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Team Israel faces tough competition at World Baseball Classic

By Jacob Gurvis

NEW YORK — The fifth edition of the World Baseball Classic is underway, as players and fans across the globe prepare for two weeks of competition that began on Wednesday, March 8.

L-r: Dean Kremer, Richard Bleier, Ian Kinsler and Joc Pederson. (Photos Getty Images; Design by Mollie Suss)

Jewish fans may remember that Israel took the WBC by storm in 2017, winning four straight games as an underdog and advancing to the second round before being eliminated by Japan.

Team Israel is back for the 2023 WBC, with more current MLB talent on its roster than ever. It will also face its toughest competition yet.

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.

Ian Kinsler, Israel’s manager and a retired four-time MLB All-Star, is feeling good about his team’s chances. He played for Israel in the 2020 Olympics and won the WBC with Team USA in 2017.

“In baseball, anything can happen,” Kinsler said. “This isn’t a five-game or seven-game series. This is one game [at a time], and if we can put together a really solid game, solid nine innings against these other teams, we have just as good a chance as anybody. I know the guys are fired up and ready to go and compete, so it’s going to be a lot of fun.”

Who is playing this year, and how did they qualify?

The 2023 WBC will feature 20 teams — split into four divisions that will play in four venues: Tokyo, Phoenix, Miami and Taichung, a city of nearly three million in Taiwan.

Two teams from each of the four pools will advance to a single elimination bracket including quarterfinals, semifinals and a championship, all of which will be held in Miami. The first round runs from March 8 to 15, with the elimination round following immediately after. The championship game will be March 21.

Fans will not be surprised to see countries such as the US, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela on the list — those three account for about 90% of MLB players. But there are a few less obvious countries that have qualified, including Israel.

The qualification rules have changed multiple times over the years. For this year’s tournament, all 16 teams from 2017 automatically qualified, including Israel. The final four teams (Great Britain, Czech Republic, Panama and Nicaragua) earned a spot through a 12-team, two-pool qualifying tournament last fall.

Who is on Team Israel?

Team Israel is arguably the best embodiment of the WBC’s unique eligibility rules. To play in the WBC, a player does not need to have been born in or be an official citizen of the country he is playing for (as is the case in the Olympics). Simply being eligible for citizenship in a given country is enough.

So any person eligible for Israeli citizenship can play for Team Israel. Under Israel’s Law of Return, anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent is eligible for citizenship, as are the children and spouses of Jews.

These rules have meant that Israel’s baseball team, at least in international competitions, has historically been composed of mostly American Jews. Native Israelis are still adopting the sport, which lags far behind soccer and basketball there in popularity. But Israel’s success on the international stage has helped raise the game’s profile.

Team Israel’s roster boasts the most major league talent it has ever had: half of the roster has MLB experience.

The best-known players on Israel’s roster are All-Star outfielder Joc Pederson, who slugged 23 home runs and 70 runs batted in last year; American-Israeli pitcher Dean Kremer, who posted a stellar 3.23 earned run average as a starting pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles in 2022; and veteran reliever Richard Bleier, who had a 3.55 ERA for the Miami Marlins last season.

Big leaguers Scott Effross and Harrison Bader, both members of the New York Yankees, had planned to play for Israel but dropped out due to injuries.

Colorado Rockies’ player Jake Bird is a relief pitcher.

Israel’s big-league experience extends to its coaching staff, too. Along with Kinsler as manager, Israel will have former MLB and Team Israel manager Brad Ausmus and former All-Star Kevin Youkilis in the dugout, along with veteran coach Jerry Narron.

How has Israel fared previously?

This WBC will be Israel’s second. Israel was not part of the 2006 or 2009 tournaments, and though it did play in qualifying for 2013, it did not make the cut. Israel’s 2012 qualifying team included Ausmus as manager and a young Pederson in the outfield.

In 2017, Israel entered the tournament as underdogs after sweeping the qualifying tournament in September, 2016. ESPN called the team “the Jamaican bobsled team of the WBC.”

With their trusty Mensch on the Bench mascot, Israel won its first four games, sweeping the first round, including a 2-1 victory over the host country of South Korea. Israel also defeated Chinese Taipei and the Netherlands, and they opened Round 2 by beating Cuba.

The proverbial Chanukah oil seemed to run out there. Israel lost 12-2 to the Netherlands and 8-3 to Japan in the second round, ending its Cinderella run with a sixth-place tournament finish.

Catcher Ryan Lavarnway, who lives part-time in Colorado, earned Pool A MVP honors, and pitcher Josh Zeid was named to the All-WBC team after the tournament.

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.

Who is Israel playing, and what should fans expect?

Israel is in Pool D, which features some of the world’s best teams. Its first round will be played in Miami.

Here is Israel’s WBC schedule (All times MST).

Sunday, March 12 at 10 a.m.: Israel vs. Nicaragua

Monday, March 13 at 5 p.m.: Israel vs. Puerto Rico

Tuesday, March 14 at 5 p.m.: Israel vs. Dominican Republic

Wednesday, March 15 at 10 a.m.: Israel vs. Venezuela

Once the WBC begins for Israel on March 12, the team will face many of Major League Baseball’s top players, including Francisco Lindor and Edwin Diaz for Puerto Rico; Ronald Acuña Jr. and Jose Altuve for Venezuela; and a truly stacked Dominican team that features Juan Soto, Manny Machado, Rafael Devers and reigning National League Cy Young winner Sandy Alcantara.

On paper, Israel is outmatched by its competition. But as Kinsler points out, “at the end of the day, baseball comes down to execution.” And if 2017 is any indication, opponents should never count Team Israel out.

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