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March 19, 2013

Punk Hits

Not Just Another Night at the Yard

by Ian Miller

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I’ve become slightly obsessed with the World Baseball Classic. When I learned the semifinals and finals of the 2013 Classic would be played at AT&T Park in San Francisco, I made sure to purchase our regular-season seats for all three games. I’m regretting that decision a little now that they’re flogging $5 bleacher seats for the second semifinal game, but the buyer’s remorse is minimal; after all, it’s not every day that an international baseball event is held in one’s own backyard.

The first semifinal game took place on Sunday night and pitted Japan, the two-time defending WBC champ, against a plucky Puerto Rico team that really had no business making it out of pool play. They faced elimination twice and beat Italy and the United States to guarantee a semifinal berth, ultimately losing to the Dominican Republic in what amounted to a seeding game. Had they won, they would have had an additional day off in which to travel to San Francisco from Miami, and they’d face the Netherlands. But they lost to the D.R., meaning they had to fly west immediately after their Saturday game in order to face Japan on Sunday on a short turnaround and as a heavy underdog.

That meant I began Sunday night as a Puerto Rico fan. I didn’t have a dog in the fight—I recently adopted the Netherlands as my official WBC rooting interest—so I figured I’d cheer for the little guy. Ultimately I just wanted to see a good game and to have the opportunity to see players and a brand of baseball I wouldn’t normally get a chance to see up close.

When we arrived at AT&T Park, it was clear that this was no regular season Giants game. There was a live band performing in Willie Mays Plaza, which was decked out in WBC-specific bunting and streamers. Auxiliary merchandise booths flogged WBC gear as fast as their credit-card machines would allow, and revelers filled the plaza and spilled out into the Third and King streets, much to the chagrin of the local constabulary.

Once inside, we made our way to our seats alongside the home (Japan) bullpen. We watched Japan’s starting pitcher, Kenta Maeda of the Hiroshima Toyo Carp, begin his long bullpen warm-up routine and prepare to take the hill against Puerto Rico.

But first there was the matter of the national anthems: instrumental versions of the Puerto Rican, Japanese, and U.S. national anthems were played over the P.A. Hearing the many Japanese fans in our section sing along demurely with their anthem warmed even my cold, anti-nationalistic heart. But what happened next completely melted it.

Sadaharu Oh walked onto the field with a fluorescent yellow glove and threw out a ceremonial first pitch.

I straight-up lost it. Started screaming like a tween girl at a Bieber concert. We can still call him the greatest Japanese-born player in history, right? No offense meant to Ichiro or anything, but Sadaharu Oh has achieved demigod status, whereas Ichiro is amazing but still mortal. In any case, Oh, who managed the Japan WBC squad to victory in 2006, was joined by 2009 skipper (and current Yomiuri Giants manager) Tatsunori Hara and Orlando Cepeda to throw out the ceremonial first pitches. It was a magical moment that was worth the full price of my ticket. (And if anyone knows the story behind Oh’s swag-tastic yellow glove, I’d love to hear it.)

The game got underway, and it looked ugly early. Maeda, whose control has always been his calling card, was wild, walking two of the first three hitters he faced. Since it was an elimination game, it wasn’t a surprise to see Japan’s bullpen snap to action, even in the first inning. What was a surprise, however, was that once the bullpen started up, it never wound down. For the rest of the game, there always seemed to be at least one, and usually two, Japanese relievers warming up. Those familiar with the Asian game know their bullpen habits differ from what we’re used to seeing in North America—they routinely conduct bullpen sessions that MLB pitchers and pitching coaches would consider excessive, if not downright abusive—but the constant stream of arms in and out of and up and down in the ‘pen was downright distracting.

But Maeda held fast in the first, allowing only a single run. He’d get through the next four innings on a combination of guile and pure will, flopping 70 mphs curveballs after 90 mph four-seamers, all with questionable command.

Meanwhile, in the home half of the first, Japan established a pattern that would continue for most of the game: getting themselves out. We recognize that the Japanese style of baseball is different from what we see in the MLB: Japanese hitters focus on putting the ball in play and running everything out. In the first, this strategy resulted in three weak groundballs and an exceedingly easy inning for Puerto Rico’s starter, Mario Santiago.

The game stayed 1-0 Puerto Rico through six innings, and I felt my tentative Puerto Rico fandom ebbing away. Japan may have been the favorite coming into the game, but once underway, it looked every inch the underdog. Partly it was Maeda’s gutsy performance on the mound; the Japanese fans' incessant, well-orchestrated cheers for each hitter during his plate appearance were definitely a factor. Fans seemed to be taking their cues from a brass-band-and-thunder-stick contingent in the left-center field bleachers. The band played a song based on the number of syllables in each hitter's last name, and fans responded by chanting the hitter's name throughout the at-bat.

The young man next to me, a Hanshin Tigers fan from Kyoto, seemed to be living and dying on every pitch. He’d chant each hitter's name until the ball was put in play, then he’d clap frantically until the batter reached base or was called out. He and his companion, a young lady from Okinawa who supports the Chunichi Dragons, are here in the U.S. to study English at U.C. Davis, and I couldn’t help but be swayed by their impassioned rooting and obvious love for the game. Baseball is infectious that way.

In the seventh, Alex Rios crushed a no-doubt two-run homer to deep left to push Puerto Rico’s advantage to 3-0. The way Japan was swinging the bats, those three runs felt nearly insurmountable. But in the bottom of the 8th, Puerto Rico sent Randy Fontanez to the mound. Fontanez, 23, spent most of the 2012 season in Low-A with the Savannah Sand Gnats, where he put up a 4.90 ERA in just over 60 innings. With one away, Takashi Toritani greeted Fontanez with a triple into AT&T’s Death Valley, and Hirokazu Ibata promptly singled Toritani home. Seiichi Uchikawa followed with a single, which brought cleanup-hitting catcher Shinnosuke Abe to the plate as the potential go-ahead run with one out.

That was enough for manager Edwin Rodriguez, who summoned J.C. Romero to replace the struggling Fontanez. (Why Fontanez was in there at all remains unclear.) Then the unthinkable happened.

With Abe batting, Uchikawa broke for second and got a great jump. The only problem was that Ibata was still there. We’d learn later that the play was supposed to have been a double steal, but Ibata missed the sign. Uchikawa was hung out to dry, and Yadier Molina was actually able to run all the way to second base and tag him out. There were now two outs and Abe could only represent the tying run. A couple of pitches later, he’d slap at a pitch low and away and ground weakly to second base. Perhaps the most fundamentally sound team in the entire world ran itself out of a potential big inning when it could least afford it. The air seemed to leave our section as the Japanese fans sensed that their last, best chance had come and gone.

Indeed, the 3-1 score would go on to be the final, as Fernando Cabrera came on for the save. Fittingly, maybe, it was Kaz Matsui who made the final out, flying out to Angel Pagan. The Puerto Rican players mobbed each other on the field as their fans celebrated in the stands. Even though I’d switched allegiances early in the game, I felt only happiness for Puerto Rico. After all, Japan has trophies from each of the previous two WBCs, and Puerto Rico was unlikely even to advance out of its pool. See how quickly we can rationalize all this when we’re not attached to the outcome?

Monday’s game is a whole different story, though. That’s when my newly beloved Nederlanders take on the star-studded Dominican team. By the time you read this, you’ll already know the outcome of that game. Perhaps the Dominican Republic will have prevailed against a scrappy Dutch squad, setting up an all-Caribbean WBC finals game on Tuesday. Or maybe Holland will find a way to upset the Dominicans, pitting the predominantly Curacaoan (Antillean/Caribbean) side against Puerto Rico. Although I’d prefer the latter narrative, both outcomes are fantastic for baseball, for the fans back home, and for me in the stands.

Let’s play some honkbal, y’all.

Ian Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ian's other articles. You can contact Ian by clicking here

Related Content:  WBC,  World Baseball Classic,  Japan,  Puerto Rico

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