Team Israel's surprising run at the World Baseball Classic came to an end Wednesday as the team fell 8-3 to host Japan at the Tokyo Dome.
Japan, with a 3-0 record in the quarterfinals, moves on to play the semifinal round in Los Angeles' Dodger Stadium. Japan also punched the ticket for the Netherlands, who have a 2-1 record in the bracket.
24-year-old Kodai Senga started for Japan. Senga was 12-3 with a 2.61 ERA for the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks last season, leading Japan's Pacific League.
Josh Zeid, who served as closer until now, started for Israel and threw four scoreless innings. Zeid recorded the extra-innings win over Korea to open the first round as well as two saves and a 0.00 ERA in six innings.
Manager Jerry Weinstein told reporters after the game, "We're disappointed, because we lost and we won't be moving on. But we lost to two really good teams. We lost to an excellent team today."
Israel centerfielder Sam Fuld hit a single in the first at-bat of the game, igniting hopes that the strategy would pay off. Fuld was the first of five runners however stranded on base during the game.
Dylan Axelrod took over to start the fifth, pitching a flawless inning. However, Axelrod struggled at the start of what turned out to be a mammoth sixth inning for the Japan squad.
Japan got on the board as Yoshitomo Tsutsugoh hit a solo home run. Axelrod will be charged with the loss, before being pulled. That 1-0 lead lit a fire in the Japanese batting order. Israel's bullpen struggled through the inning and frequent pitching changes were not enough to keep Japan's bats at bay, ending the inning at 5-0.
Weinstein commented that "this is a game of momentum, and you get on the wrong side of that momentum stream and it becomes a problem. We had a couple defensive situations that we didn't turn into outs and that led to a five-run inning."
Japan saw two more runs in the bottom of the eighth on a double by Seiichi Uchikawa. Tatsushi Masuda then singled, bringing home Uchiwa for 8-0.
Israel wasn't giving up without a fight in the ninth, as Ike Davis singled to bring home Fuld. Catcher Ryan Lavarnway's based-loaded double brought in another two runs.
Cinderella Israel will hang up her glass slipper cleats, after a quarterfinal round win over Cuba and losses to Japan and the Netherlands. Israel also qualified for an automatic slot in the next World Baseball Classic, to be played in 2021.
Israel started the tournament ranked 41st, and its four wins in the first two rounds of play were a surprise to many international baseball fans. Weinstein however said the players and coaching staff on Team Israel were not surprised by the team's successful run. "We had the most competitive people, and I appreciate the efforts that those 28 guys gave us and Israel."
ESPN described Team Israel during the first round run as the "Jamaican bobsled team" of the World Baseball Classic – a reference to the Caribbean team which managed to qualify for the 1988 Winter Olympics, competing against nations far more familiar with snow.
However, the team used the WBC's "heritage rule" and Israel's Law of Return to cobble together a team comprised of Jewish Americans. Ten members of Team Israel had at least some experience in the major leagues. The rest of the roster had played professional baseball in the minor leagues, some with long careers.
Locally, Israel's amateur domestic league boasts just 1,000 regular players and one regulation diamond. But Weinstein told reporters that doing well in the World Baseball Classic heightens awareness in Israel, so the program can get more government support in order to build fields and hire staff. But he says boosting Israel's baseball culture is not just about financing for facilities and staff. IT's about inspiring kids.
Weinstein imagines that some of the players on 2017 Team Israel will become role models both for Israeli and American Jewish youth.
"I think this team captured the hearts of not just youth in Israel, but also Jewish youth in the United States. I think there are kids out there that want to be Sammy Fuld; that want to be Ryan Lavarnway now. Maybe kids who had no idea before this tournament," Weinstein suggested.
"Maybe the next time a manager sits in front of you, he'll be talking about Israeli national players playing in the World Baseball Classic, not a group of American Jewish players who certainly identify with and are connected to Israel, but it will be true players that were born in Israel and grew up to compete in this tournament."
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