April 20, 2024
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World Baseball Classic Wrap Up

The 2023 World Baseball Classic (WBC) has come to a close after Japan defeated the United States by a score of 3-2 in the championship game on Tuesday night in Miami. But while the winners celebrate, the rest of the teams are left to analyze how they can do better in 2026 when the tournament returns.

One of those teams is Israel. They may have finished exactly where everyone predicted they would, but the path along the way had some interesting twists and turns.

One of the few bright spots for an Israel squad that didn’t have much team success was Jacob Steinmetz. You might remember Steinmetz as the first Orthodox player ever selected in the MLB draft. He was selected in the third round by the Arizona Diamondbacks two years ago. The 19-year-old HAFTR graduate became the fourth youngest starting pitcher in the history of the WBC when Israel decided to give him the unenviable task of being the starting pitcher in their game against the Dominican Republic. He would go on to face every hitter in the star-studded Dominican lineup exactly once before being removed due to pitch count limits.

Israel previously played some scrimmages against Major League teams at spring training sites before the tournament. One of those was a matchup against the Washington Nationals in which Steinmetz got the start. He had an uneventful inning featuring two groundouts and a flyout. But that might have been all that management needed to see.

“I expected to come out of the bullpen,” said Steinmetz about his expectations heading into the WBC, given his performance against the Nats. But two days before the match-up with the Dominicans, Josh Zeid, the Israeli pitching coach, delivered the news to Steinmetz.

“He said to just enjoy the moment and the days leading up to it,” Steinmetz said.

Not only was he about to face a line-up that included some of the best hitters on the planet, but there were going to be a lot of eyeballs on him. “A bunch of the veteran guys on the team came over to me to give me some advice on how to just stay calm in front of such a large crowd,” Steinmetz said about his preparation for the start.

With the game on national television and a crowd of more than 33,000 on hand, Steinmetz took the mound.

His first batter was Juan Soto of the San Diego Padres. Now 24 years old, Soto was the MLB Rookie of the Year when he was Steinmetz’s age. His career also already includes a World Series ring, a batting title and multiple All-Star appearances and Silver Sluggers.

After a low pitch for ball one, Steinmetz threw two pitches that each caused Soto to look back at the mound in disbelief. The first was a 94 mph fastball that caught the low inside corner of the strike zone. Soto took the pitch for a called strike. The second was a 94 mph fastball that Soto swung through as it went down the middle. After the count went full, Soto hit a bloop double (caused by the left fielder playing very deep due to Soto’s power).

Next up was Julio Rodriguez. At only 22 years old, Rodriguez signed a contract with the Seattle Mariners that might keep him with the team until 2037 for $470 million. If that seems extreme, he’s coming off of the only rookie season in the history of baseball in which a player had both 25 home runs and 25 stolen bases. He won Rookie of the Year, a Silver Slugger and was an All-Star.

Steinmetz got him to hit a ground ball to first base for the first out of the inning.

Then Manny Machado came to the plate. A six-time All-Star, Machado is also a member of the San Diego Padres and had previously signed the largest contract in the history of North American sports (10 years, $300 million).

In what will surely be a story he tells his grandkids someday, Steinmetz stared down the future Hall-of-Famer, who was more than a decade his senior. He got Machado to foul off each of the first two pitches before throwing a slider that tailed out of the zone and away from Machado’s swing. Sent back to the dugout after three pitches, Machado looked back over his shoulder at Steinmetz before walking away.

After that high note, Steinmetz had some trouble as he walked Boston Red Sox All-Star Rafael Devers on four pitches and gave up an RBI single to Chicago White Sox outfielder Eloy Jiménez. However, Steinmetz recovered by getting Ketel Marte of the Arizona Diamondbacks to ground out and end the inning.

Steinmetz returned to the mound for the second inning and started off by striking out the reigning World Series Most Valuable Player, the Houston Astros’ Jeremy Peña. The finishing pitch was almost identical to the one that got Machado, as Peña’s bat also couldn’t catch the slider as it crossed the plate.

Though he surrendered a four-pitch walk to Jeimer Candelario of the Nationals, he finished his day on a strikeout of Gary Sánchez of the New York Yankees. The two-time All-Star got caught looking on a pitch that just barely caught the bottom of the strike zone.

Steinmetz was all smiles as he left the mound.

“Before the game, I was more excited than nervous,” Steinmetz said, looking back on the amazing experience. “During the game, I was locked in, so it wasn’t any different than a regular outing for me… except I had some more adrenaline. Afterwards, I was proud of what I was able to do and thankful for the opportunity.”

Who knows where his career goes from here, but he certainly showed everyone that the upside that got him drafted two years ago is for real.

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Looking back on Israel’s performance as a whole, they started off the tournament with a game against Nicaragua that both teams knew was going to be crucial. Not only was winning the game a must in terms of having any chance to advance this year, but mainly because of the significance for 2026.

Both teams were aware that their talent level was significantly below that of Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and Venezuela, the other three teams in their group. Taking that into account, Israel’s first game was essentially for fourth place in the group and (because of the format) an automatic bid in the 2026 WBC.

Israel put Dean Kremer on the mound to start the game. A breakout player for the Baltimore Orioles last season, Kremer was the best pitcher on the roster and showed why. He pitched four innings (before being removed for pitch count reasons) and gave up just three singles and a walk while striking out four.

As would be a theme throughout the tournament, the Israeli bats were quiet. Josh Wolf, a 22-year-old Cleveland Guardians prospect, took over and surrendered a run in the fifth, leaving Israel down 1-0. But the duo of Zack Weiss (Los Angeles Angels) and Richard Bleier (Boston Red Sox) were able to combine for five strikeouts and no baserunners over the next three innings.

In the bottom of the eighth, Israel caught a break when Nicaragua brought Jonathan Loáisiga (New York Yankees) in to pitch. With a hit-or-miss reputation, Loáisiga took the mound and it was Israel who had the hits, while Loáisiga’s outing was a miss. A single by Alex Dickerson (free agent) and Ryan Lavarnway (free agent) getting hit by a pitch set the stage for Spencer Horwitz (Toronto Blue Jays system) to smack an RBI single to left to tie the game.

But Israel didn’t stop there. An intentional walk loaded the bases to set up a double play, but Nicaragua could only get one out at home on a fielder’s choice. With two outs and the bases loaded, Garrett Stubbs (Philadelphia Phillies) hit a ground rule double to put Israel ahead 3-1.

Robert Stock (Milwaukee Brewers system) shut the door swiftly in the ninth inning with two strikeouts giving Israel the victory and what would eventually clinch a spot in the 2026 WBC.

Unfortunately, that one great inning for the Israeli lineup was pretty much all she wrote. They failed to get a baserunner the next night against Puerto Rico and were mercy-ruled 10-0 in eight innings. That was followed by another 10-0 (mercy rule, seven innings) result against the Dominican Republic where Israel was held to just one baserunner (a Horwitz single). The final game was of no consequence for either team as Israel had been eliminated and Venezuela had won the group already. Venezuela prevailed 5-1.

Obviously, the bats didn’t exactly come alive for Israel. Nevertheless, they’ve qualified for the next WBC and some of the prospects who played this time are sure to gain some experience by then. If Israel can continue recruiting eligible prospects, they may eventually be able to build a deep enough roster to really compete. Only time will tell.

By Nati Burnside

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