Rest or rust – the well-worn narrative is dredged up at the first opportunity. Because of the time change when one goes from playing baseball games in Japan to playing baseball games in San Francisco, the winners from Pool 1 were given five days off. This, according to some, was enough time to throw the Japanese off their game completely.
Using the rust crutch is too easy yet over-complicates the matter: Japan lost because baseball. Baseball is weird and wonderful and in a big ballpark with professional athletes playing it, well, there is a difference between an underdog and a longshot.
Guys like Alex Rios can go from failing to get a ball out of the infield for ten plate appearances to clubbing a massive two-run home run to left field in the top of the seventh, adding two runs to a 1-0 lead.
Puerto Rico had the reputation as a team with a bad bullpen but, aside from Randy Fontanez, they did all that was asked of them — with an unbelievable, inexplicable assist to Seiichi Uchikawa — in holding off the late-charging Japanese team; advancing to the World Baseball Classic final on Tuesday night with a 3-1 win.
The Japanese team likes to make things happen. They like to bunt and run and put pressure on the defense at all times. In a short tournament, it is a fine idea indeed. Until you are down two runs and rallying with two runners on base. Then, maybe, don’t bluff towards third base when you are the runner on second.
Because, against all odds and in defiance of everything good and holy and natural in our world, the runner on first will mistake your bluff for an actual stolen base attempt and make for second base. Then there will be two runners standing near each other looking ridiculous, waiting for Yadier Molina to tag one of them out. Then your rally will be over and your humiliation complete.
Chalking up the Puerto Rican victory to rust and/or Japanese TOOTBLANNERY does the American territory a great disservice. The Puerto Rican team, led on the mound by Mario Santiago, played a tight defensive game.
From Yadier Molina promptly firing the ball to his pitcher at every opportunity to Jose De La Torre getting away with a quick pitch, the Puerto Ricans made a concerted effort to work quickly, appearing to disrupt the timing of the Japanese hitters all night long. The former Royals pitcher and current member of the Dodgers (after a stint in Korea) was dominant, allowing just two hits and a one in 4.1 innings.
Santiago left the game early but the parade of PR relievers held the fort wonderfully, going against their billing to allow just one run in 4.2 innings.
Announced right forearm tightness on Mario Santiago as everyone else in here has already tweeted #WBC
— John Manuel (@johnmanuelba) March 18, 2013
Aside from the pitching staff which struck out eight against just two walks, the star of the game was Yadier Molina. Maybe less the star of the game than the star of the show. Molina is the obvious heart of the Puerto Rican team, demonstrative behind the plate in a way you simply do not see in the big leagues. Encouraging and scolding his pitchers in equal measure, position the outfielders and maintaining a constant dialog with umpires, Molina busied himself all night, never far from the action (including a weird foul ball/fake injury scam in the Japanese 9th inning.)
There will be a new World Baseball Classic champion. The two-time defending champs from Japan are OUT, losing to Puerto Rico in a game in which the team praised for its dedication small ball and fundamentals played terribly, sloppily, even stupidly. Bizarre decision making and uninspiring relief pitching doomed Japan and now they’re done. Puerto Rico waits for the winner of tomorrow night’s Dominican Republic/Netherlands game for the right to call themselves the
very best in the world winner of a short tournament in March.