Rafu Staff and Wire Service Reports
When the World Baseball Classic gets under way next spring, Team Japan will feature two of Major League Baseball’s up-and-coming young stars.
Several published reports indicate the Samurai Japan’s roster will include breakout rookie Steven Kwan of the Cleveland Guardians and SoCal native Lars Nootbaar of the St. Louis Cardinals.
The sports website Fansided reported Friday that Kwan was recruited to play for Japan by none other than Shohei Ohtani, when the Angels hosted Cleveland in September. After the meeting, Kwan is said the have contacted Team Japan, saying it would be an honor for him to join.
Kwan, who was born in Los Gatos and grew up in Northern California, has Japanese heritage from Yamagata on his mother’s side.
Per WBC rules, players can opt to compete for the country of origin of the parents or grandparents, even if the players themselves are not natives of that nation.
Kwan lit up baseball at the start of the season, reaching base 15 times in his first four big leagiue games, and seeing 116 pitches before he swung and missed. For the season, he batted .298 with six home runs.
El Segundo’s Nootbaar, who had a transformative year in his second season for St. Louis, has also reportedly agreed to play for his mother’s home country.
While batting .228 in 2022, Nootbaar showed off the power the Cardinals were hoping to see when they brought him up to the bigs last year.
He slugged 14 home runs with 40 RBIs as St. Louis fought their way into the playoffs.
Speaking with The Rafu Shimpo in September, Nootbaar said he was weighing options for the WBC, and while no decisions had been made at the time, he was excited at the prospect of taking part as a member of any team.
On Thursday, Ohtani said he has notified Japan manager Hideki Kuriyama, his former
skipper at the Nippon Ham Fighters, that he is prepared to play at the World Baseball Classic.
“I have officially informed Team Japan Manager Mr. Kuriyama that I would like to participate in next year’s WBC,” Ohtani said on his Instagram account.
Kuriyama helped Ohtani build his career as a two-way player when they worked together at the Fighters in Japan’s Pacific League between 2013 and 2017.
“Looking forward for the opportunity to face the best players around the world and to be able to play in front of the Japanese fans for the first time in over 5 years!!” Ohtani wrote.
This past August, Ohtani was given approval to take part in his first WBC by Angels general manager Perry Minasian.
Ohtani was unable to play in the previous edition, won by the U.S. in 2017, because of a right ankle injury.
Two-time WBC champion Japan will first face China on March 9 in Pool B at Tokyo Dome. The semifinals and the final will be played in Miami.
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Ohtani missed out on becoming the first Japanese to win two MVP awards in MLB on Thursday, when the Angels’ slugging ace pitcher and 2021 winner finished runner-up in the American League to New York Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge.
Judge’s 62 home runs set an AL record that had stood since 1961 and also led MLB with 133 runs and 131 RBIs, and received 28 of the 30 first-place votes cast to win for the first time.
Ohtani, who took part in the televised award announcement, said he was very impressed by Judge’s performance.
“More than all the talk about the MVP, every day I watched him as a player,” Ohtani said. “He was a must-watch and I enjoyed the show as he kept hitting one after the other.
“From next year on, I want to do my best to be back here often (at the announcements).”
A year after being the unanimous MVP, Ohtani, who won an MLB career-high 15 games in 2022 while hitting 34 home runs, received just two first-place votes and 28 second-place votes from the 30 writers who vote for the award.
Ohtani became the first player since 1903 with enough plate appearances and innings pitched in the same season to qualify for both the batting and ERA titles.
In his fifth season since moving from the Nippon Ham Fighters of Japan’s Pacific League, where he was the 2016 MVP, Ohtani was third in the AL with 219 strikeouts, while his 2.33 ERA was the AL’s fourth best. He also drove in 95 runs.
“Personally, I had an amazingly good season. Last year, my batting was better, and this year I was better as a pitcher,” said Ohtani, just hours after he announced he would take part in the WBC.
“If I’m selected to play, I’ll want to do my level best to put on a show since I haven’t played in Japan in such a long time.”