How Lars Nootbaar — and his celebration — became a sensation for Japan in World Baseball Classic

As expected, this week the Japanese team made it through Group B and took a place in the quarterfinals of the World Baseball Classic. Japan showed a perfect score in the billiards game with a score of 4:0 and beat their opponents with a score of 38:8. They will face Italy in the quarterfinals. The winner goes on and the loser goes home. Japan won the WBC in 2006 and 2009 and finished third in 2013 and 2017.

The exceptional Shohei Otani, of course, played a major role in the first round. He went 6 for 12 with three doubles, a home run and seven plate walks during a pool game, and struck out five of four scoreless innings in his start against China. Kensuke Kondo of Japan’s Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks won 7 out of 15 with four doubles and a homer in a pool game. He was excellent too.

Japan has another player starring in the WBC: Lars Nootbaar. The St. Louis Cardinals outfielder hit 6 of 14 with two stolen bases and more walks (four) than strikeouts (three) in Team Japan’s four first-round games. He leads Kondo and Otani and seems to be at the center of every rally in Japan, and he was also a star player in midfield.

Nutbaar is the first non-Japanese player to ever 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. Nutbaar’s middle name is Taylor-Tatsuji, and his maternal grandfather, Tatsuji Enokida, still lives in Higashi-Matsuyama.

The Japanese team and the Japanese fans have fully embraced Nootbaar. During practice, the players wore T-shirts with the words “Tachan”, Nutbara’s nickname written in Japanese, and the chant “Chickpeas!” Nut! Nut! could be heard during the first round games in Tokyo Dome. The Nootbaar Pepper Grinder Celebration with the Cardinals has become popular, with fans now bringing pepper grinders to games.

“We wanted to celebrate the hit a little, do something,” Knutbar told during an exhibition game with Japan ahead of the WBC. “We didn’t really know what to come up with. And so (Ohtani) said, “Whatever I go there and do in the first place, that’s what we will work with.” So I went out (and got hit) in the first inning, we had a pepper mill there. And you know, we’re kind of stuck with her.”

The fact that Nutbaar plays in the WBC, not to mention a powerful team like Japan, is remarkable. Early in his career, he was considered a minor prospect. It wasn’t until two years later, when he made a few swing changes, that he broke through. Knutbar, 25, spent some time with Triple-A early last year. He finished the season with a .228/.340/.448 hit and 14 homers in 108 games for St. Louis. Now he is starring in the WBC and in front of his family in Japan.

“Being in the Tokyo Dome, representing Japan for the first time, is quite a surreal experience.” Knutbar recently told The Associated Press.. “… (My family) is proud. It’s great for me to be able to do it for them too. I don’t talk to them very often, I see them very often. My family is together from different parts of the world. It’s a special moment for me.”

Nutbar and Japan will play Italy in the quarter-finals on Thursday. Japan is aiming for their third WBC title and trying to become the second undefeated team in the WBC by joining the 2017 Dominican Republic team.


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