Until this year, Israel had never played in the World Baseball Classic. In September, it had to win a qualifier round just to get in to the tournament. Until this year, no team that came from the qualifier round had gone undefeated in the first round. Yesterday in Seoul, however, Israel did just that by defeating a star-studded Netherlands team by a score of 4-2.
Israel (rank 41) has now beaten South Korea (rank 3), Chinese Taipei (rank 4), and the Netherlands (rank 9). And with its sweep of the first round, Team Israel earned even more prize money to fund the development of baseball in the Jewish state. (Each team advancing to second round also earned $360,000.) The victories are thus far from symbolic.
As they did in their 15-7 Monday victory over Chinese Taipei, Team Israel put multiple runs on the board in the first inning against the Netherlands. As mascot Mensch on the Bench looked on from the dugout, Israel plated three runs on an RBI double from Nate Frieman, a Zack Borenstein groundout, and a booming line drive from catcher Ryan Lavarnway. When it was over, Team Israel led 3-0 going into the second inning. They never looked back.
The story of the game was supposed to be the marquee talent playing for the Netherlands. The team sported so many star caliber Major League Baseball shortstops—Xander Bogaerts of the Red Sox, Didi Gregorius of the Yankees, and Andrelton Simmons of the Angels—that they were forced to play one at third base and another at designated hitter. But it was Israel’s shortstop Scott Burcham, a Single-A minor leaguer for the Colorado Rockies, who stole the show with his dazzling defensive plays.
First, in the top of the sixth inning, after Texas Rangers infielder Jurickson Profar hit a ball to the center field wall, Burcham gunned him down at third with a superb relay throw:
One inning later, Burcham turned an errant throw by pitcher Dylan Axelrod into a remarkable double play. Just watch:
Burcham previously had the game-winning hit in Israel’s shock victory over South Korea in their first game of the tournament. Amazingly, the Arizona native almost didn’t make the team, on account of scouts not realizing he was Jewish. But just before Team Israel’s qualifier round in September, Israel’s director of player personnel, Astros scout Alex Jacobs, spotted some Jewish content on Burcham’s Facebook page. After confirming that Burcham was, in fact, Jewish, Team Israel manager Jerry Weinstein invited him onto the team.
Reliever Josh Zeid, a Mets minor leaguer who threw 49 pitches to close out Israel’s first win against South Korea, escaped a bases-loaded jam in the eighth, then pitched a 1-2-3 ninth to secure the victory. (You can read Adam Chandler’s October 2013 profile of Zeid here.)
After the game, catcher Ryan Lavarnway was named the Pool A first round MVP. Here’s his moving statement on what it means for him as a Jew to play for Team Israel in the Classic, just two generations after the Holocaust and the founding of the Jewish state:
Team Israel will play the opening game of the second round against a yet-to-be-determined opponent on Saturday night at 10 p.m. in Tokyo. Tune in to MLB Network or to Tablet’s feverish live-tweeting to follow the festivities.