Mexico's comeback thriller over P.R. sets up date with Japan in semifinals
MIAMI -- As Mexico outfielder Alex Verdugo sat at the press conference podium on Friday afternoon at loanDepot park, he summed up the action that was about to transpire between Mexico and Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic quarterfinal matchup later that evening.
"Everybody's ready to go out there and play our hearts out," Verdugo said. "Baseball, anything can happen."
In this case, "anything" meant just about "everything" in an electric battle that kept a stadium on its feet until Mexico prevailed, 5-4, to advance to the semifinals against Japan (Monday, 7 p.m. ET, FS1).
"We thought that it would be a great game," Mexico manager Benji Gil said after the game. "I wanted everyone in baseball to enjoy that game, and I think it was like that."
In a contest that began with back-to-back home runs in the first inning by Team Puerto Rico veterans Javier Báez and Eddie Rosario, a determined Team Mexico refused to quit. Rather than getting discouraged on the global stage by an early four-run deficit, a 24-year-old Isaac Paredes delivered a solo blast 412 feet into left-center field off Marcus Stroman the following frame to halt Puerto Rico's momentum.
"It was a difficult start for us," said Paredes, "but we are together as a team. It was a one-run homer, the game was still open, but we had many innings to go. We were able to respond, we responded and we got the result."
Puerto Rico's early burst of dingers would be its only run-producing inning of the night. As five pitchers combined to quiet Puerto Rico's offense, Verdugo's pregame message resonated again.
"At the end of the day, it comes down to pitching," Verdugo said earlier. "If the pitching can put up zeros and keep the game limited, then we like our chances."
Mexico's pitching gave the team the opportunity to make noise late in the game, when the quarterfinals nail-biter culminated with clutch hitting in the seventh by Paredes and 25-year-old Luis Urías. Paredes' game-tying, two-run single to left field off Jorge López was followed by Urías' go-ahead single to right to erase Puerto Rico's early lead and change the course of the evening.
A game of this electricity would not have been complete without a player who has proven he can make the game look easy at any given moment. Randy Arozarena's leaping catch at the warning track on a ball hit by Emmanuel Rivera in the eighth shut down a major comeback attempt, setting the stage for Giovanny Gallegos to clinch the save with runners on first and second.
"Of course we know what kind of player Randy is," said Puerto Rico manager Yadier Molina. "He's a great player. He killed us; we couldn't score. But they played very well. We started very strong, but then the Mexican pitchers made some adjustments and kept us in zeros."
Mexico will begin preparing for their semifinals matchup against Japan with a workout on Saturday afternoon. It will be a battle of the Pool B and Pool C champions, with Japan coming to Miami undefeated (4-0) in the tournament.
"Japan is a great team as well with huge stars," said Gil. "We know the stars that play in the United States, but they also have great stars playing in Japan. Our rival is the favorite again in the remaining games, but we don't fear that. This has nothing to do with the favorite. You just have to do the best on the field. We respect Japan a lot, of course, but we are focused. We are devoted, and we're going to do our best, and God willing, we'll be able to win on Monday and play on Tuesday as well."
As it was said before Mexico rushed onto the field in celebration of their quarterfinals victory over Puerto Rico: "Baseball, anything can happen."