TOKYO — With a little help from “The Mensch on the Bench” mascot, Israel is into the second round of the World Baseball Classic.
Just 41st in the world rankings, Israel beat third-ranked South Korea 2-1 in its opening game, then defeated fourth-ranked Taiwan 15-7 on Tuesday. On Thursday, Israel beat the Netherlands 4-2 to finish in first place in Pool A with a 3-0 record.
Next up for Israel is the second round in Tokyo with a chance to advance to the semifinals.
South Korea won the bronze medal at the 2006 WBC and silver in 2009, and was one of the pre-tournament favorites to win a medal again. Beating them on home soil was a huge upset.
But Israel’s 73-year-old manager, Jerry Weinstein, said he’s not surprised.
“The only unknown was the caliber of competition,” Weinstein said. “We never doubted our ability. We are a well-balanced team. We can pitch and have pitching depth; we have team speed, team power and can catch the ball. We’re a very close-knit group.”
Israel is getting contributions from three former Portland Sea Dogs. Catcher Ryan Lavarnway is 5 for 9 with a home run and three RBI. First baseman Nate Freiman is 4 for 12 with a homer and five RBI, and infielder Cody Decker is 2 for 8.
The team is getting plenty of inspiration from its mascot. Decker brought The Mensch with him from home and he’s been a big hit in South Korea.
Mensch means a person of integrity or honor. The Mensch on the Bench started during the qualifying round in New York.
“He’s on the team,” Weinstein said. “Everybody brings something to the team and certainly The Mensch is a unifying factor.”
Israel’s roster is made up almost entirely of Jewish-Americans with major or minor league experience. Some familiar names are pitcher Jason Marquis, formerly of Cincinnati, and Lavarnway, who played for Boston, Baltimore and Atlanta.
Then there’s pitcher and Israel citizen Shlomo Lipetz, the only player with no MLB affiliation.
The players wear yarmulkes, or Jewish skullcaps, during the playing of the national anthem.
For some of the players – Josh Zeid, Freiman, Nick Rickles and Ike Davis – the WBC will be their third appearance with Israel. They were all part of the team that narrowly missed qualifying in 2013, and all played in the qualifiers in September.
The WBC’s “heritage rule” states that players eligible for citizenship of a country may play on the team. This will be the first time that American Jewish baseball players will represent Israel in a world championship.
In January, eight players visited Israel for a week to learn about the country and meet fans. They toured Tel Aviv, Jerusalem’s holy sites, the Dead Sea, and met local players.
Israel was the final country to qualify for the 2017 WBC and is making its first appearance in the tournament.