Israel's remarkable run in the World Baseball Classic has now carried into the second round.
After three straight wins to top Pool A in Seoul, the darlings of the tournament opened Pool E at Tokyo Dome Sunday with a 4-1 win over Cuba. A win in either of Israel's remaining games, against the Netherlands and Japan, could send the underdog team to Dodger Stadium for the semifinals.
Former Major Leaguer Jason Marquis and three relievers limited Cuba to five hits, and Pool A MVP Ryan Lavarnway's two hits highlighted an Israel offense that clicked at the right time. Marquis allowed a home run to Cuban star Alfredo Despaigne, but Lavarnway cancelled that out with his run-scoring single in the fourth, and Zach Borenstein's single in the sixth put Israel on top.
"We've been looking forward to this the whole offseason," Borenstein said. "We have something to prove. Our goal is to win the last game of the tournament."
They've won every game they've played in the tournament so far, going all the way back to three wins in a September qualifier in Brooklyn, N.Y. They still have more work to do, but Sunday's win sets them up with a good chance to be one of the two teams that will eventually advance out of Pool E.
"We've pitched extremely well, we've had timely hitting and played good defense," manager Jerry Weinstein said.
Cuba also lost its opening game in first-round play, to host Japan, before wins over China and Australia propelled the Cubans into the second round. Cuba likely needs to win its next two games, against Japan and the Netherlands, for a chance to get to the semifinals.
"Our pitchers struggled today," manager Carlos Marti said. "It was difficult for our pitchers to adjust to this umpire's strike zone. But I think eight walks, at a high level of international play like the WBC, that's too many walks."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED Lavarnway stays hot: In a pregame ceremony Sunday, Lavarnway was presented with a trophy for winning the MVP award in Pool A last week in Seoul. Lavarnway carried his Seoul success into Tokyo, with a fourth-inning double to tie the game at 1-1 and a ninth-inning single that helped lead to an insurance run. Lavarnway also threw out Cuba's speedy center fielder, Roel Santos, trying to steal.
It's Despaigne, again: Despaigne is now the all-time World Baseball Classic home run leader. Sunday's shot off Marquis was his third in this tournament and his seventh overall, breaking a tie with teammate Frederich Cepeda. Despaigne homered once in the '09 Classic and three times in six games in WBC '13.
Marquis goes deeper: Weinstein only allowed Marquis to throw 69 pitches, meaning he can't pitch again in this round of the tournament. Marquis gave up only the Despaigne home run in 5 2/3 innings, giving Israel a chance to come back and win the game. More >
"We felt the game would dictate it," Weinstein said. "We knew winning this game was very important. He had a lot left in the tank [in the sixth], but we liked the matchup with [reliever Zach] Thornton."
Strength in the 'pen: Israel had one roster change for the second round, and newly added White Sox reliever Brad Goldberg took over as the setup man. Goldberg hit 96 mph on the radar gun, but when he walked Cepeda to bring up Despaigne with two outs in the eighth, Weinstein went to Zeid. Zeid walked Despaigne on four pitches to load the bases, but he got William Saavedra to ground to third base to end the threat. More >
"Those guys at the back end have got really good stuff," Lavarnway said. "We trust them, and they trust their stuff against the hitters."
QUOTABLE "I don't agree with that. We're representing Israel. Our guys qualify under the heritage rules. I think if you ask anyone in our clubhouse, we're representing Israel. We're not a JV team for the U.S. We're Team Israel. Make no mistake." -- Weinstein, in response to a Cuban reporter questioning whether his team is really a "United States 2" or "United States 3" team rather than an Israel team
"Before the game, we didn't know Israel had such good players. When we played against them, we saw. I think Israel has a chance to go to the semifinal round out of this pool." -- Marti
SOUND SMART WITH YOUR FRIENDS Israel scored an insurance run on a safety squeeze in the eighth inning, with Blake Gailen getting the bunt down and Borenstein scoring from third base.
"It was a perfect situation for it," Weinstein said. "A left-handed pitcher, a left-handed hitter. That lane is open to bunt."
WHAT'S NEXT Cuba: Cuba, which lost to Japan, 11-6, in the Pool B opener, will face the hosts in a second-round game Tuesday at 6 a.m. ET.
Israel: Israel will be back in action Monday at 6 a.m. ET against the Netherlands, in a rematch of a Pool A game the Israelis won, 4-2, in Seoul.