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Cuba an elite challenge for underdog Israel

Second-round play starts Saturday at 10 p.m. ET
MLB.com

Team Israel's surprising World Baseball Classic story has reached its second chapter. Now it'll have to get past at least two teams with elite world standing to reach baseball's real inner circle.

First up for the Israel is Team Cuba, which retains its status as a world power despite a considerably depleted national talent pool. The matchup will commence second-round play at the Tokyo Dome in Japan on Saturday at 10 p.m. ET (live on MLB.TV, or tape delayed at 12:30 a.m. ET Sunday on MLB Network), the first of what should be several intriguing matchups between Pool E teams Israel, Cuba, Japan and the Netherlands.

Team Israel's surprising World Baseball Classic story has reached its second chapter. Now it'll have to get past at least two teams with elite world standing to reach baseball's real inner circle.

First up for the Israel is Team Cuba, which retains its status as a world power despite a considerably depleted national talent pool. The matchup will commence second-round play at the Tokyo Dome in Japan on Saturday at 10 p.m. ET (live on MLB.TV, or tape delayed at 12:30 a.m. ET Sunday on MLB Network), the first of what should be several intriguing matchups between Pool E teams Israel, Cuba, Japan and the Netherlands.

:: 2017 World Baseball Classic ::

That Cuba has taken a step back became apparent Thursday, when it had to fight to defeat longtime (but one-sided) rival Australia and advance out of pool play. Israel dominated play in Pool A, defeating host Korea, the Netherlands and Chinese Taipei to advance immediately in its first Classic.

Cuba advanced out of pool play for the fourth time in four Classics. It reached the final once, in 2006, but it lost to Japan.

Three things to know about this game

• Classic rookie Israel rolled after a grueling 2-1 extra-inning win over Korea in the opener. By the end of pool play, Israel had outscored opponents 21-10 over three games, led by Pool A Most Valuable Player Ryan Lavarnway (.556 average, HR) and Ike Davis (.500 average).

• Alfredo Despaigne almost single-handedly sent Cuba into the second round; his grand slam Thursday accounted for all four runs in Cuba's tense 4-3 victory over Australia. He's already a star in Japan and as comfortable as any hitter on the world stage. He's a .333 hitter (15-for-45) with six home runs in 14 career Classic games.

• Each team has the option of replacing two pitchers from each round with pitchers from their Designated Pitcher Pool. For Pool E, Israel selected right-hander Brad Goldberg and lefty Jared Lakind from its DPP to replace righties Shlomo Lipetz and Gabe Kremer (injury). Cuba has not yet announced any roster moves.

The World Baseball Classic runs through March 22. In the U.S., games air live exclusively in English on MLB Network and on an authenticated basis via MLBNetwork.com/watch, while ESPN Deportes and WatchESPN provide the exclusive Spanish-language coverage. MLB.TV Premium subscribers in the U.S. have access to watch every tournament game live on any of the streaming service's 400-plus supported devices. The tournament is being distributed internationally across all forms of television, internet, mobile and radio in territories excluding the U.S., Puerto Rico and Japan. Get tickets for games at Marlins Park, Tokyo Dome, Estadio Charros de Jalisco in Mexico, Petco Park, as well as the Championship Round at Dodger Stadium, while complete coverage -- including schedules, video, stats and gear -- is available at WorldBaseballClassic.com.

Joe Trezza is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @joetrezz.

Israel, Cuba