MIAMI -- Officially, Puerto Rico's 10-0 victory over Israel in the World Baseball Classic on Monday night will not enter the record books as a perfect game, even though four pitchers combined to retire all 24 hitters they faced in the mercy-rule win.
Just don't tell that to Puerto Rico's players.
"It's perfect for us," said starter Jose De Leon, whose 5.2 brilliant innings spearheaded the best performance of the Classic from the two-time runners-up and sets up an epic matchup against the Dominican Republic on Wednesday in which the winner is expected to advance and the loser likely will bow out after pool play.
The Elias Sports Bureau, which renders official scoring decisions for Major League Baseball, said WBC games are being held to the same scoring standards as MLB games, in which "official" perfect games and no-hitters must last at least nine innings. Puerto Rico capped its win Monday with an Enrique Hernández walkoff single in the bottom of the eighth inning, sending its players catapulting onto the field in celebration.
At the heart of the victory was the 30-year-old De Leon, a onetime top prospect whose career has been waylaid by injuries. Currently on a minor league deal with the Minnesota Twins, his sixth team, De Leon carved through the lineup that included veteran outfielder Joc Pederson and other players of Jewish descent. On 64 pitches, one shy of the limit in pool play, De Leon threw 42 strikes and worked around four three-ball counts to tie a WBC record with 10 strikeouts.
De Leon said he started to realize something was afoot after the third inning, when Puerto Rico led 6-0. With WBC rules allowing for mercy-rule wins when leading by 15 after the fifth inning or 10 after the seventh inning, De Leon's teammates recognized the possibility of such a win and started giving him the typical treatment for a pitcher on the verge of something special.
"They didn't say a word," De Leon said. "That's when I knew something was happening."
When Puerto Rico manager Yadier Molina pulled De Leon for reliever Yacksel Rios with two outs in the sixth inning because of the pitch limits, catcher Martin Maldonado said he told Ríos to pitch like it was a 0-0 game and that he received a curious look back. Only after the game, Maldonado said, did Rios admit that he didn't know it was a perfect game.
It was far easier for Puerto Rico to get caught up in its offensive fireworks. On Sunday, Puerto Rico fell behind 9-1 to Venezuela, the early standout of the group-of-death Pool D, and eventually lost 9-6. Against Israel, which had booked a come-from-behind win against Nicaragua on Sunday, the top five hitters in Puerto Rico's lineup -- Francisco Lindor, Hernandez, MJ Melendez, Emmanuel Rivera and Javier Baez -- went a combined 9 for 17 with eight RBIs and six runs scored.
Once Puerto Rico approached mercy-rule territory with three runs in the fifth inning, Molina started to manage like he wanted the first hitless game since 18-year-old Shairon Martis' seven-inning no-hitter against Panama in 2006, the first year of the WBC. (It is not an official no-hitter, either, according to MLB.) In reality, when he inserted closer Edwin Diaz in the seventh inning, Molina was ensuring that Diaz pitch after not throwing in either of Puerto Rico's first two games. He set down the top of the order on 10 pitches, and after Israel staved off a loss with a scoreless seventh, Duane Underwood Jr. sealed the eighth inning on 10 pitches as well and set up Hernández's swing for perfection.
"This is something different than playing for the Mets," Diaz said. "We're representing our country. Every player feels proud to represent the country. And we have to win every game because we lost yesterday. We can't wait until Wednesday to play the D.R. That game will be like Game 7 of the World Series. We have to win no matter what."
In the meantime, for at least Monday night, Puerto Rico got to celebrate its visit with perfection. Molina beamed at De Leon, who pitched for Caguas in the Puerto Rican Winter League and was brilliant in 11 starts, striking out 60 over 47.2 innings and not allowing a home run. "He worked so hard to be in this position," Molina said. "So happy for him. I mean, pitch for your country, pitch in front of your family -- to have this success is amazing."
Not just success. Perfection.
"In 2017, when I represented Puerto Rican for the first time, that was the highlight of my career," De Leon said. "And I always said that there was only one way to top that. And it was doing it again on the next one. I'm here. I'm extremely grateful for the opportunity. But I never saw a moment like this coming. So I'm gonna enjoy it."