Israel stuns South Korea with upset win to open 2017 World Baseball Classic

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Monday March 6th, 2017

The biggest underdog in the World Baseball Classic started the tournament off with a shocking upset, as Israel defeated South Korea, 2–1, in a frenzied and taut extra-innings matchup in Seoul. The victory is Israel's first ever in the WBC (in its first ever tournament, no less) and puts Korea at risk of a second straight first-round exit as group play got underway in the 2017 edition. It's an especially impressive showing for a team that started Jason Marquis in its first game, featured the likes of Ike Davis and Sam Fuld in the lineup, doesn't have a single major leaguer on its roster and came into the WBC as the longest shot in it.

Those who woke up early for Monday's opener—it started at 4:30 a.m. on the East Coast here in the United States—got a low-scoring affair, but one with plenty of scoring chances for each side. Israel took the early advantage in the second inning, loading the bases on two walks and a double and pushing across its first run on a free pass by Indians minor leaguer Tyler Krieger, but was unable to get anything more, leaving the sacks filled on a strikeout by Scott Burcham (remember that name) and a groundout by Fuld. Korea answered in the fifth, putting two runners on via a walk and a hit-by-pitch and cashing one in on a one-out RBI single by Geonchang Seo, though like Israel, Korea wasn't able to do more damage.

That was the theme of the day, as both teams left plenty of men on base—14 for Israel, nine for South Korea, including the bases loaded in the seventh and eighth for Israel. That seventh-inning rally for Israel probably should've resulted in a run: With two outs and the bases full, indy league player Blake Gailen ran the count to 3–1, then looked to have ball four, but the outside pitch was questionably called a strike by the home plate umpire, and Gailen eventually lined out to end the frame. In the eighth, Israel again loaded the bases via a walk, a double and an intentional free pass, but Krieger grounded into a force out before Cardinals closer Seung-hwan Oh came in to punch out Burcham, freezing him on a 1–2 fastball away to keep it tied at one.

Despite those near escapes, though, Korea couldn't push across a run of its own despite putting two on in the sixth and again in the eighth. In the latter inning, Korea had runners on first and third with one out, but Israel let a foul pop-up off the bat of Byung-hun Min drop in rightfield, then got Min to ground into a force out, with the runner nailed at home, before ending the threat on a pop out. Korea then ran itself out of a potential rally in the ninth, with Yongkyu Lee drawing a two-out walk but getting caught stealing by Ryan Lavarnway to take the game into extras.

In the 10th, Israel finally broke through. With Oh replaced by Chang-Yong Lim, Israel pieced together the winning rally on a one-out walk by Davis and a single by Lavarnway that moved him to third. On a 1–1 count, Krieger inexplicably went to bunt and popped it up to Lim, but Burcham, who had twice left the bases loaded, came through with an infield single that second baseman Seo got to but couldn't corral, bringing pinch-runner Mike Meyers home from third. From there, reliever Josh Zeid—in his third inning of work—retired Korea 1-2-3 in the bottom of the frame, striking out ex-Mariners slugger Dae-ho Lee to finish the upset.

With the win, Israel jumps to the top of Pool A, which also consists of Chinese Taipei and the Netherlands. The lowest-ranked team in the tournament and one that only made it in after winning the final qualifier in September (against the powerhouses of Great Britain, Pakistan and Brazil), Israel now has a viable path to the second round if it can win another game. Korea, meanwhile, likely needs to win both of its remaining group play games to avoid another early exit.

Both teams will be back in action soon, with Israel getting just a short break before it takes on Chinese Taipei at 10 p.m. ET tonight. Korea, meanwhile, draws the Netherlands—which pulled off perhaps the biggest upset in WBC history when it beat the Dominican Republic twice in group play in 2009—in the wee hours of Tuesday morning. Pool B will also get started tomorrow with a fantastic matchup between Japan and Cuba at 5 a.m. ET in Tokyo, followed by Cuba taking on China at 10 p.m. ET.

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