Israel Sweeps World Baseball Classic Qualifier to Advance to Group Stage

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Jason Marquis pitching for Israel during the World Baseball Classic qualifiers, September 2016.
Jason Marquis pitching for Israel during the World Baseball Classic qualifiers, September 2016.Credit: Margo Sugarman

Team Israel stormed through its World Baseball Classic qualifier over the weekend at the MCU Park in Coney Island, Brooklyn, to secure a place in Pool B of the WBC tournament next year in South Korea.

For seven players on the 28-man roster, sweeping all three games felt like redemption, after Israel lost in the 10th inning of the final game of the 2012 qualifier. From the minute they donned their Israel Baseball kippot for the singing of Hatikvah before the start of the first game, the squad played with an indefatigable determination, blowing past Great Britain 9-1 in the final after defeating the Brits 5-2 in the opener and shutting out Brazil 1-0.

“This is our time,” said an emotional Jerry Weinstein, Team Israel manager, to the team in the locker room before the final. And it was. With the specter of the unexpected 2012 loss in the final game looming over the players, they were hungry for the win and the chance to capitalize on their second opportunity to qualify for the group stage for the first time in WBC history.

It was an emotional day all round, one that started with news of the shocking death of Miami Marlins’ pitcher Jose Fernandez in a boating accident. A moment of silence at the pre-game ceremony marked this tragedy.

Jason Marquis, a 15-year MLB veteran, had been limited to three innings in Thursday’s victory over Great Britain in order to be allowed to start in the final. He opened in impressive form and struck out five British batters over four perfect innings. Josh Zeid, who spent this past season with the Mets’ Double-A and Triple-A affiliates, relieved Marquis and pitched three shutout innings for the win.

The game was scoreless until the bottom of the fifth, when Israel’s bats came alive. Scott Burcham of the Colorado Rockies organization led off with a single off Britain’s starter Spencer Kreisberg. Reliever Ali Knowles then had to swallow the first over-the-fence home run of the tournament from Blake Gailen, batting ninth, which gave Israel a 2-0 lead. Following a walk to Zach Borenstein of the Arizona Diamondbacks organization, catcher Ryan Lavarnway crushed the second home run of the inning into the left-field scoreboard to bounce the score to 4-0.

In the sixth, an RBI triple from Borenstein took the score to 5-0. In the seventh, Cody Decker of the Boston Red Sox organization, who had become a crowd favorite, smashed a solo home run over the left field wall for a 6-0 lead.

Great Britain got its first hit of the game with two outs in the eighth, when a single to right by Albert Cartwright got past right fielder Borenstein and allowed him to advance to second. He then scored the team’s only run on a single by Chavez Young.

But Israel continued to pile on the runs in the bottom of the eighth. Gailen walked and Borenstein singled to right. A single from Ryan Lavarnway, formerly of the Boston Red Sox, brought Gailen home for 7-1. A two-run double into the right field corner from DH Charlie Cutler sealed the game at 9-1.

Dean Kremer, the first-ever Israeli citizen to be drafted by a major league team, finished the game. Team Israel stormed the field to celebrate its first World Baseball Classic qualification.

“When I joined the team the first time around [in 2012], I didn’t expect it to be what it became – an instant family,” said Decker. “It really ate away at a lot of us that we didn’t come away with that victory. This has been exactly the same type of atmosphere, if not even better. This has been one of the best experiences I’ve had in professional baseball.

“Everyone [on the team] had a great time representing Israel, and being proud to be Jewish,” said Lavarnway. “It was really cool to see all the kids out there with yarmulkas [skullcaps] on cheering for Jewish athletes. It’s not something you get the chance to see very often.”

Israel will play in Pool B of the WBC tournament at the Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul, South Korea, March 7-10, 2017. The team will face the national teams of South Korea, the Netherlands and Chinese Taipei.

Game 1

In Game 1, Great Britain had given Israel early trouble, taking leads of 1-0 and 2-1, but Israel answered back both times and took the lead for good in the seventh when Burcham and Borenstein brought Burcham home.

Up 5-2, Israel’s closer, Brad Goldberg of the White Sox organization, retired three straight batters with the tying run at the plate in the ninth inning for the save.

Josh Zeid, who spent this past season with the Mets’ Double-A and Triple-A affiliates, struck out six batters over 3 2/3 innings. He pitched in the final game of the 2012 WBC Qualifier when Israel lost to Spain.

“I feel like I let myself down last time,” said Zeid. “We won the first two games [in 2012], beat one team and then we lost to the same team in the last game. It was really disappointing. I worked the last three or four years to make sure that I was available to be in this tournament.”

Game 2

In the second day of the qualifier, Israel took on a highly regarded Brazilian team, managed by Hall of Famer Barry Larkin. A win would mean a direct ticket to the finals.

Cardinals RHP Corey Baker and four relievers took care of business, shutting the Brazilians out and allowing only three hits.

Israel’s only run was scored in the fourth, after a mighty double off the bat of the 2.03-meter tall (6 feet 8 inches) Nate Freiman, formerly of the Oakland Athletics, flew into left field. This was followed by a grounder by Davis who reached first base on an error, allowing Freiman to advance to third. Decker followed with a sac fly, and Freiman scored, giving Israel the 1-0 lead.

Baker retired nine batters in a row at one stage of the game before being relieved by LHP Jared Lakind of the Pirates organization, who walked his first batter but ended the inning with two strikeouts, stranding Brazil at first and third.

Jeremy Bleich of the Phillies organization and Ryan Sherriff of the Cardinals organization covered the seventh and eighth innings. Closer Goldberg threw a perfect ninth inning, saving the game for the second time in two days, and sending Team Israel directly to the final.

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