Sep 29, 2022; Anaheim, California, USA; Los Angeles Angels starting pitcher Shohei Ohtani (17) throws to the plate in the second inning against the Oakland Athletics at Angel Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Trout is aware of how good Samurai Japan is — “stacked” was his word — but there’s a limit to what he’s willing to believe about a team that will feature Shohei Ohtani for the first time in the World Baseball Classic.

“Talking to Shohei about that team,” Trout said in a conference call with reporters last Friday, “he’s trying to tell me he’s not the best player on that team.

“There’s no way there’s somebody better than Shohei.”

You could span the globe, most sentient baseball observers would agree, and you’re not going to find anyone better than Ohtani, the once-in-a-century phenom who has dazzled Trout and his Los Angeles Angels teammates on a nightly basis either at the plate or on the mound for the last two seasons.

But it also is indisputable that Ohtani’s supporting cast will make Samurai Japan a strong contender to win the WBC, which is returning after a six-year absence this March to stake its spot on the global sporting landscape.

From the tournament’s inception, Japan has taken the WBC seriously, winning the first two tournaments in 2006 and 2009. The Japanese lost in the semifinals in 2013 (3-1 to Puerto Rico) and in 2017 (2-1 to the United States), but there is little doubt that this will be the strongest team Japan has ever fielded in the WBC.


Shohei Ohtani to make WBC debut as he leads Team Japan

Besides Ohtani, at least three other major leaguers will be representing Japan — San Diego Padres ace Yu Darvish, Chicago Cubs outfielder Seiya Suzuki and Masataka Yoshida, the on-base machine signed this winter by the Boston Red Sox to play left field after starring for seven seasons with the Orix Buffaloes, the winners of last year’s Japan Series.

And Samurai Japan broke precedent this year by adding St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Lars Nootbaar, who became the first non-Japanese native to be added to the team. Nootbaar, who was born in southern California and played at USC, has a mother, Kumiko, who is Japanese and holds Japanese citizenship.

The 25-year-old Nootbaar jumped at the chance to play for Japan after team officials reached out to him last summer.

“I’m happy to get to do something that’s special for my mom, really,” Nootbaar told reporters earlier this month. “Obviously for me it’s great, and I can’t wait to play in (the WBC) and represent Japan. It’s a special thing.

“I’m a mama’s boy, so any time I can put a smile on her face and do that for her, it’s pretty cool.”

Nootbaar hit 14 home runs in just 290 at-bats for the Cardinals last season after making his big-league debut in 2021, and he is expected to compete for regular time in the St. Louis outfield this year.

Japanese manager Hideki Kuriyama called a press conference earlier this month just to announce Nootbaar’s selection. “He is a well-balanced player on a robust growth path,” Kuriyama said.


Oct 12, 2022; Los Angeles, California, USA;San Diego Padres starting pitcher Yu Darvish (11) throws during the sixth inning of game two of the NLDS for the 2022 MLB Playoffs against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Darvish was just 19 when he made his WBC debut in 2006, then made the 2009 tournament his coming-out party when he made two starts and two relief appearances and struck out a tournament-high 20 batters in 13 innings. In the championship game against South Korea, he blew a save in the bottom of the ninth but was credited with the win when Japan scored twice in the 10th.

With the Padres last season, the 36-year-old Darvish threw 194 2/3 innings, his most since 2013, and made four starts in the playoffs, beating both the New York Mets and Los Angeles Dodgers before losing and registering a no-decision in two starts against the National League champion Philadelphia Phillies in the NL Championship Series.

Suzuki was 22 when he made his WBC debut in 2017, collecting three hits in 14 at-bats and walking twice in five games. Last season, his first with the Cubs, Suzuki battled injuries but still put up respectable numbers, hitting 14 home runs, stealing nine bases and posting a .770 OPS in 111 games.

Yoshida, 28, will be making his WBC debut for Samurai Japan. He won back-to-back batting titles in Japan’s Pacific League in 2020 and 2021, and last season, he posted a .447 on-base percentage for Orix and starred in the Japan Series, hitting two home runs in Game 5, including a walk-off blast. The Red Sox signed him to a five-year, $90 million contract and project him to be a top-of-the-lineup hitter.

It remains to be seen whether Samurai Japan will add another newcomer from the major leagues. Mets pitcher Kodai Senga may pass on the WBC in order to have a full camp with his new MLB club. For the past 11 seasons, the right-hander (who turns 30 on Jan. 30) was a mainstay of the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, helping his team win five Japan Series titles with a career 2.59 ERA, and he pitched for the gold-medal-winning Japanese squad at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021.

Kuriyama told reporters earlier this month in Japan that his team will "center on pitching.” His cache of quality arms does not end with Ohtani and Darvish.

Yoshinobu Yamamoto won the 2021 Sawamura Award (given to Japan’s top pitcher) and threw a no-hitter last June. A potential breakout star will be 21-year-old Roki Sasaki, who last April pitched a perfect game for Chiba Lotte in which he struck out 19 batters, including a mind-numbing 13 in a row, and has a fastball that touches 100 mph with preternatural break and a devastating splitter. Left-handers Shota Imanaga (Yokohama DeNA BayStars) and Keiji Takahashi (Tokyo Yakult Swallows) and right-handers Hiromi Itoh (Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters) and Yuki Udagawa (Orix) give Kuriyama other depth options.

But don’t sell the Japanese short at the plate. They will also be sending two of their most prodigious sluggers.

Munetaka Murakami of the Yakult Swallows hit 56 home runs last season to break Sadaharu Oh’s record for a native Japanese player, while Hotaka Yamakawa of the Seibu Lions, is a three-time Pacific League home run champion, hitting 41 homers last season. Murakami, who turns 23 on Feb. 2, bats from the left side, while Yamakawa, a 31-year-old first baseman, hits from the right.

All eyes, of course, will be on Ohtani, who missed the 2017 WBC with an ankle injury. “I remember watching the game with my heart pounding,” he said earlier this month, reflecting on his experience as a spectator.

The Angels, at least publicly, have not placed any limitations on Ohtani’s participation.

“I’m only thinking about a championship,” he said when announcing he’d play in this year’s WBC. “I’m only thinking about winning.”

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