Nootbaar still basking in afterglow of amazing World Baseball Classic

CROSSING CULTURES ­— St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Lars Nootbaar, who recently played against the Giants in San Francisco, reflected upon his journey playing for Japan in the World Baseball Classic.
photo by Scott Nakajima Photography

OAKLAND, Calif. — Lars Nootbaar had a truly one-of-a-kind experience in the 2023 World Baseball Classic. As the sole American on Team Japan, the outfielder batted lead-off for a lineup that tore through the tournament, first in Tokyo and then in Miami. The Southern California native hit .269, helping Japan remain undefeated in seven games, including the nail-biting championship against Team USA on March 21.

“It was one of the greatest days of my life,” the 25-year-old Nootbaar declared about winning the finale, describing the 3-2 victory as serving up “a storybook ending.”

Reminiscing about the tournament several weeks later in an interview with Nichi Bei News, he revisited the unforgettable moment when his teammate Shohei Ohtani struck out superstar Mike Trout to clinch Japan’s third WBC title.

“I think there’s so much respect between the two of them,” Nootbaar said, adding, “Trout is arguably the greatest of all time” and “Ohtani is well on his way and probably the best player on the planet right now.” Asked to speculate if the legendary duo might feel any lingering tension after coming back together as teammates on the Los Angeles Angels, Nootbaar expected “no friction or anything” while observing, “Bragging rights — obviously Ohtani has that.”

Nootbaar has similarly reunited with his own St. Louis Cardinals teammates Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt after besting them in the WBC title game.

“Facing Nolan and Goldy was weird,” Nootbaar admitted as he sat in the visitors locker room at Oracle Park on April 25, hours before the three of them took the field against the San Francisco Giants. “They’re my role models on this team,” he said of the two St. Louis All-Stars, asserting that “I have so much respect for those guys.”

Arenado and Goldschmidt have been with the Cardinals since before Nootbaar made his major league debut with the team in 2021, and “they’ve helped me so much,” he attested.

He recently received a little more help from another baseball luminary, taking advice from Ichiro Suzuki when the Cardinals’ road trip passed through Seattle. At T-Mobile Park, Nootbaar “got to meet him pregame in the outfield, ask him a few questions, and he was super open.” The retired Mariner great offered pointers on defense and baserunning.

“It was awesome,” Nootbaar said. “I grew up looking up to him,” so the encounter was “a pretty surreal experience.”

Of course, a few minutes with one iconic Japanese baseball player doesn’t really compare with spending weeks on a full squad stocked with talent from Japan’s top professional league. Nootbaar’s time in the WBC provided him and his teammates with plenty of opportunities for “bouncing questions off each other, just getting to know each other.”

The camaraderie he established with those teammates proved one of the most memorable aspects of the WBC. As he said, “The relationships that I built with those guys were pretty amazing — I’ll never forget any of those guys.”

Another part of the experience that felt especially meaningful to Nootbaar was “being able to go back to Japan and dive back into my mother’s side — my other half.” Although his mother Kumiko hails from Saitama, Nootbaar had not visited Japan for almost 20 years. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to fully catch up with his extended family this time around.

“I did get to see them a little bit, but not much,” he lamented. Baseball commitments kept him on an inflexible schedule, and the team’s massive popularity meant “there wasn’t a lot of going out of the hotel without getting bombarded.”

Nootbaar might get a chance to return to Japan if the team asks him back for the next WBC in 2026. “If they invited me, I’d be honored to play,” he said.

In the meantime, he’s been enjoying some added popularity here in the States thanks to his turn in the international limelight.

“I hear ‘Ta-chan’ a lot at stadiums,” he said, referring to a moniker he picked up in Japan, derived from his middle name Taylor-Tatsuji. “That was definitely not being said before the WBC,” he noted.

“It’s cool to see Japanese fans coming out to the ballpark,” Nootbaar said, adding, “it’s pretty special to me to know that they’re a fan of mine.”

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