SAN FRANCISCO -- When he assembled his athletes for the first time on March 4 in Fort Myers, Fla., Puerto Rico manager Edwin Rodriguez stressed the importance of the World Baseball Classic in re-establishing the country's place in the game.
This, after all, is the home of the greatest of Hispanic players, the incomparable Roberto Clemente. But Puerto Rico's Major League representation has fallen off in recent years in comparison with the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, most prominently.
"When we met for the first time," Rodriguez said, "the first meeting, we talk about that. We talked about the competition that we have ahead. But also we talked about what it means to go out there and have a good performance.
"Obviously, we're thinking about winning everything. But we mainly talked about going out there and playing the right way, because everybody was watching in Puerto Rico. The last 10 or 15 years, the Puerto Rican baseball had been a little bit down I think that a good performance from the team this tournament will put Puerto Rican baseball back on the map. And I think we already accomplished that."
Puerto Rico clinched a spot in the Classic's final round by knocking out Team USA on Friday night in Miami. Rodriguez clearly has enjoyed the team's blend of veterans, such as Angel Pagan, Carlos Beltran, Yadier Molina and Alex Rios, and its youthful athletes in the early stages of their careers.
"[When] we got together the first time, we knew that we were probably going to lose because it was the first round with Dominican Republic and Venezuelan teams," Rodriguez said. "And we passed that first round. I think that first round was key, so that our boys could have more security, more assuredness. Then we beat the U.S., who was also an important opponent.
"As a team, we have been functioning positively and we're going to be fighting the past [two-time] champion [Japan] of the Classic. But we know it's necessary to beat them. We also have players who have enough assuredness to handle this challenge, and we have other players who don't have experience that they don't know any better. They don't even know where they are. So they're just enjoying it."
Rodriguez smiled as laughter filled the interview room.
Pagan gives Puerto Rico an edge in AT&T Park
SAN FRANCISCO -- Puerto Rico knew it was coming into Sunday's World Baseball Classic semifinal showdown with one distinct edge over Japan: center fielder Angel Pagan's familiarity with AT&T Park's layout and, specifically, the vast reaches of right-center field.
Pagan was one of the catalysts of the Giants' run to the 2012 World Series championship, batting .288 with 95 runs scored, 15 triples and 29 steals, along with superb defense. A free agent, he returned to San Francisco with a four-year, $40 million contract.
Pagan has been Puerto Rico's most consistent offensive force, batting .360 in the Classic with a .448 on-base percentage and .520 slugging mark. His defense in center in his home park could be a factor as well, as his team tries to advance.
"Yes, we have that advantage," said Edwin Rodriguez, Team Puerto Rico's manager. "We have a center fielder from the San Francisco Giants [Pagan] and [right fielder] Carlos Beltran, who also played here [for the 2011 Giants] and knows how to deal with this situation.
"They already spoke about that. Not only the outfielders and infielders . . . but those players who have had experience have been very vocal trying to bring a positive message to the young guys. And that's been working out."
Vazquez enjoys being along for the ride
SAN FRANCISCO -- One of the most successful pitchers to come out of Puerto Rico, Javier Vazquez is disappointed that a knee injury sustained in winter ball cost him an opportunity to pitch in the World Baseball Classic. But the veteran right-hander from Ponce is having a good time mentoring and cheering on the Puerto Rican roster.
"I'm feeling great, besides the knee," Vazquez said. "But other than that, I feel great. I'm playing catch with a couple of the guys and that feels good. But I'm done playing, like I said before, and just enjoying it. I'm talking to the guys and being able to talk to the younger guys. I love doing that.
"We have a lot of good young pitchers coming up that, hopefully, will be in the big leagues pretty soon."
Vazquez, 36, winner of 165 Major League games, had high praise for five-time Gold Glove Award winner Yadier Molina, who has been guiding the pitching staff.
"I'm not throwing to him," Vazquez said, "but he's definitely the best. He's done it [on] the big stage and he keeps doing it. You can see by the way our pitchers are throwing in this Classic, and he's a big part of it. He calls a great game. He's very smart behind the plate. Obviously, the running game, he controls it.
"He's a big part of what the pitching staff is doing, and we're very happy he's on our side."
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.