As expected, Team Japan blasted through Pool B this week to clinch a spot in the World Baseball Classic quarterfinals. Japan went a perfect 4-0 in pool play and outscored their opponents 38-8. They will take on Italy in the quarterfinals on Thursday. The winner moves on and the loser goes home. Japan won the 2006 and 2009 WBCs and finished third in 2013 and 2017.
The singular Shohei Ohtani of course starred in the first round. He went 6 for 12 with three doubles, a home run, and seven walks at the plate during pool play, and also struck out five in four scoreless innings in his start against China. Kensuke Kondoh of Japan’s Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks went 7 for 15 with four doubles and a homer in pool play. He’s been excellent as well.
Japan has another player starring in the WBC: Lars Nootbaar. The St. Louis Cardinals outfielder went 6 for 14 with two stolen bases and more walks (four) than strikeouts (three) in Japan’s four first-round games. He has hit leadoff in front of Kondoh and Ohtani and seems to be in the middle of Japan’s every rally, and he’s been stellar in center field as well.
Nootbaar is the first non-Japan-born player ever to play for the Japanese national team. He was born and raised in Los Angeles but is eligible to play for Japan because his mother, Kumiko, is from Higashi-Matsuyama, Saitama Prefecture. Nootbaar’s middle name is Taylor-Tatsuji, and his maternal grandfather, Tatsuji Enokida, still lives in Higashi-Matsuyama.
Team Japan and the Japanese fans have fully embraced Nootbaar. During practice the players wore t-shirts with “Tachan,” Nootbaar’s nickname, written in Japanese, and chants of “Noot! Noot! Noot!” could be heard during first round games at the Tokyo Dome. Nootbaar’s pepper grinder celebration with the Cardinals has caught on and fans now bring pepper grinders to games.
“We wanted a little hit celebration, something to do,” Nootbaar told MLB.com during an exhibition game with Japan before the WBC. “We didn’t really know what to come up with. And so (Ohtani) said, ‘Whatever I go out there and do first, that’s what we’re gonna roll with.’ So, I went out (and got a hit) in the first inning, we got the pepper grinder out there. And you know, we kind of stuck with it.”
The fact Nootbaar is playing in the WBC, let alone for a powerhouse team like Japan, is remarkable. He was considered a fringe prospect earlier in his career. It wasn’t until…
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