Alex Rios blasted a two-run homer and Mike Aviles hit an RBI single as Puerto Rico upset two-time defending champion Japan 3-1 in the semi-finals of the World Baseball Classic on Sunday.
Aviles batted two-for-three and scored a run for Puerto Rico who managed to hold off an eighth-inning rally by the Japanese to reach their first World Baseball Classic final.
“Coming here and being the first team to eliminate Japan means a lot,” said Puerto Rico manager Edwin Rodriguez.
“This win is huge. It is a huge performance and a huge accomplishment for the people of Puerto Rico.”
Starting pitcher Mario Santiago pitched 4 1/3 solid innings before he had to leave the game with an arm injury but he helped set the tone for Puerto Rico who were facing Japan on short rest.
Puerto Rico played two games in less than 24 hours before travelling cross country for their semi-final.
Puerto Rico pitcher Fernando Cabrera got Kazuo Matsui to fly out to centre field for the final out of the game, touching off a wild celebration by the Puerto Ricans who piled onto each other in front of home plate.
Puerto Rico will face either the Dominican Republic or the Netherlands in Tuesday’s championship game.
This was their third game in as many days as they earned a spot in the final with a dynamic 4-3 win over the USA on Friday but they couldn’t carry that momentum over into Saturday, losing 2-0 to the Dominicans in Miami.
Japan hit eight homers in their first six games but they couldn’t generate much offence against Puerto Rico’s pitching staff on Sunday, finishing with just six hits and leaving 13 men on base in front of a crowd of 33,683 at AT&T park.
“The opponent was a great team today,” said Japan manager Koji Yamamoto.
“The hitters were good, the pitchers were really good. So it was really hard to find an opportunity. Today our opponent was better.”
Japan won their first two World Baseball Classics with dominant pitching as ace Daisuke Matsuzaka was named tournament MVP in both 2006 and 2009.
This year’s team boasted no Major League Baseball talent as star players Matsuzaka, Yu Darvish and Ichiro Suzuki all chose to skip the event.
Santiago struck out two, allowed no runs and just two hits. He was replaced by right hander Jose De La Torre after hurting his arm while trying to make a play at first base in the bottom of the fifth.
Santiago played last year in South Korea but he trained in Japan so he knew how to pitch to the Japanese hitters.
“I had knowledge about their hitters,” Santiago said. “I saw them before in training in Japan last year.”
In the seventh, Rios belted a two-run homer off Japanese pitcher Atsushi Nohmi into the left field seats to make it 3-0.
Rios fouled off his first pitch then hammered a changeup over the fence to score Aviles who had reached base earlier with a single.
“I saw the pitch that I hit earlier in that at-bat,” Rios said. “He threw that changeup earlier. That was a very emotional at-bat for me. It gave us a three-run lead. It was exciting.”
Japan starting pitcher Kenta Maeda pitched five innings, striking out three, walking two and surrendering four hits.
Maeda got off to a rocky start by walking two of the first three batters he faced. Aviles opened the scoring for Puerto Rico with an RBI single to drive home Irving Falu from second base after Falu got on with one of those walks.
Aviles’ RBI snapped a string of 10 scoreless innings for Maeda.
Hirokazu Ibata hit an RBI single in the bottom of the eighth to get Japan’s lone run of the game. Ibata smacked a line drive to Puerto Rico right fielder Rios to score Takashi Toritani.