For Team Israel, a squad that took full advantage of its first appearance in the World Baseball Classic in the tournament's prime draw, shocked the globe by advancing to the second round of play thanks in large part to their closer.
Enter Josh Zeid.
Zeid, 30, tossed 10 scoreless innings for Israel, punching out 10 batters while notching two saves in four games. His dominance garnered him a spot on the All-WBC team.
"Representing Israel was a unique experience," he said, looking back on the tournament. "Everyone on the team had deep ties to Israel. There being American Jews and a lot of guys tied to Israel. They felt a deep connection with the country itself."
Zeid's connection to the team came from being an American Jew himself. As he said, “the right to be a citizen in the country is called the Heritage Rule.”
"If you have a Jewish parent, a Jewish grandparent, you're Jewish, or you're married to a Jewish person, you by law can become a citizen of Israel," Zeid explained. "Because of the law, they're trying to create a bigger state, globalize the country, and make it more accessible for people to become citizens."
Looking to grow the game in Israel, Zeid was sought out to help "make baseball a big thing in Israel." While basketball and soccer reign in Israel and baseball is popular among American Jews, the right-hander is excited following the success of the team based on the support system throughout the WBC.
"I really think there's going to be something special over there," Zeid said.
Signing with the Cardinals
In the aftermath of the WBC, Zeid used the tournament as perhaps a stepping stone to getting back to the big leagues, where he last appeared with the Houston Astros in 2014.
He announced his minor league deal with the Cardinals on Tuesday via Twitter.
"They gave me a job," Zeid said. "In all reality, that's all it comes down to. I'm extremely fortunate they liked what they saw in the WBC. There's an opportunity to pitch. Unfortunately, there's been a couple of injuries and they have some spots open.
“My job is to come in and make the most of the opportunity. I have to go out there every single day and give it to the best of my ability. That is what I am looking forward to doing."
With the addition of Zeid, the Cardinals now have three pitchers in their organization who pitched for Israel in the WBC, including Corey Baker and Ryan Sherriff. The latter only threw in the qualifier round last September, though, but remains in MLB camp this spring and will be one of the final cuts.
Moreover, Zeid said there were a "few other teams showing interest in him" along with some international options, but the Cardinals presented him with the best opportunity to get back to the big-leagues.
Zeid feels he is becoming more acquainted at the Cardinals complex in Jupiter despite it being his first days in camp.
"It is two days into my Cardinal camp," he said with a chuckle on Thursday. "They're about three weeks in, so it's definitely difficult coming into a spring training where everybody knows each other. The teams are already being made and the guys are being released.
"It is definitely a different dynamic coming into spring training. The Cardinals do a great job. The Cardinal Way, bringing in players that are smart, good at baseball, but are people too. It makes it a very easy clubhouse to assimilate into.
“It has been a good ride so far."
Starting or relieving?
Zeid has split time between starting and relieving in his pro career, mostly as a reliever. The 6-foot-4, 220 pounder, thrived out of the bullpen in the WBC.
Zeid, who has 258 games (58 starts) under his belt as a minor leaguer over eight seasons in professional baseball, has an appreciation for both. Although, he enjoys relieving more.
"As a starting pitcher, you get to work on your craft a little bit more," Zeid said. "You start every fifth day and you get in-between to have the ability to work on your pitches. As a reliever, you go out there and go all out as often as possible.
"I like showing up to the field and being able to pitch every single day. I don't like to sit on the bench. I like to go out there and pitch. From that aspect, I would definitely say I like relieving better."
As a reliever, Zeid attacks the strike zone with a fastball, slider, and splitter mix while not being concerned about throwing inside, staying away from the hitters more, and pitching to one side of the plate.
He also has the versatility to spot-start when needed as well as coming into high-leverage situations, converting 33 saves in his minor league career.
Though first drafted as a starter by the Phillies back in 2009, Zeid better serves as a reliever with his stuff playing up in short spurts.
During the WBC, Zeid's fastball registered from 93-96 mph with a rumor of him reaching 97. He attributed it to adrenaline while playing in front of 18,000 to 45,000 fans.
Overall, Zeid looks to change speeds off his fastball, slider, and splitter. He likes to work up and down, expanding the strike zone for swings and misses with the ability to throw all three of his pitches in any count.
The New Haven, Connecticut native considers his fastball and big slider the strengths of his arsenal of pitches. He feels most comfortable using the splitter in any situation.
"My main focus in this camp and early on in the season is literally just throwing strike one and working from there," Zeid added. "First pitch strikes are going to be big for me.
“That’s what is either going to make me or break me."
The opportunity ahead
As the WBC has come and gone, Zeid is optimistic he can carry over his WBC success to affiliated baseball with the Cardinals.
"Just go in with the mindset that every game matters," he said. "Every pitch that I throw matters. I went in with the attitude that every pitch matters in the WBC. I didn't take a pitch off.
"The professional season is a long season and it's draining. In reality when we go out and pitch, we're only out on the mound for five or six minutes at a time total. There are no excuses to not go out there and give it all you have. Give it the emotion. The thought and the attention that it deserves. You do that and success will be right behind."
Zeid remains true to his focus this spring, dialing it in as his goal to accomplish in 2017.
"I've had a history - not being wild, but walking too many guys and letting it beat me," he said. "My goals are strike one and getting guys out on three pitches or less. Whatever innings or role it is, my goal is to get guys out.
Ultimately, he is ready for the challenge to carry over the success from the WBC.
"I've always preached that all you need is a chance,” Zeid said. “I've worked hard to prepare myself for Team Israel and it paid off in the short-term, but I'm hoping it pays off in the long-term as well."
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