Helped by a scoreless inning of relief from Santa Rosa’s Gabe Cramer and inspired by its rotund Mensch on a Bench mascot, Team Israel shocked the baseball world with wins in its first two games in the World Baseball Classic this week against much higher-ranked teams.
The victories put Israel on the verge of advancing to the second round.
Cramer, 22, a star at Stanford University before being drafted by the Kansas City Royals, got three key outs as Team Israel made its main-draw WBC debut March 6 with a 2-1 10-inning upset of Korea, the host team.
Former Oakland Athletics Ike Davis and Nate Freiman were among four Israeli players with three hits apiece as Israel followed up that low-scoring win with a blowout against Chinese Taipei (Taiwan), knocking out 20 hits in a 15-7 victory on March 7 in Seoul.
Israel is 41st in the world rankings, while Korea is third and Chinese Taipei is fourth. Israel was considered the biggest underdog in the 16-nation field, being given odds of 200-1 before the tournament by Bovada sportsbook in Las Vegas.
Israel can win the four-team Pool A if it beats the Netherlands in its next game (7 p.m. PST on Wednesday), but it may have already clinched a spot in the second round by that time. A win by the Netherlands over Chinese Taipei (4:30 a.m. PST Wednesday) would send the Netherlands and Israel through to Round 2 in Tokyo.
The Netherlands, which won its opener 5-0 over Korea, is a powerful team that includes current Major League stars Xander Bogaerts of the Boston Red Sox, Didi Gregorius of the New York Yankees, Jonathan Schoop of the Baltimore Orioles and Kenley Jansen of the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Dutch are ranked ninth in the world, but are considered a more seasoned team than the Koreans or Taiwanese.
The second round is set for March 12-16 in Tokyo and the tournament concludes at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles on March 20-22.
“It’s been a perfect trip in every regard. The treatment, the people, the facilities, the games and the city of Seoul have all exceeded my wildest expectations,” Cramer said in an email to J. “Winning our first two games puts us in a great spot headed into our game against the Netherlands and ensures that we don’t have to qualify for the next WBC, a huge accomplishment.”
Israel, a baseball neophyte, had to win a qualifying tournament last September in Brooklyn, New York, against Great Britain, Brazil and Pakistan to reach the WBC’s main draw. For the tournament four years ago, Israel fared well in its WBC qualifier debut, in Jupiter, Florida, but ultimately lost to Spain in a winner-take-all game to advance into the main draw.
“This really is unlike anything I’ve ever done before,” Cramer said. “The style of play, the urgency of tournament baseball, and the stage are foreign to me and many of my teammates, but clearly we have been a quick study.”
Israel’s first two games were televised in the U.S. by MLB Network. They were not shown on any of Israel’s major television or sports channels.
Joining Israel for its WBC journey has been a fat, furry mascot based on the 2011 children’s book “The Mensch on a Bench,” by Neal Hoffman, who wrote it to give his kids a Hanukkah alternative to the Christmas book, “The Elf on a Shelf.”
Team member Cody Decker bought the oversized stuffed mascot (pictured above with the team on the World Baseball Classic’s Instragram account) online last September.
The Mensch has his own locker in the Israeli clubhouse and has appeared at a news conference with Decker, as well as — of course — spending each game on the bench.
“The Mensch on the Bench is our unspoken mascot and a symbol we can rally around as a team,” Cramer said. “We are proud to be Jewish, but we know how to make and take a joke, something Jews have a long history of doing. The Mensch is a great way to have fun in the dugout while reminding us of why we’re here and who we’re representing.”
Hoffman said he, 8-year-old son Jacob and a 5-foot-tall Mensch mascot watched the win against Chinese Taipei at their home in Cincinnati.
“I am really proud of Team Israel and honored that Mensch on a Bench has been adopted as a member,” Hoffman said in an email. “Mensch means ‘good and honorable person’ and that is what this team is made up of! I think the Mensch reflects the pride that this team has in their Jewish heritage and sense of humor around having fun while playing the game of baseball.”
Against Chinese Taipei, Israel scored four runs in the first inning and led 11-3 after seven innings. Freiman drove in four runs, including three with a home run in the ninth inning, and Ryan Lavarnway — a non-roster invitee to A’s spring training camp this year — hit a two-run shot in the third inning. Davis went 3-for-5 with a triple, two runs and two RBIs.
In its opener, Israel got a run-scoring infield single from Scott Burcham in the 10th inning. Burcham and Sam Fuld, a former Stanford University and Oakland Athletics outfielder, had two hits apiece for Israel. Josh Zeid pitched the final three innings, allowing no runs on one hit and striking out four to get the win.
Cramer, who had his bar mitzvah at Congregation Shomrei Torah in Santa Rosa, went to Camp Newman (a Jewish summer camp in Santa Rosa) and participated in Hillel events at Stanford, came into the game with a man on first and no outs in the sixth inning. He got one out on a line drive to center fielder Fuld, allowed a single and then got out of the inning by inducing Kyoung-min Hur to ground into a double play.
Back in Santa Rosa, proud father Corky Cramer watched the game from 1:30 to 5 a.m.
“Yeah, a good dad stayed up all night,” he said in an email.