Being selected to play for Japan has fulfilled one of Lars Nootbaar's childhood dreams, but hearing of encouraging words from Hall of Fame slugger Sadaharu Oh gave him the chills Saturday.

Before Samurai Japan's World Baseball Classic opener against China on March 9 at Tokyo Dome, Oh praised the contributions of two Americans to the WBC teams of their mothers' homelands -- Nootbaar with Japan and Tommy Edman with South Korea.

"Nootbaar is producing, and because of that you don't hear a single person complain that he is in the starting lineup," Oh had told Kyodo News after Nootbaar played in two warmup games. "I wish them both the best success."

For Nootbaar, speaking after Japan held its first full workout in Miami ahead of Monday's WBC semifinal against Mexico, hearing what Oh had said only added to what has been a "life-changing" experience.

Lars Nootbaar poses after earning a post-game hero interview for helping Japan to a 13-4 victory over South Korea in a World Baseball Classic Pool B game at Tokyo Dome in Tokyo on March 10, 2023. (Kyodo) ==Kyodo

"It gives me chills.... That's special hearing him say those words. That means a ton," Nootbaar said.

Before Nootbaar signed on to play for Samurai Japan, manager Hideki Kuriyama predicted the St. Louis Cardinals outfielder would make an impact on the team. And although the electricity he has brought has been apparent, Nootbaar said he is the one who has been most empowered.

"It's been absolutely a blast to have that fan support to accept me. They didn't have to," he said. "They didn't know what to expect, but coming over to Japan was an absolute blessing. I couldn't ask for anything better. I'll always be thankful. It was a life-changing experience for me. I'm super thankful."

As Japan's leadoff hitter and center fielder, Nootbaar has been a force with his impressive fielding and hitting, and his ability to integrate into a baseball culture that can sometimes be insular.

Nootbaar said that before traveling to Japan, he was repeatedly asked about how he would fit in, and admitted to being anxious. Those nerves were calmed when the entire team greeted him wearing specially made T-shirts, emblazoned with his new Samurai Japan nickname, "Tacchan," in his honor. The nickname is derived from his middle name Tatsuji.

"When they had that Tacchan shirt, I couldn't ask for a better group of guys and staff. That's something that I'm going to take back with me and forever be thankful for," he said.

Lars Nootbaar (C) pumps up teammates during Japan's team huddle prior to a World Baseball Classic Pool B game against South Korea at Tokyo Dome in Tokyo on March 10, 2023. (Pool photo)(Kyodo) ==Kyodo

Since arriving, things have gone better and better. He has remained in the starting lineup since a March 6 warmup game and enjoyed a raucous welcome from the fans. Now Nootbaar is counting down to the next WBC in 2026.

"Being able to wear Japan across my chest is one thing, but for the fans and everyone to be so supportive it kind of doubles down on that. It's one thing for me to feel it but for the fans to feel it as well.... (It's) something I'll wear proudly for the rest of my life. I hope to be back in three years."

Perhaps then he will be able to realize another ambition. He would have liked to meet Oh in Tokyo but it did not happen.

"I was really disappointed by that. I hope that I can sometime in the future," Nootbaar said.

"He's obviously a legend and there are guys in the major leagues who are still watching his swing, and trying to take bits and pieces from what he did," Nootbaar said.

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