Israel, making its Olympic baseball debut, nearly stunned South Korea for the second straight time in international competition before the defending champions eked out a 6-5 win with an unlikely finish on Thursday on a pair of extra-inning hit-batsmen.
The second of 16 games across a six-team tournament erased any doubt about Israel belonging in the field and reminded that South Korea, even with a younger and offensively weaker squad than in past competitions, remains a force.
A bunt moved over runners who started at first and second under Olympic extra-innings rules. Israel pitcher Jeremy Bleich then hit two straight batters to force home the winning run, grabbing his head in disbelief afterwards.
It was a strange ending to a game that featured six homers, accounting for nine of the game’s runs, with the other coming on Oh Ji-hwan’s double to the base of a 5.3-meter (17-foot) wall to the roars of his teammates and national broadcasters in the stands.
Oh also hit one of the three two-run homers in the game, nearly striking the camera operator at the right-field pole with his blast.
The Koreans trailed 2-0 and 4-2 before grabbing a 5-4 lead.
Israel’s Ryan Lavarnway tied the game at 5-5 in the ninth inning with his second homer of the contest, this one of off 39-year-old South Korea closer Oh Seung-hwan, who took off his cap and spit in frustration.
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Israel got off to a difficult start as South Korea’s Won Tae-in, 21, struck out the first three batters he faced. Then a grimacing Israel starter Jon Moscot, who has recovered from years of arm surgeries, left the game with an unspecified elbow injury while facing just his second batter.
Slick defense aided Israel, including from two-time American Gold Glove winner Ian Kinsler.
Israel, among the Games’ most fascinating stories, came into the tournament first in several categories among the six-team field, but few correlated with winning baseball games.
Their 24-man team lead the way in players whose Olympic biographies mention LinkedIn profiles (11) and free agent as their professional status (five).
They have the broadest range of academic degrees (economics and environmental studies among them), the least time spent in the country they are representing (just four are Israeli natives) and flash the shiniest passports on Instagram, several players having become citizens just for the Games.
They are also selling arguably the most humorous T-shirts with plays on baseball jargon. Options include “Jewced” and one with “spin rate” – a reference to pitching – above a dreidel, a top associated with the Jewish holiday Hanukkah.
Israel had topped South Korea 2-1 in extra innings in 2017 during the World Baseball Classic, leading to a surge in global rankings to 24 from 43. World no. 3 South Korea, whose squad features two returning gold medalists, tipped their hats to Israel after pre-game national anthems.
Israel and South Korea now each face the United States over the coming two days to determine seeding for the next set of games.