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How Lars Nootbaar’s popularity helps expand the Cardinals brand in Japan: Cardinals Extra

JUPITER, Fla. — A trip across the street in Tokyo to see the dinner options at the nearest 7-Eleven became Lars Nootbaar’s first tip about what it’s like being a sensation.

Within minutes, he was spotted, a crowd gathered, photos were taken, and autographs, so many autographs were requested of Team Japan’s center fielder and leadoff hitter. A short walk for a quick bite became a long adventure.

“I literally had no real reason to go over there other than I wanted to see, to be a tourist for a little bit,” Nootbaar said. “It was a whole ordeal.”

It may just be starting — for him and the Cardinals.

Two days after winning the World Baseball Classic and a gold medal with Team Japan, Nootbaar returned to his day job, starting in the outfield for the Cardinals. He walked in his second plate appearance and scored the team’s lone run in a 1-1 tie with the New York Yankees on Thursday afternoon at Roger Dean Stadium. A few hours earlier, he said that any celebration from winning the international tournament was limited because the next day dawned with a two-hour drive north from Miami to rejoin spring training. After a whirlwind, world-traveling few weeks, returning to the Cardinals was already different than when he left.

There were reporters from Japan waiting to interview him, and it’s possible one reporter said that an outlet from Japan will follow the Cardinals more this season.

Shohei Ohtani, the Angels’ two-way phenom and Team Japan’s superstar, gifted Nootbaar a luxury watch — but in exchange for a promise. He told Nootbaar he’d take the watch back if he did not play for Team Japan in 2026’s World Baseball Classic. Nootbaar said he’ll keep his word and play for Team Japan, if asked. He wants to find a way to visit his teammates this offseason, though it’s possible baseball could take him there before the next WBC.

The Cardinals are actively attempting to widen their brand to a global audience. They have been expanding their presence in Japan and Asia over the past several years. This season, for the first time, they’ve hired a full-time scout, Isao O’Jimi, to focus mostly on Japan’s pro league, the NPB. John Mozeliak, president of baseball operations, said the scout will give the Cardinals “a local touch on what’s happening.”

The Cardinals prioritized being selected for a series in London — where they will play in June — and previously traveled to Mexico for a series. The team will approach Major League Baseball to be involved in forthcoming series or exhibitions in Japan and South Korea.

“It’s on the table in the future,” Mozeliak said. “Especially now that we have a player.”

The Cardinals will open this season with at least two players they signed after scouting them in Japan’s highest league — pitchers Miles Mikolas and Drew VerHagen. A third, lefty Andrew Suarez, has had an impressive (and scoreless) camp. Matt Slater, a special assistant to the general manager and part of the Cardinals’ player procurement group, has bridged a working relationship with the reigning Japan Series champions, the Orix Buffaloes.

The Cardinals have made successful bids to sign KBO stars Kwang Hyun Kim and Seung Hwan Oh as well as amateur standout Won-Bin Cho. But they have not signed a Japan-born player from the NPB since So Taguchi, back in January 2002. They had internal discussions this past winter about pursuing outfielder Masataka Yoshida but did not see a fit with returning outfielders like Nootbaar and rising prospect Jordan Walker. Yoshida signed a five-year, $90-million deal with Boston — and hit a pivotal home run for Japan in its WBC semifinal win.

Mozeliak said the Cardinals’ improved ability to take “an analytical look” at the foreign leagues and a full-time scout in Japan will heighten their comfort with pursuits.

Nootbaar has raised their profile.

The young outfielder’s pepper-grinder celebration spread through Team Japan and was mimicked by high school and youth league players in Japan. Nootbaar jerseys proliferated in Tokyo — including fans wearing his Cardinals jersey.

Nootbaar acknowledged that he was nervous about joining Team Japan because of its established players, the language barrier, and the history he’d be making as the first U.S.-born player on the roster. He quickly found a connection with the culture of the Cardinals clubhouse he left and the national team’s he joined.

“Team Japan was asking me all these questions, obviously (because) it’s a win-now type thing, and this is great,” Nootbaar said. “This is similar to my role with the Cardinals, where it’s you’ve got to win every day and you’ve got to compete for your spot. Nothing is really given. In terms of that, I thought it was a great fit because I was going into spring training with a very competitive environment, (and) go into the WBC and kind of have to do the exact same thing.

“In terms of urgency of winning and playing was very similar,” he concluded. “I thought it was a good fit.”

Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol announced in December that Nootbaar would “play every day” and that the only question was where. Nootbaar started in left field Thursday, played center field for Samurai Japan, and will see time in right as soon as this weekend. His position may depend on the final roster decisions elsewhere in the outfield. Atop Japan’s lineup, Nootbaar finished the tournament with a .424 on-base percentage and seven runs. All of his hits were singles on his way to a .269 average (seven-for-26). His RBI groundout in the championship game broke a 1-1 tie and put Japan ahead of Team USA for good.

Nolan Arenado praised Team Japan for already seeing in Nootbaar a player who could start for their championship bid. Marmol said the tournament “just proves what we’re seeing and what we’re projecting is real.” And that really is what will give Nootbaar’s new popularity true staying power: performance.

“If I were to bask in anything that just happened, I’d be a fool,” Nootbaar said. “This clubhouse does a good job of humbling you. Because you look around and they’ve accomplished so many things. You can’t do much gloating at all. …

“Now, it’s time to go.”

Extra Bases

Challenged all spring for the backup catcher spot, Andrew Knizner has secured that role to start the season and, if healthy, will be on the opening day roster next week as Cardinals break camp. Sources confirmed the decision that the team has yet to state officially. … Lefty Suarez continues to press for one of the open spots in the Cardinals’ bullpen with another scoreless inning Thursday against the Yankees. In nine appearances, Suarez has yet to allow a run, and he’s struck out eight in nine innings. He’s a relentless strike-thrower with movement on his pitches that leads to some awkward swings and meek contact. Opponents are hitting .188 against him. … Anthony Misiewicz was optioned to Class AAA Memphis’ roster on Thursday morning, reducing the camp roster to 40. Misiewicz was acquired from Kansas City at the start of camp, and he did well within the lefty competition. He allowed three runs on eight hits and struck out eight in seven innings. … The Cardinals have tied three consecutive nine-inning spring training games for the first time in at least 30 years, per Elias. Reliable records do not go back before 30 years. The 0-0 tie with Miami on Wednesday was the first scoreless tie for a nine-inning spring training featuring the Cardinals since 2015.

St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Lars Nootbaar pulls on this batting gloves before stepping in the batting cage at the Cardinals spring training complex in Jupiter, Florida on Tuesday, Feb, 14, 2023. Photo by David Carson,

St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Lars Nootbaar pulls on this batting gloves before stepping in the batting cage at the Cardinals spring training complex in Jupiter, Florida on Tuesday, Feb, 14, 2023. Photo by David Carson,

Derrick Goold

@dgoold on Twitter

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