Two-time defending champions Japan looked mortal in Round 1, barely eking out victories over Brazil and China before losing to Cuba. But after thoroughly dominating the competition in Round 2 -- outscoring their opponents 30-13 in three games -- the Japanese club seemed set to grab their third WBC title.
Puerto Rico had other ideas.
Right-hander Mario Santiago and a full arsenal of bullpen arms kept the Japanese offense at bay Sunday night at AT&T Park, allowing just one run on six hits in the semifinal, leading the way for Puerto Rico to clinch a spot in their first WBC final.
Puerto Rico got on the board right away with an RBI single to center from shortstop Mike Aviles in the top of the first, scoring Irving Falu from second base. Both offenses fell silent for the next few innings, then the Japan offense started showing signs of life.
Japan got runners into scoring position with two outs in the fourth, fifth, and sixth, but couldn't make anything of the opportunities. The club's best chance came in the fifth when PR starter Santiago had to be pulled with a runner on second and one out because of forearm tightness. Reliever Jose De La Torre walked the first batter he faced, giving Japan two on and one out, but then settled down to strike out the next two and end the threat.
Two-time All-Star Alex Rios then opened the game up for Puerto Rico in the seventh, hitting a two-run blast to left field to give the squad a 3-0 lead. Japan got one back in the eighth on a one-out triple followed by an RBI single from Hirokazu Ibata, but that would be all they could manage.
Former Angels right-hander J.C. Romero teamed up with current Angels right-hander Fernando Cabrera to get the final five outs for Puerto Rico, sending them into a final showdown at AT&T Park Tuesday night. They will face the winner of Monday's Netherlands-Dominican Republic match-up.
All World Baseball Classic Scores:
Puerto Rico 3, Japan 1