Angel Pagan has come a long way....all the way to the WBC championship game

Puerto Rico's Angel Pagan watches Japan take batting Puerto Rico's Angel Pagan watches Japan take batting practice before semifinal Game 1 of the World Baseball Classic Championship at AT&T Park in San Francisco, Calif. (March 17, 2013) Photo Credit: Getty

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SAN FRANCISCO -- Angel Pagan spent all of last summer playing his home games at AT&T Park and won a World Series with the Giants, but the stadium never felt more like home than it did during Puerto Rico's 3-1 win over Japan on Sunday night.

Shortly after Puerto Rico pulled off what most observers considered to be an upset in the semifinals of the World Baseball Classic, Pagan emerged from the dugout and took his nation's flag from a group of cheering fans. He then wrapped it around himself, sat on the bench and talked about the magnitude of what his homeland had just accomplished.

"I didn't know there were so many Puerto Ricans here," Pagan said, laughing. "It's awesome when you try to accomplish something for your country. I think we have a big responsibility to put baseball where it belongs in Puerto Rico and I think we made a statement. But it doesn't end here because we haven't won it yet."

Can life get any better for Pagan? First a World Series ring, then a new $40-million contract and now the chance to play for the WBC title Tuesday night against the winner of Monday's game between the Netherlands and the Dominican Republic.

Pagan had two singles in Sunday's victory, but the big blast was provided by the White Sox's Alex Rios, whose two-run homer in the seventh inning quieted the mostly pro-Japan crowd of 33,683 at AT&T Park.

Japan, the winner of the previous two WBC tournaments, couldn't do much against Dodgers minor-leaguer Mario Santiago, who allowed two hits in 41/3 scoreless innings before leaving with tightness in his right forearm.

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Japan trimmed its deficit to 3-1 in the eighth inning on Hirozaku Ibata's RBI single and had the opportunity to do more damage when cleanup hitter Shinnosuke Abe, came to the plate with runners at first and second.

But Japan's attempt at a double-steal backfired when the lead runner, Ibata, suddenly went back to second base and Seiichi Uchikawa never stopped running for second. With Uchikawa hung up, catcher Yadier Molina actually ran all the way out there from behind the plate to apply the tag on Uchikawa himself.

In the ninth inning, Japan had one last chance, and who else but former Met Kazuo Matsui walked to the plate to pinch hit as the tying run. Matsui swung at the first pitch and hit a lazy fly ball to centerfield, where Pagan made the clinching catch -- just as he did against the U.S. Friday night at Marlins Park.

Before that elimination game with Team USA, it was Pagan who stood up and addressed his teammates in the clubhouse, just as Hunter Pence famously did with the Giants back in October.

"I was not as intense," Pagan said, smiling. "I don't have that look in my eye. But I was trying to keep my teammates positive. We understand it was going to be hard. Nobody expected us to go this far, but I wanted to keep everybody positive and locked in to accomplish more."

Of all the things Pagan may have been called during his final days with the Mets, few of them were flattering, and it was a safe bet that "leader" was not on that list. But that's what he is considered now, and with Puerto Rico, it's a role that he cherishes.

Pagan is not the biggest star on this roster, not with Carlos Beltran and Yadier Molina hanging around. But he realizes what's been at stake, the importance of making it to this point and how far the emotion has carried them, just as Pagan remembers it doing with the Giants.

"It's big, because when you play with this on your chest, it's totally different," Pagan said. "You'd do anything you can for your country. We have a big responsibility, and that's the type of the legacy I'd like to leave in this sport.

"I want to be the player that the kids want to follow, like I followed Robby Alomar and Bernie Williams. They were positive. They were very good players who helped me to be who I am right now. That's the type of legacy I want to leave."

For Pagan, it's taken a little time to get there. He was supposed to be the heir to Carlos Beltran in Flushing but took a step backward in 2011, when he batted .262 in 123 games and seemingly annoyed club management.

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That led to a classic change- of-scenery trade with the Giants that turned out to be exactly what Pagan needed. After switching coasts, he batted .288 with 15 triples and 20 stolen bases for the Giants, who used his catalytic abilities to spark a rather ordinary-looking lineup.

And when the Giants wound up winning the World Series, that changed everything, as it always does. Now Pagan is a fixture by the bay, enjoying the kind of popularity that comes with a championship.

Before the start of Sunday's semifinal against Japan, considered a heavy favorite, Pagan drew the most attention from the fans. If he appears more comfortable, it's because he is. Much more.

Sometimes that's how it goes after a turbulent time in Queens. Carlos Delgado knows. Now Puerto Rico's hitting coach, Delgado can tell the difference in Pagan, who entered Sunday batting .360 (9-for-25) with a pair of doubles and a triple and went 2-for-5 to lift his average to .367.

"I think lately things are coming together for him," Delgado said. "He's always had a lot of tools -- he's an electric player, he's got power, he's a good outfielder. He can do a lot of things.

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"But people don't mature at the same speed. Maybe it took a little longer for him. I'm really happy for him because I know he's put his time in, and you won't find too many guys working harder."

The conversation about Pagan no longer is stuck on his potential. Apparently, he had to leave the Mets to finally arrive.

Said Delgado, "He knows he can do it now."

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