- The biggest underdog story of the World Baseball Classic kept rolling right along, as Israel topped the Netherlands to win its group and stay undefeated in the tournament.
The fourth day of World Baseball Classic action has brought us the best baseball team in the world to date: Israel. Yes, it was unheralded Israel that ran the table in Pool A, winning the group by downing the Netherlands after taking out South Korea and Chinese Taipei earlier in the week. Meanwhile, Pool B is headed for a win-or-go-home matchup between Australia and Cuba.
Israel—Israel!—is your Pool A champion
Three World Baseball Classic games, three wins for Israel, and by this point, it doesn't feel right to call them upsets. The ragtag group of American Jews that has swept its way through the tournament thus far has looked like the better team in all of its matchups, including Wednesday night's 4–2 win over the Netherlands that gave Israel the first-place finish in Pool A (though both teams had already locked up their second-round spots by virtue of the Netherlands' win over Chinese Taipei the day before). That's not to say Israel is your new WBC favorite; replay those three games, and maybe you end up with an 0–3 team heading home after one round, as most expected. But beyond the funny slogans and t-shirts and the lifesize "Mensch on the Bench" mascot, there's clearly more to Israel. How did the lowest-ranked team in the tournament find itself headed to the second round with a perfect record?
It helps that the roster is simply chockfull of players with plenty of either MLB or minor league experience. Take Israel's lineup against the Netherlands, for instance. Five players—centerfielder Sam Fuld, third baseman Ty Kelly, designated hitter Ike Davis, first baseman Nate Freiman and catcher Ryan Lavarnway—are all current or former MLB players, with Fuld, Davis and Lavarnway as seasoned veterans. Rightfielder Zach Borenstein and leftfielder Cody Decker are longtime minor leaguers, and both second baseman Tyler Krieger and shortstop Scott Burcham are climbing their way up the ladders of the Indians' and Rockies' organizations, respectively. Jason Marquis, who started against South Korea and the Netherlands, is a 15-year MLB veteran; Corey Baker, who started against Chinese Taipei, is in the Cardinals' system; reliever Josh Zeid, who got the win against Korea and the save against the Dutch, has nearly 700 innings of professional ball to his name. Compare that to South Korea and Chinese Taipei, which were bereft not just of major leaguers, but also of some of their own national leagues' top players.
None of those players listed above are big names any more (or may never be), but watching Israel play, you can see a team that—all clichés aside—does the little things and does them right. Israel's hitters have ground out professional at-bats all tournament long and hit the ball hard. Its pitchers throw strikes. Its fielders are sure-handed with the occasional web gem. Against the Netherlands, the lineup jumped on 42-year-old (!) starter Robbie Cordemans, peppering him for four hits, two walks and three runs in the first inning to open an early lead that Marquis and eight pitchers—again, all of whom have minor and major league experience—wouldn't relinquish. For a team that had never even played in the WBC, let alone one thrown up against the likes of South Korea and the Netherlands, Israel has performed with poise, never seeming overmatched by the moment. This is a team that hits the ball well, plays defense well, and has some experienced arms on the mound, and all of that has added up to three wins that the rest of the world didn't see coming.
It was easy to look at Israel's roster before the tournament and see why they were so lowly ranked: No stars, no big names, just three dozen career minor leaguers or major league washouts, with a 38-year-old Marquis starting the opener and not one player on an active 40-man MLB roster. But the WBC has never been a star-driven tournament, and while there are plenty of teams that get by on the future Hall of Famers and dazzling young talent that their countries produce like an assembly line, there are always seemingly baseball-poor teams like Israel that come out of the woodwork, boasting a roster that's cohesive and surprisingly competent, even if you couldn't pick its members out of a police lineup. The Netherlands stunned the world in 2009 by beating the Dominican Republic twice; in '13, Italy topped Mexico and Canada to advance out of its group. Upsets can and will happen, especially with a team that has experience, even if you wouldn't mistake it for the 1927 Yankees.
Will Israel's surprising skill be enough to get it through a loaded second-round group that will include the Netherlands, top-ranked Japan and likely Cuba? Probably not. But Israel was never expected to get this far with the motley crew it had assembled against three of the higher-ranked teams in the world, including a Dutch squad boasting arguably the most talented infield in the entire tournament. Given how the first round went, perhaps it's time to stop being surprised that Israel is the little team that could.
Australia blanks China to set up winner-take-all game vs. Cuba
It's win or go home for Australia and Cuba, which will face off on Thursday night to determine who will join Japan in advancing out of Pool B. The Klobberin' Kangaroos (or the Wallopin' Wallabies; I'm open to either) made short work of hapless China, putting an 11–0 beatdown on a squad that still has not managed a single run in the WBC so far (and likely won't, given that its final opponent will be Japan). First baseman Luke Hughes drove in four, opening the scoring with a two-run homer in the third inning and adding a two-run double in the seventh, and Australia put a cap on the game with an eighth-inning grand slam off the bat of second baseman James Beresford. All of that was more than enough against China, which managed just four hits on the day, all singles.
The win leaves Australia tied with Cuba at 1–1 in the group, and with 2–0 Japan already clear, it will come down to either the Aussies or the Cubans as to who moves on to the second round. On paper, that's not much of a matchup: Cuba is one of the top-ranked teams in the world and has never failed to advance out of the first round in the WBC, while Australia had just one win in its WBC history coming into the 2017 tournament, way back in '09 over Mexico in group play. But perhaps Australia can follow Israel's example and pull off a shocking upset in Tokyo.
Pool C and D play begins on Thursday
Things are finally getting underway in Miami and Mexico, where action in Pools C and D will get started on Thursday night. First up, Canada takes on the defending champion Dominican Republic at Marlins Park in what should be a raucous atmosphere for the latter at 6:00 p.m. ET in Pool C's opener. Then at 9:00, Mexico hosts Italy at Estadio Charrios de Jalisco in Guadalajara in Pool D's debut. The remaining four teams—the United States and Colombia in Pool C, Venezuela and Puerto Rico in Pool D—will begin their tournament runs on Friday.