Spain Spoils Israel's WBC Dream

JUPITER, Fla.— Immediately after leading Spain to a victory over Israel in a World Baseball Classic qualifier, second baseman Paco Figueroa sent a text to his friend and 2011 National League MVP, Ryan Braun.

"We're going to the Classic," the text read.

Braun was happy for his former Miami Hurricanes teammate. But Spain's win in the title game of the qualifying tournament eliminated Israel and likely changed Braun's spring plans.

Had Israel won and advanced to the 16-team main draw in March, they would have added at least one major league veteran to their roster in Kevin Youkilis, who had already committed to play. Other Jewish-American stars such as Braun, Ike Davis and Ian Kinsler were also on Israel's radar.

There's a good chance Braun will now play for Team USA instead of Israel.

Meanwhile, Spain advances to the main draw, and manager Mauro Mazzotti said his team will try to bring in major leaguers such as pitcher Rhiner Cruz, catcher Carlos Corporan and outfielder Fernando Martinez, all of the Astros. Pitcher Robert Coello (Blue Jays) was another player mentioned.

These reinforcements will be needed because the step up in class in March will be steep. Instead of facing minor leaguers, Spain will now try to keep from getting awed by American, Puerto Rican, Dominican and Venezuelan rosters loaded with major league stars. And that's not to mention two-time WBC champion Japan.

Mazzotti said his team will use the time between now and March to look for players with a parent or grandparent who has Spain citizenship.

"We have (a lot) of research to do," he said. "We could try to reach out to Cuban players (who have left Cuba) as well … MLB has helped us out a bit."

Cubans with Spanish ancestry played a major role for Spain, such as shortstop Yunesky Sanchez, who hit the game-winning two-run single in the 10th in the championship game. Another was the 29-year-old Cuban-American Figueroa who reached as high as Triple-A with the Orioles and is now playing independent ball. He said he welcomes any reinforcements.

"They will make our team more powerful," he said. "There are going to be some players on our (current) team who will lose their (roster) spots (to a major leaguer). That's part of the business side of baseball, but I'm confident I will keep my spot."

Figueroa, who hit .438 at Jupiter's Roger Dean Stadium as his team went 3-1, called Spain's 9-7, 10-inning win over Israel in the final "one of the most exciting games I've ever played."

In both games that Spain played Israel, the latter was more rested by one day. That occurred as MLB worked around Team Israel's observance of the Sabbath. The tournament was held between the Jewish High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Spain overcame that obstacle, and it turned out that Israel was the hard-luck loser in a four-team tournament that also included France and South Africa.

The format was double elimination until the title game, and then it was winner take all. Israel and Spain each had one loss, and the teams split against each other.

Israel manager Brad Ausmus, who had an 18-year big league career as a catcher, said Spain was "deserving" of the title.

"No sour grapes," Ausmus said. "We knew the format coming in."

Spain advanced in large part because they were able to keep Israel slugger Nate Freiman (Padres) somewhat in check in the final, when he went 1 for 3 with two walks and one RBI.

Freiman, a 6-foot-7, 225-pound first baseman, has hit 46 homers the past two years, including 24 in Double A this past season. In three games at Jupiter, he hit .417 with 4 homers and 7 RBI.

Two of his homers and four of his RBI came in Israel's 4-2 win over Spain earlier in the tournament. But before the final, Mazzotti expressed confidence Freiman wouldn't match those numbers the second time against his club.

"The odds are in our favor," the Italian-born Mazzotti had said then, amusing reporters with his logic and his heavily-accented English. "You can't hit six homers in (three games)— you know, sabermetrics."

As it turns out, Mazzotti was right, and South African manager Rick Magnante was wrong.

Asked who would win the final between Israel and Spain, Magnante refused to be politically correct.

"Israel, hands down," he said after Spain had eliminated South Africa, 13-3. "That's not to be disparaging to Spain, and anything can happen in one game. But Israel is the better team and has better pitching. They are like a Double-A or Triple-A All-Star team."

Mazzotti seemed to take offense at Magnante's assessment.

"He better think about beating Spain before he talks," Mazzotti said. "He better mind his business."

Truth be told, Magnante was focused on his own team, which enjoyed its first-ever WBC win on its seventh try, defeating France, 5-2, in 11 innings.

That game was completed 21 hours after its scheduled start as the players and coaches endured three rain delays.

Still, Magnante was thrilled. "This was a very large and memorable win for South Africa," he said. "You never forget your first, whether it's your first girlfriend, first prom or fill in the blank."

France manager Jim Stoeckel, who doubles as the Global Scouting Director for the Cincinnati Reds, was also pleased, even though his team went 0-2.

Similar to South Africa and unlike Spain and Israel, France used a home-grown roster, and Stoeckel thinks his team overachieved just by battling as much as they did.

Stoeckel, a Harvard graduate who has coached and scouted in Europe for 30 years, also seems to be philosophical by nature.

"When you have some adversity," he said, "it makes for great stories later on in life when you accomplish your goals."

That's could be true for Spain, which is accomplishing some of its goals and recently finished third in the European Championships, behind champion Italy and runner-up Holland.

Mazzotti said that with the Netherlands winning the World Cup in 2011 and now Spain advancing to the WBC main draw, he is no longer being asked if baseball is played in Europe.  

"The Spanish federation has a chance to advertise (the WBC) and the sport in Spain now," Mazzotti said. "People in Spain can see a high level of play with their national team.

"Seeing the national team on TV can be contagious. It will draw attention for sure. All of European baseball can be proud."