U.S. Rout Puerto Rico to Capture 2017 World Baseball Classic

By Beth Harris, The Associated Press

LOS ANGELES --- The eagle has landed on top. The United States routed Puerto Rico 8-0 to win its first World Baseball Classic in four tries on Wednesday night, March 22, behind six hitless innings from Marcus Stroman.

Marcus Stroman

The Americans planted their eagle statue on the mound in celebration, a blue cap jauntily hanging from one of its large wings.

"It's a different feeling when the USA is on your chest," USA first baseman Eric Hosmer said. "We wanted to get the U.S. back on top of the baseball world, and we did that."

Tournament MVP Stroman, pictured here throwing during the first inning of the final, avenged his shakiness in the Americans' 6-5 loss to Puerto Rico during pool play. The right-hander from the Toronto Blue Jays gave up one hit in six-plus innings, struck out three and walked one on 73 pitches.

For a sport known as America's pastime, the U.S. had struggled since the WBC began in 2006. Twice, the Americans lost in the second round and they went out in the semifinals in 2009.

This time was different.

"These guys were here to do their best," Team general manager Joe Torre said. "The thing I marveled at was how quickly they came together, and Jimmy (Leyland) deserves a lot of that credit. They're just a great group who understood what this event is all about."

Accepting the gleaming silver trophy from Commissioner Rob Manfred, Leyland told the crowd, "This is for the men and women who serve our country."

After the final out, the Americans massed on the mound, hugging and high-fiving while fireworks exploded in center field. Some of them grabbed a U.S. flag and circled the warning track, waving it in celebration with fans in the stands. U.S. catcher Jonathan Lucroy and his teammates are pictured here celebrating the WBC championship.

U.S. Team celebrates

Puerto Rico's fans saluted their team with a standing ovation and the players responded by clapping.

Puerto Rico lost for the first time in eight games after outscoring the opposition 55-26. The U.S. territory finished runner-up for the second time, having lost to the Dominican Republic in the 2013 final.

Tournament MVP Stroman, pictured above throwing during the first inning of the final, avenged his shakiness in the Americans' 6-5 loss to Puerto Rico during pool play. The right-hander from the Toronto Blue Jays gave up one hit in six-plus innings, struck out three and walked one on 73 pitches.

Stroman allowed just three balls past the infield until Angel Pagan's double in the left-field corner leading off the seventh inning, when he departed to a standing ovation, having staked the Americans to a 7-0 lead with the help of Ian Kinsler's two-run homer.

Stroman walked Carlos Beltran leading off the second, but the defense helped him out. Yadier Molina hit the ball to shortstop Brandon Crawford, who started a double play before Stroman struck out Javier Baez to end the inning.

The U.S. pounded out 13 hits and finished with a 6-2 record while making the final for the first time in front of 51,565 at Dodger Stadium. Kinsler homered off an 0-1 pitch from Seth Lugo into left-center field in the third inning, scoring Jonathan Lucroy, who singled leading off. Kinsler is pictured here watching his two-run home run.

Ian Kinsler

Lugo of the New York Mets allowed four runs and five hits, struck out seven and walked four in four innings. The right-hander won his first two starts of the tournament, including in the second round against Stroman and the U.S.

Stroman gave up six consecutive singles in a four-run first inning and took the loss against Puerto Rico last Friday in San Diego.

The Americans made it 4-0 in the fifth inning on RBI singles by Christian Yelich and Andrew McCutchen.

Fans wore flags of both countries as capes and decorated their faces in team colors. Puerto Rico boosters pounded cowbells, tooted horns and blew whistles early on before their team fell behind 4-0.

Fans were on their feet chanting "U-S-A" when the Americans loaded the bases in the seventh inning with two outs. They were rewarded with Crawford's two-run single that chased J.C. Romero, extending the lead to 6-0.

The U.S. added on another run on Giancarlo Stanton's RBI single off Hiram Burgos past diving shortstop Francisco Lindor.

The Americans defeated two-time champion Japan, while Puerto RIco beat the Netherlands to reach the final.

Yet when it came to his baseball allegiance growing up, nationality mattered at least as much as geography.

Photographs by Jae C. Hong and Mark J. Terrill, Associated Press Photographs

US Edges Japan 2-1, Advances to WBC Championship Game

By Greg Beacham, Associated Press Sports Writer

LOS ANGELES --- Like Gregerson's final strike breezed past Nobuhiro Matsuda, and the rain-drenched American players celebrated on the field while a soaked crowd roared through the evening mist.

A daylong downpour couldn't dampen this resilient United States club or its fans, who will finally get to root for the home team in a World Baseball Classic championship game.

Adam Jones

Brandon Crawford scored the tiebreaking run when Matsuda bobbled Adam Jones' grounder to third in the eighth inning, and the United States reached the WBC final for the first time by beating Japan 2-1 on Tuesday night, March 21, at rainy Dodger Stadium. Jones is pictured here driving in the decisive run.

Andrew McCutchen drove in an early run for the U.S., which will play Puerto Rico for the title Wednesday night. Puerto Rico edged the Netherlands 4-3 in 11 innings on Monday.

"It means a heck of a lot," said McCutchen, the Pittsburgh Pirates slugger. "We've got a great group of guys on this team who have dedicated this time to be able to try and win some ballgames. Sacrifices had to be made, and there are no egos when that door opens. That's what's good about this team. Everybody is a superstar on this team. There are no egos."

The World Baseball Classic final has been played in the United States in each of its four editions, but the home team had never been able to play America's pastime on what has become its biggest international stage. The U.S. only reached the semifinals once before, in 2009.

This appearance by the United States in the championship game has been long awaited. The Americans were eliminated in the second round on a tiebreaker in 2006. They reached the semifinals in 2009 but were beaten by Japan at Dodger Stadium as three future major league pitchers --- Daisuke Matsuzaka, Masahiro Tanaka and Yu Darvish --- helped keep them in check. In 2013, they lost back-to-back games, to the Dominican Republic and to Puerto Rico, and were eliminated in the second round.

While manager Jim Leyland's current roster is missing Clayton Kershaw, Mike Trout and many other American superstars, the All-Star-laden group that decided to participate has won two straight elimination games to earn a chance for the U.S.' first crown.

"Coming into this event, I didn't really want to talk about the fact that the United States has never won it (and) they've never gone to the finals," Leyland said. "I didn't think that was a big deal. I wanted this, for the players, to be a memory. I've talked a lot about it. Make a memory. Hopefully it's a real good one, regardless of the results (Wednesday). I know it is for me. It's been an absolute honor."

Andrew McCutchen><p>

To reach the final, the Americans had to persevere through an uncharacteristic Los Angeles rain that drenched the playing field several hours before game time. They also had to beat a gifted Japanese team at its own game: pitching, defense and small ball.<p>
Ryosuke Kikuchi hit a tying homer off reliever Nate Jones in the sixth inning for Japan, but the two-time WBC champions were twice let down by their normally sturdy defense.<p>

McCutchen, pictured here, opened the scoring with an RBI single in the fourth inning moments after Kikuchi's two-base error at second base. In the eighth inning, Crawford likely would have been out at the plate on Jones' innocent grounder, but Matsuda didn't field it cleanly and had to throw to first.<p>

 To reach the final, the Americans had to persevere through an uncharacteristic Los Angeles rain that drenched the playing field several hours before game time. They also had to beat a gifted Japanese team at its own game: pitching, defense and small ball.

Ryosuke Kikuchi hit a tying homer off reliever Nate Jones in the sixth inning for Japan, but the two-time WBC champions were twice let down by their normally sturdy defense.

McCutchen, pictured here, opened the scoring with an RBI single in the fourth inning moments after Kikuchi's two-base error at second base. In the eighth inning, Crawford likely would have been out at the plate on Jones' innocent grounder, but Matsuda didn't field it cleanly and had to throw to first.

"Well, two plays," Japan manager Hiroki Kokubo said through a translator. "Honestly, there were some mistakes, and then a run was scored. ... The team that makes mistakes will lose. That's what it means. I cannot blame them, though, for doing that."

Japan won the first two WBC tournaments before losing in the 2013 semifinals, and Kokubo's current team was unbeaten in this event.

"The players really did their very best," Kokubo said. "I really appreciate it. It's do-or-die, one semifinal."

Tanner Roark pitched four scoreless innings of two-hit ball before Leyland pulled him on the instructions of the Washington Nationals, who limited Roark to 50 pitches because he hadn't faced live hitters in nine days.

"I felt good enough to stay out there," said Roark, pictured here throwing during the first inning of the semifinal against Japan.

Gregerson, the Americans' sixth reliever, worked a perfect ninth inning after Pat Neshek escaped a two-on jam in the eighth inning.

Tanner Roark

Leyland is confident he will have a capable bullpen Wednesday after receiving texts from various pitching coaches around the majors on the status of their players. Toronto's Marcus Stroman, the starter, is free to reach the WBC's 95-pitch limit, Leyland confirmed.

Although the crowd of 33,462 strongly favored the team with five California natives in the starting lineup, thousands of Japanese fans showed up early and chanted throughout the game, accompanied by the brass band in the left-field bleachers.

The persistent drizzle Tuesday night did little to dampen the spirit of the Japanese fans. They relentlessly clapped their thunder sticks, and a band stationed in the left-field pavilion, with drums and horns, gave the stadium a Friday night lights feel.

Tomoyuki Sugano, the Yomiuri Giants ace with a seven-pitch repertoire, tossed six innings of three-hit ball for Japan, striking out six and yielding only one unearned run.

Still, the United States did little to bother the Japanese right-hander Tomoyuki Sugano, whose delivery and diverse repertoire mirrored those of Tanaka, the Yankees' ace. He allowed three singles and walked one in six innings.

Japan reliever Kodai Senga struck out the first four hitters he faced: the All-Stars Eric Hosmer, McCutchen, Buster Posey and Giancarlo Stanton. But Crawford singled with one out in the eighth and raced to third when Ian KInsler doubled off the left-center-field wall.

Japan brought its infield in and got what it wanted, a slow dribble to third by Adam Jones. But Matsuda bobbled the ball, and by the time he picked it up, the only play he had was at first. Senga struck out Yelich to end the inning, but the damage had been done.

Photographs by Kelvin Kuo, USA Today Sports, via Reuters; Robert Hanashiro, USA TODAY Sports; and Associated Press Photo

United States' Rally Falls Just Short Against Puerto Rico in W.B.C.

By The Associated Press

SAN DIEGO --- Yadier Molina and Puerto Rico are moving on to the World Baseball Classic semifinals after scoring four runs in the first inning and then holding on for a wild 6-5 win against the United States on Friday night, March 17.

Puerto Rico players

When Edwin Diaz struck out Josh Harrison to end the game with Brandon Crawford standing on third base, players raced out of the Puerto Rico dugout to join the celebration on the infield. After a few minutes in the clubhouse, the team returned to the field waving small flags and ran over to celebrate with a large group of fans on the first-base side who were chanting, beating drums, rattling noisemakers and waving flags.

"We are happy for the job all the guys have done," Carlos Beltran said. "I think the boys have done a good job playing for their country. We're happy for our country and for our people. They are very proud of us and we hope to God we finish the mission."

Puerto Rico advanced to the championship round for the second straight W.B.C. It reached the championship game in 2013 before losing to the Dominican Republic. Pictured here are Puerto Rico players rushing out of the dugout after the final out of their win against the United States on Friday.

By clinching Pool F with a day to go, Puerto Rico (2-0 will play the Netherlands on Monday night at Dodger Stadium.

The other semifinal spot from Pool F will go to the winner of Saturday night's game between the United States (1-1 and the Dominican Republic (1-1). That team will play Japan on Tuesday night.

With most of the 32,463 fans on their feet and chanting in the top of the ninth, a rally by the U.S. fell just short. Brandon Crawford hit a two-run triple to the left-center gap off Edwin Diaz with two out to pull the Americans within a run. Diaz then struck out Josh Harrison to end it and send the Puerto Ricans into a wild celebration on the infield.

Puerto Rico can sweep the pool when it plays Venezuela (0-2) on Saturday afternoon. Puerto Rico beat the Dominican Republic, 3-1, on Tuesday night.

"They are a very good team and they are doing a lot of things right," said U.S. manager Jim Leyland. "You tip your hat to them."

Puerto Rico took a 4-0 lead on six straight singles and a sacrifice fly in the first inning off Marcus Stroman.

The United States pulled to 4-3 on Eric Hosmer's run-scoring single in the second and then impressive homers by Buster Posey leading off the fifth and by Adam Jones with one out in the sixth inning, both off starter Seth Lugo. Posey's second homer of the tourney went an estimated 398 feet to left-center. Jones homered for the second time in two games.

Carlos Correa

Puerto Rico regained a cushion in the sixth on a two-run, two-base, two-out error by third baseman Nolan Arenado, who short-hopped a throw to first after fielding a grounder by Angel Pagan that took a high bounce.

Puerto Rico's leadoff batter, Javier Baez, was hit by a pitch from Mychal Givens and stole second base. Andrew Miller came on and walked Eddie Rosario. With T.J. Rivera batting, Baez and Rosario pulled a double steal. Rivera and pinch-hitter Kike Hernandez struck out. Pagan's grounder took a wicked hop and Arenado fielded it above his shoulders. He got set, but his throw skipped past Hosmer, and Baez and Rosario scored.

"That is just part of the game," Leyland said. "That is the human element of it. He is a great third baseman. I have no problem whatsoever with that."

Carlos Correa, Carlos Beltran and Molino had run-scoring singles in Puerto Rico's opening onslaught. Stroman finally got an out when Rosario hit a sacrifice fly to make it 4-0. Molina tried taking third on the play but overran the tag and was tagged out. Stroman got Rivera to fly out to right field to end it. Correa is pictured here beating a tag by Brandon Crawford while stealing second base.

Lugo allowed three runs and five hits in five and two and walked one.

Stroman allowed four runs and eight hits in four and two-thirds innings, struck out two and walked one.

Photographs by Denis Poroy, Getty Images; and Gregory Bull, The Associated Press

U.S. Defeats Venezuela on Homers by Adam Jones and Eric Hosmer

By The Associated Press

SAN DIEGO --- The hometown favorite Adam Jones hit a tying home run leading off the eighth inning, and Eric Hosmer added a two-run shot three batters later as the United States rallied to beat Venezuela, 4-2, on Wednesday night, March 15, in the second round of the World Baseball Classic.

Eric Hosmer

After being shut down for the first five innings by the Seattle Mariners ace Felix Hernandez, the Americans broke through against Venezuela's bullpen.

Hosmer, the most valuable player of the 2016 All-Star Game at Petco Park, singled leading off the seventh inning and scored on Jonathan Lucroy's sacrifice fly. Hosmer is pictured here hitting his two-run homer in the eighth inning.

Hector Rondon (0-1) started the eighth for Venezuela, and Jones, who played at Morse High School about eight miles east of Petco park, homered to right-center to tie it at 2-2. Christian Yelich singled, and Nolan Arenado flied out before Hosmer muscled a shot an estimated 418 feet to right-center for the lead.

Hosmer hit a solo homer and a run-scoring single in the American League's 4-2 win at the 2016 All-Star Game.

Luke Gregerson of the Houston Astros, who played his first five major league seasons with the San Diego Padres, pitched the ninth inning for the save.

Pat Neshek (1-0), who had a brief stint with the Padres in 2011, worked the eighth inning for the win.

Hernandez scattered three singles, struck out three and walked none.

Hernandez made it through two heart-stopping moments in the first inning. He appeared to have tweaked something in his right leg while fielding Jones's swinging bunt and throwing him out for the second out. After being checked by a trainer and throwing two warm-up pitches, Hernandez stayed in the game. Yelich then hit a comebacker that knocked Hernandez's glove off. With a befuddled look on his face, the pitcher picked up the ball and threw Yelich out to end the inning.

The Americans threatened only once against Hernandez and failed to come through. He allowed three straight singles --- to Lucroy, Alex Bregman and Ian Kinsler --- with one out in the third inning before Jones grounded into a double play.

Rougned Odor homered with two outs in the seventh inning for a 2-0 lead for Venezuela, which had beaten Italy, 4-3, in a tiebreaker game in Guadalajara, Mexico, on Monday night to advance out of Pool D.

Odor homered to right off David Robertson. Knowing it was gone, Odor, the Texas Rangers' second baseman, clapped his hands as he broke out of the batter's box. On Monday night, he hit a high drive to left-center and stood and watched as it bounced off the top of the wall and back into play for a go-ahead R.B.I. single in the ninth inning.

Ender Inciarte had a sacrifice fly in the third inning for Venezuela.

Photograph by Denis Poroy, Getty Images

Jim Leyland's Managing Career Is Over After Leading USA to WBC Title

By A.J. Perez, USA TODAY.com

Jim Leyland donned a uniform for the first time in more than three years and, after just two weeks, he vowed --- again --- his managing days were done minutes after he led Team USA to an 8-0 victory over Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic championship.

Jim Leyland

"I'm going to stay retired," Leyland told reporters after Team USA claimed its first WBC title at Dodger Stadium late Wednesday night, March 22. "That I can promise you."

Leyland, 72, retired as a manager in 2013 after his eighth season with the Detroit Tigers and 22nd season overall as a MLB manager. He has served as a special assistant to Tigers general manager Al Avila since.

Leyland, never one to hide his emotions, dedicated Team USA's title to military service members.

"I had the honor of managing for our country, you know, the coaches having the honor of coaching for our country, the players have the honor of playing for our country, but this is really about the men and women that serve our country," Leyland said. "That's who this is for."

Leyland's pre-tournament task was finding a team that, well, actually wanted to represent the U.S. and match other countries' intensity in the WBC.

"I don't mean this to sound wrong, but up until this point, the other countries were probably into this event a little bit more than the United States," Leyland said. "But we had players that wanted to be here, and that's the players you want."

Detroit Tigers second baseman Ian KInsler was among those Leyland reached out to in the months before the WBC.

"Just being asked to play on this team is a huge compliment," Kinsler told the Detroit Free Press. "To be able to wear this jersey and be part of something like this, it's a lot of fun and it's a great experience and it was a very easy decision."

Photograph by Robert Hanashiro, USA TODAY Sports

With Talent From Two Small Islands, the Netherlands Was a WBC Favorite

By Ken Belson, The New York Times

SEOUL, South Korea --- Stijn van der Meer can still hardly believe his good fortune. One of the best baseball players to come out of the soccer-crazed nation of the Netherlands, van der Meer played shortstop at Lamar University in Division 1 and was drafted by the Houston Astros in the 34th round.

Stijn Van Der Meer

But none of that prepared the affable and lanky 23-year-old for playing alongside some of the best infielders in the game with Team Netherlands at the World Baseball Classic. Yet there he was at a recent workout, fielding ground balls with three of the top shortstops in the major leagues: Xander Bogaerts, who has won two Silver Slugger awards with the Red Sox; Didi Gregorius, who replaced Derek Jeter on the Yankees, and Andrelton Simmons of the Angels, who has two Gold Gloves awards.

"It's just awesome: I'm between superstars," said van der Meer, who started playing baseball when he was 5 in Rosmalen, a hotbed of Dutch baseball. "We pretty much have a dream team of infielders."

The major league firepower is a primary reason Team Netherlands is the favorite to win the W.B.C.'s Pool A --- which includes Taiwan, Israel and host South Korea --- and potentially improve on its fourth-place finish in 2013. While most squads in the 16-team tournament struggle to recruit more than a few players from the majors, the Netherlands' roster is peppered with talented young players from two of its former colonies, Aruba and Curacao.

On Tuesday, March 7, the Netherlands got off to a good start in group play by beating South Korea, 5-0. That put them in good position to advance alongside surprising Israel, which won its second game of the tournament, 15-7, over Taiwan.

In addition to its wealth of talent, Team Netherlands is one of the most cohesive squads in the tournament because many of its best players grew up together on the two islands, which have a combined population of just 250,000. Their manager, Hensley Meulens (known as "Bam Bam"), the first player from Curacao to make it to the majors, tutored many of those currently on his roster, who consider him a godfather of sorts. "I've probably given clinics to all of them over the last 25 years, and now they are helping me give clinics to little kids in the community," said Meulens, who broke in with the Yankees in 1989. "I opened up the door, but these guys, you know, they've had some great years, and people look up to them."

Hensley Meulens

In addition to Bogaerts, Gregorius and Simmons, Meulens also has outfielder Jurickson Profar of the Texas Rangers, who hit a home run in the opener, the brothers Jonathan and Sharlon Schoop of the Orioles' organization, and Wladimir Balentien, who holds the season home run record in Japan. Meulens' team would have been stronger if two other players, Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen and Roger Bernadina, a fleet-footed outfielder who spent seven seasons in the major leagues before heading to South Korea, were on the roster.

Still, unlike the teams from, say, the Dominican Republic or Japan, Team Netherlands clearly has a polyglot roster. A handful of players, like van der Meer and Lars Huijer, are 100 percent Dutch and have played in the eight-team Dutch league, Koninklijke Nederlandse Baseball. Other Dutch players, like Rick van den Hurk, who started Tuesday's game, played in M.L.B. before joining teams in Japan. Still others, like Kalian Sams, who was born in The Hague, have bounced around the minor leagues.

Because of the close ties between Aruba, Curacao and the Netherlands, which handles the defense and foreign affairs for the islands, a few players, including Gregorius, were born in Amsterdam but grew up in Curacao.

The chatter on the bench reflects the team's diversity. During an exhibition game against a team representing the South Korean Army, the players from the Netherlands spoke in Dutch, while those from the islands talked in Papiamentu, a centuries-old Creole language influenced by African slaves, Spanish and Portuguese merchants and Dutch colonists. Meulens said he spoke five languages: English, Dutch, Spanish, Papiamento and Japanese. (He played three years in Japan.)

The players from Aruba and Curacao also speak Dutch but often communicated with the European players in English. "I'm trying to understand what they're saying, but it's hard," van der Meer said of the islanders.

Lody Embrechts

Despite its ties to the talent-laden islands, baseball remains a niche sport in the Netherlands, where soccer is by far the most popular, followed by cycling, field hockey, speed skating and volleyball. The Dutch national baseball team, the leader in European championships, did make waves, though, when it won the Baseball World Cup in 2011.

Still, following the sport and playing it are separate things, said Lody Embrechts, the Dutch ambassador to South Korea, pictured here. Last week, he practiced tossing a ball to Meulens on the sidelines at the Gocheok Sky Dome in preparation for throwing out the first pitch before Tuesday's game. After some brief instruction and a few throws, the ambassador acknowledged that it was the first time he had ever thrown a baseball. The humbling experience made him appreciate what the players from Aruba and Curacao achieved. "In Aruba, you get a bat when you are 5 years old," he said. "In the Netherlands, you get a ball and start kicking it around."

The surplus of talent has created a nice quandary for Meulens. Simmons and Gregorius will rotate between shortstop and designated hitter, while Bogaerts will play third base to ensure he is in the lineup every game. Profar will play in the outfield, where the Rangers expect to play him during the season, and Jonathan Schoop will play second base, his natural position.

"We've been playing together since a young age, so it's nice to experience this together," Gregorius said. "There's no rivalry, the team is united, we have a great chemistry."

Still, the number of major leaguers in the lineup means less proven players like van der Meer may not see much action--- though he is not complaining.

"I'd rather be here any day than in spring training," said Van der Meer, who hit .301 in rookie ball last season. "The coach said he likes my left-handed bat, but I know I'm not going to be a defensive replacement. It's a lot of fun."

Photographs by Chang W. Lee, The New York Times

Israel's Unlikely Path to the World Baseball Classic

By Martin Rogers, USA TODAY Sports

The written history of Israeli baseball would be a pretty small book, but as the World Baseball Classic got ready to begin on March 6, the tournament's biggest underdog was motivated to provide one of its best story lines.

Israel's Team

Team Israel took part in the 16-team field for the first time and was not expected to last too long, having been placed with South Korea, Taiwan and the Netherlands in Pool A with a squad that did not include a player currently on the 40-man roster of a major-league team.

However, remarkable upsets are part of what we love about the game, and if the Israel team could display the same level of resiliency that it took just to put the group together, then it could have a fighting chance.

"We had to hunt far and wide and find the best guys who could potentially be eligible," Peter Kurz, president of the Israel Association of Baseball, told USA TODAY Sports. Eight of the players have had some major-league experience, with virtually all being Americans of Jewish heritage.

Kurz scoured the country, using a baseball blog that charts the progress of Jewish players and relying on word of mouth. WBC regulations dictate that a player can participate if they are eligible to apply for citizenship of that country. Israeli law allows all Jews to receive automatic citizenship.

Once Kurz had his list of candidates, a widespread collection of information began, with faxes and emails sent to WBC chiefs including parental birth certificates, evidence of bar and bat mitzvahs or anything else needed to verify the authenticity of the squad's claim to Israeli eligibility.

World Baseball Classic logo

"In some cases it was easy," Kurz said. "In others, we had elderly family members trying to track down documents. It was a process." Then, the team had to actually do the business of qualifying, having lost in the final preliminary stage ahead of the 2013 tournament. There was no mistake this time, with Israel outlasting Brazil, Pakistan and Great Britain to reach the final field.

"Playing for Israel is the last thing I thought I would be doing," Ty Kelly, a utility player in the New York Mets farm system, said. "And there is nothing I would rather be doing. It really does have a deep meaning."

Kelly was part of a group of players to visit Israel in January on a promotional tour aimed at increasing baseball awareness and boosting the number of players from its current level of around 1,000.

"When we went to Israel we saw the pride they have in their country," Kelly added. "To be able to give the people another outlet to express that pride, by supporting a team in a sport that Israel has never been known for, it just feels really cool."

The sport's national governing body has made moves to ensure the sport is integrated across different ethnicities and is confident that the positive coverage provided by the WBC will give an extra boost.

While Israel was considered the biggest long shot out of the 16 teams, it had some names that will be familiar to baseball followers, including 2009 All-Star pitcher Jason Marquis and Ike Davis, who hit 32 homers for the Mets in 2012.

Ryan Lavarnway, a catcher in the Oakland A's system, insisted no team will have a closer bond than Israel.

"In America as a Jew are you a minority but especially in the game of baseball," Lavarnway told the BBC. "We have so much shared experience and understanding that hardship road of the ups and downs of baseball. It has really bonded us as a team."

Photographs by Sebastian Scheiner, The Associated Press; and USA TODAY

Colorado Rockies Cheering Jerry Weinstein's WBC From Afar

Double-A Hartford manager piloting Israel's surprising run in Classic

By Tyler Maun, MiLB.com

SCOTTSDALE, Arizona --- Jerry Weinstein, the Double-A Hartford Yard Goats manager, took a different route through Spring Training this year, half a world away managing the upstart Israel national team in the 2017 World Baseball Classic. Weinstein, pictured here, returned to a managerial role in the Rockies organization for the first time since 2011.

Jerry Weinstein

"What I keep saying about Jerry is you have to be a pretty good baseball man to be adding to your resume at 73 years old," said Rockies senior director of player development Zach Wilson. "For him to manage Team Israel, it's like a topper to an unbelievable career. We supported him, and we pushed him, 'Hey man, this something you've got to do. We'll figure it out here.'"

As Minor Leaguers went to work on Monday, March 13, Wilson spoke from the Rockies' executive offices at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick, just hours after Israel suffered its first loss in the Classic. After rolling through pool play with an unbeaten record that included wins over host Korea and a powerhouse Netherlands squad, the 2017 tournament's Cinderella team took down Cuba in its second-round opener before falling 12-2 in a rematch with the Dutch in a game that started at 3 a.m. Arizona time Monday morning.

A longtime coach at the collegiate level, Weinstein joined the Rockies organization in 2007 when he took over as manager of Class A Advanced Modesto. Following five seasons in that role, Weinstein was Colorado's big league catching coach from 2012-13 and the Rockies' offensive coordinator in 2014. The last two seasons saw him serve as Modesto's supervisor of development. In April, he is back in charge in Hartford, as shown here wearing his Yard Goats uniform.

Weinstein coached a United States team in the 2005 Maccabiah Games, where he established contacts in the Israeli baseball community. Seven years later, in 2012, he was supposed to manage Israel's first WBC team, but big league coaching conflicts prevented his involvement. The 2017 Classic provided an opportunity the baseball lifer didn't want to miss again.

Jerry Weinstein

A couple great things about Jerry: number one, he's still looking to learn and evolve at his age, even with all the experience," Wilson said. "Jerry's one of these guys, he's going to forget more about baseball than I'm ever going to know. That's something I appreciate about him and we all appreciate about him. The other thing that's great about Jerry is he's a servant-leader. He wants to do what's right by the organization. He's been here so long now, he's neck-deep in our culture, and he knows how to spread that. That's an important part, particularly at that level, of what he's going to do."

Weinstein isn't the only member of the Rockies organization with the Israeli club. Class A Advanced Lancaster trainer Josh Guterman is lending his services on Weinstein's Team Israel staff. Infielder Scott Burcham laced the go-ahead hit in extra innings that gave Israel a 2-1 win over South Korea in the teams' pool play-opening matchup, and right-hander Troy Neiman is a member of Israel's bullpen. Australian catcher Robbie Perkins saw action in one game for his home country before they were eliminated in pool play.

"We're proud of Jerry, and we're excited for him and really that whole team and all of our guys who are playing in the WBC," Wilson said. "They've represented very well so far."

Weinstein and Burcham congratulations

The Rockies also loaned big league stars Nolan Arenado and Carlos Gonzalez to play for the United States and Venezuela, respectively. "When you have an opportunity to represent your country and to play on a stage like that, if that's something guys want to do, we're for it," Wilson said. "Scotty Burcham, who's the shortstop for Team Israel, the guy played in (Class A) Asheville last year. I mean, what a thrill for him. To do this now, to represent Israel, that's great. It's no different than we did with (No. 11 Rockies prospect) Tommy Murphy in the 2015 Pan-Am Games a few years ago."

"When you can play in that type of environment," said Wilson, "in that type of pressure, especially with guys who are closer to the big leagues, it can only help them develop. You can't replicate real pressure-type situations where people are counting on you to win baseball games. When they're able to do that on stages like that, it can only benefit them."

With one game left in Round 2, Israel's fate remained to be decided. Two teams among Israel, Cuba, Japan and the Netherlands advanced to the WBC semifinals at Dodger Stadium.

Weinstein's team -- comprised mainly of American players with Jewish heritage -- took on world No. 1 Japan on Wednesday night local time in Tokyo -- the same 3 a.m. Arizona start time with which the Rockies have become quite familiar.

"What's killing me right now with Jerry is I get the 2:15 a.m. text messages because it's like 16 and a half (ahead), the next day over there," Wilson joked. "Other than that, it's been awesome to see him doing what he's doing."

Photographs by Israel baseball team/Podcast; Hartford Yard Goats; and Getty Images

Israel Upsets South Korea in 10 Innings to Open the WBC

By The Associated Press; and Sports Illustrated/SI.com

SEOUL, South Korea --- Scott Burcham's run-scoring infield single in the 10th inning led Israel to a 2-1 upset over South Korea on Monday, March 6, in the World Baseball Classic opener.

Nate Freiman

Tyler Krieger's bases-loaded walk from Won-Jun Chang forced home Nate Freiman with a second-inning run, but South Korea tied the score in the fifth on Seo Geong-chan's RBI single against Jeremy Bleich, which scored Kim Jae-ho. Freiman is pictured here celebrating with teammates after scoring in the second inning.

The victory is Israel's first ever in the WBC (in its first ever tournament, no less) and puts Korea at risk of a second straight first-round exit as group play got underway in the 2017 edition. It's an especially impressive showing for a team that started Jason Marquis in its first game, featured the likes of Ike Davis and Sam Fuld in the Israel lineup, doesn't have a single major league player on its roster and came into the WBC as a long shot.

Israel took the early advantage in the second inning, loading the bases on two walks and a double and pushing across its first run on a free pass by Tyler Krieger, but was unable to get anything more, leaving the sacks filled on a strikeout by Scott Burcham and a groundout by Fuld. Korea answered in the fifth inning, putting two runners on via a walk and a hit-by-pitch and driving one in on a one-out RBI single by Geonchang Seo, although like Israel, Korea wasn't able to do more damage.

Ike Davis began the go-ahead rally with a one-out walk in the 10th inning off Chang-Yong Lim and took third on Ryan Lavarnway's single. Tyler Krieger popped out on a bunt and Burcham, a 23-year-old in the Colorado Rockies' organization, hit a three-hopper up the middle that Geon-Chang Seo gloved with a sliding stop. The second baseman had no play as pinch runner Mike Meyers scored on the infield hit.

Winning pitcher Josh Zeid struck out two in a perfect 10th. Starter Jason Marquis allowed two hits in three scoreless innings.

With the win, Israel jumped to the top of Pool A, which also consists of Chinese Taipei and the Netherlands. The lowest-ranked team in the tournament and one that only made it in after winning the final qualifier in September against teams of Great Britain, Pakistan and Brazil), Israel now has a viable path to the second round if it can win another game. Korea, meanwhile, likely needs to win both of its remaining group play games to avoid another early exit.

First-round games were played in Miami, Tokyo and Guadalajara, Mexico. Second-round games were in San Diego and Tokyo, while the championship round was played at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles from March 20-22.

Photograph by The Associated Press

Mike Piazza Focused on Growing Baseball in Italy

By Mark Newman, MLB.com

NEW YORK --- What a year 2016 has been for Mike Piazza. The former catcher was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, and that was shortly after he bought a majority stake in the Italian soccer club A.C. Reggiana 1919 of the Lega Pro league.

Poster - Mike Piazza

His attention on Thursday night, December 8, his attention was on 2017, with the fourth installment of the World Baseball Classic and an overall effort to keep growing baseball at the grassroots level in Italy. Piazza, who returned as a coach for Team Italy in the event in March, was the featured guest of honor at the Italian American Baseball Family Launch and Dinner at Carmine's in Brooklyn. Pictured here is the Mike Piazza Baseball Hall of Fame poster.

Piazza was there along with his former Mets battery mate John Franco, the Pirates Francisco Cervelli, Royals catcher Drew Butera, former Major Leaguer Frank Catalanotto, free agent first baseman/outfielder Chris Colabello and others for the fundraiser, which helps youth baseball and softball academies in Italy and supports the Italian Baseball League.

"We're just trying to get some support for the Italian Baseball Federation and to grow the game in Italy, to continue to grow it, and just give the national team opportunities to travel abroad to compete," Piazza said. "But aside from the money raised, particularly we just want to raise awareness that there is a foothold in baseball in Italy. It's tough, because to compete in Europe against the culture there, obviously there are cultural differences, but baseball is slowly starting to grow in popularity and we just want to keep that movement growing."

Italy reached the second round of the World Baseball Classic in 2013, shocking Mexico with a ninth-inning comeback and beating Canada by the mercy rule. In the 2017 WBC, Italy was grouped with host Mexico, Puerto Rico and Venezuela in a tough Pool D Bracket at Estadio de Beisbol Charros de Jalisco from March 9-12. Piazza said Italy is "not going to sneak up on people anymore, though, so we've got to be on our game."

"The guys who come out to play, some of them have done very well, some of them have been noticed by other teams. It's a great opportunity, especially for the young guys to come out and showcase their talent. Who knows? If you have an opportunity to advance your career, so much the better."

Those in attendance on Thursday talked about the rich history of Italian Americans in Major League Baseball: the DiMaggios, Yogi Berra, Tony Lazzeri, Ernie Lombardi, Joe Torre, Phil Rizzuto, the many who blazed a trail and a legacy that now reaches back to Italy to foster baseball there.

Italia coach

"We have a great history of Italian Americans," Franco said, "and I think they'd be very proud to see the guys here representing Italian Americans and trying to bring Italian baseball to the forefront and make it a better game for Team Italy."

Franco was Italy's pitching coach in the first World Baseball Classic in 2006, and he remembers: "My first year we had a difficult bracket, we were in the same bracket as Dominican Republic and Venezuela. We beat Australia. But they proved in the last World Baseball Classic that they can compete with the big guys, and they're just getting better and better. The style of baseball is getting better each time."

Cervelli said of playing for Team Italy in 2017: "They gave me an opportunity in 2009, that opened a door to the big leagues, and I think I've got to do it again. It's great people. I had an opportunity to go to Venezuela, too, but this is where I want to be." Pictured here are Italia pitching coach Bill Holmberg, and Piazza, the hitting coach.

For Cervelli, that will mean taking a break from Pirates camp. He recently signed a contract that keeps him with Pittsburgh through 2019. "I feel like it's a place where I want to stay for the rest of my career," Cervelli said. "I had the best school in the world with the Yankees for 12 years, but now I'm in a place where I really want to be."

Butera will be playing for Italy again, and he said to not be surprised if Italy shocks some people again, despite a tough pool.

"We're not just here as a goodwill cause," he said. "We have a lot of great players and we're here to compete and win the whole thing."

Photographs by Poster Hall of Fame 2016, New York Mets; and MG-Old Managency/FIBS

Italy's Ninth-Inning Rally Stuns Mexico at World Baseball Classic

The Associated Press

John Andreoli capped Italy's five-run rally in the bottom of the ninth inning with a two-run single, lifting his team to a 10-9 victory over Mexico on Thursday night, March 9, in Guadalajara in the first game in Pool D at the World Baseball Classic.

Italian players

Francisco Cervelli sparked Italy's big inning with a leadoff double against Roberto Osuna. Chris Colabello followed with a double, advancing pinch-runner Sebastian Poma to third base. Alex Liddi then hit a two-run double to make it 9-7. Drew Butera reached on an error, and Drew Maggi walked to load the bases. Italian players are pictured here after scoring five runs in the bottom of the ninth to overtake Mexico.

Oliver Perez came in for Mexico and allowed a run-scoring single to Brandon Nimmo to make it 9-8 before Andreoli's clutch hit.

"For some reason, anytime Italy wins, it's a big surprise," said the Italian manager Marco Mazzieri. "It's been like that for eight years now. The only ones that are not surprised, it's these guys, because they're playing to win. They're playing to win every pitch. And sometimes, we're able to make it, sometimes, we don't make it. But they play to win, and they showed it tonight."

"We play until the last out --- it's something we talked about from long before the tournament started," Colabello said. "One of the things we have to do is we have to grind. We might not be as talented as other teams, but I think it's really important that we play every pitch. We play every inning, we play every out. And I think no matter what the scoreboard says, it's our responsibility to go out every day and give our best at-bats."

Mexico will try to get its first win of the tournament on Saturday against Puerto Rico.

"Next game is going to be like a Game 7 of the World Series," said Mexico Manager Edgar Gonzalez. "We cannot change the outcome, but we're going to try to try to stay positive. The next game is the most important game for us, and I know that this team is not going to bow down."

Photograph by Jose Mendez, European Pressphoto Agency

Japan Ends Israel's Surprising Run at the World Baseball Classic

By Ken Belson, The New York Times

After more than a week of defying expectations by winning its first four games at the World Baseball Classic, Israel had just one expectation left. Beat Japan on Wednesday, March 15, or head home.

Tyler Krieger

Japan and the Netherlands both had two wins in their four- team pool, and Israel, at 1-1, needed to beat the host in Tokyo to force a tiebreaker to determine which two teams would advance to the semifinal round in Los Angeles. Pictured here, Israel's Tyler Krieger reacted after striking out against Japan in a WBC game in Tokyo.

After hanging with the Japanese for the first half of the game, Israel, an underdog throughout the tournament, could not overcome its most formidable opponent yet, falling, 8-3.

With the win, Japan moves on to the semifinal round for the fourth consecutive time, having won the tournament in 2006 and 2009. The Netherlands will play in the semifinals for the second time, after finishing fourth in 2013. They will face the top two finishers from the pool playing in San Diego, which consisted of the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, the United States and Venezuela. Puerto Rico beat the Dominican Republic, 3-1, on March 14, in the first game of the pool.

Israel, meanwhile, left Japan having figured out how to assemble a team that can compete internationally: Recruit Jewish players with minor league and major league experience. Though the best Jewish players, like Ryan Braun and Ian Kinsler, did not join the team, Israel had enough talent to beat teams from Cuba, the Netherlands, South Korea and Taiwan.

On Wednesday, March 15, though, Israel met its match. The first five innings were a pitcher's duel between two relievers turned into starters for this game. Josh Zeid for Israel and Kodai Senga for Japan. Sam Fuld, Israel's leadoff hitter, started the game with a single, but was quickly erased on a double play. Israel did not get another hit until the sixth inning.

Zeid gave up four hits, all singles over four scoreless innings before departing after throwing 67 pitches. He was relieved in the fifth inning by Dylan Axelrod, who got three straight outs.

But in the sixth inning, Japan blew the game open. The cleanup hitter Yoshitomo Tsutsugoh hit a 1-0 pitch to center field for a home run. Axelrod then gave up a walk and a single before being replaced by Zach Thornton.

After inducing a groundout, Thornton gave up a long double to third baseman Nobuhiro Matsuda. Japan scored two more runs on a dribbler by Seiji Koayashi and an infield hit by Ryosuke Kikuchi. Another reliever, Alex Katz, hit Norichika Aoki with his first pitch to drive in another run.

Japan added three more rns in the eighth inning.

Israel did not go quietly. In the top of the ninth inning, Fuld led off with a walk and advanced on a bloop single by Ty Kelly. Ike Davis then hit a run-scoring single to end the shutout. Zach Borenstein reached base on an error before Ryan Lavarnway hit a double to drive in two more runs. But Krieger took a called third strike, and the rally --- not to mention the dream of another upset --- was extinguished.

Photograph by Toru Yamanaka/Agence France-Presse --- Getty Images

Shohei Otani Named Pacific League Most Valuable Player in Japan

By The Associated Press; and Wikipedia

TOKYO --- Shohei Otani was honored for both his batting and pitching when he was named Most Valuable Player of Japan's Pacific League during the 2016 season.

Shohei Otani

Otani helped the Nippon Ham Fighters win the Pacific League pennant and the Japan Series last season. The 22-year-old right-hander went 10-4 as a pitcher and batted .322 with a career-high 22 home runs. The fourth-year player earned 1,268 points in MVP voting, comfortably ahead of teammate Brandon Laird, who was second with 298 points.

Otani renewed his own Japan record for the fastest pitch on three occasions last year, most recently clocking 165 kph during the playoffs.

He recorded the fastest pitch by a Japanese high school pitcher at 160 km/h (99 mph). He set the record in the Prehecture Tournament of Summer Koshien, even though his team lost in the semi-final. As an amateur, he mainly threw a solid slider in addition to the fastball.

In November, Otani was the first player ever to be named the Pacific League's best pitcher and best designated hitter.

Otani is a 6 foot 4 inch, 203 pound right-handed starting pitcher. With an overhand delivery, he throws a four-seam fastball averaging 96.2 mph, an 86-88 mph forkball with late diving action, an occasional curveball, and a solid slider at 82-84 mph. Otani also plays the outfield for the Fighters.

Otani, who has also shown potential as a hitter, signed a $2.37 million contract for this season with the Ham Fighters. He will not become eligible for free agency until after the 2021 season and will need the Fighter's approval to negotiate with a major league club through the posting system before that time.

Otani has received interest from numerous major league teams including the Texas Rangers, Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers.

On October 21, 2012, Otani announced that he would pursue a career in Major League Baseball rather than turn professional in Japan. The Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters decided to draft him anyway, knowing that there was a high likelihood he would turn down the draft.

After a month-long negotiation between him and the Fighters, Otani said he would accept the draft and spend his early career in Japan before a possible MLB move. He was assigned the jersey number 11, previously worn by Yu Darvish.

Otani made his debut at age 18 in the Nippon-Ham Fighters' season-opening game on March 29, 2013, playing right field. He was voted as an all-star in the 2013 All-Star Game. He finished the season with a 3-0 record in 11 starts.

Throughout the 2014 season, Otani performed double-duty as a pitcher and outfielder to utilize his strong throwing arm as well as his batting skills.

During the July 2014 Mazda All-Star Game, Otani pitched a career-high 162 km/h (101 mph), again setting a new record for the fastest official pitch thrown by a Japanese pitcher.

On October 5, 2014 against the Eagles, Otani officially recorded the fastest pitch by a Japanese pitcher in an official game, tying Marc Kroon's record for top velocity for all NPB pitchers. The pitch came against lead-off hitter Akiminari Ginji in the 1st inning. With the count 0-1, Otani threw a fastball that ticked 162 km/h (101mph) on the stadium radar gun and shattered Ginji's bat in half.

The year 2015 marked Otani's third professional season (and second full season). Though his offensive production declined somewhat, his performance on the mound was among the best in the league, earning him the starter role in the 2015 All-Star Game and the pitching spot in the end-of-year Pacific League Best Nine awards.

Otani placed third in MVP voting (first among pitchers) and was one of three candidates considered for the 2015 Sawamura Award, given annually to the top pitcher in either league.

Otani said he could move to Major League Baseball after the 2017 season. "We discussed the possibility of me going. ... The Club will respect my wishes whenever I decide I want to go."

Photographs by The Associated Press; and Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters/Wikipedia

Former MLB GM Randy Smith Joins Nippon-Ham Fighters

By The Associated Press; and Wikipedia

SAPPORO, Japan --- Former Major League Baseball general manager Randy Smith has been named a senior adviser to the general manager and major league scouting director for the Nippon Ham Fighters in Japan's Pacific League. The Fighters won this year's Japan Series, the country's national championship.

Randy Smith, Phil Garner, Adam Bernero

Nippon general manager Hiroshi Yoshimura said in December that Smith "has both knowledge and a head for administration ... we look to his advice regarding every aspect of our team."

Smith said he is honored, and is excited to be part of the Fighters' organization for the upcoming season, that he will help his new club in any way he can to provide them, and their fans a bright future ahead.

Smith, the former general manager of the San Diego Padres (1993-95) and Detroit Tigers (1996-2002), rejoined San Diego in 2003. He was released from his position as senior adviser for baseball operations in October. Pictured here in the middle, Smith and Tigers manager Phil Garner, left, watch pitcher Adam Bernero during spring training in Lakeland, Florida in 2001.

The Padres have a working relationship with the Fighters and held part of their spring training this year at Padres' Arizona facility. Smith is the son of baseball executive Tal Smith. He became the general manager of the Padres midseason in 1993 at age 29. At the time, he was the youngest general manager in baseball history. In his time as Padres GM, he acquired future MVP Ken Caminiti and eventual all-stars Trevor Hoffman, Andy Ashby, Steve Finley and Brad Ausmus.

Nippon logo

Smith spent six years as the vice president of baseball operations and general manager for the Detroit Tigers, in which the team received Organization of the Year Honors from Baseball America and Howe Sportdata in 1997. He was also named Baseball America's American League Executive of the Year in 1997.

He inherited a Tigers roster that was in flux with the retirements of former all-stars Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker, as well as longtime manager Sparky Anderson. In an effort to obtain young and inexpensive talent, Smith traded away highly paid all-stars Travis Fryman and Cecil Fielder.

Smith was known for several trades involving the Tigers and his former team, the San Diego Padres, and for several trades with the Houston Astros, where his father Tal Smith was president of baseball operations.

Under Smith, the Tigers acquired a host of young players that were listed as "Top 100 Prospects" by Baseball America, including former top-10 prospects Brian Hunter, Andujar Cedeno, and Matt Drews.

Following a 0-6 start to the 2002 season, Smith was fired along with manager Phil Garner. He then returned to the San Diego Padres in 2003 as special assistant to the general manager.

Photograph by Tony Ranze, AFP/Getty Images

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