JUPITER, Fla. -- After a decisive 7-3 victory over South Africa in its first World Baseball Classic game on Wednesday, Israel is one step closer to the main tournament in March.
Team Israel rode two solo homers from first baseman Nate Freiman and a late push against South Africa's bullpen to a big win, giving the country its first Classic victory and breathing further confidence into an already upbeat, talented group.
Israel will return to Roger Dean Stadium on Friday afternoon, advancing to face the winner of Thursday night's game between Spain and France. South Africa will face the loser of the Spain-France tilt on Friday night, looking to avoid an early exit from the double-elimination qualifier and claim its first Classic victory of any kind.
While manager Brad Ausmus skirted talk of his team being the favorite to emerge from the bracket, he acknowledged that he wants Israel to embrace the high expectations.
"That's the goal," Ausmus said. "That's absolutely the goal. There's no second place here. We're well aware of that."
Israel jumped ahead early as Freiman, the physically imposing first baseman who spent the 2012 season with Double-A San Antonio, lined a first-pitch fastball South Africa starter Dylan Unsworth well over the left-field fence to give Israel a 1-0 lead in the first inning.
"Once the qualifier was moved to September as opposed to November, in my mind, [Freiman] was our three- or four-hole hitter," Ausmus said.
Unsworth allowed only four more hits and struck out six over six innings, drawing high praise from Ausmus and the rest of his crew, but Team Israel's pitchers, including starter Eric Berger, shut down South Africa's lineup long enough for it to run up the score in the later innings.
"He came right at us," Ausmus said of Unsworth, who mixed up his fastball, changeup and slider well enough to keep Israel off the scoreboard until he left the game. "He threw strikes. He wasn't intimidated. It was a very tight ballgame for the great majority of it."
While Freiman's first strike may have set the tone, it was reliever Josh Zeid who kept the momentum in Israel's favor. Zeid, who played this year with Double-A Corpus Christi in the Astros organization, entered in the bottom of the sixth with runners at second and third with one out, a one-run lead and the heart of South Africa's lineup coming to the plate.
Zeid struck out three-hole hitter Jonathan Phillips, intentionally walked Shannon Ekermans and induced an infield popout from Brett Willemburg to escape the jam and allow the entire Israeli roster to breath a sigh of relief.
"Huge difference. Not only is it a big difference in terms of the scoreboard, it could be a big momentum shift," Ausmus said. "Zeid's inning-plus there was probably the turning point of the game for us."
That proved to be true, as Israel went on to add one run in the seventh on a wild pitch by South Africa right-hander Jared Elario and three more in the eighth on Charles Cutler's three-run double into the right-field corner. It carried into the ninth inning, too, as Freiman blasted his second solo shot of the game, this time turning a curveball from Carl Michaels into a towering fly ball that landed just beyond the left-field fence.
Israeli pitcher Shlomo Lipetz struggled to find the strike zone when he came out for the ninth with a seven-run lead, walking three batters and letting South Africa cut the margin to four runs. But Jeff Kaplan recorded the final two outs, allowing Israel to celebrate its Classic debut with a win.
"We've all had long seasons with Spring Training and 140 games, but everyone was really excited," Berger said. "It almost felt like the first game of the year again, even though a lot of us just ended long seasons."