The champs are out
Published: Sunday, March 17, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, March 17, 2013 at 10:51 p.m.
SAN FRANCISCO — The emperor is dead.
There will be a new champion in the World Baseball Classic. Japan, winner of the first two global showcases, was eliminated Sunday night by Puerto Rico, an overachieving team with a core of major-league talent and a deep bullpen.
The Puerto Rico fans were outnumbered at AT&T Park, but they were never cowed, singing and dancing as if this were a cultural festival. You can bet that things were a lot crazier back on the island.
“It’s a lot of emotions,” winning manager Edwin Rodriguez said. “I know a lot of people down in Puerto Rico are watching. This win is huge ... for the whole country.”
The Caribbean team won 3-1, getting a strong start from Mario Santiago, a two-run homer by Alex Rios in the seventh inning and an uncharacteristic mental error by a Japanese runner in the bottom of the eighth. Scrappy Puerto Rico won its third consecutive elimination game after starting the second round with a loss to the United States.
Japan won this tournament in 2006 and 2009 with only a smattering of MLB players. This year’s team had none. Its roster was a pure reflection of the Nippon Professional Baseball league, and had looked supremely capable of capturing a WBC three-peat. But the first 10 Japanese batters made outs Sunday, and the lineup never managed anything you would call a rally until the late stages of the game.
“In this case, the opponents were really superior, both pitching and hitting,” Japanese manager Koji Yamamoto said through an interpreter. “So we were cornered, in a sense.”
Rios delivered the big blast off reliever Atsushi Nohmi, a no-doubt shot to left field with Mike Aviles on first base. No big surprise there: Rios hit 25 home runs for the White Sox last year, and has 143 in a nine-year MLB career.
The baserunning screw-up was more shocking. Japan finally got its ardent fans cheering and chanting “Nip-pon” in the eighth when, with one out, leadoff hitter Takashi Toritani drove a ball over Angel Pagan’s head in right-center and stretched out a triple. Hirokazu Ibata followed with an RBI single, and Seiichi Uchikawa with another single. Slugger Shinnosuke Abe, Japan’s cleanup hitter, came to the plate as the go-ahead run.
But in the middle of Abe’s at-bat, Uchikawa broke for second base — while Ibata held up. Puerto Rico catcher Yadier Molina — a two-time World Series champ with the St. Louis Cardinals — played it perfectly, corralling both runners at second and eventually tagging out Uchikawa.
Yamamoto said he and his coaches had noticed that reliever J.C. Romero had a big windup, and he felt his runners could take advantage. They had the option to double-steal, but Ibata held up.
“If we had the opportunity, we were saying the players should run,” Yamamoto said. “Moving forward to the next base is the right attempt. It failed, but I don’t regret the attempt.”
Second baseman Irving Falu ended the inning when he threw out Abe from the outfield grass.
The Japanese hitters had a hard time solving Santiago, who pitched last year in South Korea and never made it past triple-A in the United States . But he was two pitches into Sho Nakata’s at-bat in the bottom of the fifth when the Puerto Rican trainer came to the mound to check on him. The pitcher left with tightness in his right forearm.
His line: 4« innings, no runs allowed, and just two singles.
Santiago’s replacement, Jose De La Torre, lost Nakata to put two runners aboard with one out — the first time all night Japan put a runner in scoring position with less than two down. But De La Torre got Atsunori Inaba and Nobuhiro Matsuda on swinging third strikes.
Puerto Rico came out of the gate strong, thanks in part to a burst of wildness by Maeda. He threw eight straight balls and walked Falu and Carlos Beltran with one out in the first inning. After striking out Molina, Maeda surrendered a run-scoring single to clutch-hitting Aviles. It was Aviles’ ninth RBI of the tournament, just one shy of the WBC record of 10, tied this year by American David Wright.
Maeda settled after that, at one point mowing down eight straight batters. He also got some help in the field. Three times Japan snuffed out potential Puerto Rico rallies, twice on double plays (one of those started on a nifty play by Maeda) and once when catcher Abe gunned down Jesus Feliciano on an attempted steal of second base.
Maeda left after five innings having surrendered just the single run, but his bullpen couldn’t contain the Puerto Ricans.
Pagan, perhaps the most popular player in the stadium, was nearly the goat of the game. The guy who started 151 games in center field for the Giants last season should know AT&T Park better than anyone. But Pagan came up well short on a dive for Uchikawa’s line drive in the sixth inning, and Uchikawa wound up on third with a triple. Lefty Xavier Cedeno bailed out Pagan when he relieved De La Torre and struck out Abe.
Pagan caught the final out of the game on a ball lofted to center by pinch hitter Kaz Matsui.
The Dominican Republic and the Netherlands play Monday to decide who will face Puerto Rico the next day for the 2013 championship.
You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or email@example.com.
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