Israel’s baseball program scored yet another huge achievement when its National Team took the gold medal at the PONY League Under-18 European Championship this week.
The blue-and-white earned the title by knocking off the tournament’s host team, Germany’s Stuttgart Reds, with an 8-2 victory in the final on the Reds’ home field. By winning the tournament, Israel qualified for the first time for the PONY League World Series, to be held this summer in Laredo, Texas.
Starter Nadav Machlin held the German bats at bay for four shutout innings while his teammates built a formidable lead. Machlin struck out six before being touched for two runs in the fifth. Akiva Meister induced an inning-ending double play that dashed all hopes of the host coming back and finished the game with 22/3 scoreless innings to get the save.
Liam Sagiv drove in four runs and was joined by Uri Shani, Dovid Solomon and Tomer Erel who all enjoyed multi-hit games while leading the blue-and-white onslaught.
True grit on the field
Israel manager Freddy Bain praised his entire team that showed true grit by coming back from its tournament-opening loss to these very same Reds.
“We bounced back from defeat and improved steadily over every game, reeling off four consecutive victories,” said Bain.
A key to the gold was provided the previous day when pitcher Aviv Bobrov pitched a complete game shutout in the semifinal win over a Dutch team, whose pitchers were unable to keep their fingers in the dike against an Israeli tidal wave that produced 11 runs, thus abbreviating the contest and saving the Israeli arms for the final.
The team’s effort throughout the tournament, which Bain proudly noted, was apparent in every aspect of play. Israel’s pitchers were supported by excellent fielding throughout. This was most evident in the very first inning of the championship game when one of the Reds’ best hitters singled with runners at first and second, only to have centerfielder Uri Shani (Israel’s top hitter in the tournament) throw out the lead runner by 10 feet, with catcher Tomer Erel making a textbook play at the plate that ended the threat and provided a huge momentum shift.
In the top of the second, the blue-and-white broke the game open by stringing together key hits, the big blows being a pair of two-RBI singles that made it 4-0. Israel then showed high baseball IQ by attempting a delayed double-steal with runners at the corners, with pinch-runner Yedidya Rabinowitz scoring when he took off from third on the catcher’s throw and stole home.
This heads-up baseball was indicative of a well-coached team that proved itself throughout the tournament. The inspired play of native Sabra youth gave testimony to a rapidly maturing program, thanks to the vision of IAB Chairman Jordy Alter and National GM Peter Kurz, who have brought on Aliyah MLB stars like Ian Kinsler, Danny Valencia, Ryan Lavarnway, and Josh Zeid. By creating a buzz from the top-down, they’ve created enthusiasm that has helped build a program from the bottom-up.
Coach Blake Dickman, a new Oleh who arrived last year after graduating UC San Diego’s baseball program, summed up his feelings.
“This is my Zionist dream - to help win a championship. I look forward to playing myself on the senior National Team in this September's European Championship.”
Catcher Tomer Erel is the younger brother of Tal, a member of Israel's World Baseball Classic and Tokyo Olympic teams.
“I am proud to follow in my brother's footsteps”, Tomer said.
Their father Yaron, who coached many youth teams over the years but fell short by finishing second in this same qualifier three times, was elated.
“We finally won. Nobody remembers the name of Bar Kochva’s deputy and nobody gets credit for second place.”
Bain, who himself played as a member of six different Israeli youth teams, was delighted that he won in his first attempt as the head coach.
“Representing Israel has been my privilege for over a decade- but this time, playing in Germany on Israel’s 75th Independence Day, the tournament carried special significance for me.”Perhaps the team’s excitement was best summed up by winning pitcher Machlin, who’s been playing baseball since he was nine years old.
“We can’t wait to get to the World Series in Texas!”