SAN FRANCISCO -- Baseball has been on the wane for many years in Puerto Rico, the United States commonwealth that has produced such Hall of Famers as Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda and Roberto Alomar.
You wouldn't know it by the way the Puerto Ricans have performed in the World Baseball Classic, though.
Chicago White Sox right fielder Alex Rios hit a two-run home run, and career minor-leaguer Mario Santiago pitched 4 1/3 outstanding innings before leaving with an arm injury as Puerto Rico ended Japan's reign as WBC champions with a 3-1 victory Sunday night at AT&T Park.
Puerto Rico advances to Tuesday's championship game. The Dominican Republic and the Netherlands meet Monday night in the other semifinal.
This marks the first time Japan will not win the WBC. The Japanese captured the inaugural event in 2006 and successfully defended their title in 2009.
There were just 11 Puerto Rican natives on Opening Day rosters in the major leagues last season. The nation's winter league has long been plagued by poor attendance, and there has been talk about it potentially folding.
Puerto Rico made it out of the first round of the WBC for the first time before advancing all the way to the title game. Manager Edwin Rodriguez is hoping that will spark interest in baseball among youths on the island.
"Obviously we're thinking about winning everything, but we mainly talked when we first got together about going out there and playing the right way, because everybody was watching in Puerto Rico," Rodriguez said before the game. "The last 10 or 15 years, Puerto Rican baseball had been a little bit down. I think that a good performance from the team in this tournament will put Puerto Rican baseball back on the map. And I think we already accomplished that."
Santiago, the only player in Puerto Rico's lineup without major league experience, retired the first 10 batters he faced before Hirokazu Ibata grounded a single up the middle with one out in the fourth inning.
Santiago, though, was pulled from the game with tightness in his right forearm with one out in the fifth inning after pitching coach Ricky Bones came to the mound along with an athletic trainer. Santiago had thrown 61 pitches, far short of the limit of 95 imposed on the pitchers in the championship round.
Jose De La Torre relived with a runner on second and walked Sho Nakata before bouncing back to strike out Atsunori Inaba and Nobuhiro Matsuda to escape the jam and preserve Puerto Rico's 1-0 lead.
Santiago allowed two hits in his 4 1/3 scoreless inning while walking one and striking out two.
Santiago pitched in the Kansas City Royals' farm system from 2005-11, reaching as high as Triple-A, then was out of professional baseball last season. He made the Puerto Rican pitching staff despite posting an 8.64 in 16 2/3 innings for Carolina in the Puerto Rican winter league in the offseason.
Rios gave Puerto Rico some cushion when he hit a towering two-run home run into the left field stands in the seventh inning to make it 3-0. Cleveland Indians infielder Mike Aviles singled to lead off the inning, and Rios followed by going deep against Atsushi Nohmi, who led the Japanese Central League with 172 strikeouts last season for the Hanshin Tigers.
Rios had been 3-for-24 with no RBI in the tournament when he stepped in the seventh.
Japan scored its run in the eighth when Takashi Toritani tripled and scored on Hirokazu Ibata's single to right. The Japanese had a chance for more before they were stymied by a combination of bad baserunning and veteran left-handed reliever J.C. Romero.
Romero was called on with runners on first and second with one out to face cleanup hitter Shinnosuke Abe. Seiichi Uchikawa took off from first base while Ibata stayed at second and was easily thrown out by catcher Yadier Molina.
Fernando Cabrera got the final two outs for the save.
Puerto Rico scored the game's first run in the first inning on Aviles' single.
Japan starter Kenta Maeda, who took the loss, pitched five innings and gave up one run.
Rios, Aviles and San Francisco Giants outfielder Angel Pagan each had two hits for Puerto Rico. Ibata and Uchikawa had two hits apiece for Japan.
NOTES: Attendance was 33,683 at the 41,503-seat ballpark. ... No American-based major-leaguers are on Japan's roster, as the squad is filled with players from Nippon Professional Baseball. ... The Netherlands knocked the Dominican Republic out of the last WBC in 2009 by upsetting the Dominicans twice in the first round. ... The Dominican Republic is 6-0 in this year's tournament, the only unbeaten team. ... The Los Angeles Dodgers and Toronto Blue Jays organizations had the most players involved in the WBC semifinals with five each. ... The Netherlands has some reinforcements for its game Monday, as Dodgers reliever Kenley Jansen and Texas Rangers shortstop Jurickson Profar were added as injury replacements.