Puerto Rico knocks Japan out of WBC with 3-1 victory

  • Updated: March 18, 2013 - 12:58 AM

Now, Puerto Rico needs one more win to be WBC champion. Then, the country can really cheer.

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- A beaming Alex Rios rounded the bases and reached home to a line of jubilant, jumping teammates eager to celebrate.

The surprising Puerto Ricans first eliminated the star-studded United States, then took care of two-time World Baseball Classic champion Japan two days later with a 3-1 victory in Sunday night’s semifinal.

Now, Puerto Rico needs one more win to be WBC champion. Then, the country can really cheer.

“We totally showed we can be the new team, the champion nobody expected,” said Angel Pagan, center fielder for the World Series champion San Francisco Giants. “It means a lot, but not everything, because we’re still missing one more win.”

Rios hit a two-run homer, Mike Aviles singled twice and drove in the game’s first run, and Puerto Rico reached its first WBC final with a big assist from the bullpen.

Relievers Jose De La Torre and Xavier Cedeno each worked out of jams while pitching key moments after winning pitcher Mario Santiago left in the fifth inning with a forearm injury.

Team Puerto Rico will play in Tuesday night’s championship against either the Netherlands or the Dominican Republic. Those teams meet in the tournament’s second semifinal Monday night at AT&T Park.

A Puerto Rico team that didn’t even gather as a full squad for the first time until March 4 in Fort Myers, Fla., reached the championship round for the first time.

Aviles hit a two-out bloop single to center to put Puerto Rico on the board in the first and singled again to start the seventh before Rios hit a towering drive into the left-field seats.

Unlike the two previous WBC winners from Japan, this team was devoid of major leaguers and couldn’t pull off a three-peat. Hirokazu Ibata drove in the team’s lone run with an eighth-inning single against Randy Fontanez, but Japan missed a chance with a costly baserunning blunder. It also had the tying run at the plate in the ninth but Fernando Cabrera closed out the win.

The Puerto Ricans -- who eliminated the U.S. on Friday night -- certainly could have been road weary after playing the previous two days in Miami and making a cross-country trip to the Bay Area late Saturday, but Edwin Rodriguez’s club looked nothing of the sort in stunning the top-seeded Japanese.

Aviles’ hit ended 10 scoreless innings in the WBC for Japan right-hander Kenta Maeda, and Santiago didn’t allow a baserunner until Ibata’s single up the middle with one out in the fourth.

Team Puerto Rico played sparkling defense. Second baseman Irving Falu made a diving stop to his left to steal a hit from Yoshio Itoi for the first out of the fifth, then made another gem to end the eighth. That came after Japan’s uncharacteristic mental mistake in which Ibata broke for third, then retreated to the bag as Seiichi Uchikawa already had neared second. Catcher Yadier Molina ran him down for the tag.

“To me, he’s the best catcher in the major leagues right now,” Pagan said.

De La Torre walked the first batter he saw before back-to-back strikeouts. That sparked Molina to jump and pump his fist in celebration.

The fans were equally into it on a festive night that even included an Irish jig.

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