Six years after becoming an unexpected darling of the baseball world, Team Israel was turning heads again at the World Baseball Classic, kicking off its campaign with a 3-1 come-from-behind win against Nicaragua Sunday.
The central American squad’s pitching staff managed to keep Israel’s bats at bay for almost the entire game before the team exploded for three runs in the eighth, erasing a 1-0 deficit for good.
The win puts Israel in a three-way tie for first place in Group D, alongside Puerto Rico and Venezuela, who both won Saturday. The top two teams in each group will advance to a bracket-style tournament.
Israel, the Cinderella story of the 2017 tourney, is hoping to repeat the magic that got it into the second round six years ago, when it won comparisons to the Jamaican Olympic bobsled team.
While many of the players are new to Team Israel, a number from the 2017 squad have returned to the team, which is made up largely of US-based professionals who need only be eligible for Israeli citizenship to play for the Blue and White.
Israel got off to a hot start Sunday, loading the bases with two outs in the bottom of the first for catcher Ryan Lavarnway, the author of much of 2017’s heroics. But Nicaragua starting pitcher Ronald Medrano managed to beat him on a sinking fastball, striking him out.
Nicaragua jumped out to a one-score lead in the fifth inning as shortstop Steven Leyton sent a line drive into the center field wall with two out, bringing right fielder Sandy Bermudez home. But a laser throw to third base caught Leyton trying to stretch his hit into a triple, ending the threat of more runs.
Israel had another chance to break the game open in the sixth inning, this time loading the bases with only one out, but the attempt ended short with pinch hitter Danny Valencia grounding into an inning-ending double play.
Israel finally hit pay dirt with runners on first and second and one out in the eighth inning, as designated hitter Spencer Horwitz dropped a blooper into shallow left field, allowing outfielder Jakob Goldfarb to score.
After a controversial force-out at home notched a second out, third baseman Garrett Stubbs came to the plate and smacked a ball into left field, where it bounced into the LoanDepot Park stands for a two-run ground-rule double, putting Israel up 3-1 for good.
The last-minute heroics electrified the Israel fans among the 19,955 spectators at the stadium in Miami, though the crowd was decidedly tilted toward Nicaragua.
Israel’s pitching staff allowed only four hits, while striking out 12 and walking two. Starter Dean Kremer gave up three of those hits in four innings pitched and southpaw Richard Bleier was awarded the win. Robert Stock who quickly retires the side in the top of the ninth, got the save.
Nicaragua’s pitchers appeared to have some trouble finding the plate, sending four Israeli players to first on bean balls, striking out six and walking four. Reliever Jonathan Loáisiga was credited with both the loss and the blown save.
Israel, the only Middle Eastern team in the tournament, faces arguably the toughest competition in group play, with matches against Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and then Venezuela upcoming over the next three days. All three are known as baseball powerhouses, producing some of Major League Baseball’s biggest stars.
First held in 2006, the WBC is a quadrennial World Cup-style international tournament that has exploded in popularity in recent years. The COVID-19 pandemic postponed the event in 2021.
In the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, played in the summer of 2021 because of COVID-19, Israel finished in fifth place, beating Mexico 12-5 in its lone victory.
JTA contributed to this report