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Team Israel embracing underdog role

But with 10 players with MLB experience on roster, do they deserve label?
MLB.com @JonathanMayo

SEOUL, South Korea -- Before Team Israel had played an inning, manager Jerry Weinstein addressed how his team had been pegged as the kind of underdog usually reserved for feel-good movies.

"We're not the underdogs," Weinstein said prior to Israel's 2-1 extra-inning win on Monday against South Korea. "We're pretty much unknown, and I think that's why people think we're underdogs."

SEOUL, South Korea -- Before Team Israel had played an inning, manager Jerry Weinstein addressed how his team had been pegged as the kind of underdog usually reserved for feel-good movies.

"We're not the underdogs," Weinstein said prior to Israel's 2-1 extra-inning win on Monday against South Korea. "We're pretty much unknown, and I think that's why people think we're underdogs."

:: 2017 World Baseball Classic ::

The secret might be out now. After that nail-biting 10-inning victory against the host nation, Israel came back the next afternoon and beat Chinese Taipei, 15-7. That put them in the driver's seat, and when the Netherlands first beat South Korea on Tuesday and then defeated Chinese Taipei on Wednesday night, that meant Israel was headed to the second round for Pool E in Tokyo, along with the Dutch team.

Israel and the Netherlands will face each other on Wednesday at 10 p.m. ET/Thursday at noon locally on MLB Network, but that game will be only for seeding. Both will wait to see if they will be facing Japan and Cuba, as expected, in the next step of the World Baseball Classic.

It's been an intriguing storyline, hasn't it? Team Israel -- the band of misfits, the little engine that could, with that adorable Mensch on the Bench mascot -- overcoming insurmountable odds to advance. The trailer for the movie should be great, except for one thing.

"We want to be cast as the Bad News Bears and the Jamaican bobsled team," outfielder Sam Fuld said in an interview for a film that is actually being made about Team Israel, a documentary called "Heading Home." "It's a fun narrative to have -- that we're complete underdogs. It's also not accurate. It's 28 really good baseball players, guys who have played professionally, all of us."

Ten of those 28 players have big league experience of some sort -- a higher percentage than either of the two teams they have defeated in Pool A. Some of the build-up of the storyline came from external entities. One put the odds of Israel winning the whole Classic at 200-1. Several outlets have brought up Israel's ranking, placing them at No. 41 overall, with South Korea coming in at No. 3 and Chinese Taipei at No. 4. With that as context, Israel's wins have been their own version of March Madness -- a No. 15 seed beating a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Basketball Tournament.

Video: ISR@TPE: Freiman's three-run homer pads lead in 9th

That ranking, however, is not really reflective of who is on Israel's current roster. That is based on previous international competitions that have involved native Israelis -- who are very new to the sport -- and not these professionals from the United States who are Jewish.

It's created this interesting mix of feelings from Team Israel. There's the part of each player that wants, and deserves, the respect of those paying attention, because of their professional resumes. Then there's the part that has enjoyed lying in the weeds as the unknown, perhaps with the element of surprise working in their favor.

"I don't really see us that way," Cardinals Minor League right-hander Corey Baker, who started the game against Chinese Taipei and fired 4 2/3 scoreless innings, said about the underdog label. "I don't know if anyone in our room does. I can't speak for anyone else. I've seen the guys in our locker room. I've seen how we can play, and we have a lot of confidence in ourselves and the guys in that locker room."

"I enjoy being the underdog," Mets infielder Ty Kelly said. "It gives you an extra edge. It gives you a chip on your shoulder, something else to play for. We're trying to prove ourselves, and we're trying to fight against the odds. And at least personally, that's something I've been doing my whole life and my whole career. I take a little extra motivation from that."

With every broad-stroked label, there is a shred of truth. Yes, this isn't the roster of the Dominican Republic or United States. Yes, several of the players are career Minor Leaguers who are not exactly household names. Yes, several of the players have had long and winding career paths. Some are currently free agents, and some know that this WBC 2017 run could be their last hurrah.

As a result, they play loose and are clearly having the times of their lives. Many bonded during the qualifiers in Brooklyn in September. A group really came together in a deep and meaningful way when they visited Israel in January, and the rest gelled almost immediately at a minicamp in Arizona and when they got here prior to the start of the tournament. They are proud of who they are and who they are representing, another motivating force.

Video: Mayo discusses Israel's Classic team journeying home

This whole identity the team has been given -- the David against the Goliaths in this group -- may be a bit overblown. But it's working for Team Israel, that's for sure.

"We're happy we've been cast as underdogs, so the pressure is off of us," Fuld said. "That's a good place to be, especially in baseball. It's been nice to fly under the radar. The pressure is off when we get on the field. It's three or four hours of trying to exceed expectations.

"We've kind of embraced that role. If people want to think we're a bunch of -- I think we've been called has-beens and wannabes -- that's great. So be it. We'll take that label."

Starting in the second round, the label might be a bit more apt. Japan has won two Classics, and while Cuba isn't quite as strong as it used to be, it's still a formidable opponent. Matched up against those international baseball powers -- and any other possible teams down the road -- that David vs. Goliath narrative would make a lot more sense.

It might seem too tall of a task, then, to see Team Israel continue to shock the baseball world, though that would fit the movie-script template, right? And hey, no one expected this team to get this far, and seeing this plucky group living up to the Cinderella story billing would be an amazing development. It would shock plenty, except for those in Israel's dugout itself.

"We're not surprised," Fuld said. "We may be opening a lot of eyes internationally, but none of us are surprised."

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, Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul, 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.

Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLBPipeline.com. Follow him on Twitter @JonathanMayo and Facebook, and listen to him on the weekly Pipeline Podcast.

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