Nightengale's Notebook: Bobby Witt Jr. 'soaking it all in' as Team USA's youngest player for WBC

PHOENIX — He’s just a 22-year-old kid, barely old enough to drink, but here is shortstop Bobby Witt Jr., finding himself in the same clubhouse as the greatest stars in the game.

Witt is the only player on Team USA that was born in the 21st century. My God, he’s 20 years younger than Adam Wainwright, who started the USA's Saturday win over Great Britain in the World Baseball Classic.

Witt looks around, having collected baseball cards from just about everyone in the clubhouse, and still has trouble believing that he’s one of them.

“It’s a blast, these are the things you dream of,’’ Witt told USA TODAY Sports before Saturday’s game. “It’s like a two-way All-Star game. It’s incredible just getting around these guys, seeing all of the All-Stars, and the work they put in. You’re just talking about baseball, or whatever, every single day, which is awesome.

“You kind of emulate what those guys are doing, and learning what I need to do to get ready. Believe me, I’m soaking it all in.’’

Bobby Witt Jr. during a Team USA workout before the start of the WBC.
Bobby Witt Jr. during a Team USA workout before the start of the WBC.

Witt, of course, is a future star himself for the Kansas City Royals. He finished fourth in the American League rookie of the year balloting leading all rookies with 30 stolen bases, 80 RBI, and 57 extra-base hits. He was just the fifth player 22 years or younger to hit 20 homers and steal 30 bases in the same season

“He’s going to be a star,’’ said St. Louis Cardinals third baseman Nolan Arenado, a seven-time All-Star and 10-time Gold Glove winner. “Well, I take that back, he’s already a star. He’s going to a great one.’’

“He’s a star,’’ says St. Louis Cardinals third baseman Nolan Arenado, “and he’s going to be a superstar in a matter of time. It’ll pro3bably be this year. He’s a really good ballplayer, man.

"I just love watching the way he works. He hits the ball hard. When I was at that age, I wasn’t moving like that. So it’s pretty cool to see.’’

The USA players and coaching staff have a hard time believing Witt is only 22, with the maturity of a 42-year-old. It helps, of course, that he grew up in major-league clubhouses, the son of pitcher Bobby Witt, who had a 16-year career.

He doesn’t have that glossy resume yet like the rest of his teammates, but, oh, it’s coming.

“Obviously, he’s supremely talented,’’ USA manager Mark DeRosa said. “He’s going to be one of the great players in the game in short order. I told him when he got here, “Take a backseat to no one. Nuzzle up to these guys. You’ll be the one, a couple of years from now, kind of putting your arm around some guys.’

“I just want him to enjoy this, but the bottom line is everyone is going to have to contribute for us to win.”

Yes, and that includes Witt, who won’t be a regular, and may not get much playing time with All-Star shortstops Trea Turner and Tim Anderson on the roster.

Still, no matter how much he sits on the bench just watching and cheering, simply being around the All-Stars and MVPs will be invaluable in his career.

This is why he didn’t hesitate accepting a spot on the team, no questions asked.

Witt was driving home the day after the Royals’ season ended when his cell phone rang. It was Team USA general manager Tony Reagins and DeRosa. They asked if he was interested.

He accepted before the light turned green.

“I didn’t wait,’’ Witt says.

“I wanted this opportunity to be around these guys, and have USA across my chest.’’

Witt wasn’t in the starting lineup Saturday, likely won’t be Sunday against Mexico either, and may be fortunate to get even one start in the tournament.

No matter, he says, he just wants to soak it all in.

“I’m learning the little things, doing the fundamentals right, getting your body right, and getting ready for the game,’’ Witt says. “They made me understand that you’ve got to make sure your body feels good, your bat feels good, your glove feels good, and making sure everything is just right.’’

Most of all, he’s learning that he belongs, right alongside Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, Paul Goldschmidt, and all of the other greats.

One day, there will be WBC teammates looking up at him saying they collected his baseball card growing up.

“I don’t have to try to be anyone else,’’ Witt says, “I can just go out there and be Bobby Witt. If Mike Trout is in there, he’s just being himself. He’s being Mike Trout, going out there and having fun.

“Now that I’m a part of this team, it gives you confidence, knowing that you’re a hand-picked guy, and you might be something, too.

“It’s truly an honor.’’

Beautiful moment in Phoenix

Rio Gomez, 28, the son of beloved late ESPN broadcaster Pedro Gomez, grew up watching games at Chase Field in Phoenix, and for the first time  stepped onto the field representing Colombia.

“It’s such an honor representing my mom, her entire side of the family,’’ Gomez said. “I don’t want to do wrong by her. This is definitely the biggest thrill of my life, no doubt about it.’’

Gomez grew up a Diamondbacks fan, and was there the night of Nov. 4, 2001, when the Diamondbacks won their World Series title over the New York Yankees and his father was a columnist for the Arizona Republic.

And, yes, he knows that his dad was there in spirit on Saturday.

“I know he’d be here covering the tournament right now,’’ Gomez says, “but I know he’s still here. I know it. I can feel him.’’

Team Italy stays caffeinated

Hall of Fame catcher Mike Piazza, who’s managing Team Italy, found it amusing that a photo of a dugout espresso machine was creating such a buzz.

“We are kind of shocked, actually, because this is something in Italian culture that's sort of like water,’’ Piazza said. “I mean, coffee would be right after water. That was something collectively that we just said, you know, who is going to get the espresso machine? There wasn't a lot of debate there.

So I think it's funny. You know, if we could, we would have a barista in there making it fresh with the ceramic. I don't like espresso out of a paper cup; it's kind of sacrilege. But when it's the only option you have, you have to deal with it.

“Maybe next time we'll bring the metallic machine with the copper eagle on the top and someone in there knocking espressos out.

“You have to make the most with the tools you have.’’

Another plus of the new rules

The biggest advantage to the pitch clock, managers are saying, is the ability to keep their players – particularly catchers – off the field for an extra 30 minutes a night.

The time of spring-training games this year are 2 hours, 36 minutes, 30 minutes shorter than the 3:01 in last year’s spring-training games. Of course, it’s a bit different since players were coming off the lockout with a short spring.

Still, MLB is hoping for regular-season games to average 2 hours, 40 minutes this year compared to 3:06 last season.

“That really helps the players, and it will definitely benefit the bodies of these players,’’ Cubs manager David Ross says. “I think it’s created a more aggressive approach at the plate, a more aggressive approach on the mound, and I think all of those things are good for our game.’’

Says Angels manager Phil Nevin: “I am anxious to see how this plays out, how guys feel come June, July, especially when it’s hot out there on the field. You’re not standing out there as long.

“The counter to that is pitchers will have to work quicker, especially those starters who go deep into the game. We’ll have to live it, and see how it goes.

“Now, if Shoehi [Ohtani] ends up on second base and he comes in and has to pitch, he has a little routine before he goes out. They [umpires] told him they’d treat him like a catcher and use their best judgement, so we’ll see how they treat it, if you will. I think there’s going to be some times he’ll feel a little rushed, but knowing him, he’ll adjust.’’

So, will there be any impact for managers with games ending games early?

“It might on the liver,’’ Nevin said, laughing.

Living legend in the Far East

St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Lars Nootbaar has become a cult hero in this WBC playing for Team Japan, the first team to qualify for the quarterfinals.

Why, the only player on the team more popular right now is Shohei Ohtani.

The Japanese fans have loved his passion, his pepper-grinder celebration, and, of course, his play.

He is the first American-born player to play for Team Japan with his mother being Japanese.

“It looks like they love him," says Cardinals teammate Nolan Arenado. They should. He plays hard. He plays really hard. But he's really proud to represent his Japanese heritage. And he's taking it super serious.

“I saw a video of him screaming at the fans and they screamed back at him so you know he's feeling it right now and you've got to give him credit.’’

Says Cardinals veteran pitcher Adam Wainwright: “We're having so much fun watching Lars. Lars is an exciting player. He's always the guy trying to pump the crowd up and pump our fanbase up and pump the team up. …

"We're just putting baseball on the map in a lot of different countries, and Lars is doing that in Japan right now. He's representing himself and their country of Japan really well.’’

The way the Cardinals see it, the experience Nootbaar is getting in the WBC –particularly performing the way he has in Japan’s first three games – should carry over in the regular season. He’s hitting .455 with a 1.026 OPS.

“This is just going to take him to another level,’’ Cardinals pitcher Miles Mikolas says. “Just getting that experience, and handling that pressure playing for Japan, is going to be so great for him.’’

Around the basepaths

– Plans can certainly change, but the Angels say that Shohei Ohtani will not pitch in the semifinals or finals of the World Baseball Classic, so the potential of an Ohtani-Mike Trout matchup is over.

Ohtani could pitch in the quarterfinals on March 16 for Japan, but his next start will be March 24 in a meaningless Cactus League game against the San Diego Padres.

The plan sets up Ohtani to pitch on his normal five days’ rest before the Angels’ season-opener March 30 against the Oakland A’s, but certainly is a huge blow for WBC drama.

“That’s what I’ve understood,” Angels manager Phil Nevin told reporters. “He’ll pitch the quarterfinal game, then he’d be available for us that Friday (March 24) when they come back, regardless of what happens.’’

The consolation for the WBC is that Ohtani still is expected to DH in every game of the WBC.

– The Arizona Diamondbacks are the first team to miss a payment by Bally Sports with the Diamond Sports Group preparing to file for bankruptcy on Friday after missing a $140 million interest payment on Feb. 15. The Diamondbacks games will still be televised, but certainly, with a team whose payroll is already dwarfed by the Padres and Dodgers in the NL West, it could be a huge hit.

Still, the uncertainty didn’t stop the D-backs from signing outfielder Corbin Carroll, the face of their franchise, to an eight-year, $111 million contract with a club option.

– The Diamond Sports Group’s financial woes could open the door for DirectTV, who wants to be the satellite and streaming service for all sports fans, and plans to get more involved with baseball.

They are one of the official sponsors for the World Baseball Classic with their uniform patch on the left sleeve of every player on Team USA.

They plan to make a major announcement this upcoming week involving their baseball rights.

“We know the world is changing,’’ said Vince Torres, the DirectTV chief marketing officer. “We know there’s a fragmentation in sports rights. However, finding your game, watching your game, and facilitating that for customers across both the satellite platform and the streaming platform is an area of focus for us.

– The Astros would still like to sign Framber Valdez and All-Star outfielder Kyle Tucker to extensions, but will delay trying to lock up second baseman Jose Altuve and third baseman Alex Bregman to contract extensions until this upcoming winter, Astros GM Dana Brown says. The two players, represented by Scott Boras, each have two years remaining on their original extensions.

Astros owner Jim Crane has never given a player longer than a six-year deal, and they’re not about to start giving out 10-year deals.

“Ten years for me, I’m just very uncomfortable,” Brown told the Houston Chronicle. “I’d rather extend guys in their (arbitration) years as opposed to waiting until they’re free agents and doing long-term deals. I just don’t ever want to put the team, organization and ownership under that type of pressure."

– Boston Red Sox infielder Justin Turner, who needed 16 stitches after being hit in the face last week, is expected to be ready by opening day, Red Sox manager Alex Cora says.

– The Washington Nationals stole a page out of Atlanta’s playbook, locking up prized catcher Keibert Ruiz to an eight-year, $50 million contract extension with two option years. Ruiz, 24, was the prized prospect that the Dodgers sent to the Nationals in the Max Scherzer and Trea Turner deal.

The team-friendly contract covers Ruiz’s two pre-arbitration years, all three arbitration years and the first three years of free agency.

He becomes their first player signed to a long-term contract before free agency since Stephen Strasburg in 2016.

– San Diego Padres All-Star third baseman Manny Machado, when asked if he’d rather win the World Baseball Classic or the World Series:

“I want both. They are both special. This is very special for us. We want to win the World Classic for your country. This is something unique. Also, playing for the city you play in, it's very special as well. So I chose both.’’

– So, just what would mean to Mexico to advance to the quarterfinals in Miami, and beyond?

“It will be incredible,’’ Mexico manager Benji Gil said. “To be honest, being that they just played the World Cup soccer and Mexico didn't have a real good showing, it would be that much more significant. I think the hopes of the Mexican sports fan is basically, like, “Hey, this is our chance to kind of redeem ourselves on the world stage.

“So, absolutely it's important. It's important for the guys in the clubhouse. But I think for the fan in Mexico and around the world, the Mexican fan, it would be like some kind of redemption really for the sports fan, not necessarily for us as players.’’

– Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa, who’s still undergoing weekly treatments for his health, had an ugly breakup with the Animal Rescue Foundation (ARF) that his family started in 1990.

The family’s attorney sent a cease and desist letter to ARF withdrawing consent to use La Russa’s “likenesses, social medial accounts and quotes and La Russa’s name’’ from the organization.

It also is demanding the return of La Russa’s personal baseball and music memorabilia from the ARF offices.

“Compassion and care for animals is our family’s passion,’’ La Russa said in a letter. “But ARF’s current leadership, policies and attitudes work against fulfilling its mission. We have concluded we must completely separate ourselves, our name, and our reputation from ARF.’’

– The minor-leaguers for the Giants and Angels got a treat of a lifetime being able to fill in for a few innings on Team USA during their two exhibition games.

“It was surreal just to be in the dugout with them,’’ Giants infielder Connor Aldrete told reporters.

Said Angelsprospect Zach Neto: “It was awesome. Every person I looked to was either an All-Star, a legend or a Hall of Famer. So definitely, to spend time over there, it was an honor.”

– St. Louis Cardinals third baseman Nolan Arenado has zero regrets about not exercising his second and final opt-out clause.

He watched San Diego Padres third baseman Manny Machado turn the five remaining years at $150 million into an 11-year, $350 million.

He watched Minnesota Twins shortstop Carlos Correa turn the remaining two years, $70.2 million left into his contract into a six-year, $200 million deal.

And watched shortstop Xander Bogaerts turn the remaining three years, $60 million in his contract with the Boston Red Sox into an 11-year, $280 million with the San Diego Padres.

Certainly, he could have tried to get more years tacked onto the remaining five years and $144 million left in his deal, but was perfectly content to stay put.

“I have more than enough money,’’ said Arenado. “I really like playing there. I love St. Louis.’’

– Los Angeles Angels starter Patrick Sandoval will face Angels teammate Mike Trout in Sunday night’s Mexico-USA game, and yes, he’s a bit nervous.

He wants to get Trout out, but pitch aggressively inside, maybe not so much.

“I threw to Trout about two weeks ago [in batting practice],’’ Sandoval says. “Hopefully, I’ll be a little more comfortable in there being able to throw to him. …I think during the game, it's full go. I'm going to come at him with everything I've got.’’

– Jurickson Profar, who rejected a $7.5 million player option from the San Diego Padres, is still on the outside looking in with opening day starting in two weeks.

He still is seeking a multiple-year deal for more than $10 million a year, but the last free agent who received at least $10 million was Carlos Correa in January.

– Shame on the Chicago Cubs or whoever was responsible for preventing Team Canada from using only one of their 12 indoor batting cages during their workouts, and limiting the use to only major leaguers Freddie Freeman and Tyler O’Neill.

_Beautiful event one again by Erica Brooks’ “Celebrity Bartender Night,’’ featuring Chicago White Sox outfielder Billy Hamilton, raising $50,000 for Amyloidosis Support Groups. Hall of Famer Harold Baines, who was diagnosed with Amyloidosis and underwent a double organ transplant, donated his White Sox uniform.

“My father lost his battle to Amyloidosis, so I know the value a support group provides to those affected by a rare disease,’’ said Brooks, founder of Issues Concerning Athletes. “I’m grateful for the opportunity to help raise money to support patients and families alike.’’

– Team bonding came early for the San Francisco Giants who had five of their pitchers go on a wilderness retreat in Northern Arizona in January, along with manager Gabe Kapler, pitching coach Andrew Bailey, their mental skills coach and two team chefs.

“I felt like I had to show up with a case of Bud Light,’’ reliever Tyler Rogers told the San Jose Mercury, “or else my reputation wouldn’t live up to my standards.”

– Count Diamondbacks veteran pitcher Madison Bumgarner among those loving the pitch clock.

“Everyone is playing by the same rules, whatever they are,” Bumgarner said. “I would still rather go back to baseball 30 years ago, but we’re not doing that. Out of all the rules changes, I probably like this one the most.”

The only adjustment he’d make is take the communication with the catcher one step further than the PitchCom device.

“I wish we could have a microphone and we could just talk to each other,’’ Bumgarner said. “That would be perfect, I think. But we’re going in the right direction.’’

– There was not a single team predicted to win 100 games by the USA TODAY Sports staff.

The last season without a 100-game winner?

Would you believe 2014?

There were only six 90-victory teams that season, all who won their division.

– Did you know that Barry Bonds never played with a Hall of Famer his entire career?

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Bobby Witt Jr. 'soaking it all in' as Team USA's youngest WBC player