Our baseball team of the year was picked for us really before the season truly began. Anyone who followed the World Baseball Classic (WBC) this year knows where we're headed, and why.
Three European teams, The Netherlands, Israel and Italy competed in this year's event but only one of them shocked the world with their performance.
Heading into the games, there were no expectations of Israel. They were ranked #41 in the world by the World Baseball and Softball Confederation (WBSC) while Italy sat in the #11 spot and The Netherlands came in at #9.
The first round of the event was split into four pools with Italy alone in their pool and The Netherlands and Israel sharing a pool. Every pool had a lower ranked team. In their pool, that was Israel. In Italy’s pool it was Mexico. That was also the only team Italy beat as they failed to advance beyond the 1st round.
Israel was never expected to leave the first round. Unfortunately for those remaining in their pool, they had other plans. To get past the first round, Israel would have win at least two games and The Netherlands were their best bet for at least one victory.
In their first encounter, Israel beat the Dutch by a score of 4-2. That victory was on the heels of two other wins. First they defeated #4 Chinese Taipei 15-7 before taking out #3 Korea 2-1. That gave them the best record in the pool.
After going 3-0 out of the box, they advanced to the 2nd round and continued the streak. They beat Cuba 4-0 before finally falling to The Netherlands in their 2nd round rematch. After Netherlands loss, Israel’s starter Josh Zeid kept #1 ranked Japan scoreless through the first 4 the next game. The team maintained the shutout until the 6th. In the end, it wasn’t enough to capture victory and the back-to-back losses sent them packing.
This wasn't Israel’s only stand-out performance in international competition for 2017. They also took 2nd place in the B-Pool of the European Championship round held in Serbia. Today, following the season that was, Italy sits in 12th place in the WBSC rankings with The Netherlands in 8th. Israel jumped 22 place to land at #19.
Beyond their storied performance, what made their run in the championship the thing of legend was the fan reaction. You couldn’t watch their performance and not get caught up in rooting for the underdog, even when it meant rooting against your own team. Even the Mensch, the team’s mascot, was a gift from a fan!
A big part of what made their games magical was the players themselves. Their willingness to be openly surprised by one another’s performances and the joy they felt from each other’s moments of personal victory never overshadowed their choice to skirt the downfalls with a pat on the shoulder.
Many of the team’s starting line-up have spent at least some of their career as free agents. They knew going in this was their chance to make opportunities happen and they did everything possible to affect change in one another’s careers.
Pitcher Josh Zeid, who was a free agent, was handed another opportunity and he didn’t waste it. Unlike his catcher Ryan Lavarnway, who entered the Classic under contract with the Athletics, Zeid was a free agent in April. His 0.00 ERA through 10.0 innings over 4 games got him named to the WBC All-tournament team and it earned him a contact with the St. Louis Cardinals. Over 102.1 innings he posted a 4.39 ERA that included 95 Ks on the season in AAA.
The affection between Lavarnway and Zeid was infectious. You wanted them to be teammates forever. They were on-course to become their own internet sensations. Ryan, who was named MVP of the Classic, spent the majority of his season in AAA but he did make it to the show for 6 games where he hit .273 over 11 at bats.
Individually the starting lineup all went on to their own versions of personal success in 2017 but, collectively, they were more than they could be with any other team.
That gravitational pull is such a rare experience in any life, but especially in professional sports in the 21st century, that – for this reason alone – Israel is our baseball team of the year.
Ranked #1 by the European Softball Federation (ESF) three years running, the Czech Republic Men’s Softball team has continued to shine in Europe’s market.
On the world stage this year the Czechs, along with Denmark, Great Britain and Turkey, participated in the 15th Men’s World Softball Championship. The Czech Republic went 4-0 against the EU competition throughout the tournament. They not only completed the tournament on top for the EU nations, they landed in the top 10 with a the 9th place finish.
The team batting average, which included 14 homeruns and 58 RBIs, was .300 for the tournament. They finished with a 6-5 record and a 4.15 team ERA over 60.2 innings. On defense they posted a team fielding percentage of .963.
Back in Europe, the only official European Softball Federation (ESF) competition held in 2017 was the Men’s European Super Cup. The Czech Republic had four teams registered for the event. In a field of 12 they took 2nd, 3rd, 8th and 10th. That 10th place team was their U23 national team.
The strength of their finishes in official competition has them sitting in the top ten of the WBSC rankings where they currently occupy the #8 spot.
With their youth teams competing at home against the more seasoned players and those players competing with success on the international stage, the Czech Republic men’s national team is our team to beat out of Europe.
Anyone who follows the history of the Women’s Softball European Championship knows that, in the end, it was a 50-50 chance Italy or The Netherlands would be the victor at this year’s event. That is the way it has been for 20 years now. This year however, the field was expanded to nearly twice as many teams making each round longer. The chance for fatigue and upsets to affect this well-developed balance was strong. True to form however, WBSC’s 12th ranked Italy and the 9th ranked Netherlands met on familiar ground in the championship game.
Based on their performances, Italy, along with The Netherlands and Great Britain, are now qualified for the 2018 WBSC Women’s Softball World Championship in Chiba, Japan.
It was The Dutch who hosted the European Championship trophy overhead in the end but Italy’s performances all season long that turned heads.
Their only losses in the tournament came at the hands of the Netherlands. That left them with a 10-2 record, including the championship game. Seven of those wins were shutouts. Their smallest margin of victory was 3 runs. The pitching staff had a combined .80 ERA through 70.0 innings giving up just 40 hits while striking out 73. The team’s batting average was .322 with 73 runs off 91 hits and 60 RBIs. They had 23 doubles and walked 35 times.
Italian teams competed in all four official competitions in 2017 and no team placed lower than 5th in any tournament. The national team finished the European Championship in 2nd while the team from Bussolengo, who are the home club to seven national team members, took home the Cup in the Women’s European Premiere Cup.
What’s more, Italy appears to be stepping up their game on all levels. They took 3rd in the U16 Women’s European Championship and the left with the trophy from the European M. Romeo Youth Trophy competition this season.
As a result, Italy has moved up to #8 in the international rankings, now one spot behind The Netherlands who rose to #7. Back at home they have eclipsed the Czech Republic for the #1 spot in the ESF rankings while The Netherlands remain tucked back at #4.
The national team’s outstanding performance at the European Championship, along with their unrelenting smiles and great sportsmanship as they celebrated alongside the Dutch during the post game, are the reasons why they eclipsed The Netherlands to become our Women’s Softball Team of the Year.