Final inning: Team Israel Olympics bound?

A fourth win will ensure Israel a historic place in the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.

TEAM ISRAEL’S Nick Rickles and Danny Valencia celebrate during their game Friday against Italy. (photo credit: MARGO SUGARMAN)
TEAM ISRAEL’S Nick Rickles and Danny Valencia celebrate during their game Friday against Italy.
(photo credit: MARGO SUGARMAN)
Team Israel took two key steps toward its goal of reaching the Tokyo 2020 Olympics by overpowering tournament hosts and No. 2 seeded Italy on Friday 8-2, in Parma, Italy, less than 24 hours after it had destroyed No. 1 seeded the Netherlands by a score of 8-1. Team Israel began its quest for a ticket to Tokyo 2020 with a convincing 3-0 victory over Spain on Wednesday.
Israel faced the Czech Republic on Saturday night in a game that finished after press time, and plays South Africa on Sunday. A fourth win will ensure Israel a historic place in the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. Only the top team moves into the Olympics while the second-place team will play in the last-chance tournament in March.
The tension was palpable Friday as both teams knew that this battle of the remaining two unbeaten teams might be the key to determining which would earn the one guaranteed spot in the next year’s Olympics.
While its confidence grew after beating the Netherlands, Team Israel approached Friday’s test against Italy as yet another “against all odds” must-win. The Italians, who had come off last week’s second-place finish in the European Championship, were determined to provide their home crowd with a reason to cheer.
The first three innings were a scoreless pitchers’ duel. Italy put pressure on starter Gabe Cramer, who recovered from desperate situations like the second inning when he stranded a runner on third after a lead-off triple threatened to put the Italians on the board. In the top of the fourth inning, Team Israel catcher Nick Rickles pulled a play out of Groundhog Day by homering to deep left field with Danny Valencia on base for the second straight game, which again gave Israel a 2-0 lead. In the bottom of the fifth, the Italians tied the game on two walks and a double.
The score remained tied until the top of the eighth inning, with Israeli relief pitchers working out of impossible jams. Jonathan DeMarte showed true grit in quashing a one-out jam in the seventh. This set the stage for an Israeli onslaught in the eighth, helped by two Italian miscues and a beautiful sacrifice bunt by Mitch Glasser that brought home a run, as well as clutch hits by Ty Kelly, Nick Rickles and Benny Wanger. By the time the Italians looked up, the Israelis had scored six runs and put the game out of reach.
DeMarte then retired the Italians in order in the bottom of the eighth and ninth for the win.
On Thursday night against the Netherlands, former Cincinnati Reds right-hander Jon Moscot opened the game with four strong innings of one-run ball.
In the bottom of first, Rickles put the blue-and-white in the lead with a two-out, two-run line shot that cleared the left-field wall, scoring Valencia.
The Dutch immediately came back with two consecutive doubles, narrowing the gap to 2-1 and reminding the Israelis that they weren’t ranked eighth in the world for nothing. A ground-out and walk set runners at the corners and threatened to make Moscot’s life very unpleasant, but then the former Reds pitcher induced a rally-killing double play, a pitcher’s best friend.
In the bottom of the second, Israel loaded the bases for lead-off hitter Glasser, who lined a bases-clearing double into the left-center field gap, making it 5-1.
A walk set up first and second for Valencia, who had connected for a home run in each of the previous five games. Valencia pounced on a pitch for what looked like home run number six, but the ball hit the top of the wall, driving in one run, but the runner from first was called out at the plate.
The score remained 6-1 with both pitchers settling into a rhythm as the game went into the fifth. Team Israel manager Eric Holtz turned the ball over to former Oakland A’s lefty Jeremy Bleich, who provided two innings of three-up and three-down, earning himself the win.
Israel loaded the bases in the bottom of the fifth when Rob Paller stroked what looked like a multiple-run double. One run scored making it 7-1, but a Dutch outfield relay throw nailed yet another Israeli base-runner at home plate.
However, by this time, holding the Israelis to only one run seemed as effective as sticking a finger in a dike, and the blue-and-white tacked on an eighth-inning run making it 8-1 to round out the scoring.
“We’ve done great things over the past few days, beating the three teams that beat us in last week’s European Championships” said Team Israel general manager and Israel Association of Baseball president Peter Kurz. “But we still have work to do and nothing is certain in baseball. So, we’re still taking it one game at a time.”
By Sunday, or Monday, we’ll all know if Israel’s time has indeed come.