Israel’s national baseball team defeated Cuba 4-1 in the first game of the second round of the World Baseball Classic on Sunday, the latest shock upset for the Jewish state’s underdog sports team.
Israel’s batters overcame an early 1-0 deficit, and the team’s pitchers kept the heavily favored Cuban team to just five hits, continuing the squad’s unlikely Cinderella run.
Cuba inched ahead in the second inning with a home run from Alfredo Despaigne, the player who singlehandedly sent his country into the second round when he scored all of Cuba’s runs against Australia on Thursday.
But after that, it was entirely Israel’s game.
Team Israel took a 2-1 lead in the sixth when Zach Borenstein singled to right scoring Ty Kelly from second base. Blake Gailen made it 3-1 with a two-out double to right that scored Nate Freiman.
Israel tacked on another run in the eighth on a sacrifice bunt by Gailen that scored Borenstein from third.
Josh Zeid pitched out of a bases-loaded jam in the ninth when he got Willian Saavedra to ground out to third with two out.
The Israeli team has become the tournament’s unlikely darlings on its way to a 4-0 start in the international tournament.
Israel entered this showcase tournament ranked 41st in the world, the lowest-ranked and last team to qualify. In quick succession, however, the Israelis beat third-ranked South Korea 2-1 in extra innings in the opening game before topping fourth-ranked Taiwan 15-7 and ninth-ranked Netherlands 4-2 to finish first in Pool A with a 3-0 record.
Nearly all the members on Team Israel are American Jews. By WBC rules, a player may compete for a country if he is eligible for citizenship under its laws. Israel extends the right of automatic citizenship to Jews, their non-Jewish children, grandchildren and the non-Jewish spouses of their children and grandchildren.
For the small Israeli baseball community this has been nothing short of astounding, creating a wave of pride in their disparaged sport. The country has only three baseball-specific fields and only about 1,000 active players who are well accustomed to fielding incredulous questions from native-born Israelis about their funny gear and the difference between a home run and a strikeout.
Israel’s WBC games haven’t been broadcast on the national sports channel and have been mentioned only briefly in the media. Most Israelis likely aren’t even aware they have a national team or understand it is competing against the world’s best in the sport’s most prestigious global event.
That includes the country’s sport minister. Asked in a radio interview whether she was planning to travel to South Korea, Miri Regev had no idea what was happening there. When pressed, she said she knew a baseball team existed but not much more.
“I may be the sports minister but I don’t pretend to know every player and every team in detail,” she said on Army Radio. “My job is to promote them… Obviously it is not one of the preferred fields that we invest in.”
On Monday, Israel will face the Netherlands again, followed by Japan on Wednesday.
The Associated Press and AFP contributed to this story.