SAN FRANCISCO - The World Baseball Classic will crown a champion in two days, and for the first time, a team other than Japan will be hoisting the trophy.
Alex Rios sent Atsushi Nomi’s high, 122-kph change-up deep into the seats in left field for a two-run home run during the seventh inning, and Japan was left to rue a number of missed chances, as Puerto Rico ended the two-time defending WBC champions’ reign with a 3-1 victory in front of a crowd of 33,683 on Sunday at AT&T Park.
“The opponent had a great team tonight,” Japan manager Koji Yamamoto said. “Hitters were good, they were really aggressive, and the pitchers were especially good. So it was really hard to seize the opportunity. In that sense, you win or lose in any game, and today, our opponent was better.”
Japan’s run in a WBC ended prior to the tournament coming to a close for the first time. The lasting images from the previous two Classics were of managers Sadaharu Oh and Tatsunori Hara being thrown into the air in celebration after championships in 2006 and 2009. Oh and Hara were in attendance Sunday as Japan fell one win short of a third consecutive appearance in a WBC final.
“I have said it several times, but the players were really in good condition and that delivered us this far,” Yamamoto said. “I really felt the support from the fans. In this case, our opponent was really superior, both in pitching and hitting, so we were cornered, in a sense.”
Samurai Japan looked ready to go down fighting when it made the score 3-1 after a one-out triple by Takashi Toritani and an RBI single off the bat of Hirokazu Ibata in the eighth. Seiichi Uchikawa then singled to put runners on first and second.
The Japanese took the wind out of their own sails by botching a double steal that resulted in Uchikawa being caught stealing. Shinnosuke Abe then grounded out to end the inning.
“There was a sign the double steal could be attempted,” Yamamoto said, “and Ibata’s start was a little delayed, and that’s what happened.”
For Puerto Rico, it’s on to Tuesday’s final, where it will face the winner of Monday’s semifinal between the Dominican Republic and the Netherlands.
“We are really happy,” Puerto Rico manager Edwin Rodriguez said. “And we’re very aware that Puerto Rico’s watching us. They’re really following what’s happening here. Each of our boys is very aware of what this means.”
The Puerto Ricans took advantage of a shaky beginning by Japanese starter Kenta Maeda and took an early lead on an RBI single by Mike Aviles in the first inning. Puerto Rico maintained that slim advantage through the combined efforts of starter Mario Santiago and its bullpen.
The lead was still 1-0 entering the seventh, and Aviles opened the inning with a single. That brought Rios to the plate, and Nomi hung a change-up that the Chicago White Sox outfielder didn’t miss.
“It was a very exciting at-bat,” Rios said. “We took a three-run lead. Actually, the pitch that I hit, I saw it earlier in that at-bat. He threw a change-up and then he repeated that change-up on the third pitch, and that’s the one I saw, and I guess I put a good turn on it, and the ball went out.”
Santiago, who was the winning pitcher, kept Japan off the board for 4⅓ innings, before leaving the game due to right forearm tightness in the fifth with one out and a runner on first. Reliever Jose De La Torre walked Sho Nakata, then struck out the next two batters to end the inning, and Puerto Rico’s bullpen didn’t yield a run until Ibata’s RBI single in the eighth.
“I think the key today was really following Yadier Molina,” Santiago said. “We all know he’s the best major league catcher. It was all about following his pitching rhythm, which was quick, and that’s what we did.”
Japan had its chances, but finished 1-for-6 with runners in scoring position. Excluding two blowout wins over the Netherlands, Japan was 10-for-49 with runners in scoring position during the WBC.
Ibata finished 2-for-4 at the plate and drove in Japan’s only run, while Uchikawa was 2-for-4 with a triple. Toritani’s triple in the eighth was his only hit in four at-bats.
Aviles was 2-for-3 with an RBI for Puerto Rico and has driven in nine of his team’s 23 runs during the Classic. Rios was also 2-for-4, and hometown favorite Angel Pagan of the San Francisco Giants was 2-for-5.
Maeda, who took the loss, had been Japan’s best pitcher during the WBC, but was not at his best early. Maeda, with the help of some key plays behind him, still limited the damage to one run over five innings. He allowed four hits, struck out three and walked two.
“I think Maeda pitched great,” Yamamoto said. “I don’t think it’s the reason for the loss. I think the players did great. I just feel that way.”