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Puerto Rico ends Dominican dominance, Japan eyes semis

(Reuters) - Puerto Rico handed the Dominican Republic their first World Baseball Classic (WBC) loss since 2009, beating the defending champions 3-1 in their Pool F opener at Petco Park in San Diego on Tuesday.

Puerto Rico, who lost the 2013 WBC title game to the Dominicans, were led by a stellar performance by their bullpen and a great all-round game from veteran catcher Yadier Molina.

Molina homered, drove in two runs, denied a base-runner with a pivotal out late in the game and helped guide the pitching staff through nine innings of one-run ball.

Puerto Rico's victory snapped an 11-game WBC winning streak for the Dominican Republic, who swept to the 2013 crown with an 8-0 record and won their three games in this year's first round.

The Puerto Ricans improved to 4-0 with their win and took a large step closer to the semi-finals in Los Angeles. They and Japan, playing in Pool E in Tokyo, are the only remaining unbeaten teams in the tournament.

Tuesday's contest was an uncharacteristically low-scoring game for two high-powered offenses. Puerto Rico have outscored opponents, 29-7, in pool play, while the Dominican Republic produced seven or more runs in each of their first-round wins.

Puerto Rico broke a 1-1 tie with a run in the fourth and Molina, a seven-time All-Star with the St Louis Cardinals, gave them some breathing room in the sixth with a solo blast.

Molina, who also delivered the game's first run with an RBI-single against his St Louis team mate Carlos Martinez in the first, is batting .417 (5-for-12) with five RBIs and four runs so far in the tournament.

Nelson Cruz homered in the second for the Dominicans' only run.

Japan began Tuesday's action with an 8-5 victory over Cuba in Tokyo that put them on the brink of reaching the championship round in Los Angeles.

Tetsuto Yamada homered twice for the winners, including a two-run shot that capped a three-run outburst in the eighth that broke open a 5-5 game.

Japan, 2-0 in the second round, can secure a semi-finals berth with a win against Israel (1-1), who could end up in a Pool E tie-breaker game as the Netherlands (1-1) face winless Cuba.

(Reporting by Larry Fine in New York; Editing by John O'Brien)