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Japan struggled at the plate and on the mound but the biggest knockout blow to their bid for a third straight World Baseball championship was a bungled steal in the eighth inning Sunday.
Japan's base-running meltdown in the bottom of the eighth proved their biggest undoing in a stunning 3-1 loss to underdogs Puerto Rico at AT&T Park.
Japan had just scored their first run and were trailing 3-1 in the eighth when a promising looking late rally was derailed by a double steal attempt that backfired.
Takashi Toritani hit a one-out triple and scored on a single by Hirokazu Ibata. Puerto Rico pitcher Randy Fontanez was then replaced by J.C. Romero after Seiichi Uchikawa hit a single.
With Japanese slugger Shinnosuke Abe at the plate, Ibata broke as if to steal third base but then hesitated and headed back to second.
But unlike Ibata, Uchikawa -- who was on first -- did not stop until he got almost to second base. He was eventually tagged out for the second out of the inning. Then Abe grounded out to end the inning.
"A double steal was attempted," said Japan manager Koji Yamamoto. "Ibata's start was a little delayed and that is what happened."
Even though it seemed to take the momentum out of their rally, Yamamoto said he had no second thoughts about trying it.
"Shinnosuke Abe was the hitter and moving forward to the next base is the right attempt. It failed but I don't regret the attempt," he said.
Yamamoto also defended his starting pitcher Kenta Maeda, who got off to a slow start by allowing one run in the first and walking two of the first three batters.
"The environment was different but I don't think (Maeda) is the reason for the loss," he said.
Japan won the first two World Baseball Classics thanks to dominant pitching, with pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka being named tournament MVP in both 2006 and 2009.
They defeated Cuba 10-6 in 2006, with Ichiro Suzuki scoring three of Japan's runs. Three years later they faced South Korea in the final and had a 3-2 lead in the ninth when the South Koreans scored a run off Yu Darvish to send the game into extra innings.
In the 10th, Ichiro drove in two runs on a single to give Japan a 5-3 win.
But this time they had to try to get the job done with all domestic league players after Matsuzaka, Suzuki and Darvish decided to skip the event.
"As a team we were all domestic players from Nippon baseball," Yamamoto said. "It is challenging to get adjusted before the season. Despite the challenges they really had the unity and fought hard in this game."
Yamamoto said Puerto Rico were superior in all aspects of the game on Sunday.
"In this case our opponent was really superior both in pitching and hitting. So we were cornered in a sense."
Yamamoto said that even though the team failed for the first time to progress past the semis, he was proud of his players and would not trade the experience for anything.
"I have aimed for three consecutive championships and I expected we would be able to do that," Yamamoto said. "But this is such a big international game. I felt the pressure that I needed to do this.
"However it was a great experience. I was able to feel the challenge of the matches and it was really exciting."