3/18/2013 3:10 A.M. ET
Classic moment: Rios' homer pushes PR to final
By Alyson Footer / MLB.com
SAN FRANCISCO -- It was only a few weeks ago that Alex Rios said the World Baseball Classic's "full throttle" tempo was the best way to prepare for the regular season.
He was looking forward to his brief hiatus from the slower-paced Spring Training mode and jumping into the high-intensity surroundings of the World Baseball Classic.
If it was dramatics he was looking for, the White Sox outfielder got it, with the help of his own bat. Rios' overall numbers entering Sunday's game weren't spectacular, but he made up for any prior shortcomings with a seventh-inning blast that helped push Team Puerto Rico to a 3-1 win over two-time World Baseball Classic champion Japan.
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It took about three seconds for Rios' two-run homer off lefty reliever Atsushi Nohmi to land several rows deep into the left-field bleachers. The blast turned an uncomfortable one-run lead into a slightly cushier three-run advantage, and it helped nail down a somewhat surprising ouster of a Japan club that was favored to get to Tuesday's final at 7 p.m. CT on MLB Network and ESPN Deportes.
"The pitch that I hit, I saw it earlier in that at-bat," said Rios, who had three hits in 22 at-bats in the Classic entering play Sunday. "[Nohmi] threw that changeup and then he repeated that changeup in the third pitch, and that's the one I saw. And I guess I put a good turn on it and the ball went out."
Rios described the moment as "emotional." The win -- or, Japan's loss, depending on how you look at it -- was characterized by MLB Network announcers as "a large-scale upset." Regardless of the adjective, the end result was the same: Japan goes home without an opportunity to defend its reigning Classic title, and Puerto Rico has a chance to win it for the first time.
The enormity of this tournament is not lost on Team Puerto Rico, which will meet the winner of the Dominican Republic-Kingdom of the Netherlands matchup on Monday. Enthusiasm is, of course, at an all-time high within the clubhouse walls at AT&T Park. But the teams know their countries are watching with rapt attention as well.
And the impact on the native homelands is not lost on Classic participants.
"We're very aware that Puerto Rico's watching us," manager Edwin Rodriguez said. "They're really following what's happening here. Each of our boys is very aware of what this means."
Rios, 32, left the White Sox to join his Puerto Rico club in early March not knowing exactly what to expect. Regardless of how much a player works out in the offseason, there's a big difference between being in shape and being in baseball playing shape. Hitters normally spend March working on their timing, getting their legs back under them and making sure they're ready for Opening Day.
World Baseball Classic participants, however, have a shorter grace period. It doesn't matter what time of year these games are played -- the intensity level gives this tournament the feel of an October postseason.
Rios is like most players in that he's balancing the reality of where he is in terms of preparing for the season against the importance of not just having a good showing in the tournament, but winning the whole thing.
"For us, this is like Spring Training," he admitted. "We're still in a preparation phase. We have to understand that we're not at our maximum. We have to work on our approach and the game and do our job as well as we can. We can't just be worried about mechanics. It's just the approach. Thanks to our results, which were favorable tonight, we have done well."
Team Puerto Rico is making its first Classic Championship Round appearance. It defeated Spain and Venezuela in San Juan, P.R., in the first round before falling to the Dominican Republic. At Marlins Park in Miami during the second round, Puerto Rico lost to the United States, defeated Italy and the U.S. and lost to the Dominicans.
Maybe Puerto Rico hasn't been considered to be a "favorite" throughout most of the tournament, but with several Major League stars comprising its roster and 11 players who have prior World Baseball Classic experience, their success throughout shouldn't come as a complete shock.
Logic dictates that the championship game will feature Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, but once a team has made it this far, anything can happen. It's a concept Rios fully understands.
"You know what?" he said. "Anything can happen. We're trying to take advantage of all the opportunities that have to [score] some runs, to do everything we can. There are no small opponents, no large opponents.
"We have seen this when we played against Venezuela, U.S., now with Japan. We have to take advantage of the situation and see the results."