By YAFFI SPODEK
While other teams fall by the wayside, the Beit Shemesh Blue Sox are taking the young Israel Baseball League by storm.
With a 11-1 record at press time, the team suffered its first defeat on Sunday against the Tel Aviv Lightning, ending a nine game winning streak dating back to its first game of the league's first season on June 25.
But this loss did nothing to discourage the loyal Beit Shemesh fans, who show up in throngs to support them at every game, often in groups numbering in the hundreds and cheering them on to victory in the following games.
A huge part of the team's success has been attributed to the players' ability to work effectively together as a cohesive unit. "We don't necessarily have the most talent in the league," commented pitcher Rafael Bergstrom. "What makes us such a great team is that we have a lot of confidence between us and that everybody is there for each other on the field."
"We really have a nice group effort going on," said fellow pitcher Jeff Mor, in agreement. "Besides the chemistry between the guys, our pitching, hitting, and defense are all strong and that's really important."
This chemistry is evident at the start of every game when the team huddles together, with their hands in the air, shouting "let's go Sox." Even the temporary three-week departure of Blue Sox manager, former New York Yankee Ron Blomberg, who did not affect the team's morale, as new coach Eric Holtz took his place.
"Ron was great while he was around," remarked shortstop Gregg Raymundo. "He was so knowledgeable about the game, and I'm just thankful that the Lord has allowed us to win nine games in a row with him. Eric is great also, and he's been working with the team all season."
Holtz, who also plays shortstop for the team, was excited about his recent promotion. "We're a great team, we've got 31 more games, and we're gonna plug away at it together," he said.
The Blue Sox games are lively, as the crowd frequently breaks out into cheers, wearing team hats, brandishing home-made blue and white signs, and wielding sticks with blue socks attached to them.
Many fans, such as 15-year old Bezalel Escott, support the team simply because they live in Beit Shemesh.
"I'm from there and I'll support them no matter what," he declared. "But it's much more fun when they're winning, so I'm happy they're doing so well."
But others with no hometown ties to the team have come to know and respect the players on a personal level, as the Blue Sox have endeared themselves to fans by patiently autographing baseballs, posing for pictures, and making time to talk to them at the end of each game.
"On opening night, Jason Rees and Johnny Lopez were the first players to come out of the bullpen and take pictures with my kids holding their gloves and bats," said Lauren Hazout from Gan Yavne.
"The Blue Sox players were the ones that were really accessible to the kids, and we've been hooked on them ever since."
Hazout has attended all 11 of their games this season, and has even hosted Rees and Bergstrom at her house for a weekend.
At Sunday's game, Bergstrom presented Hazout's elated son Daniel with a signed baseball glove as a present for his 5th birthday.
"It's just all part of their great energy," she observed. "You can also always see them rooting for each other when they're on the field."
Rees and Lopez, the team's best hitters, are both fan favorites, along with Mor, a Beit Shemesh native who pitched at the opening game of the season.
But they are not the lone talents. Pitcher Juan Feliciano, considered to the best in the league, broke an IBL record at Monday's 7-0 victory over the Petah Tikva Pioneers (1-10) by striking out an unprecedented 13 players, pitching a no-hitter, and preserving his impressive 0.00 ERA. Bergstrom boasts a near perfect record with a .56 ERA, only giving up one run in 16 innings.
The Blue Sox also have several reliable hitters in their batting rotation, a lineup which Nathaniel Edelstein, one of the public relations directors of the IBL says is "devastating for opponents to face on a nightly basis." Raymundo is in second place in the league standings, with a batting average of .500. Rightfielder Rees, in third place, has seven home runs to his name, and a competitive average of .474.
First baseman Lopez has scored five home runs this season and has a .361 batting average.
While the league is still less than three weeks old Beit Shemesh are clearly the favorites to take the inaugural IBL title come August 19.
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