By Walter Villa
JUPITER, Fla.—Israel made its World Baseball Classic debut Wednesday night with a 7-3 victory over South Africa, giving fans back home and Jewish people everywhere something additional to celebrate.
The game, played during the Jewish High Holy Days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, was attended by a mostly pro-Israel crowd. The Hebrew folk song “Hava Nagila” was played on the organ at Roger Dean Stadium almost every half-inning, delighting the crowd of 1,581.
But while Israel advanced to the winners’ bracket of the four-team, double-elimination WBC qualifier, South Africa can also claim a victory of sorts. South Africa has a team with 27 of its 28 players coming from its homeland. That’s in stark contrast to Israel, which brought 25 Americans to Jupiter in hopes of eventually growing the game back home. The lone native of Israel on the team, righthander Shlomo Lipetz, got one out and walked three in South Africa's three-run ninth.
Given the experience advantage held by Israel—ostensibly the tournament favorite—South Africa did fairly well, especially early.
The second batter of the game, Israel’s Nate Freiman, drilled a solo homer to left field. The shot by Freiman (Padres)—who hit 24 homers in Double A this year and 22 the previous season in high Class A—was the first of two hit on the night for the former Duke player. But the first homer was the only damage allowed by South Africa starter Dylan Unsworth. The Mariners farmhand, just days shy of his 20th birthday, went six innings and allowed just five hits and no walks.
South Africa, which went winless in the 2009 WBC, had a chance to rally in the sixth, putting runners on second and third with just one out. Israel brought in reliever Josh Zeid (Astros), who struck out Jonathan Phillips, walked Shannon Ekermans intentionally to load the bases and got Brett Willemburg on a pop out to end the inning.
Israel added a run in the seventh on a wild pitch, three in the eighth on a bases-loaded double by Charlie Cutler and a run in the ninth on an error. South Africa scored three ninth-inning runs on a bases-loaded walk by Karl Weitz, an error and a bunt.
Israel DH Shawn Green, the biggest name in the tournament, went 2 for 5 with a pair of singles, a run scored and a strikeout. The 39-year-old former All-Star also hit into a double play. The other player with major league at-bats, Israel infielder Josh Satin, went 1 for 3. The Mets minor leaguer also drew two walks and scored twice.
The tournament continues Thursday night with France facing favored Spain. The winner of the tournament, which concludes Sunday, advances to the WBC main draw in March.