Puerto Rico's upset upsets Japan

SAN FRANCISCO -- There were 335 Japanese media members credentialed for their country's World Baseball Classic semifinal game against Puerto Rico on Sunday night, and after Japan's seven-year reign as WBC champions ended with a 3-1 defeat, this was the initial question posed to manager Koji Yamamoto (or at least how it was translated):

"First of all, could you please tell us the reason for losing?"

Not that there was any pressure on Team Japan to successfully defend its WBC championships.

That's the beauty of the WBC, though. Fans care. Players care. Maybe not so much in the United States, but elsewhere. Such as in Japan where games received near Super Bowl ratings. And in Puerto Rico, which advanced to the WBC championship for the first time Sunday and will play the winner of Monday's game between the Netherlands and the Dominican Republic for the WBC championship on Tuesday.

"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 way our team is playing, what that means for the entire country of Puerto Rico, not only in sports, but also in terms of the social aspects, we're all very satisfied, obviously, with these results."

Puerto Rico became the first team to knock Japan out of a WBC despite starting a pitcher who has never reached the majors and spent last season playing in South Korea.

"I'm really happy with the success that I've had," said Mario Santiago, who signed with the Dodgers during the winter. "And now coming to the States this year to accomplish my dream of playing in the major leagues – that's really important for me. We'll see what happens with my career, if I'll go back there or stay here. But I think every player has the dream of playing in the major leagues."

Santiago trained in Japan last spring prior to the Korean season, which he said helped him face Japan's batters Sunday. Given a 1-0 lead before he took the mound, Santiago pitched 4 1/3 scoreless innings before leaving with tightness in his right forearm. Alex Rios' two-run homer extended the lead to 3-0 in the seventh and Puerto Rico's bullpen -- along with a rare Japanese lapse in fundamentals -- made the lead hold up.

The game was played Sunday night in San Francisco but it was late Monday morning and early afternoon in Japan, where the country might have set a record for most water coolers kicked in frustration because of a botched double steal in the eighth inning that killed Japan's one chance to rally. And also nearly silenced the crowd of 33,683 in San Francisco, most of them rooting for Japan due to the city's large Japanese-American population.

After scoring a run to make it 3-1, Japan had runners at first and second with no one out and Pacific League MVP Shinnosuke Abe at bat. Yamamoto oddly called for a double steal but the runner on second, Hirokazu Ibata, turned back to second after his initial break. The runner on first, Seiichi Uchikawa continued to second and was eventually tagged out by catcher Yadier Molina.

Yamamoto said he called for the double steal because of the reliever's long motion to the plate and because he wanted to get the runners to second and third for Abe. But let's just put it this way: You have messed up big-time if a Molina catches you in a rundown at second base.

"I've never seen him in a rundown like that," Puerto Rico outfielder Angel Pagan said. "But that was a huge out for us."

Pagan channeled his inner Hunter Pence before Puerto Rico's game against the United States last Friday and delivered an impassioned dugout speech. He told his teammates to remember the 2009 World Baseball Classic when the U.S. knocked Puerto Rico out in the second round. "We wanted to use that as a motivation and maybe concentrate a little more," Pagan said.

The words evidently helped. Puerto Rico upset the U.S. and advanced to Sunday's semifinal. And after Puerto Rico advanced to the championship game by upsetting Japan, Pagan draped his country's flag over his body for another dugout message. Puerto Rican baseball is still very much alive, even if the quantity of players is not what it once was.

"As a role model, this is our purpose. To play for our country so that young kids can see us be a positive example," Pagan said. "And that they can follow us and try to follow our dream. Hopefully that message has been projected. I seriously know that getting this far and making history in Puerto Rico will help a lot. …

"We have a lot of talent, but somehow they're not as interested in sports for some reason. But we want to encourage them to really come play sports. Because you can go to college playing baseball. You can be a professional. Not just to get to the major league but to educate yourself. To get as far as you can and challenge yourself and get as far as you can."

Maybe that's pitching your entire career in the minors, like Santiago. Or in Korea. Or like Rios, signing a $70 million contract. Or perhaps, if you're Pagan, it's winning a World Series while playing center field in San Francisco one year and then playing for the WBC championship in the same ballpark the next spring.

Pagan said it didn't matter whether Puerto Rico plays the Netherlands or the Dominican Republic, which beat them twice already this WBC. He just wants to beat the best.

This time, it won't be Japan.