PEORIA — Lars Nootbaar spent his first 10 games as a Peoria Chiefs player in the lower part of the batting order. But when he responded with a .292 batting average and a solid on-base percentage, manager Erick Almonte thought it was time for an upward change.
“I decided to put him in the leadoff spot because he’s taking a lot of pitches, working the counts, getting on base,” Almonte said. “That’s what you need in the leadoff spot. And he’s not afraid to hit with two strikes. He embraces it.”
In two games at the top of the order, Nootbaar doesn’t have a walk yet. But he was a double shy of hitting for the cycle, adding a triple and a homer Wednesday to his single Tuesday. He was also robbed of hits by fine defensive plays each day.
Nootbaar scored the winning run in Tuesday’s 2-1 Peoria win, but his exploits Wednesday weren’t enough to overcome a bullpen blowup as the Chiefs dropped an 8-4 decision. The outfielder still extended his team-best hitting streak this season to eight games.
“When you’re down in the lineup, you have a chance to see the pitcher a little bit first,” he said. “When you’re leading off, you jump right into a competitive environment. It allows me to lock in earlier. But it doesn’t really matter to me where I hit. Once you step into the box, it’s about competing.”
Nootbaar knows all about competing. Named for a Dutch great-grandfather, he grew up in the California beach town of El Segunda, hometown of baseball Hall of Famer George Brett, his fellow big-league brother, Ken, and former NFL general manager Bobby Beathard.
Nootbaar was also a football quarterback in high school and went to USC on a baseball scholarship, playing three years there before the Cardinals selected him in the eighth round of the 2018 draft. At State College last summer, he had 26 RBIs in 56 games.
Nootbaar’s older brother, Nigel, also played baseball at USC and was drafted in the 12th round by Baltimore, playing two minor league seasons.
“It’s been an adjustment for sure to this level,” he said. “But it’s been good having an off season under my belt, adjusting to using a wooden bat, having more swings and being in a professional environment. It’s not been overwhelming.”
Nootbaar’s seventh-inning homer was his fourth this season, tying him with teammate Nolan Gorman and two other players for the Midwest League lead. His .937 OPS is in the league’s top 10.
“He’d thrown me fastballs, and I was sitting dead red hoping to put a good swing on another one,” he said of the home run. “I feel good right now. I’m sticking with an approach that’s working. And I’ve always been able to adjust.”
It also helps that his teammates around him have continued to hit well in the early going. After 13 games, Peoria leads the MWL in batting average (.280), home runs (15), RBIs (61), slugging average (.448) and OPS (.793) and is among the leaders in runs scored and doubles.
“Hitting is so contagious,” Nootbaar said. “You feed off each other, give each other information and create confidence for each other.”
The Chiefs’ pitching hasn’t been nearly as consistent. The last two starts were strong starts by Tommy Parsons (three hits, one run in eight innings) and Alvaro Seijas (four hits, nine strikeouts in six innings). But the bullpen gave up a 3-1 lead Wednesday, yielding seven runs in the seventh and eighth innings.
“Last night our bullpen saved us and today … it’s going to happen,” said Almonte. “Unfortunately, we got the loss, but you’ve got to look at the bright spots. Seijas was one of them. And so was Nootbaar.”
Dave Reynolds can be reached at 686-3210 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at davereynolds2.