Puerto Rico eyes crown in Classic run

March 21st, 2017

LOS ANGELES -- If there's a sense of unfinished business from four years ago, Team Puerto Rico doesn't seem to have it. It's back to the championship game of the World Baseball Classic again Wednesday night at Dodger Stadium against a different team, in a different place and in a much different situation.

In 2013 at AT&T Park in San Francisco, Puerto Rico faced a juggernaut of a Dominican Republic team that beat it to win all eight games and the tournament.

This time, it's the Puerto Ricans, who are 7-0 after defeating the Netherlands, 4-3, in a thriller of an 11-inning semifinal game on Monday night.

:: 2017 World Baseball Classic ::

The winner of Tuesday night's Team USA-Japan semifinal awaits them. Both games are slated for a 9 p.m. ET start on MLB Network and MLB.TV. In Wednesday's final at 9 p.m. ET, Puerto Rico, which will start right-hander of the New York Mets, will be the home team vs. the U.S. should America advance, and if the P.R. meets Japan, the home-road teams will be determined by a coin flip.

The Netherlands similarly bowed out in a 2013 semifinal game against the raging Dominicans that was hardly as close as Monday night's affair, which ended on 's bases-loaded sacrifice fly.

And it was Dutch manager Hensley Meulens who gave Puerto Rico the nod to win it all. Japan also stands undefeated at 6-0.

"Well, you've got to give them the advantage," Meulens said. "You know, they've got the undefeated record still. They're going to have a day off Tuesday so they can rest some guys, and then play whoever comes their way on Wednesday. I think they're the strongest team we've faced in the tournament. Obviously, their record indicates that. But I wish them luck. They played a great game, and I wish Japan and USA luck as well."

Puerto Rico won not because of its vaunted power and strong pitching, but because its players did all the little things. It was a festival in Chavez Ravine where a crowd of 24,865 felt more like 50,000. It was joyous. The sound of congas, music and timbales filling the air all evening. It will be the same scene with an even larger crowd on Wednesday night.

"This game, it was a great game," said Edwin Rodriguez, Puerto Rico's manager. "It was very well played, both sides. And the defense and execution won the game today. So it was very important for us to be able to bring the fundamentals of baseball. That's what got us the win today. We turned four double plays. We bunted the ball well. We pitched to contact. We made contact with a runner on third, less than two outs.

"So although we've been pretty much overpowering everybody throughout the tournament, today we played very good fundamental baseball, and that's what got us the win."

Ground-ball double plays were key to Puerto Rico squirming out of four of the last five innings. And in the 10th, struck out the side. His inside 1-2 pitch to was a tad too close causing Diaz and Balentien to jaw at each other.

Tempers flared in what had become a taut and dramatic game. And as it all seemed to be reaching the boiling point, catcher blocked Balentien from heading to the mound. Plate umpire Lance Barksdale let Molina act as peacekeeper and turned his attention elsewhere. That's something one doesn't see very often.

Molina handles pitchers, picks off baserunners, as he did earlier in the game, but he also generates so much respect for the person he is.

Calm returned. Balentien settled back in the box. Diaz punched him out looking with a nasty pitch just above the knees.

"Well, to me, it's just emotions pouring into that one at-bat," Meulens said. "That's what I take from it. Nothing else."

Puerto Rico had the edge, too, on the rules governing play from the 11th inning on. In the final inning, both teams started with runners automatically on first and second. Both teams bunted the runners over. Both teams walked a batter intentionally to load the bases.

Puerto Rico induced Curt Smith to ground to second into a double play. Rosario slashed a line drive to center, allowing to score. The throw from was off line.

And just like that, like a World Cup soccer game ending on a shootout goal, Puerto Rico had moved on.

"It's not the way I would have done it," Rodriguez said. "What's the hurry? Play it out."

Those are the rules and the remaining three teams will play it out in the same way over the next two games. Japan and the U.S. will certainly knock heads. As far as professional baseball is concerned, they are the pre-eminent baseball playing countries in the world.

Puerto Rico is a U.S. commonwealth with baseball also in its life blood. Roberto Clemente, Roberto Alomar, Orlando Cepeda, Pudge Rodriguez. All Hall of Famers, with Molina on his way.

It doesn't matter who his team plays this time around, Rodriguez said. Japan, U.S., they are two different teams, but professionally they are very much the same.

"From defeat we learned, but we learned more from the great success we had in 2013," Rodriguez said. "In 2013, nobody said we were going to go beyond the first round in Puerto Rico and we were able to reach the final game. We have the talent, we have the staff, and we were able to execute the plays as they should be executed. That's what we learned from 2013.

"I don't have a favorite for Wednesday. Whoever wins, we'll be here ready for them."

The World Baseball Classic runs through Wednesday. In the U.S., games air live exclusively in English on MLB Network and on an authenticated basis via MLBNetwork.com/watch, while ESPN Deportes and WatchESPN provide the exclusive Spanish-language coverage. MLB.TV Premium subscribers in the U.S. have access to watch every tournament game live on any of the streaming service's 400-plus supported devices. The tournament is being distributed internationally across all forms of television, internet, mobile and radio in territories excluding the U.S., Puerto Rico and Japan. Get tickets for the Championship Round at Dodger Stadium, while complete coverage -- including schedules, video, stats and gear -- is available at WorldBaseballClassic.com.