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Mario Santiago has the touch for Puerto Rico

BILL SHAIKIN / ON BASEBALL

Minor leaguer from Dodgers gets the win in upset of Japan in World Baseball Classic semifinal.

March 17, 2013|By Bill Shaikin
  • Puerto Rico's Mario Santiago (53) pitches against Japan during the first inning.
Puerto Rico's Mario Santiago (53) pitches against Japan during the… (Josie Lepe / MCT )

SAN FRANCISCO — The Dodgers signed two pitchers who played in South Korea last season. The other one pitched the game of his life on Sunday.

The other one does not have No. 99 on his back, Scott Boras for his agent and $36 million from the Dodgers. What Mario Santiago has now is pride he can hold in his heart forever, the gratitude of an island chopping down giants.

Puerto Rico stunned Japan in the semifinals of the World Baseball Classic on Sunday, with a 3-1 victory that eliminated the two-time defending champions from the tournament. Puerto Rico plays for the WBC title on Tuesday, against the winner of Monday's game between the Dominican Republic and the Netherlands.

It is almost unfathomable that Puerto Rico could knock out Venezuela, the United States and Japan. It is just as improbable that Santiago could stand up to one of Japan's most celebrated pitchers — and wind up as the winning pitcher, giving up no runs and two hits in 41/3 innings.

Alex Rios hit a two-run home run, former Angels reliever J.C. Romero and current Angels bullpen candidate Fernando Cabrera got the final five outs, and the fundamentally sound Japanese ran into a critical out by botching a double steal. The Puerto Ricans celebrated merrily on the field, an underdog team with perhaps no bigger underdog than Santiago.

Santiago and Hyun-Jin Ryu each pitched in South Korea last summer and signed with the Dodgers last winter, but the comparison ends there.

Santiago is 28. The right-hander pitched seven years in the minor leagues, all in the Kansas City Royals organization, at a time when the Royals were hideous. Santiago got as far as long reliever at triple A, then signed to play in Korea last year. He was 6-3 with a 3.40 earned-run average, and the Dodgers signed him to a minor league contract, with no invitation to major league spring training.

“I'm really happy,” he said. “With the success I had and now coming back to the States, I can complete my dream of playing in the major leagues. That is really important for me.”

The evening promised a back story about the Dodgers and their pitching, but not this one.

The scouts were out in force to see the other starting pitcher, Japanese right-hander Kenta Maeda. The free-agent market does not look appealing next winter — Josh Johnson and Tim Lincecum have the highest ceiling and the greatest uncertainty — and Japan could offer intriguing alternatives.

The Dodgers outbid the world for Ryu last winter, and they plan to add Korean broadcasts next year. Scouts do not like Ryu as much as they like Maeda or Masahiro Tanaka, who would have started the championship game for Japan.

The Dodgers could outbid the world for Maeda or Tanaka, or both, and Japanese broadcasts and sponsors could follow. Tanaka appears more likely than Maeda to be made available to major league clubs next winter.

Maeda struggled to adjust his pitches to the strike zone of umpire Bill Miller, throwing eight consecutive balls in the first inning. Once he did, he looked very good. The Puerto Rican hitters managed the weakest of contact against him, and he made two outstanding fielding plays.

But those eight consecutive balls meant one run, and Santiago and his 87-mph fastball made that 1-0 lead hold up until both starters were gone. Santiago dodged his fair share of line drives, and the major leagues might well remain more dream than reality.

“I think every player has the dream of playing in the major leagues,” he said.

On this night, why not? They danced all night in Puerto Rico.

bill.shaikin@latimes.com

Twitter: @BillShaikin

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