Team Israel will launch quarterfinal play for the World Baseball Classic, facing Cuba in the Tokyo Dome at 5 A.M. (Israel time) on Sunday morning.
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Israel, the Cinderella of the tournament with a world ranking of 41 going in, swept its first round of play against hosts South Korea, Taiwan and the Netherlands. Cuba - ranked fifth by the World Baseball Confederation - entered the quarterfinals on a 2-1 record after a loss to Japan and wins over China and Australia.
Like first round pool play, the quarterfinals are a round robin with the best two teams advancing to the championship round, to be played in Los Angeles. After the Cuba matchup, team Israel will face the Kingdom of the Netherlands again at noon on Monday and Japan at noon on Wednesday. If there is a tiebreaker in the bracket, it will be played at noon on Thursday.
Cuba has a strong baseball culture and a record that includes three Olympic gold medals. Exhibiting a very stringent view of the phrase "national team," the Cuban roster is packed with homegrown talent from its Serie Nacional league. However, the team doesn't have any Major Leaguers, as the island nation excluded ballplayers who defected to the United States from representing it in the World Baseball Classic.
Underdog Israel's success to date, a national team representing a country that has little national baseball culture, sweeping its bracket in the last round has surprised many, but apparently not team Israel itself.
Embracing tournament rules that allow any player who is eligible for citizenship to represent a country, Israel cobbled together its team from Jewish American baseball players. The Law of Return grants citizenship to any Jew who requests it.
However, ranked as far down the table as they are based on previous performances, team Israel has ten players with Major League experience. All its members are professional baseball players.
Speaking to reporters after its second upset win against Taiwan, Israel Manager Jerry Weinstein said the team was living up to his expectations. Weinstein paraphrased late NFL coach Dennis Green, saying "They are who I thought they were. This is a very competitive group, and offensively, that's who we are today."