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Israel Clinches Spot In 2020 Tokyo Olympics

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(Photo by Matt Roberts/Getty Images)

The Israeli baseball team is headed to the Olympics for the first time.

Danny Valencia hit a three-run homer, Joey Wagman pitched seven strong innings and Israel beat South Africa 11-1 on Sunday to win the Europe/Africa qualifier and clinch a spot in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Israel (4-1) tied with three-time defending champion Netherlands for the best record in the six-team field. Israel beat the Dutch 8-1 earlier in the tournament to own the head-to-head tiebreaker.

Israel joins Japan, who earned an automatic berth as the host nation, as teams that have secured the place in the six-team 2020 Olympic field.

Israel got off to a 4-0 start in the qualifier and had a chance to clinch Saturday but was upset by the Czech Republic. The Israelis bounced back in a big way, earning a mercy-rule win over South Africa in a game that was called after eight innings.

Valencia, the former Twins and A’s third baseman, went 2-for-5 and provided the final blow with a three-run homer in the eighth that gave Israel a 10-run lead and put the mercy rule into effect. Dodgers Triple-A outfielder Blake Gailen went 2-for-4 with three RBIs and Ben Wanger, a Southern California graduate transfer via Yale, went 2-for-3 with two doubles, two runs scored and an RBI.

Wagman, a former White Sox and A’s minor leaguer, held South Africa to six hits and one run over seven innings to earn the win. The 28-year-old righthander walked none and struck out six.

Israel pulled off a pair of upsets to punch its ticket to Tokyo. Its dominant win over the longtime power Netherlands put it in the driver’s seat, and then it followed up with an 8-2 win over host Italy.

The Olympic berth marks a pinnacle in the rise of Israeli baseball. Israel qualified for the World Baseball Classic for the first time in 2017 and pulled off a series of stunning upsets over South Korea, Cuba, the Netherlands and Chinese Taipei while advancing to the second round, and came within one game of reaching the semifinals.

Armed with a few holdovers from that WBC team—including Gailen, Wagman, infielder Ty Kelly and catcher Nick Rickles—Israel took control of the Africa/Europe qualifier early and spent the entire tournament in at least a tie for first place.

Valencia hit .375 with a double, three home runs and nine RBIs to lead Israel’s offense. Rickles, a former Phillies Triple-A catcher who is now a coach in the Brewers organization, hit .316 with two homers and six RBIs. Wagman went 2-0, 0.56 with 14 strikeouts and one walk over 16 innings.

The Netherlands, which has reached the last four Olympics, finished second and will have another shot next March at the Global Olympic Qualifier in Taiwan, where runner-ups from various qualifiers will compete for the final Olympic spot.

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