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Israel falls to South Korea in Olympic baseball debut

Israel's Mitchell Glasser reaches for a ball during a game against South Korea at the Tokyo Olympics on Thursday.
(Sue Ogrocki / Associated Press)

Israel made its Olympic baseball debut Thursday night against South Korea confident. Qualifying for the first time wasn’t enough. They reported to Japan to win a medal, to prove that they belong on the international stage.

Those aspirations were quickly dampened Thursday when starter Jon Moscot grimaced on the ninth pitch of his outing in the first inning. Moments later, after throwing a pitch to test his right arm, the Los Angeles native walked off the mound at Yokohama Baseball Stadium with an elbow injury. Israel was in trouble.

“We didn’t have a plan for losing our starting pitcher in the first inning with no outs,” Israel manager Eric Holtz noted.

The Olympic novices rebounded to take two two-run leads, but South Korea outlasted them 6-5 in 10 innings on a walk-off hit by pitch in the teams’ first meeting since Israel shocked the Koreans in an upset win at the 2017 World Baseball Classic in Seoul.

Israel, the lowest-ranked team in the six-team field at No. 24, will face Team USA, the fourth-ranked team, on Friday. South Korea, ranked third, will face the U.S. on Saturday.

“Just trying to make the world understand that Israel belongs here,” Holtz said. “This is not a fluke. Israel can play baseball.”

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For a team making its Olympics debut, Israel’s baseball team is embracing lofty ambitions as it tries to generate more interest in the sport.

Israel trailed 5-4 entering the ninth inning when South Korea gave the ball to Seung-hwan Oh, one of the most accomplished pitchers in the country’s history. The 39-year-old former major leaguer, nicknamed “The Final Boss,” is the only holdover on South Korea’s roster from its gold-medal winning team the last time baseball was an Olympic sport in 2008.

Oh retired the first batter he faced before Israel catcher Ryan Lavarnway slugged his second home run of the night to tie the game.

Extra innings in this tournament begin with runners at first and second to expedite a finish. And yet Israel failed to advance a runner in the 10th inning. South Korea did not. Kang Baek-ho dropped a sacrifice bunt to lead off the inning. Israel third baseman Ty Kelly then made a game-saving over-the-shoulder catch in shallow left field for the second out.

Left-hander Jeremy Bleich, a front-office executive with the Pittsburgh Pirates whose playing career ended in 2019, then hit Hur Kyoung-min with a pitch to load the bases. Moments later, he grazed Yang Eui-ji with a pitch to end the game.

Israel's Jeremy Bleich walks off the field after hitting a South Korea batter with a pitch to bring home the winning run.
Israel pitcher Jeremy Bleich walks off the field after hitting a South Korea batter with a pitch to bring home the winning run in the 10th inning.
(Sue Ogrocki / Associated Press)

“He’s been throwing live to batters two to three times a week so I don’t think there was any rust,” Holtz said of Bleich. “I just think the ball got away.”

The teams traded two-run home runs to initiate the scoring.

Second baseman Ian Kinsler, a four-time Major League All-Star who came out of retirement for this tournament, supplied the first two runs in Israeli Olympic baseball history with a blast in the third inning.

South Korean short stop Oh Ji-hwan equaled the score in the fourth inning with a homer off left-hander Jake Fishman, who logged 3 2/3 innings following Moscot’s abrupt exit. Two innings after that, Lavarnway pushed his team two runs ahead again with the night’s third home run.

News, results and features from The Times’ team of 12 reporters who covered the Tokyo Olympic Games.

One inning later, Lee Jung-hoo and Kim Hyun-soo delivered back-to-back solo home runs off Zack Weiss to tie the game again. Four batters after that, Ji-hwan laced a go-ahead RBI double to chase Weiss, the third of five relievers Israel used scrambling to cover innings in the wake of Moscot’s injury before setting their sights on the United States.

“We’re not just going to roll over,” Kinsler said. “We’ve come to win baseball games.”


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