- Israel is well on its way to a surprising second-round berth after battering Chinese Taipei in Pool A play, but South Korea is facing a second straight one-and-done in the tournament.
The World Baseball Classic's top underdog story rolls on, as Israel looks like a lock to advance out of Pool A play following Tuesday's 15–7 pounding of Chinese Taipei. But while low-ranked Team Israel continues to shock the international baseball world, 2009 runner-up South Korea is on the brink of being bounced from the tournament in the first round for a second straight time, as its loss to the Netherlands has left the team winless in pool play.
Israel Can't Be Stopped
Less than a day after pulling the upset on South Korea with a 2–1 win in extra innings, Israel returned to the field in Seoul to take on a much less-heralded opponent: Chinese Taipei. While Chinese Taipei came into the WBC ranked fourth by the World Baseball Softball Confederation, its roster doesn't boast any major league talent, save for some players past their prime (like former Yankees ace Chien-ming Wang, who didn't start against Israel) and those who never had one (like former Dodgers infielder Chin-lung Hu). But as this year's WBC has already proven, Israel doesn't care much for international rankings, and the lineup wasted no time against Chinese Taipei, battering starter Chun-lin Kuo for four first-inning runs and a lead it would never relinquish. Former big leaguers Ryan Lavarnway and Nate Freiman went deep for Israel, with Lavarnway's two-run blast in the third pushing his team's lead to 6–0 and Freiman's three-run shot in the ninth putting the kibosh on the game.
Chinese Taipei made things a little more interesting in the sixth, picking up three runs on a two-run double by Chih-sheng Lin (one of the Taiwanese league's best players) and a sacrifice fly off the bat of Yi-Chuan Lin. But that was all Chinese Taipei could muster that frame, and Israel immediately responded by putting up five runs in the seventh to pull away. For the game, Israel finished with 15 runs on 20 hits, with six players collecting two or more hits, including Freiman (three, with a team-high four runs driven in), Ike Davis (three, including a triple, and two RBIs) and second baseman Tyler Krieger (three, with three RBIs). On the mound, Cardinals minor leaguer Corey Baker put up 4 2/3 scoreless innings as the starter, with Israel's bullpen getting touched up for seven runs but hanging on for the win.
With two wins already pocketed, Israel is sitting pretty in Pool A, where it's atop the group with a game in hand on the Netherlands, which defeated South Korea to open its tournament. Those two teams will now face off on Wednesday night at 10 p.m. ET, but even if Israel falters against the Dutch, those two wins should be enough to get the team through to the second round in Tokyo. And while Israel is unlikely to get any farther than that, it's a remarkable achievement for a team comprised of no-name minor leaguers and castoffs—one that had to scramble to find enough players to fill out its roster ahead of its September qualifier in Brooklyn and has just one actual Israeli on it, a sidearming 38-year-old pitcher named Shlomo Lipetz (seriously) whose day job is working as the music director of City Winery in New York (seriously).
Nonetheless, it's clear why Israel has gotten as far as it has. For one, its collection of talent, while paling in comparison to the tournament's best teams, is still more than enough against the likes of Korea (more on which below) and Chinese Taipei, which are bereft of players with major league or American experience. And second, there's a higher power at work here: the Mensch on the Bench, the life-size mascot who's got a front-and-center seat in the Israel dugout for every game.
Bet against that at your own risk.
As Israel Soars, South Korea Falters
It's been another disappointing WBC for South Korea, which is headed for another first-round exit after being shut out by the Netherlands, 5–0, on Tuesday in Seoul. Coming off that stunning upset loss to Israel, Korea's bats never woke up against the Dutch, with the team managing just six hits on the day against five pitchers, including three former big leaguers in Rick van den Hurk, Shairon "Rigor" Martis and insanely tall righty Loek van Mil (who towers over everyone at 7'1"). The Netherlands, meanwhile, had little trouble with Korean pitching, putting up three early runs on a two-run homer by Rangers infielder Jurickson Profar in the first and an RBI double by Angels shortstop Andrelton Simmons in the second.
The Dutch boast arguably the most talented infield in the tournament—along with Simmons at short, they have Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts manning third and Orioles second baseman Jonathan Schoop at the keystone, with Yankees shortstop Didi Gregorius filling the DH role against Korea—and utility infielder Profar roaming in centerfield. That group will be what carries them in this tournament, particularly with star closer Kenley Jansen opting to remain with the Dodgers instead of joining his countrymen. As for Korea, its tournament will almost certainly end after its third game of pool play against Chinese Taipei on Thursday morning. Korea has managed just one run in 19 innings of play despite home-field advantage and a group featuring the lowest-ranked team in the tourney and a Chinese Taipei team low on starpower after its national league, the CPBL, announced that it would not provide any support for the national team.
Is a first-round exit for Korea all that surprising, though? The 2013 edition boasted a better lineup (with future major leaguers Jung-ho Kang and Hyun-soo Kim on the roster) but still fell in pool play. With only one major leaguer on this year's roster (Cardinals closer Seung-hwan Oh), this year's collection of KBO All-Stars simply wasn't enough, particularly on offense, where the lineup sorely missed Kang and Kim (to say nothing of Shin-soo Choo, who participated in the 2009 WBC but has missed the last two tournaments). Simply put, Korea is a long way from the '09 squad that fell to Japan in the championship game.
Japan Routs Cuba to Open Pool B Play
In the day's final game, the No. 1-ranked team in the world brought out its bats on its home turf, as Japan bludgeoned Cuba, 11–6, at the Tokyo Dome. The two-time WBC champions wasted no time against Cuba, getting on the board in the bottom of the first on an RBI double by Yoshi Tsutsugo that scored Astros outfielder Nori Aoki, then erupting for five runs in the fifth. The big blow came off the bat of Nobu Matsuda, with the 33-year-old NPB veteran clobbering a three-run shot off reliever Jose Angel Garcia to send the crowd into a frenzy. Cuba tried to claw back into it in the seventh, scoring three times to cut Japan's advantage to 7–4 on a long solo home run by burly slugger (and NPB star) Alfredo Despaigne and a two-run single by Gulliermo Avilles. But Japan put the game out of reach in the same frame, with Tsutsugo cracking a two-run homer to finish it off.
While Japan won this matchup, it's likely that both these teams move forward anyway, as Pool B is arguably the weakest of the four; China and Australia, both doormats, are the other two teams in the group. Should Japan and Cuba both advance, they'll find themselves in a second-round pool with Israel and the Netherlands—an unusual foursome, for sure, but one that should offer plenty of intrigue and a chance for upsets.