Israel's national under-16 baseball team had a successful outing in Prague this week with a second-place finish, but getting back to Israel turned out to be almost as hard as beating the tournament favorite.
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In the shadow of the El Al workers' strike in Israel, the players "checked out of the hotel without knowing when they were coming home," Israel Baseball's Aryeh Klein told Haaretz on Thursday. "In the end, most of the team flew on Sunday night via Czech Airlines and a small contingent flew home on Monday, also via Czech Airlines."
Israel advanced further than it ever had in an international baseball tournament thanks to a dramatic come-from-behind win in the semifinals.
Playing in the Pony League European Championship, head coach Amit Kurz enjoyed a wealth of talent led by catcher Tal Erel, the team captain, and pitcher Yotam Ben Amram, who won two games in impressive fashion.
The team had a very good defensive performance, but the key to the tournament was hitting, which used to be Israel's major problem.
"We hit well, had many extra bases, and most important, in key situations with two strikes or two outs, had quality at bats," said Klein.
"Adam Miller was one of the tournament's best hitters and finished very high in almost every hitting category, but all the players hit the ball well and had very few strike outs in the tournament."
Israel shellacked a local Czech team 27-0 and then defeated Slovenia 8-4 before losing under protest to Czech Academy to end a successful first round.
In the quarterfinals, the team played late Saturday night in a freezing six degrees Centigrade in order to allow its religious players to participate. The combined pitching of Erel and closer Binymin Mor proved too much for Czech opponent Kotlarka, which had won its pool, as Israel galloped to an 11-1 victory.
Israel rallied in the semifinal against Lithuania to stay alive in the tournament. It blew a 5-1 lead when Lithuania exploded in the top of the fifth to take a 9-5 lead.
Israel did not give up and with very patient at bats closed the gap to 9-7. With two outs and down to his last strike, Yoav Halper had a clutch two-RBI hit to center field to tie the game. Erel was hit by a pitch to load the bases.
Again Israel was down to its last pitch, but Mordy Roth came through with a swat to right field to end the game with a 10-9 triumph. Ben Amram took the win as Mor earned another save.
Playing its third game in 16 hours, and with four hours of sleep, Israel ran out of gas in Sunday's final against the German Academy, which was the tournament favorite.
Ben Amram pitched well, but a few hits by the Germans and errors by Israel dug a 5-0 hole that the underdogs could not get out of.
Erel drove in Israel's only run with a shot deep centerfield, as the Germans went on to win handily 15-1.
Helping coach Kurz were his assistant Orr Gottlieb; Richard Kania, a Czech coach and a longtime friend of Israel baseball; and Yaron Erel, the team manager.