Rafu Wire and Staff Reports
St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Lars Nootbaar is poised to play for Japan in March’s World Baseball Classic, with manager Hideki Kuriyama saying last week that he is thrilled at what his inclusion will mean.
The 25-year-old SoCal native, whose mother is Japanese, has played 166 MLB games with a .231 career batting average, 19 home runs and 55 RBIs for St. Louis. He would be the first Japan player in the WBC who qualifies for selection based solely on ancestry.
“Even those nurtured in different countries’ baseball can connect on a person-to-person level,” said Kuriyama in an online media availability. “They can be companions.
“I think that is one of the strengths of sports, the ability to go beyond nationality. I told him this is a big first step for Japanese baseball.”
WBC rules allow players to represent any country whose laws enable them to become naturalized citizens, but this is a departure from Japanese baseball’s typically insular world.
“If one thinks about what is needed to win, of course, he’s going to be a candidate,” said Kuriyama, who has had his eye on overseas players of Japanese ancestry from the start.
“He’s a well-balanced player whose career in MLB is going to take off from here,” Kuriyama said. “I believe he can give us momentum.”
For his part, Nootbaar has said he was honored when Team Japan approached him last season about playing for his mother’s homeland in the WBC.
“I’m happy I get to do something that’s special for my mom really. Obviously, for me, it’s great and I can’t wait to play in it and represent Japan. It’s a special thing,” he said over the weekend at the Cardinals’ Winter Warm-Up. “I’m a mama’s boy, so anytime I can put a smile on her face and do that for her, it’s pretty cool.”
Although Nootbaar does not speak much Japanese, Kuriyama, who talked with him online, is confident he will be a hit with his Samurai Japan teammates.
“Everyone is going to like him,” the skipper said. “He’s a lovable guy and has a lot of heart.”
Nootbaar has tasked himself with learning as much Japanese as he can in the short period before the tournament gets under way.
The crash course apparently includes his mother, Kumi, repeatedly singing the Japanese national anthem, “Kimigayo,” around the house, so he will be able to join the team in singing along before games.
“It’s going to be tough to learn a language in a month, I’m going to try my best,” Nootbaar said.
It remains to be seen if the fan chants of “Nooooot” heard at Cardinals home games will make the trip to Tokyo as well.
Two-time champion Japan is scheduled to play its Pool B opener on March 9 against China at Tokyo Dome. The semifinals and final will be played in Miami between March 19 and 21.
Nootbaar told The Springfield Daily Citizen that he hopes to find himself in the unique position of playing against Cardinals teammates Nolan Arenado, Paul Goldschmidt and pitchers Adam Wainwright and Miles Mikolas.
“Obviously the favorites look like the Dominican and the United States. They have loaded rosters,” he said. “Japan, I think we’re gonna be pretty good, too. I’m super excited to play in the Tokyo Dome. It’s gonna be loud, rocking and crazy — a playoff-type environment in March.”
After starring in both football and baseball at El Segundo High School, Nootbaar put up solid numbers at USC before being selected by St. Louis in the 2018 MLB draft. His breakout season last year – including 14 home runs – has put him in a solid position to earn a starting spot with the Cardinals for 2023.
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In addition to Nootbaar, Kuriyama said he also expects to have Yakult Swallows star second baseman Tetsuto Yamada on the team.
Yamada, a speedy slugger, has had three seasons with a .300-plus average, along with 30 or more home runs and steals.
The 30-year-old played for Japan in the last WBC in 2017 and will likely compete for playing time with DeNA BayStars second baseman Shugo Maki, who was among the first 12 officially named to the Samurai Japan squad.
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Yakult Swallows lefty Keiji Takahashi is among the three pitchers who will complete Japan’s 30-man roster for the WBC, a source familiar with the matter said Monday.
The Nippon Ham Fighters’ Hiromi Ito and fellow right-hander Yuki Udagawa of the Orix Buffaloes will join Takahashi, as Kuriyama is set to include 15 pitchers in his roster for the tournament.
Kuriyama on Jan. 6 announced the first 12 men, led by Los Angeles Angels two-way star Shohei Ohtani and San Diego Padres right-hander Yu Darvish, who will be the team’s oldest member at 36, for the fifth edition of the tournament.
Kuriyama is expected to make more official announcements in the coming weeks. The official confirmation of the 30 players is expected by the end of the month.