It’s going to take a while to get used to seeing Masahiro Tanaka pitching for the Rakuten Eagles again.
For his 2021 debut on Saturday, he drew the last-place Nippon Ham Fighters. The Fighters entered the game having hit two home runs, which if you have to play someone in Tokyo Dome, should be a comforting thought. Before the game, in the midst of his constant chatter about how lovely the Fighters cheerleaders are and who well-dressed he was for the occasion of Tanaka’s return, analyst Tsutomu Iwamoto, said something interesting.
“Everyone in the ballpark is pumped. I’m pumped, the fans are pumped. The press box is packed and the stadium is buzzing, all for Tanaka,” Iwamoto said. “People want to see Tanaka, but what that means is the Fighters are going to be in the spotlight and sometimes that’s an opportunity.”
“Tanaka’s back and we all expect he’s going to energize Japan’s game, but I expected the Fighters are going to be energized and focused because this is their chance to go against a front-line major leaguer when everyone is watching.”
Without an opponent to play, you don’t have a game, and while a lot of people expected Tanaka to dominate, he was merely pretty good, and the Fighters were pumped.
My flashback had to do with Tanaka’s start on April 29, 2011. A month and a half after an earthquake and tsunami decimated much of northeastern Japan’s Pacific coast line, and eastern Japan was short on power due to a nuclear disaster, Tanaka started the Eagles’ home opener in Sendai.
The Eagles ballpark was on the side of the city that was ONLY hit by the enormous earthquake and aftershocks. I visited Sendai a day early to interview people and see what things were like. The city sits on a coastal plain and between the city center and the coast, runs an expressway atop an embankment. The coastal side was a scene of devastation, cars upside down in fields, uprooted trees sticking out of the upper stories of houses battered by a wall of water.
Structural damage was still being repaired at the Eagles’ ballpark when they played their first home game there after four “home” games in western Japan at the Hanshin Tigers’ home park, Koshien Stadium, outside Osaka.
Just like many people came expecting something magical from Tanaka on Saturday, people packed into Sendai’s park to see them beat the Orix Buffaloes, which they did. Park Chan Ho started for Orix and afterwards expressed his distaste for the scenario in which the Buffaloes were expected to lose.
The Buffaloes played hard, of course, but few could be unhappy that the Eagles won behind their ace, Tanaka. Ten years, later, and Tanaka has said that one reason he returned was the timing of being able to pitch in Sendai 10 years after the earthquake. Emotions are no longer as high as they were then, and like the Fighters on Saturday, I expect the Seibu Lions will see next Saturday’s game against Tanaka not as some role in a melodrama but rather as a chance to raise their game when everyone is watching. If every team sees Tanaka not as a threat but an opportunity to test themselves and get better, we’re in for a hell of a season.
Former major leaguers Jerry Sands and Kosuke Fukudome hit late home runs to lift the Hanshin Tigers to a 6-4 come-from-behind victory over the Yakult Swallows in the Central League on Thursday at Koshien Stadium.
After five scoreless innings from Swallows southpaw Keiji Takahashi, the Tigers broke through to tie it in the sixth. Yusuke Oyama “tripled” on a ball to the wall that center fielder Kotaro Yamasaki failed to gather in. Right fielder Yuhei Takai retrieved it but dropped it twice before getting it back to the infield.
Oyama scored on a groundout by Justin Bour. Takahashi walked Sands, and his replacement Kazuki Kondo walked Ryutaro Umeno to bring up Fukudome, who then doubled to the warning track in right.
Instead of regular setup man Scott McGough or closer Taishi Ishiyama, Swallows skipper Shingo Takatsu opted for 23-year-old rookie right-hander Noboru Shimizu, the Swallows’ top draft pick from 2018.
Shimizu, who had allowed seven hits and a walk over 12-1/3 innings of relief this season while striking out 11, retired Bour to open the eighth before Sands pulled him down the line for his second home run. Umeno singled, and the 43-year-old Fukudome reached the seats in right.
Robert Suarez issued a leadoff walk in the ninth but ended the game with a double play to earn his third save.
Munetaka Murakami had three hits for the Swallows, including a double and scored twice, but was pulled for a pinch runner in the fifth with stiffness in his right leg.
Giants take advantage of Carp bullpen
The Yomiuri Giants behind Cristopher Mercedes (1-2) beat the Hiroshima Carp on a bullpen day 9-4 at Mazda Stadium.
Right-hander Kazuki Yabuta opened for the Carp and did his best to aim for the edges of the zone and miss outside it. Yoshiyuki Kamei doubled on the first pitch. After a groundout on the second pitch, Yabuta stayed out of the zone and walked the next batter. He nearly got away with avoiding the zone when Kazuma Okamoto chased Ball 4 and nearly grounded into a double play.
Okamoto beat the throw to first, allowing Kamei to score and bringing Takumi Oshiro to the plate. The Giants catcher got ahead 2-1, and when Yabuta missed up high with a fastball, Oshiro drove it high up into the stands in right center.
Although Shota Dobayashi hit a two-run fourth-inning home run off Mercedes, the Giants never trailed. No. 8 hitter Naoki Yoshikawa homered in the sixth and Okamoto hit his eighth home run in the seventh.
Abe leads Dragons rout of BayStars
Another bullpen day, this time by the visiting DeNA BayStars at Nagoya Dome, started well but turned into a rout and an 8-0 loss at the hands of the Chunichi Dragons.
Toshiki Abe went back into the starting lineup for the first time in four days and responded with three hits and four RBIs, while starting pitcher Yuichiro Okano (2-1) worked five scoreless innings thanks to three double plays.
The game stayed close for six innings until Kazuki Mishima took the mound in the seventh and surrendered three runs to let the game get away. In the end, it didn’t matter that one of the runs who scored was walked intentionally.
That was the second of the game and the Japan-high 12th for BayStars skipper Alex Ramirez, who leads Japan in intentional walks issued every year.
Ariel Martinez came off the bench and delivered a two-run pinch-hit single in the Dragons’ three-run eighth.
Eagles scrape past Lions without starter
Rakuten scored two early runs off Seibu Lions starter Kona Takahashi (2-2) and the Eagles held on to win 7-4 at Sendai’s Rakuten Seimei Park Miyagi despite losing their starting pitcher to an injury in the fourth inning.
Big lefty Hayato Yuge had scraped through three scoreless innings until a batted ball struck him above the right ankle. He stayed in the game to surrender a run before being pulled.
The Eagles led 2-1 in the fifth before former Lion Hideto Asamura drove in his second run of the game with a single. Jabari Blash, who doubled and scored in the second, walked in the sixth and scored on Ryosuke Tatsumi’s home run off Takahashi.
Leonys Martin tied it with a two-run single and Tsuyoshi Sugano singled in the go-ahead run as the Lotte Marines came from two runs down to beat the Nippon Ham Fighters 4-3 at Sapporo Dome.
Christian Villanueva, who appears to be settling in with the Fighters in a way he was unable to do last year with the Yomiuri Giants, opened the scoring in the first with a two-run single.
Marines starter Daiki Iwashita (3-0) allowed just those two runs over five innings, leaving the game with a 3-2 lead after he struck out Villanueva swinging on a big breaking ball with the bases loaded.
As he did during last week’s series in Osaka, Villanueva also turned heads with his defense at third base until his throwing error in the sixth allowed 39-year-old pinch-runner Takashi Toritani to score from first.
Drew VerHagen (1-1) gave up four runs, three earned, over 5-1/3 innings. He led 2-0 with none on and two outs in the fifth after a double play but two singles and a walk loaded the bases for Martin and the Marines.
Naoya Masuda worked the ninth for Lotte to earn his seventh save.
Buffaloes come back to beat Hawks
The Orix Buffaloes came from a run down in the third on home runs by Ryo Ota and Adam Jones and Sachiya Yamasaki (1-0) allowed two runs over five innings to earn the win in a 4-3 victory over the SoftBank Hawks at Osaka’s Kyocera Dome.
Ota, the Buffaloes’ top draft pick in 2018 out of high school, had much of his first year wiped out when he was hit by a pitch. He went 0-for-13 last year, but homered off Rick van den Hurk (1-2) who allowed four runs in 2-2/3 innings.
Two walks and a Masataka Yoshida RBI double set the stage for Jones’ fourth home run, which reached the third deck in left center.
Yamasaki, Orix’s first draft pick in 2014 shared the hero podium with Ota, whose father is a former pro ballplayer who currently works as a batting practice pitcher for the Buffaloes.
New import Tyler Higgins worked a scoreless eighth and Brandon Dickson allowed a run in the ninth as he secured his fourth save.
Carp deactivate Johnson
The Hiroshima Carp deactivated left-handed starting pitcher Kris Johnson on Thursday. The 35-year-old allowed five runs over five innings and walked four in Wednesday’s loss to the Yomiuri Giants. The winner of the Sawamura Award as Japan’s most impressive starting pitcher in 2016, Johnson is 0-3 this season with a 5.73 ERA.
The Rakuten Eagles have activated Shun Ikeda, the 27-year-old left-handed pitcher they acquired last month from the Yomiuri Giants in the Zelous Wheeler trade.