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Team Israel rallies past Nicaragua in World Baseball Classic opener

Clutch hitting swings the outcome after stellar Kremer performance

MIAMI —Before he stepped into the cage for batting practice Sunday morning, Spencer Horwitz made one thing very clear: Even in a group filled with global baseball powerhouses, Team Israel was here to win.

“We’re not just a show pony,” Horwitz, an infield prospect in the Toronto Blue Jays’ system, told the Forward. “We’re here to compete.”

In the eighth inning, he proved it.

With one out, runners on first and second and Israel trailing by a run, Horwitz, the designated hitter, lined a single to left field off Nicaraguan ace Jonathan Loáisiga. Pinch-runner Jakob Goldfarb scurried home.

Three batters later, with two outs and the bases loaded, Garrett Stubbs doubled in a pair to provide the final margin. 

Israel’s 3-1 victory over Nicaragua, before a loanDepot Park crowd of just under 20,000 that leaned heavily toward the latter country’s fans, had to happen if Israel is to have any hope of advancing from its difficult group in the 20-team international tournament. And it was the type of victory the team’s architects envisioned when it built this roster: a true team effort that fielded crucial contributions from current and former pros as well as aspiring ones with varying proximity to the Major Leagues.

The Baltimore Orioles’ breakout starting pitcher Dean Kremer — an Israeli American who speaks Hebrew at home — worked around trouble in four scoreless innings. Zack Weiss — who washed out of MLB after one terrible outing six years ago, and finally cracked the bigs again last year with the Angels — struck out three in two hitless frames. Robert Stock, without a single MLB save to his name, recorded one by retiring the side in order in the ninth.

And Goldfarb, who scored the winning run, is a former 24th-round pick with only 178 career minor league at-bats.

Team Israel has only 12 position players — fewer than any other team in the competition. On Sunday, manager Ian Kinsler used all 12.

“That’s what we need to win the games,” Kinsler said. “We got to have our whole lineup contributing.”

The eighth-inning breakthrough followed several squandered scoring opportunities, but it only counted because of stellar pitching — and a remarkable defensive play made by first-baseman Matt Mervis in the top of the fifth inning.

With two outs and a runner on second, Nicaragua’s Brandon Leyton ripped a double over left fielder Noah Mendlinger’s head. Mendlinger lobbed a throw back towards second, where Leyton was already rounding the bag — and where no fielder was stationed.

Mervis, a Chicago Cubs prospect expected to begin this season in the majors, fielded the ball on its fourth hop to the right of second base, then fired a bullet to Garrett Stubbs at third. Stubbs — the Phillies’ starting catcher who’s playing out of position for Team Israel — tagged a diving Leyton on the right shoulder to end the inning.

“I felt like I had catcher’s gear on at that moment,” Stubbs said. “He made a perfect throw.”

The winning rally came against Nicaragua’s best pitcher, the Yankees’ Loáisiga.

It began with the second single of the day by Alex Dickerson, a journeyman who’s on the team because he’s married to a Jew. Then catcher Ryan Lavarnway, a Team Israel stalwart playing in his third international tournament for the team, was hit by a pitch.

Horwitz came up next.

After the game, he thanked Israel’s hitting coach, retired Red Sox star Kevin Youkilis for some well-timed advice: Sit on Loáisiga’s fastball and change up.

“I hooked the change-up foul, and once I saw that, I was much more comfortable because I knew everything he had that was going to come at me,” Horwitz, 25, said. “I stayed with that and trusted him and trusted myself to come up in that situation.”

Israel will face Puerto Rico on Monday at 7 p.m. ET.

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