For the first time in seven years and three iterations, the World Baseball Classic is going to have a new champion. Puerto Rico upset defending champion Japan 3-1 last night just two days after upsetting the United States, and as a result, their Cinderella run is going to take them all the way into the tournament's final game on Tuesday.
It's hard to imagine a bigger pitching mismatch than the one that opened this game up. Japan's starter, Kenta Maeda, is one of Nippon Pro Baseball's best pitchers, winning the 2010 Cy Young equivalent and considering a move across the Pacific to Major League Baseball. Puerto Rico sent Mario Santiago out to face Maeda. Santiago has an invite to Dodgers' camp this year, but otherwise he's been a minor leaguer in the Royals' system since 2005. It took him until 2012 to even hit the Triple-A level.
For one night in San Francisco, though, Maeda and Santiago were a wash. Santiago shut Japan down, allowing just two hits in 4 1/3 shutout innings. Maeda was excellent but two walks in the first inning lead to a Mike Aviles RBI single, and that was all that Puerto Rico would need to hang him win the loss. In fact, that Aviles RBI single was the only run either team scored until the seventh inning, when Aviles lead things off with another single and Alex Rios immediately followed up with a two-run homer to give Puerto Rico a 3-0 lead.
Japan did not roll over easily, though. In the bottom of the eighth they got a one-out triple from Takashi Toritani. They finally got on the scoreboard with Hirokazu Ibata singled Toritani in, and they put the tying run on base with just one out when Seiichi Uchikawa follwed up with the third straight hit. That put reigning NPB MVP Shinnosuke Abe at the plate as the go-ahead run with one out. Unfortunately for Japan, things went badly quickly from there. Uchikawa ran into an out on a botched hit-and-run, then JC Romero got Abe to bounce into the inning's final out. Japan did put a runner on base in the ninth to bring the tying run up, but they otherwise couldn't threaten against Fernando Cabrera.
The Netherlands has gotten a lot of attention as the tournament's big underdogs, but Puerto Rico's run to the final is nearly as surprising. They were heavy underdogs in their first round group with the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, but they upset Venezuela to advance to the second round. There, they got hammered by the US in the first game and had to come back through the loser's bracket and upset the US for their berth in the finals. Now they've made it all the way to the final game by upsetting the only champion the WBC has ever known.
They'll await the winner of tonight's game with the Dominican Republic and the Netherlands, playing in Wednesday night's final.