While most of the East Coast was fast asleep, the 2017 World Baseball Classic got underway in Seoul, South Korea.
In the first game of the tournament, Israel matched up against odds-on favorite Korea, a team loaded with top talent from the Korean Baseball Organization. Jason Marquis took the ball for Israel, facing off against finesse lefty Won-Jun Chang, who went 15-6 with a 3.32 ERA for the Doosan Bears in 2016.
If you've been following WBC news at all, you already know the story of Israel's first team to qualify for the tournament. After winning the qualifier in 2016, they found themselves in Pool A for Round 1 of the tournament, with Chinese Taipei (their next opponent), the aforementioned Korea, and the Netherlands. If Israel is to advance to Round 2 in Tokyo, they'll have to battle to get there. Fortunately, thus far, they look to be up to the challenge.
The first inning was uneventful as each team got a feel for their opponent. Marquis worked at keeping his fastball low, working the inside of the plate effectively and skimming the edge of the zone with change-ups and curves. At times it appeared he was scuffling a bit, but he remained aggressive while not overpowering, shutting down Korea over three innings. Marquis threw 45 pitches, 28 for strikes, giving up two hits and a walk while striking out three.
The lefty Chang spent much of the game just outside the strike zone, funneling off-speed pitches about 3-4 inches off the plate and working inside only on occasion. Chang lasted four innings, giving up the first run of the game when 1B Nate Freiman drew a walk and RF Zach Borenstein swung on the first pitch he saw and doubled to right field. After another walk to C Ryan Lavarnway, the bases were loaded for 2B Tyler Krieger, who drew the third walk of the inning and Freiman scored. Chang got out of trouble when SS Scott Burcham struck out and CF Sam Fuld grounded out to 1B Dae-Ho Lee.
After LF Blake Gailen slashed a one-out single to left in the top of the third and Freiman went down on strikes, Gailen was thrown out at second on a 2-2 pitch to Borenstein to end the inning. Korea's 2B Geonchang Seo, a .311 career batter for the KBO's Nexen Heroes, singled on a grounder past Krieger and stole second, but was stranded when DH Tae Kyun Kim struck out. The fourth inning was a quick one for Chang as Israel's batters went down in order. Mets righty Zack Thornton entered the game for Marquis in the bottom of the inning and gave up a blast to center by Lee that was chased down by Fuld on a fantastic diving grab.
Korea put two runners on board in the bottom of the fifth when Kyoung-Min Hur walked and Jaeho Kim was hit by a pitch. Lefty Jeremy Bleich relieved Thornton, but after a strikeout of Yongkyu Lee, Seo singled to left and Hur scored to tie it up at one each.
Josh Zeid entered the game in the bottom of the eighth with the score still tied at 1-1 and the pressure building for both teams. After walking Kim, Zeid struck out Lee, then gave up a single to Son. One of the most crucial plays of the game took place when Byung-Hun Min, with runners at the corners, reached on a fielder's choice after 3B Ty Kelly cut down Jaewon Oh when he tried to score on the grounder.
When both Israel and Korea failed to score in the ninth, Davis drew a one-out walk and advanced to third on Lavarnway's single to center. Mike Meyers' replacing of Davis as pinch runner payed huge dividends when Burcham poked an infield single to second baseman Seo and Meyers managed to score, giving Israel a 2-1 lead. It would be all they would need.
Down to their last three outs, Korea's Seo grounded out to Burcham and Zeid struck out both Oh and Lee to end the game and make history, as Israel had won its first ever WBC game. Zeid got the win for his outstanding relief stint, going three shutout innings, allowing only one hit, walking two and striking out four.
Indeed, in addition to Marquis' three scoreless innings to start the game, the Israel relievers put together seven innings of outstanding relief. Five pitchers (Thornton, Bleich, Cramer, Katz, Zeid) combined to allow only one run on five hits, walking three and striking out seven. Korea's pitching staff walked nine batters, striking out ten in a mixed-bag performance.
Despite Korea being favored to win, even expected to overpower Israel by some analysts, Team Israel showed fortitude in overcoming a team RISP of .111 (1-9) and leaving 14 runners stranded. Ranked 41st in the world, this team is determined to prove itself on the biggest stage possible. If they can continue to maximize their pitcher-batter match-ups and play stingy defense, they could be making history for the rest of March.