Semi­fi­nals, Game 1 | Sun, Mar 17

PUR 3, JPN 1

SAN FRANCISCO — The World Base­ball Clas­sic reign for the Land of the Ris­ing Sun is at an end.

The sun set for Japan in a tour­na­ment full of upsets and sur­pris­es on Sun­day as Puer­to Rico won, 3–1, at AT&T Park on the strength of a two-run homer by Alex Rios, send­ing the Puer­to Ricans on to the cham­pi­onship game on Tues­day at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT.

They will play the win­ner of Mon­day night’s semi­fi­nal between the unde­feat­ed Domini­can Repub­lic and King­dom of the Nether­lands at 9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT. Both games can be seen in the U.S. on MLB Net­work and ESPN Deportes.

“This means a lot,” Puer­to Rico man­ag­er Edwin Rodriguez said. “That’s a lot of emo­tions. We know that a lot of peo­ple down in Puer­to Rico are watch­ing and this win is huge. The way that these guys have been play­ing and per­form­ing is a huge accom­plish­ment for the peo­ple in Puer­to Rico — not only for the play­ers and young­sters, but for the whole country.”

Japan won the first two Clas­sics, defeat­ing Cuba, 10–6, at San Diego in 2006 and Korea, 5–3, in 10 innings at Dodger Sta­di­um in ’09. Japan was the only returnee this year from the ’09 final four. The Japan­ese sore­ly missed right-han­der Daisuke Mat­suza­ka, the MVP of the first two Clas­sics, who is try­ing to make the Indi­ans ros­ter this spring and declined to play.

Puer­to Rico and the Dutch are in the cham­pi­onship round for the first time. P.R has already lost to the D.R. twice this year, once in each of the first two rounds. Italy and Chi­nese Taipei also made it to the sec­ond round with Korea, Mex­i­co, Cana­da and Venezuela going home ear­ly. Those four coun­tries must qual­i­fy for the round of 16 of the Clas­sic in 2017.

On Sun­day, Puer­to Rico won its third elim­i­na­tion game in the last five days, the win over Japan com­ing after knock­ing out Italy and the U.S. from the tournament.

For the first time, the Japan­ese com­pet­ed with no cur­rent Major Lea­guers, while Puer­to Rico had a line­up full of them, includ­ing Rios, Mike Aviles, Angel Pagan, Car­los Bel­tran and Yadier Moli­na. It might be appro­pri­ate that the only Japan­ese play­er with big league expe­ri­ence, Kaz Mat­sui, was sent up to pinch-hit and flied out to cen­ter on the first pitch he faced to end the game.

Pri­or to it, the leg­endary Sada­haru Oh and Tat­sunori Hara threw out the first pitch­es simul­ta­ne­ous­ly off the AT&T Park mound. Oh, the all-time king with 868 homers all hit in the Japan leagues, man­aged the 2006 Clas­sic-win­ning Japan team. Hara, the cur­rent man­ag­er of the defend­ing Japan Series-win­ning Yomi­uri Giants, was skip­per of the ’09 team.

This year’s man­ag­er, Koji Yamamo­to, was­n’t up to the task. At the end of the game, as is their cus­tom after a loss, the Japan­ese lined up along the third-base line in front of their dugout and bowed in uni­son to the Puer­to Ricans as they were cel­e­brat­ing on the field.

“The oppo­nent was a great team today,” Yamamo­to said. “The hit­ters were good. They played real­ly aggres­sive­ly. And the pitch­ers were espe­cial­ly real­ly good. So it was real­ly hard for us to find the oppor­tu­ni­ty or seize the oppor­tu­ni­ty. In that sense, you either win or lose in any game, and today our oppo­nent was better.”

Right-han­der Mario San­ti­a­go shut down the Japan­ese on two hits and left for pre­cau­tion­ary rea­sons because of fore­arm stiff­ness with one out and a run­ner on sec­ond in the fifth inning after toss­ing 61 pitch­es. A starter can go as far as 95 pitch­es in the cham­pi­onship round. After­ward, San­ti­a­go said he was fine and could’ve con­tin­ued if need­ed. He was­n’t need­ed as five Puer­to Rican reliev­ers com­bined to shut the Japan­ese down.

“This game was big for me and big for my fam­i­ly,” San­ti­a­go said on the field after he was cred­it­ed with the win. “Every­body in Puer­to Rico is hap­py. Nobody was think­ing that we were going to be here. This game was big for everyone.”

Puer­to Rico took a 1–0 lead in the first inning on an Aviles sin­gle off Japan­ese starter Ken­ta Mae­da, who pitched five innings of four-hit ball and was replaced after throw­ing 80 pitches.

Rios home­red deep to left after Aviles sin­gled to open the sev­enth off reliev­er Atsushi Noh­mi. The White Sox right field­er had a lack­lus­ter Clas­sic going into that at-bat. It was his first homer, extra-base hit and RBIs of the tournament.

“For us, this is like Spring Train­ing,” Rios said. “We’re still in a prepa­ra­tion phase. We have to under­stand that we’re not at our max­i­mum. We have to work on our approach and the game and do our job as well as we can. We can’t just be wor­ried about mechan­ics. It’s just the approach. Thanks to our results, which were favor­able tonight, we have done well.”

The Japan­ese had a scor­ing threat with two out in the sixth when right field­er Sei­ichi Uchikawa tripled to left-cen­ter beyond a lunge by Pagan, who seemed to mis­judge the lin­er. But Uchikawa was left on third when left-hand­ed reliev­er Xavier Cede­no came in and whiffed vet­er­an catch­er Shin­no­suke Abe.

The Japan­ese did score in the eighth when sec­ond base­man Takashi Tori­tani hit a one-out triple and scored on Hirokazu Ibata’s sin­gle. But after Uchikawa sin­gled to put run­ners on first and sec­ond, Japan ran itself out of the inning. The run­ners were in motion with Abe at the plate and left-han­der J.C. Romero on the mound. Iba­ta went back to sec­ond, but Uchikawa got hung up between the bases. Moli­na sim­ply ran him down for the tag out. Abe ground­ed out to end the inning.

“The motion of the pitch­er was slow,” Yamamo­to explained. “You could see that through the video. I could see it from the video. And if there’s an oppor­tu­ni­ty, we were say­ing that the play­ers should run. And with Abe as the hit­ter, mov­ing to the next base was the right attempt. It failed, but I don’t regret the attempt.”

It proved to be Japan’s undo­ing. The sun this year on the Japan­ese has set.

Bar­ry M. Bloom is nation­al reporter for and writes an MLBlog, Boom­skie on Base­ball. Fol­low @boomskie on Twit­ter. This sto­ry was not sub­ject to the approval of Major League Base­ball or its clubs.