It's been an improbable streak so far for Team Israel in the World Baseball Classic, every win coming against teams ranked much higher than they are in the World Baseball and Softball Confederation standings.
That dream run came to an end, as Israel fell to Japan, 8-3.
After completing a seven-game winning streak dating back to the 2016 qualifying round, Team Israel suffered its first loss in the 2017 WBC to the Kingdom of The Netherlands on Monday night by a score of 12-2. Having doubled up Netherlands in first-round action, 4-2, the Dutch came out swinging in the rematch and brought the game to an early close in the eighth inning under early termination rules (15 run lead after five innings, 10 after seven). Now they face a win-or-go-home situation vs. top-ranked Japan, who is 5-0 in the tournament since their 11-6 win over Cuba in the first round.
Josh Zeid got the start for Israel, as coach Jerry Weinstein hoped to take advantage of his 91-94 MPH fastball and sharp slider. Kodai Senga, the 24 year-old righty from the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks in the Japan Pacific League, started for Japan.
It was a strong first half of the game for Israel against a heavily-favored Japan contingent. Zeid pitched a brilliant game, allowing four hits in four shutout innings, walking two and striking out three. Dylan Axelrod relieved him in the bottom of the fifth and retired the Japanese hitters in order. Senga was just as outstanding, allowing a lone hit over five shutout innings. Yoshihisa Hirano came on in relief in the top of the sixth, shutting down Israel's bats in order.
That's when it started to go badly for the Blue and White. Yokohama DeNA BayStars slugger Yoshitomo Tsutsugoh broke open the scoring in the bottom of the sixth with a solo shot to center off of Axelrod, and Hayato Sakamoto slashed a single to center after a walk to Seiichi Uchikawa. Axelrod gave way to Zack Thornton, who got Seiya Suzuki to ground weakly to Kelly at third, who then tagged Uchikawa in a rundown for the first out. The play took a run from Japan, as Nobuhiro Matsuda hit a sky-high double off the left field wall down the line, scoring a run. Seiji Kobayashi then dribbled a weak grounder to Thornton, who threw wild to Freiman at first and pulled him off the bag. Freiman chased a still-running Kobayashi to second long enough to attempt the out on a sliding Matsuda at third, but the throw was late and Japan then had two more runners in scoring position.
After an intentional walk to Tetsuto Yamada to load the bases, Ryosuke Kikuchi smacked an RBI single to right. Alex Katz relieved Thornton and promptly drilled Norichika Aoki to force in another run. Tsutsugoh struck out on a slider well outside of the zone and Katz gave way to Brad Goldberg, who struck out Uchikawa on a 2-2 inside fastball with the bases still loaded.
Freiman drilled a double down the left field line with one out in the top of the seventh, ending the day for Hirano. Lefty sidearmer Naoki Miyanishi entered to face Borenstein, who struck out on a thigh-high fastball, then got Lavarnway on a grounder that glanced off of Miyanishi's glove to the shortstop Sakamoto.
Sakomoto led off the bottom of the seventh with a single to right, moving to second on the sacrifice bunt by Suzuki. After Goldberg retired Matsuda on a fly ball to Gailen in left field and walked Kobayashi, Yamada hit a high fly to left that was caught right at the wall.
Ryo Akiyoshi retired the side in order in the top of the eighth. Tyler Herron gave up a one-out double to Aoki, then intentionally walked Tsutsugoh to set up the double play. However, they both ended up scoring on Uchikawa's double to left. Jared Lakind came on in relief, giving up an RBI single to Matsuda after striking out Suzuki. Kobayashi grounded to Burcham, whose low throw to first was scooped by Freiman for the third out.
Submariner Kazuhisa Makita came in to close it out for Japan in the ninth, walking Fuld and giving up a Texas Leaguer single to Kelly. Ike Davis singled in Fuld for Israel's first run. After Freiman flew out to center, Borenstein loaded the bases on a grounder that was thrown just wide of second by Makita. Lavarnway then doubled on a hard grounder to left, scoring Kelly and Davis, and it appeared that Israel was mounting a late rally. However, after Gailen flied out to center and Krieger struck out looking, the rally and the team's run in the WBC were both over.
Having accomplished such a showing in their first WBC, Israel has absolutely nothing to hang their heads about. Virtually none of the baseball experts expected anything like the story that this nascent baseball program has become. It's been an exciting ride for this team, and they've shown that they are quite serious about retaining their foothold on the international baseball scene.