09/23/12 11:40 PM ET
Spain tops Israel in extras to advance to Classic
By Adam Berry / MLB.com
Beltre had just scored the tiebreaking run on Yunesky Sanchez's two-run single up the middle in the 10th inning of a nearly five-hour epic, sending Spain to the World Baseball Classic in March with a 9-7 win that upset Israel in the qualifying-round final on Sunday night at Roger Dean Stadium.
Had the two clubs played another game, Israel might have won, like it did on Friday afternoon. If it was a five- or seven-game series, Spain manager Mauro Mazzotti admitted, Spain would have been lucky to win two games against Israel's talented roster packed with affiliated talent. But it wasn't a series. It was a winner-take-all final, and Spain took advantage.
"To tell you the truth, we couldn't believe it," Mazzotti said. "We knew, as we've told them since Day 1, on any given Sunday, anybody can beat anybody. And we did it."
Sanchez drove in Figueroa to give Spain a one-run lead in the eighth, and the resulting celebration from the Spanish bullpen, dugout and cheering section sounded like a premature victory party. In a wild back-and-forth affair littered with walks, hit batsmen and "a little bit of everything," as Israel manager Brad Ausmus said, Spain had finally hit its way to its first lead.
Israel's Ben Guez doubled and eventually scored on a passed ball later in the inning to make sure that lead didn't last long. But Spain held the line in the ninth and 10th, with lefty Ivan Granados pitching the last 2 2/3 innings, and Sanchez's single sealed the deal in the 10th.
"It's a weird game, but it's a final," Figueroa said. "It wouldn't be a final if it wasn't like this."
Due to the qualifier's modified double-elimination rules, Spain will advance to the Classic's main tournament despite having the same number of losses as Israel and losing to Israel just two days ago.
"They're deserving," Ausmus said. "No sour grapes. We knew the format coming in. If they had beat us the other night and we won tonight, we wouldn't be complaining then, so we're not going to complain now. That's the format. The Spanish team outplayed us tonight. Simple as that."
It was a disappointing end for Israel, especially given all the publicity and high expectations, but Ausmus and Israeli pitcher Shlomo Lipetz took an optimistic outlook regarding what this Classic run accomplished. The team shined a spotlight on Israeli baseball, proved it could be a contender in the future and, Ausmus hoped, moved a step closer toward its ultimate goal of fielding a national team comprised solely of native citizens.
"Other than the fact that we lost the final game, it was a very positive experience across the board," Ausmus said. "It's a little bit of a tough pill to swallow now, but I think there's a lot of positive things that can still come from this, and hopefully one of them is the prosperity of baseball in Israel."
Friday's matchup between these two teams was a pitchers' duel in the early going, but that was certainly not the case this time. There were 18 walks and seven hit batsmen in addition to the 16 runs scored. Mazzotti said the strike zone was smaller than in previous games, although the Spanish players agreed it was at least consistent for both sides. Israel catcher Charlie Cutler was ejected in the ninth inning for arguing the zone with home-plate umpire Chris Segal.
Israel jumped out to a two-run lead and carried a 6-4 advantage heading into the fifth. But Spain climbed back into it, knocking a run off the deficit in the fifth and finally tying it up in the seventh on an RBI groundout by Jesus Golindano.
"You guys in the States are used to 162 games; this is a one-game playoff," Mazzotti said. "This is one game, no tomorrow. Tomorrow, there's only the airplane to go home. We just played our game. We knew we had some problems, pitching-wise, but we kept hitting. We kept coming back. We played hard. We believed it. And we made it."
Indeed, Spain made it to the Classic for the first time in the tournament's history. After missing a chance to qualify in 2006 and '09, Spain overcame a lack of time to prepare and a stacked Israel team and played its way into the Classic field.
"We're looking forward," said Spanish infielder Gabriel Suarez. "Dream come true. We came here for this."
But when do they start looking forward? When does this monumental victory give way to the even greater task ahead?
"Tomorrow, we'll probably start working on it," Mazzotti laughed. "If we worked so much for this one, I can't imagine the work for the other one."