ST. LOUIS – It’s almost Sho-Time in St. Louis, but not without one special reunion at Busch Stadium.
Shohei Ohtani, the pitcher-hitter phenom of the Los Angeles Angels, reunited with Lars Nootbaar on Tuesday for the first time since both won the World Baseball Classic title in March with Team Japan.
Before the Cardinals-Angels series opener, Ohtani and Nootbaar shared some laughs and enjoyed a pregame chat on the field.
Nootbaar waited a just little longer than he hoped for the reunion.
“I asked him if he wanted to go eat yesterday, he said he was sleeping,” said Nootbaar laughingly to media members ahead of Tuesday’s game.
Ohtani, one of few players in MLB history to excel as a hitter and pitcher at the same time, is set to take the mound Wednesday against the Cardinals, and likely slot into the Angels lineup at designated hitter.
Ohtani’s decorated resume includes an MVP and MVP runner-up honors, a Silver Slugger Award at DH and a fourth-place Cy Young finish over the last two seasons. Nootbaar says his success could be revolutionary for the game of baseball.
“He’s so above and beyond at both of those things,” said Nootbaar. “I think he’s opened some doors for people that maybe don’t have the exact ability. Maybe they’re Tier-2 or Tier-3 in both of them, [and] maybe they’ll be able to stay. Because he’s able to be elite at both of those, it’s pretty amazing.”
Ohtani last visited St. Louis four years ago, but the circumstances were quite different. He was dealing with some prolonged injuries that season, and there wasn’t yet a designated hitter rule at National League ballparks. Also, longtime Cardinals star Albert Pujols took much of the attention in Angels’ last go-around, returning to Busch Stadium as an opponent.
Tens of thousands will pack Busch Stadium to watch Ohtani compete, though Nootbaar says his character off the field stands out even more.
“He’s a humble dude,” said Nootbaar. “Awesome guy, awesome friend. Obviously an amazing baseball player, but pretty easy going. He’s really like a normal guy who has superhero ability and [he’s] completely okay with it.”
During the World Baseball Classic, Ohtani celebrated several big moments with a pepper-grinder motion, a celebration that Nootbaar encouraged Cardinals teammates to partake in last year when players came up with key hits and grinded out tough at-bats.
Nootbaar said Ohtani’s batting practice ahead of the WBC championship against Team USA in March really opened his eyes.
“When he went to Miami and took BP [for the WBC championship], I talked to Nolan [Arenado] after the game, and he said he had never seen anything like it,” said Ohtani. “For him to say that about Ohtani, that’s when I knew I wasn’t just making this thing up.”
The St. Louis Cardinals’ third baseman agreed. “Watching him in the WBC was special,” said Arenado. “To see what he does on the baseball field, it’s pretty special.”
As for facing Ohtani on Wednesday, especially as the Cardinals work to navigate out of a four-game losing streak, it could be challenging.
“We’re going to have a tough task when we face him,” said Arenado. “Our pitchers got to find a way to get him out as a hitter. Hopefully, he doesn’t do too much damage.”
“It will be a fun battle. I’m looking to forward to it,” said Nootbaar.
Ohtani, through his interpreter, is expected to talk with St. Louis media members after Wednesday’s start. Ohtani was rested and did not play in Tuesday’s series opener.