PITCHING WILL be a major strength for Team Israel as it progresses over the next few months in qualification for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
(photo credit: MAYA LOWENGART)
Israel Baseball is back on the map so to speak with a convincing sweep of the Confederation of European Baseball’s (CEB) European Championships B Pool in Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria, with a sparkling 6-0 record.
The last time blue-and-white baseball made a serious dent in the public eye was back at the 2017 World Baseball Classic, where Israel advanced to the second round of the prestigious tournament. Since then, the team has undergone some changes specifically with its roster as it looks to make it all the way to the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.
The likes of Ty Kelly, Ike Davis, Cody Decker, Josh Zeid and Ryan Lavarnway have made way for the next generation of players who have to be Israeli citizens, which is a requirement for the Olympics, which wasn’t the case in the WBC, which allowed players to join a national team if they qualified to be a citizen of that country.
The Olympic rules meant a number of players had to become citizens and 10 did so back in the fall of 2018. Add into the mix a number of home-grown players and Israel Baseball is taking the next steps in continuing to grow the sport in the Holy Land.
Featuring a primarily new squad, Israel was incredibly impressive in Bulgaria, streaked through its first three games by overpowering Greece 14-7, Serbia 11-1 and host Bulgaria 8-0 before slipping by Russia 13-12 in 10 innings. The blue-and-white then finished off group play with a 10-3 victory over Ireland before beating the Russians once again in the final.
With a 5-3 win over Russia, Israel earned a date with Lithuania in a best-of-three series between July 26-28 for the right to advance to European Championship Pool A in Germany in September. Should Israel be one of the top five teams in Bonn & Solingen it will head to Italy for a chance to book its ticket to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Peter Kurz, President of the Israel Association of Baseball, spoke to The Jerusalem Post about the next challenge ahead.
“The three-game series against Lithuania will not be easy, and will drain valuable financial resources from the Israel Association of Baseball, but I do hope that once we get passed this next test, with the team we can develop – we have at least four more Israeli ballplayers playing in North America at the AAA level who can join us in September – we will find the resources to advance.”
The keys to success for Kurz was the professionalism of the players.
“Guys like Blake Gailen, Zach Penprase, Shlomo Lipetz, guys with experience and poise, set the tone for the team. We are a cocktail mix of savvy veterans and young players hungry to win and this is reflected in the character of the team. We also have a phenomenal pitching staff of ex-professional players who know exactly what to do and when, and executed properly."
"Our coaching staff, led by Eric Holtz, prepared the players well.”
As someone who has been involved in Israel Baseball for so many years, Kurz talked about how satisfying it is to see the continued development of blue-and white players.
“My greatest satisfaction this tournament was to see the native Israeli players, who grew up in the IAB program, on the field at crucial stages of the game. Guys like Tal Erel, Asaf Lowengart, Noam Calisar, Alon Leichman, Shlomo Lipetz, Dan Rothem and Ophir Katz all played important roles in this tournament and all grew up in our program in Israel.
“In addition, guys like Ryan Willen, Jake Rosenberg and Dean Pelman, are today playing in Israel and playing key roles in the IAB development program and will continue to do so in the future.”
As Israel baseball continues its upward trend, the U18 team began play this week as they look also make strides at the youth level.
“My goal is to have them reach the top three and even first place, so next year we can play in the U18 championship,” said Kurz. "The three junior coaches are all senior players – Ryan, Dean and Jake will guide the team in Sweden - and I hope that they can parlay the sweet taste of victory from Bulgaria.”
It’s clear that Kurz and the rest of the Israel Association of Baseball haven’t rested on the laurels of the WBC accomplishments, but they’ve set a path that will hopefully bear fruits for the next generation of baseball players throughout the Holy Land.
As the date with Lithuania looms at the end of the month, Kurz is confident about the chances for Israel to reach the A Pool in Germany and then the Olympic qualifiers in Italy.
“Our goal is to reach the Olympic qualifiers in Italy. I believe we will get there. What happens there is anyone’s guess, but with our pitching staff, I wouldn’t bet against us.”
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