For those watching Pools A & B of the 2023 World Baseball Classic, the energy in both Taichung and Tokyo is palpable. Both stadiums are absolutely bumping for all nine innings of every game. But no player has captured the imagination of either stadium like Lars Nootbaar has enamored the Tokyo Dome with him in just two games.

The Cardinals centerfielder has been a bona fide star so far in the World Baseball Classic. He went 2 for 4 with two walks and two runs in the first game and 2 for 4 with another two runs and an RBI in the second. He also made a sterling defensive play from centerfield in each. It’s helped to contribute to an 8-1 win over China and a 13-4 win over Japan’s arch-rival Korea, putting Japan atop Pool B in the early going.

Nootbaar has even gotten into the spirit of Japan’s rivalries, staring down Korea’s Yun-sik Kim after being plunked in the back in the sixth inning of Japan vs. Korea.

Nootbaar is representing Japan because he is Japanese on his mother’s side, and so far he’s representing it well. Although Shohei Ohtani is the player people are turning out in droves to see – the Tokyo Dome has had just over 40,000 fans in each of Japan’s first two games – Nootbaar is quickly rising to must-see status.

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His pepper grinder celebration has made it into the baseball fan zeitgeist in Japan, thanks in no small part to the Ohtani Bump (TM) with fans bringing grinders into the stadium to celebrate alongside Samurai Japan.

The outfielder’s diving catch against China is already memorialized in a card.

And both big catches were made before Japan was able to pull away in either game.

Ahead of Japan’s game against top rival Korea, Nootbaar gave the pregame speech through a translator.

“We got six games left as brothers, and as family,” he said. “Last night, first game nerves are over with. Today we play loose and we play free.”

He then thanked fans after the game in Japanese to raucous cheers in the Tokyo Dome.

His words translated to “I love Japan. Thank you everyone.”

Why is Lars Nootbaar playing for Japan?

Nootbaar is the first ever American-born player to play for Japan.

He is Japanese on his mother’s side, and he elected to represent that in this year’s World Baseball Classic.

How did Lars Nootbaar prepare for the World Baseball Classic?

Nootbaar is the first American-born player to play for Samurai Japan, but this is something he’s wanted for a long time.

Even as a child, Nootbaar said he wanted to represent Japan.

In an interview, Nootbaar also detailed how Ohtani’s interpreter Ippei Mizuhara got him to play for Japan.

Nootbaar said ahead of the WBC he was practicing the language and the Japanese national anthem, which cameras have seen him singing ahead of games.

“I am going to try (to learn) a little bit (of Japanese),” Nootbaar said at the end of January, per The Japan Times. “Obviously, it’s going to be tough to learn a language in a month. I’m going to try my best. My mom is singing the Japanese national anthem in the house. I’m repeating it. We’re just doing the little stuff like that.”

What Lars Nootbaar’s teammates think of him playing for Japan

Nootbaar’s Cardinals teammates spoke on Nootbaar’s immediate fame in Japan during USA’s press before Pool C begins Saturday.

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“It looks like they love him,” said Cardinals third baseman Nolan Arenado of Nootbaar. “They should. He plays hard. He plays really hard. But he’s really proud to represent his Japanese heritage. And he’s taking it super serious. And I saw a video of him screaming at the fans and they screamed back at him so you know he’s feeling it right now and you’ve got to give him credit. They’re a good team.”

Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright added on.

“We’re having so much fun watching Lars, and (South Korea second baseman Tommy Edman) too,” he said. “And our guys who have been on TV so far. But Lars is an exciting player. He’s always the guy trying to pump the crowd up and pump our fanbase up and pump the team up.”

Wainwright also talked about how big players like Nootbaar are for the game of baseball.

“We’re just putting baseball on the map in a lot of different countries,” he said. “And Lars is doing that in Japan right now. He’s representing himself and their country of Japan really well. He’s representing (the Cardinals) and the game of baseball.”

Japan, of course, doesn’t need baseball put anywhere on its map. But Nootbaar’s status could well draw in some increased Cardinals viewership from overseas next year. Angels hats are peppered all throughout the Tokyo Dome during these games. Don’t be surprised to see Cardinals hats crop up throughout the quarterfinals, which will also be played in Tokyo.

Why is Lars Nootbaar called Tacchan?

When Nootbaar was welcome to Samurai Japan, members of the team greeted him in shirts that read “Tacchan.”

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Nootbaar’s middle name is Tatsuji, so Tacchan is a play off of that. The “-chan” suffix is one of affection in this derivation of Nootbaar’s middle name.

According to The Japan News, Nootbaar loved the gesture.

Lars Nootbaar and Shohei Ohtani

One of the most beloved pairings of teammates of the early World Baseball Classic has been Nootbaar and Ohtani.

It was evident they were getting along when Ohtani “borrowed” Nootbaar’s pepper grinder celebration. But the two are, in a word, hilarious together.

Japan has something truly special with its team. Nootbaar and Ohtani, of course, already had MLB in common. But not only has Samurai Japan embraced him, the entire country seemingly has. He’s been a key part of Japan’s team at the top of the order and in the outfield, and Japan – one of the favorites entering this year’s World Baseball Classic – is living up to its billing.