The Israel Baseball National Team has been perfect so far this summer as they swept through the Confederation of European Baseball’s (CEB) European Championships B Pool in Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria with a sparkling 6-0 record. By defeating Russia 5-3 in the Pool Championship Game, the blue-and-white booked their ticket to face Lithuania in a best of three series between July 26-28 for the right to advance to European Championship A Pool in Germany in September. Should Israel be one of the top five teams in Bonn & Solingen they will head to Italy for a chance to book their ticket to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Israel streaked through their first three games overpowering Greece 14-7, Serbia 11-1 and host Bulgaria 8-0 before slipping by Russia 13-12 in 10 innings. The Blue & White then finished off group play with a 10-3 victory over Ireland before beating the Russians.
Peter Kurz, the President of Israel Baseball spoke to The Sports Rabbi about passing the first test this summer and explained how important an accomplishment it is to have reached the next stage of qualifying for the Olympics, “This is huge. This was our goal and may have been the most difficult step. The level of this B Pool was very close to the level of A pool. It was our most important test and the Russian team, with the 6 Cubans, was a formidable opponent who we defeated twice.”
“The 3 game series against Lithuania will not be easy, and will drain valuable financial resources from the Israel Association of Baseball for only a 3 game series, but I do hope that once we get passed this next test, with the team we can develop (we have 4 more Israeli ballplayers playing in North America at the AAA level who can join us in September) we will find the resources to advance.”
The keys to success for Kurz was the professionalism of the players, “Guys like Blake Gailen, Zach Penprase, Shlomo Lipetz, guys with experience and poise, set the tone for the team. We are a cocktail mix of savvy veterans and young players hungry to win and this is reflected in the character of the team. We also have a phenomenal pitching staff of ex-professional players who know exactly what to do and when, and executed properly. Our coaching staff, led by Eric Holtz, prepared the players well.”
The players on the current team are primarily not the same that appeared in the 2017 World Baseball Classic, but should Israel advance to Germany there will be reinforcements on the way, “We have 4 current Israelis playing at the highest levels of baseball in the US and they will join the team in September – two of them played for our WBC team and the other two would have, but were injured. That will definitely help.”
In addition, Kurz continues to grow the potential player pool by any means possible, “I get e-mails every day from potential players, and although most are lower levels than our existing player roster, I am just waiting for those one or two pearls, guys who can improve the team and help us in the later rounds. They exist and it’s just a matter of opening the right oyster.”
As someone who has been involved in Israel Baseball for so many years, Kurz talked about how satisfying it is to see the continued development of blue-and white players, “My greatest satisfaction this tournament was to see 4 native Israeli players, who grew up in the IAB program, on the field at crucial stages of the game. Guys like Tal Erel, Asaf Lowengart, Noam Calisar, Alon Leichman, Shlomo Lipetz, Dan Rothem and Ophir Katz all played crucial roles in this tournament and all grew up in our program in Israel. In addition, guys like Ryan Willen, Jake Rosenberg and Dean Pelman, are today playing in Israel and playing key roles in the IAB development program and will continue to do so in the future.”
As Israel baseball continues their upward trend, the U18 team began play this week as they look also make strides at the youth level, “My goal is to have them reach the top 3 and even first place, so next year we can play in the U18 championship. The three coaches are all players – Ryan, Dean and Jake will guide the team in Sweden and I hope that they can parlay the sweet taste of victory from Bulgaria.”
With Lithuania looming at the end of the month, Kurz is confident about the chances for Israel to reach the A Pool in Germany and then the Olympic qualifiers in Italy, “Our goal is to reach the Olympic Qualifiers in Italy. We will get there. What happens there is anyone’s guess, but with our pitching staff, I wouldn’t bet against us.”