You may not have expected Puerto Rico to advance to the championship game of the World Baseball Classic, but they've done just that after defeating Japan, 3-1, in Sunday's semifinal contest.
Now only one question remains: what must Puerto Rico do to win it all? And who must step up in order to ensure they take home the WBC title?
In this article, I've identified four players who must show up for Puerto Rico to win it all. From a player who has been on fire this tournament to three stars of vital importance to the team's success, these guys will have a major say for Puerto Rico.
Mike Aviles, SS
He may not be the biggest name on this Puerto Rican roster, but Mike Aviles has been the team's MVP to this point.
He leads his teammates with nine RBI, is tied for second with four runs scored as well as the only player other than Alex Rios to hit a home run, andis second on the squad with a .333 batting average and is third on the team with a .375 on-base percentage.
If Aviles can keep his hot streak going, this Puerto Rico team is going to be tough to beat. While Angel Pagan has been excellent (he's hitting .367 with a .441 on-base percentage, two runs, two stolen bases and two RBI), the team's stars (Carlos Beltran and Alex Rios) have been inconsistent.
An unsung hero like Aviles could be key for Puerto Rico in the championship.
Carlos Beltran and Alex Rios, OF
One one hand, Puerto Rico's most dangerous hitters have combined to score 11 runs and added three RBI, in large part to the five extra-base hits between them.
On the other hand, the pair has combined to hit just .200 in the tournament (with six walks as well).
When the chips are on the table, you need your stars to perform. Rios did just that against Japan in the semifinals, as his two-run homer in the seventh inning gave Puerto Rico a 3-0 lead and was the difference in a game that would eventually end, 3-1.
If Puerto Rico is to win the championship, one or both of these players must be clutch.
Yadier Molina, C
Molina has hit fairly well for Puerto Rico, with a .304 average and two runs scored. But as Tony LaRussa told Tyler Kepner of The New York Times, his real impact on a game is felt elsewhere:
“He just doesn’t allow his team to lose,” La Russa said. “It’s entertainment at the highest level. He is so good, it’s amazing. You watch him the whole game and he’s worth the price of admission.”
La Russa continued: “It’s not just instinct. It’s sense, based on how a hitter’s standing, how he responds to the pitch or two before, and he’s very creative in how he makes his adjustment based on what he sees with the hitter and knowing what his pitcher can do. That’s art.”
Molina has handled a pitching staff that has limited Major League experience on the roster with aplomb. The pitching staff has allowed more than three runs just three times in this tournament, a huge reason why Puerto Rico escaped pool play rather than Venezuela and survived the second round over the United States.
Molina's impact may not show up on the stat sheet, but there isn't a presence more important on this roster. Molina will have a hand in the outcome one way or another.
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