In a dramatic Olympic baseball opening game in Tokyo on Thursday, Israel lost to South Korea 6-5.
With the game tied up 5-5 in the bottom of the 9th inning at the Yokohama Baseball Stadium south of Tokyo, the match headed into extra innings. And with a twist end to the game, the South Korean team scored a run when its batter was hit by a pitch thrown by Israel’s Jeremy Bleich while the bases were loaded.
Israel will play against the US team on Friday evening in Tokyo. If it loses that match, it will head into a knockout round game next week.
This year marks the return of Olympic baseball for the first time since 2008, as well as the first time Israel has sent a baseball team to the games. In 2008, South Korea took gold, Cuba silver and the US bronze.
Israel’s national baseball team, which is ranked 24th in the world, overcame the odds to qualify for the Olympics, where only six countries’ teams are facing off for the three medals. In 2017, Israel beat South Korea at the World Baseball Classic in an upset, and went on to finish sixth overall, despite entering the tournament ranked 41st.
Israel is considered a major underdog in the Olympic tournament, with a team made up largely of minor league players and retired major league players. In 2017, ESPN referred to it as the “Jamaican bobsled team of the WBC.”
On Thursday, Israel hit three home runs throughout the game, one by Ian Kinsler — who played 14 seasons in Major League Baseball and is considered the biggest star of the Israeli team — and two by Ryan Lavarnway, who has also played for multiple MLB teams.
Starting pitcher Jon Moscot, another ex-MLB player, had to leave the game heartbreakingly early with an injury in the first inning. Moscot, who had battled injuries before recovering to join the Israeli national team, left the field after hurting his elbow just a few pitches into the game.
Hours before the game started, he expressed his excitement to be back on the field representing Israel.
“Life is a crazy journey,” Moscot tweeted. “2 and a half yrs ago I couldn’t throw a baseball 60 ft and was forced to retire. W/ the help of Docs, PTs, family, friends, my wife and the IAB I’m honored today to get the ball game 1 in this Olympic sprint for @ILBaseball.”
Just four of the 24 players on Israel’s team were born in Israel, where there is little to no baseball presence. But the team’s players have indicated that a successful Olympic run could change the situation on the ground in the Jewish state.
“One of our hopes in winning a medal is to raise the presence of the sport in Israel,” said pitcher Shlomo Lipetz on Tuesday, noting that all the countries Israel will face in the tournament have well-developed local baseball scenes.
If the sport begins to grow in popularity, “we can attract athletes from other sports to baseball, and show young players that there’s a path to success, whether that’s in college in the US or in professional leagues or the Israeli National Team,” he said.