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Puerto Rico leans on pitching to reach title game

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SAN FRANCISCO -- It looked like the deck was stacked against Mario Santiago.

The Puerto Rico pitcher got off the plane in San Francisco at 11 p.m. Saturday having just traveled across the United States. As Santiago traveled with his teammates, Japanese players were hitting tape-measure shots during batting practice under the AT&T Park lights.

A mere 19 hours after Puerto Rico's arrival from Miami, Santiago was being asked to take the mound and shut down the two-time defending World Baseball Classic champions.

He had one distinct advantage: Yadier Molina.

"We all know he's the best Major League catcher," said Santiago, who gave up two hits in 4 1/3 scoreless innings before exiting with right forearm tightness in Puerto Rico's 3-1 victory over Japan. "It was all about following his pitching rhythm … which was quick, and that's what we did."

In all, six Puerto Rico pitchers combined to shut down a high-powered Japanese offense.

Japan registered just six hits and struck out eight times.

Molina's guidance was evident no matter who was on the mound.

Jose De La Torre struck out three in 1 1/3 innings. J.C. Romero entered in a jam in the eighth. Molina took advantage of an uncharacteristic baserunning mistake by catching Seiichi Uchikawa stealing and Romero coaxed Japan slugger Shinnosuke Abe to ground out weakly to second base. Fernando Cabrera recorded the final two outs to earn the save.

"The pitchers were really good," said Koji Yamamoto, who became the first Japanese manager to have his team eliminated in the World Baseball Classic.

Santiago retired the first 10 batters he faced Sunday night before Hirokazu Ibata's single in the fourth broke up a perfect outing.

It was a dazzling performance by the 28-year-old right-hander, who was selected in the 16th round of the 2005 First-Year Player Draft by the Royals out of Baton Rouge Community College and has never advanced past Triple-A.

Last season, Santiago pitched in Korea and signed a Minor League contract with the Dodgers in the offseason. Now he hopes to translate his World Baseball Classic success into someday making it to the Majors.

"Now coming to the States this year to accomplish my dream of playing in the Major Leagues, that's really important for me," Santiago said.

On Sunday afternoon, 14-year Major League veteran Javier Vazquez spoke of the promise of Puerto Rico's ace during a news conference.

"Santiago's been a great pitcher," Vazquez said. "He's been a winner. I'm waiting on so much great stuff from him."

Sunday night may have been the beginning of that greatness.

Sam King is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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