Israel had just routed Mexico for its first Olympic baseball victory, riding a loud three-run homer by Danny Valencia that helped it jump to a six-run lead, and Nick Rickles wanted to check the reaction.
“I don’t think it’s so much about beating Mexico.” he said after Monday’s 12-5 win. “I think it’s a lot to just raise awareness for baseball in Israel. For me, I was just taking in the moment and seeing after the game the amount of love that we received from people back in Israel. We had messages on top of messages from people just saying thank you.”
Valencia went deep against a Double-A pitcher playing in his 15th consecutive minor league season, Rickles had three RBIs and Israel pounded relievers Fernando Salas and Oliver Pérez in a six-run seventh inning to reach the tournament’s double-elimination phase.
Israel (1-2) plays South Korea (2-1) on Tuesday with the chance to advance to a matchup against the United States or Japan on Wednesday that will determine a berth in the gold-medal game.
Rickles has been with the national team program for a decade and played a role in the Olympic buildup. Israel won its group at the 2017 World Baseball Classic and beat Cuba in the second round, then won a two-continent Olympic qualifying tournament and beat out the Netherlands for one of the six Olympic berths. It lost its opener to South Korea 6-5 in 10 innings.
“I don’t think there was a lot of expectations coming into Israel playing baseball at all,” said Rickles, a 31-year-old catcher who retired from Philadelphia’s minor league system during spring training in 2019 to become a Milwaukee minor league coach.
With pitchers such as Julio Urías, Luis Cessa and José Urquidy unavailable because Major League Baseball doesn’t allow 40-man roster players to participate, Mexico started Manny Barreda (0-1), a 32-year-old right-hander drafted by the New York Yankees in 2007 and released seven years later.
He gave up six runs, four hits and three walks in two-plus innings.
“He is a great pitcher in Mexico. Last year in the winter, he even pitched a complete nine-inning game,” manager Benji Gil said through an interpreter. “Today just wasn’t his day. He didn’t have a lot of dominance. He had several balls he was missing the location.”
Mexico (0-3), the first country eliminated, was outscored 20-9.
“I’m in shock,” Gil said. “Not even in my worst nightmares did I think that this would be the result.”
Mexico lost right-hander Hector Velázquez and left-hander Sammy Solís just before the Olympics when they contracted COVID-19. Adrián González, a 39-year-old, five-time All-Star who made his last big league appearance in 2018, finished 3 for 11 with an RBI and Joey Meneses went 6 for 12 with four RBIs.
Zack Weiss (1-0), who allowed four runs and got no outs for Cincinnati in his only big-league appearance on April 12, 2018, got the win by allowing one run in two innings in relief of starter Josh Zeid. Israel had 12 hits and set a tournament-high for runs.
On a 91-degree Fahrenheit (32.7 Celsius) afternoon with the blistering sun, Mexico clawed back to 6-5 before Salas, a 36-year-old right-hander, allowed Ian Kinsler’s leadoff double in the seventh and Valencia’s single.
Pérez was relieved and the 39-year-old left-hander gave up Blake Gailen’s RBI single, two-run singles by Mitch Glasser and Zack Penprase, and Scotty Burcham’s RBI double.
Ryan Lavarnway, 5 for 13 in the Olympics, doubled up the left-center gap in the first, and Rickles hit an RBI single with two outs. Lavarnway, who played four games for Cleveland in June when Austin Hedges went on the concussion injured list, tried to score from second on Rickles’ hit and was thrown out by left fielder Meneses.
Barreda walked his first two batters in the third and Valencia, exactly a week shy of the third anniversary of his last big league at-bat, rocketed an armpit-high fastball 10 rows deep into the left-field seats. Rickles greeted reliever Sasagi Sanchez with a two-run single.
“I hammered it, to be honest. I crushed that ball,” Valencia said. “The team needed it. It got the momentum going.”