Japanese offense and even stymied the high-powered Dominican Republic in their Pool 2 final to just two runs.
However, the majority of Puerto Rico's pitchers aren't even on a major league roster. In fact, Romero was the only major leaguer to pitch Sunday night and even he isn't currently signed to a team.
Santiago, who masterfully shut down Japan's bats, is a 28-year-old Triple-A level pitcher who took to Korea to play last year.
Will Puerto Rico win the World Baseball Classic?
Molina, who went 0-for-4 in the game at the plate, proved his worth behind the plate due to his exceptional leadership of the pitching staff.
Some may say a bevy of factors affected Japan's play in the semifinal game: its layoff between games, the cold weather in San Francisco or the drastic time difference.
In a display of wonderful sportsmanship, Japan will not make excuses. Instead, at the conclusion of the game, the team's players and coaches took to the field, bowing to the opposing team and the fans in attendance as a sign of respect.
That is what the WBC is all about.