SAN FRANCISCO -- Let's end the suspense right at the top. Puerto Rico defeated Japan 3-1 in the semifinals of the World Baseball Classic Sunday night at AT&T Park.
OK, that's out of the way. Breathe easy now.
What the teams played was baseball, definitely baseball. And the game, to its credit, was a tense, tight affair involving players many in the crowd seemed to be familiar with. Angel Pagan played center field and hit lead-off for Puerto Rico just as he does for the San Francisco Giants who usually inhabit the real estate at Third and King Streets.
It hardly mattered that the players, except for a few exceptions like Pagan and Carlos Beltran, are pretty much at the Triple-A level. I couldn't actually speak for the Japanese team, never having heard of a single player — not one of them is in the majors. The game was a kind of Triple-A All Star Game. Puerto Rico's starting pitcher, Mario Santiago, is 28 and a career minor leaguer, although he is in the Dodgers' camp. He managed to pitch into the fifth inning without giving up a run and left with right forearm tightness. Props to Santiago, although you may never see him again.
But a feeling persisted the whole time of being lost in translation, of not knowing the ropes — hardly the worst feeling, by the way.
Like this one. Japan's starting pitcher was a right-hander named Kenta Maeda who throws a 90 mph heater and a breaking ball around 81. Nifty pitcher, or as they used to say, "crafty." He gave up a scratch run in the top of the first. No big deal.
After that, the Japanese had a reliever up in the bullpen the whole time, mostly two relievers. Maeda was pitching the real game and two guys were pitching a shadow game down the left-field line. In the real game, Maeda gave up one run on four hits in five innings. Pretty good.
Apparently, the Japanese take no chances with a starter running out of gas — just don't mess around. Bruce Bochy cuts his starting pitchers lots of slack without relievers warming up every minute. My guess is Bochy, a two-time-World-Series-champion manager, could not get a job in Japan.
There were other things which made the game interesting and unique — not bad, just interesting and unique. Stuff you never think about.
Like going over the ground rules at the start of the game. You've seen that a million times — yawn material, strictly routine. But they needed a translator at home plate and, what usually goes quickly, took a long time. Maeda had to throw his warm-up pitches to the catcher who was crouching like a loiterer way to the left of the plate. That's because the umpires, managers and translator were standing at home plate discussing the ballpark. After that, they all posed for photos while Maeda continued to throw to the right of home plate.
This was something new.
So were the dancing and singing. And they were lovely. Bands played in the stands for both sides and people danced gaily — some couples slow danced. And when the Japanese rallied in the eighth, fans yelled, "Nipon. Nipon." And the feeling was baseball-plus. The plus was the feel of festival and celebration and joy. And that was cool.