MIAMI – America’s journey to defend a prestigious baseball honor begins with Nolan Arenado.

Team USA secured the last World Baseball Classic title in 2017 when Arenado completed a routine ground-ball play for the tournament’s final out.

“There’s something special about representing your country,” said Arenado recalling his first WBC experience. “It just feels different than wearing a major-league uniform. It’s an unbelievable honor.”

U.S. pitcher David Robertson, left, and infielder Nolan Arenado celebrate the team’s 8-0 win over Puerto Rico in the final of the World Baseball Classic in Los Angeles, Wednesday, March 22, 2017. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Six years later, Arenado returns for another run with Team USA. The 31-year-old is one of few American starters returning to the WBC stage after a lengthy wait. Through one global pandemic and the switch to a new baseball home, he realized his upcoming chance wasn’t guaranteed.

“We’re all getting older, so who knows how longer we’ll be able to do it,” said Arenado. “My goal after 2017 was, ‘Hopefully, I’m still playing well enough to make this team again.’ That was always the goal in mind, and now the opportunity is here. I want to do it, try to win this thing again.”

Arenado, also preparing for his third season with the St. Louis Cardinals, will be joined on Team USA by MLB teammates Paul Goldschmidt, Adam Wainwright and Miles Mikolas. The upcoming WBC also represents a second go-around for reigning NL MVP Goldschmidt.

“It’s one of the greatest baseball experiences of my life,” said Goldschmidt on his 2017 WBC run. “The two or three weeks we were together, I made a lot of lifelong friends. I was recruiting as many guys as I could [from 2017] to get back on the team. I was basically begging to get back this time.”

For Wainwright, it’s the first time he’s ever been asked to participate in the WBC. In 2017, he was just two seasons removed from a tough Achilles injury. In 2013, same deal, but with Tommy John surgery. And in the tournament’s first two years, 2006 and 2009, he worked to establish his place in the major leagues.

“I didn’t consider playing in those because I didn’t have an opportunity,” said Wainwright, retiring at the 2023 season’s end. “I would’ve loved to play in all of them. I am very proud to be representing our country. Patriotic guy. I love wearing the red, white and blue and representing our country, and I can’t wait to do that for our USA team.”

Arenado, Goldschmidt and Wainwright all joined a Zoom call with media members Tuesday. All three see the tournament as a chance to accelerate their usual preparations for a new season.

United States’ Jonathan Lucroy, left, greets Paul Goldschmidt (44) after he scored during a first-round game of the World Baseball Classic on Saturday, March 11, 2017, in Miami. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

“The intense games, the intense environment that the World Baseball Classic has, it just gets you ready so quick,” said Arenado. “You have no other choice than to get ready so fast. Every game is so important.”

“Every time we’ve done [the WBC], guys have gotten more comfortable with it,” said Goldschmidt. “We had some intense games against the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and other teams. It’s different than your regular season game or playoff-type atmosphere, maybe even more just because there’s no build up and one-game elimination.”

“I’m going to ramp up a little bit more,” said Wainwright. “I’ll have a couple more innings of [spring training] baseball before I get out there. I’m prepared, I’m in shape, and if the years have taught me anything, it’s how to prepare for a spring training and what I can get out of my body.”

Arenado and Goldschmidt believe this year’s World Baseball Classic will draw more top athletes than previous tournaments.

“I feel like the hype is a little higher this time around than in 2017,” said Arenado. “More guys want to do it and represent their countries, not just the USA, but all over. I think it’s a great thing. I hope more people catch on.”

“A lot of guys had a chip on their shoulder to want to be the first team to win it,” said Goldschmidt. “We were able to do that. Hopefully that’s showing or motivating more guys, whether with Team USA or another team, to want to play.”

Wainwright says Goldschmidt and Arenado encouraged him to compete in this year’s tournament, and following Team USA’s last title further sparked his interest.

“I remember watching win the gold medal a few years ago,” said Wainwright. “I was watching every pitch. I couldn’t wait to watch those games. It was really fun, and I’m glad to be a part of it.”

St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Adam Wainwright celebrates in the sixth inning in Game 3 of a baseball National League Division Series on Sunday, Oct. 6, 2019, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

It may be Uncle Charlie’s first WBC, but not the only time he pushed to represent America’s pastime on a global stage. He considered preparing for the 2020 Summer Olympics had he moved forward with retirement years earlier. In 2003, he just missed the cut to pitch in the Olympic Baseball Qualifying Tournament in Panama.

“I’ve been carrying that chip on my shoulder for a long time,” said Wainwright. “I’d really like to make the team, be a part of the team and bring home a gold medal for the country. I’d like to right that ship, and it’s certainly driven me to be better.”

There’s a strong chance the Cardinals of Team USA could square up one-on-one against fellow teammates. It’s expected that 18 Cardinals players and prospects will compete in the WBC next month, including Tommy Edman of Team Korea and Lars Nootbaar of Team Japan.

Adding to that excitement, longtime Cardinals catcher and Wainwright’s record-sharing battery mate Yadier Molina will manage Team Puerto Rico.

“If we face Puerto Rico, Yadi’s got a scouting report on all of us pretty darn good,” said Arenado joyfully. “Knowing Yadi, he probably won’t talk to us. He might talk to Waino, but he probably won’t talk to us because he really wants to win.”

“Yadi told me, since I was his brother, I should be on Team Puerto Rico,” Wainwright chimed in after Arenado’s comments. “I told him I couldn’t wait to pitch against Puerto Rico. He said, I’m going to know every pitch.”

If Team USA takes the crown again, they will join Team Japan as the only two squads with multiple WBC championships.

“I want to win more than anything,” said Goldschmidt. “That’s 100 percent where my mind is at. Anything else besides that will be good, but I want to win.”

“We’re playing this to win the Gold Medal,” said Arenado. “We’re the last team to win it. We want to do it again. There’s no goals other than that.”

Goldschmidt, Arenado, Wainwright and other Cardinals competing in the WBC will report to Florida next week to stay ahead in their conditioning for the tournament and new season.

The World Baseball Classic runs through the heart of MLB Spring Training (March 8-21) and consists of 20 international teams. Miami, Phoenix, Taiwan and Japan will all host several games. The upcoming WBC tournament will be the fifth since it debuted in 2006.