3/16/2013 10:29 P.M. ET
Finally, four: SF stage is set for Classic semis
By Lyle Spencer / MLB.com
SAN FRANCISCO -- Center fielder Angel Pagan, back home at AT&T Park for the first time since the Giants seized the first two games of the World Series en route to a sweep of the Tigers, leads giant-killer Puerto Rico against two-time defending World Baseball Classic champion Japan in a dream semifinal on Sunday night.
As Japan bids to maintain its solitary grip on the Classic in the 9 p.m. ET showdown, Puerto Rico will be bidding to replicate its dramatic triumph against Team USA on Friday night in Miami.
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The second semifinal on Monday night matches the Kingdom of Netherlands, the Cinderella of this Final Four, against the formidable forces of the Dominican Republic, at 9 ET.
The championship finale on Tuesday night will start at 8 ET. MLB Network and ESPN Deportes will carry all the action.
Japan's manager, Koji Yamamoto, echoed the words of managers and coaches everywhere when he was asked on Saturday about the prospect of a three-peat.
"With baseball," Yamamoto said through an interpreter, "anything could happen until the game is over. In that sense, the WBC has incidents of seeing such strong teams falling off, so I don't want to give or speak in favor of other teams. I've been just focusing on how to win. So, I don't know what's going to happen. But it's really exciting."
Japan has won the first two Classics with dominant pitching -- Daisuke Matsuzaka and Koji Uehara in 2006, Matsuzaka and Yu Darvish in 2009. Matsuzaka, bidding for work with the Indians now, was the Classic MVP both times.
The mound matchup on Sunday favors Japan, which goes with its ace, 24-year-old Kenta Maeda, against Mario Santiago in a duel of right-handers.
Maeda, who carries 161 pounds on a 6-foot frame, has worked 10 scoreless innings in the Classic, striking out 15 while allowing just two hits and a walk.
Santiago took one of Puerto Rico's three losses in the Classic, yielding three runs in 4 1/3 innings in a 7-1 decision by the U.S.
"This is my first international match, such a great experience," Maeda said. "The next match will be the biggest for me."
In the second semifinal, southpaw Diegomar Markwell, nephew of Team Netherlands star Andruw Jones, will take the ball for manager Hensley Meulens on Monday night. Markwell, a 231-pound native of Rotterdam, is 2-0 with a 0.90 ERA in the Classic.
Unbeaten Dominican Republic will counter with Edinson Volquez, veteran right-hander for the Padres. Volquez has a 6.75 ERA in 5 1/3 innings, starting twice in the Classic. If the Dominicans reach the title game, Twins right-hander Samuel Deduno (1.13 ERA, eight innings) will be manager Tony Pena's starter.
Puerto Rico's 2-0 loss to the Dominican Republic on Saturday, for seeding purposes, had to be anticlimactic after the thrilling 4-3 triumph against the U.S. on Friday night.
Maeda's challenge is to contain Pagan at the top of Puerto Rico's lineup. A major figure in the Giants' championship run, Pagan is batting .360 and slugging a team-high .520 in the Classic.
With stars Carlos Beltran and Alex Rios scuffling, Mike Aviles has been the Puerto Ricans' primary run producer. The third baseman has eight RBIs in seven games, batting .292 while delivering the team's lone home run in the Classic.
Japan, by contrast, has left the yard eight times in six games and has seven players hitting .316 or higher, led by Hirokaza Ibata. The second baseman is hitting .571 with an OPS of 1.327.
Pagan, with two doubles and a triple, leads Puerto Rico in OPS at .968. Beltran and Rios have combined to go 8-for-48 with four extra-base hits, all doubles by Beltran. Yadier Molina, Puerto Rico's great catcher, is hitting for average (.368) but does not have an extra-base hit.
Netherlands has a pair of additions to its roster for the final round. Meulens, batting coach of the Giants, welcomes the Rangers' Jurickson Profar, MLB.com's No. 1 overall prospect.
Meulens said Profar will bat second and play second base, bringing more speed to the athletic Netherlands lineup featuring Jones, Andrelton Simmons and Curt Smith.
Profar, like most of the Netherlands' position players, is from Curacao in the Netherlands Antilles. The pitching staff is largely comprised of Netherlands natives. An exception is Curacao's Kenley Jansen, the dominant right-hander of the Dodgers who also was added to the roster for the finals, replacing injured Jonatan Isenia.
"I think the plan that we have," Meulens said, "most of the Dutch guys are pitchers, and the position players are from the islands. We're all Dutch. We all have Dutch passports, and this is the best way to have the strongest team."
In pure talent, it will be difficult for anyone to match up with the Dominican Republic. Robinson Cano (.519 average, 1.407 OPS) is scalding, along with Carlos Santana (.313, 1.229) and Nelson Cruz (.360, .865). Jose Reyes is explosive atop the order, Erick Aybar has been Mr. Clutch, and two of Hanley Ramirez's three hits have been home runs.
Behind their so-so starters, the Dominicans have been resourceful. Pedro Strop is 3-0 with no runs allowed in 4 2/3 innings, and closer Fernando Rodney has produced 5 1/3 shutout innings with five saves.
In the 2009 Classic, the Netherlands knocked the Dominican stars out of the tournament with a pair of first-round pool play victories.
Redemption is at hand for the Dominican Republic.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.