Like Giants, PR inspired by spirit of Angel
Five months after winning World Series, Pagan on cusp of another title
SAN FRANCISCO -- If Team Puerto Rico appears touched by an unseen force, it should not be all that surprising.
There is, after all, an Angel in the Puerto Ricans' outfield.
A World Series champion in October with the Giants, Angel Pagan has a shot at doubling down with a World Baseball Classic title five months later. A 3-1 decision on Sunday night by Puerto Rico knocked out two-time defending champion Japan at AT&T Park.
On Tuesday night, Puerto Rico will face the Dominican Republic or the Kingdom of the Netherlands for the Classic title.
|Bracket | Full scoreboard|
"Totally different feelings, but all great," Pagan said, taking warmth from a Puerto Rican flag in the dugout late Sunday night. "When you're playing with a jersey that says your home country on the chest, it's something special.
"The best thing that's happened to me was to win a [World Series] championship. A lot of players have 10, 15 years in the Majors and made a ton of money and never had a taste.
"We have a big responsibility. It's needed in Puerto Rico. We want to lift our country up, to project that image and inspire kids to come over and do this."
Back at AT&T Park, his second home, where he made so much magic last season for the Giants, Pagan and his crew ended Japan's Classic reign with clutch hitting, pressure pitching and solid defense -- the familiar formula of the team that employs Angel.
"It was the same atmosphere as in the playoffs," Pagan said. "When I looked at people in the crowd, it made me comfortable. I didn't know there were so many Puerto Ricans here. We had tremendous support."
Pagan, who had two singles and leads Puerto Rico with 11 hits in the Classic, watched Mike Aviles (two singles, RBI) and Alex Rios (two-run homer) deliver the big blows in the latest triumph.
"We believe," Pagan said. "Everybody contributes. We believe we can beat any team and be a champion. We want to put Puerto Rico as high as we can.
"But we're not done yet. We have more work to do."
Puerto Rico has slain a pair of giants in the space of three days: Team USA on Friday night in Miami and now Japan, which confidently rolled into Sunday night's game with only one Classic loss.
Before they faced Team USA, the Puerto Ricans were given an inspiring pregame speech by Pagan.
"The guys want to get that dream come true like I've had with the Giants," Pagan said. "I was just trying to keep my teammates positive. Nobody expected us to come this far. I just wanted to keep everybody positive and locked in.
"There were a lot of emotions tonight. Nobody thought we could beat this team. Japan was favored big time. But expectations don't matter."
Defensively, Pagan made a rare misplay in the sixth inning, letting a drive by Seiichi Uchikawa skip past him for a two-out triple. But southpaw Xavier Cedeno came on to strike out dangerous Shinnosuke Abe with a pitch in the opposite batter's box to quell the threat.
"Thank God we got the zero," Pagan said, grinning.
As so often happens in these moments, Puerto Rico promptly turned a one-run lead into a three-run cushion on Rios' blast to left against lefty reliever Atsushi Nohmi. Rios had been 3-for-24, all singles, in the Classic before showing the brand of power he gave the White Sox in 2012 with 25 homers and 91 RBIs.
"We've been waiting for Alex to do something like that," said reliever Fernando Cabrera, who got the last two outs for the save as the sixth Puerto Rican pitcher.
Mario Santiago set the tone with 4 1/3 brilliant innings before departing with a forearm strain, and the bullpen pitched in and took care of the rest.
With strong leadership from such established stars as Pagan, Rios, Carlos Beltran and the great Yadier Molina, Puerto Rico is riding a wave in a determined effort to restore the country's fading reputation in the baseball-crazy Caribbean.
The Dominican Republic and Venezuela have gone to the forefront, but Puerto Rico doesn't need to remind us it gave the game Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda, Roberto Alomar and Bernie Williams, among others.
"I want to be the player kids follow like I did with Robbie Alomar and Bernie Williams," Pagan said. "They were the type of players who made me what I am."
Not to be overlooked was the magic of Molina behind the plate. On Sunday he guided Santiago, then Jose De La Torre, Cedeno, Randy Fontanez, J.C. Romero and, finally, Cabrera.
All through the Classic, Molina has coaxed quality efforts out of pitchers who are not exactly household names: Nelson Figueroa, Hiram Burgos, Giancarlo Alvarado, Orlando Roman.
"We have the best catcher in the world," Cabrera, hoping to pitch his way back into the big time with the Angels, said. "He wants us to trust him but also ourselves. He knows how to bring out the best in everybody."
Romero, experienced and smart, was on the mound after Japan scored and was threatening to do more damage with the dangerous Abe at the plate in the eighth.
After a baserunning mishap by Uchikawa handed Puerto Rico an out when Molina personally ran him down between first and second, a sliding stop by Irving Falu at second on Abe's grounder put Japan's fans back in their seats, stopping the music.
When you're on a roll the way the Puerto Ricans are, you make your breaks and take what comes your way with a certain grace.
It can't hurt, of course, having an Angel in the outfield.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.