• Baseball

Major Leaguer Lars Nootbaar Galvanizes Samurai Japan

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Lars Nootbaar is seen making his trademark double-fisted pepper grinder gesture in a recent World Baseball Classic game.

Samurai Japan will face Italy in the quarterfinals of the World Baseball Classic on Thursday, having finished first in Pool B of the first round. One of the main attractions of the upcoming game — besides two-way star Shohei Ohtani starting at the mound — will be how Japanese-American five-tool player Lars Nootbaar leads the team.

After Japan closed out the first round undefeated with four wins, head coach Kazuyuki Shirai immediately mentioned Nootbaar when asked about key players.

“He pumped up the team at the plate, and his enthusiastic play really contributed to our wins,” Shirai said.

The 25-year-old St. Louis Cardinals outfielder has hit safely in every game, batting .429 with three RBIs and two stolen bases. His on-base percentage is .579. Rousing Japan daily with his flawless performances as the leadoff hitter, Nootbaar especially won the hearts of his teammates and fans in the second game against South Korea on Friday.

The game took an unexpected turn when South Korean struck for three early runs off Japan starter Yu Darvish of the San Diego Padres. Nootbaar helped Japan immediately strike back, sparking a four-run rally with an RBI single. In the fifth inning, with a one-run lead, he made a diving catch on a fly ball to shallow center field. He kept his teammates energized throughout the game with his fighting spirit, which came out in a glare at the pitcher after he was struck in the back with the ball.

Prior to the game, Nootbaar gave a pregame pep talk for the team.

“We got six games left as brothers and as a family. Last night, first-game nerves, are over with. Today, we play loose and we play free,” Nootbaar said calmly, his remarks translated for the benefit of his team members. He then closed his talk in Japanese with “Saa, ikou!” (Let’s go!).

The first-ever Japanese-American player to be selected for a Japanese national team, Nootbaar grew up in California with a love for the miso soup made by his mother, Kumiko, 57.

Wearing the national team uniform he had so longed to sport and standing at bat amid a chant of “Noot-Noot-Noot” by fans, Nootbaar said it was more than he ever dreamed of.