Rafu Staff and Wire Service Reports
Published March 11, 2023
When your new team shows up for workouts all wearing T-shirts emblazoned with your nickname, you’ve arrived at a truly welcoming place.
For Lars Taylor-Tatsuji Nootbaar, that place is his mother’s homeland. The native of El Segundo has made quite a splash as the first-ever foreign-born member of Japan’s team in the World Baseball Classic.
When Nootbaar began practicing with Samurai Japan ahead of warm-up games in Nagoya, he was handed a Japanese nickname – “Tatchan” – an endearing take on part of his name, Tatsuji, given to him in honor of his Japanese grandfather.
“It was really cool, and for me, a lot of my nerves really left my body, knowing that they accepted me. I was one of them as a teammate,” he said.
Nootbaar, 25, has found that he’s being more than accepted by fans and teammates alike. With his beaming smile, fun-loving approach and “gamer” style of play on the field, he has captured hearts across the country with the WBC tournament barely two days old.
In the sixth inning of Friday’s 13-4 Pool B victory over South Korea, Nootbaar was drilled in the middle of his back with a pitch from reliever Kim Yun Shik. Along most of his trot toward first base, Nootbaar shot a disapproving stare at the pitcher. His reaction instantly became the hot topic of discussion across social media in Japan.
“Japanese players are usually very dispassionate, but Nootbaar’s ‘stink-eye’ toward the pitcher really energized the team,” one fan commented.
After the win, he defused any tension over the beaning, saying it hit him right where he had been a bit stiff earlier.
“Yeah, I was rolling out that spot before the game, and it got me right in a good spot and loosened me up,” he joked, much to the delight of the sellout crowd at Tokyo Dome.
Nootbaar’s parents and other family are in Japan to watch him play, and have seen a notable history-making event become a nationwide sensation. Fans arrived at the first two games with homemade signs and banners in support of “Tatchan,” even fashioning a fight song in his honor.
Japan’s official uniform supplier, Mizuno, has pounced on Nootbaar’s popularity, producing and selling $24 rally towels that feature a nod to his trademark “pepper grinder” celebration – well-known to St. Louis Cardinals fans – along with the Samurai Japan logo.
Daily sports broadcasts are clamoring for any information they can gather about his upbringing and family, while his mother, Kumiko, has been flooded with interview requests.
Nootbaar has expressed immense gratitude that his 84-year-old grandfather, Tatsuji Enokida, has been able to watch him play.
“I am proud to see Lars wearing the Japanese uniform. I hope he hits many home runs and helps Samurai Japan win the championship,” Enokida told The Japan Times. “I will be very happy if he plays a role in strengthening ties between Japan and the U.S. through baseball.”
In Friday’s game, Masataka Yoshida went 3-for-3 with five RBIs, and Kensuke Kondo drove in three runs as Japan overcame an early three-run deficit to defeat South Korea.
Japan picked up its second consecutive win in the five-team, round-robin stage at Tokyo Dome, while South Korea fell to 0-2. Two-way star Shohei Ohtani went 2-for-3 with an RBI.
Nootbaar ignited Japan’s offense again from the leadoff spot. The St. Louis Cardinal
had an RBI single among his two hits and made a diving catch in center field for the second night in a row.
“Feels great. (I’m) proud to be a Japan member and always good to get a win,” Nootbaar said. “Obviously, you know, (I’m) happy that we got that hit, but most importantly, we won the game, one through nine, good pitching all throughout. Good win.”
Yang Eui Ji put South Korea on the board first with a two-run homer, and Lee Jung Hoo added an RBI single for a 3-0 lead in the top of the third inning against Yu Darvish.
But Japan answered back in the bottom half as new Boston Red Sox acquisition Yoshida singled in two runs to cap a four-run rally.
“I reacted well to that (breaking ball),” Yoshida said of his two-run single. “I’m glad I was able to contribute to the win.”
Kondo, one of Japan’s best contact hitters, homered leading off the fifth. Ohtani followed with a double down the right-field line, moved to third on a groundout, and scored on a sacrifice fly by Yoshida, making it 6-3.
Japan, the only two-time WBC champion, put the game away with a five-run sixth that included an RBI single by Ohtani.
Both starting pitchers with major league experience had disappointing outings.
Darvish of the San Diego Padres allowed three runs, two earned, in three innings, while Kim Kwang Hyun, who won a total of 10 games for the Cardinals in 2020-21, gave up four runs in two-plus innings.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida threw out the ceremonial first pitch of the game.
“Japan played well,” South Korea manager Lee Kang Chul said. “It was a tough game for us. I feel responsible for being unable to make pitching changes at the right times. We had many young players, and the team couldn’t give 100 percent.”
In Friday’s other Pool B game, Martin Muzik hit a three-run homer in the top of the ninth inning as the Czech Republic beat China 8-5.
On Saturday, Australia will face China before Japan takes on the Czechs.
Team USA plays Great Britain Saturday in Pool C.
Once the WBC is finished, Nootbaar will quickly prepare for his third season with the Cardinals. He said joining the Samurai Japan was another milestone in what has already been a dynamic career.
“It was like making a second (MLB) debut, basically,” Nootbaar said Monday, the first day tournament rules permitted MLB players in Pool B to take the field with their teams. “It was a pretty amazing feeling, being able to do something to represent – and do something special for – my mom’s side of the family and my mom specifically and represent Japan means a lot.”
Kyodo photos (except where noted)