It's spring and the game of baseball still is stretching after a long winter sleep. But the national team from Puerto Rico already is playing like it's had several pots of coffee and is raring to go. At the World Baseball Classic last night in San Francisco, team P.R. upset Japan 3-1 in the semi-finals and advanced to the championship game for the first time.
Japan won the only other two WBCs, in 2006 and 2009. But the Japanese team, without any major league players on its roster, lost to a Puerto Rican team with several — including catcher Yadier Molina of the St. Louis Cardinals, who was brilliant again in his control of the game, and right fielder Alex Rios of the Chicago White Sox, who hit a towering 2-run home run in the seventh inning to give Puerto Rico the cushion it needed.
Team Puerto Rico is indeed playing with passion, though many American baseball fans haven't noticed.
Thirty minutes before game time, in an elevator at AT&T Park, home to the San Francisco Giants, two Giants employees were overheard laughing about Puerto Rico vs. Japan not being a "real game." It's a common sentiment throughout the U.S. — the World Baseball Classic is an oddly-timed series of exhibition games, played while the important business of spring training is going on in Florida and Arizona.
Puerto Rico manager Edwin Rodriguez begged to differ, as he spoke Sunday night about his team's string of wins during this WBC. First, Puerto Rico beat a very talented Venezuelan team. Then it bagged three victories in five days — over Italy, the U.S. and Japan. All were in elimination games: Meaning you lose, and you're out.
"We know that a lot of people down in Puerto Rico are watching, and this win is huge," Rodriguez said, adding that, "the way 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 also for the whole country."
If the WBC is some sort of exhibition, someone forgot to tell team P.R., as it rushed toward home plate, preparing to mob Alex Rios after he tagged that seventh inning pitch off Japan reliever Atsushi Nohmi and sent it into the left field stands for a 3-0 lead.
"It was a very exciting at-bat," Rios said. "It was very emotional."
As was the loss for Japan — a country reportedly that tried but failed to enlist Japanese major leaguers for WBC duty, and then wore its no-big-leaguers-on-our-roster as a badge of honor. But in the end, Japan could have used some major help. As one reporter who has covered Japanese baseball for nearly two decades observed, the team played another tight game and had played tight throughout the tournament. It was dealing with high expectations after winning the previous two tournaments.
Team Japan manager Koji Yamamoto praised Puerto Rico starting pitcher Mario Santiago for his powerful and stingy performance. Santiago gave up only two hits and no runs before leaving in the fifith inning due to stiffness in his forearm, according to MLB.com's Barry Bloom.
"It was hard to seize the moment," Yamamoto said, adding, through a translator, that his players "worked really hard and on such a big stage of international games, this is going to be the benefit for their career as a baseball player in the future."
The present, though, belongs to Puerto Rico, and if the team gets its wish, it will play an all-Caribbean World Baseball Classic final on Tuesday against the Dominican Republic. The D.R. is undefeated and on Monday plays a semifinal game against the Netherlands, the designated Cinderella of the WBC's Final 4. (The games are being broadcast by MLB.com and ESPN Deportes.)
Perhaps an all-Caribbean final could warm up chilly AT&T Park — and maybe thaw those chilly attitudes among American baseball fans. And maybe those fans should remember — Team USA had its chance. Although it didn't sport a roster filled with A-list major leaguers, the likes of Joe Mauer, David Wright, Adam Jones, Gio Gonzales and Jimmy Rollins aren't bad. But the USA couldn't beat the little team that could from Puerto Rico.
Of course, as one reporter reminded others after Sunday night's game – Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory. So maybe apathetic American baseball fans could fill those big swaths of empty seats from Sunday; and maybe move their hips to a Caribbean rhythm and embrace real baseball, laced with the intensity that comes whenever nations play nations.