Israel’s baseball team will have to do the improbable to keep its Cinderella run going in the World Baseball Classic, and beat powerhouse Japan not once, but likely twice in the next two days.
But if the dream team of mostly American Jewish minor leaguers has proven anything during its miracle push through the international tournament, it’s that improbable isn’t impossible.
Israel will need to beat the undefeated Japanese squad later on Wednesday to even force a tie-breaker game, after getting battered by the Netherlands on Monday. And it’ll have to do it in front of tens of thousands of diehard Japan fans at the Tokyo Dome. Lose, and they go home.
The Dutch all but punched their ticket to the semi-final round in Los Angeles with a 14-1 shellacking of Cuba earlier Wednesday, forcing a mercy rule early to end the game.
Israel will start Josh Zeid, normally the team’s sure-handed closer, when the game gets under way at noon Israel time (7 p.m. in Tokyo). Kodai Senga, who has also pitched relief during the tourney, will start for Japan.
Two-time champion Japan is heavily favored in the matchup, while Israel, a perennial underdog making its first appearance in the tourney, has surprised many by making it even this far.
While the Japanese team has made it through the tournament undefeated, it has struggled in its last two games, needing 11 innings to beat the Netherlands on Sunday and only beating Cuba thanks to a series of passed balls and errors during the teams’ Tuesday game.
An Israel win would create a three-way tie at the top of Pool E with the Dutch most likely to get a pass thanks to allowing only 11 runs against its opponents in second round play. However, because the tie-breaker order is determined by runs allowed divided by innings played, and the Netherlands forced two of its games to end early, should Japan — which has allowed 11 runs through two games — lose to Israel 1-0, it could force the Dutch into a tiebreaker against the Jewish state.
The tiebreaker game is scheduled for Thursday at noon Israel time (7 p.m. in Tokyo).
A Japan win would send it and the Dutch through to Los Angeles automatically.
Israel’s 12-2 loss to the Netherlands Monday broke an unlikely four-game winning streak, which had transformed the team into the darlings of the tournament.
Israel was the lowest-ranked team to qualify for the World Baseball Classic, coming in at 41st. Yet the team, with seven former major league players and 20 minor leaguers, started the tournament last week by beating third-ranked South Korea, fourth-ranked Taiwan and the ninth-ranked Netherlands to win its pool in the first round and become the only team to come out of the qualifying round and go undefeated. In the second round this week, Israel beat fifth-ranked Cuba before losing badly in the rematch with the Netherlands on Monday.
Nearly all the Israeli players are American Jews. According to WBC rules, a player may compete for a country if he is eligible for citizenship under its laws. The grandchild of a Jew, and that grandchild’s spouse, have the right to become Israeli citizens.
Yet the team has taken on the Israel mantle with gusto, donning skullcaps for the national anthem Hatikvah before games, reading the Purim Megillah in the dugout on Sunday, dragging along its Mensch on the Bench mascot and making gear with Stars of David and the Israel “I” a hot commodity from Japan to the US.
“Two generations ago, we were being killed, being picked out, just because of our lineage,’’ catcher Ryan Lavarnway said at a news conference earlier this week, according to USA Today. “But two generations later, for us to be able to stand up here and to have the Israeli flag and the Jewish star hanging in the stadium, means a lot to a lot of people around the world. … We’re here, we’re competing in a sport on the highest level, and we have the right to be here.’’
For the small Israeli baseball community, the run has been nothing short of astounding. 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.”
JTA and AP contributed to this report.