Popping NPB’s 2019 cork

Lots to see on Opening Day in Japan as Nippon Professional Baseball gets underway on Friday, March 29. Fourteen hours after Masahiro Tanaka became the first Japanese pitcher to make four Opening Day starts, Randy Messenger made his fifth straight for the Central League’s Hanshin Tigers.

In Chiba, former Chicago White Sox player Tadahito Iguchi, opened his second season as skipper of the Pacific League’s Lotte Marines by starting 18-year-old Kyota Fujiwara in center field and led him off, marking the first time in NPB that a player started Opening Day straight out of high school since Shohei Ohtani opened the 2013 season in right field and batting eighth for the Nippon Ham Fighters — or in tribute to Susan Slusser, the porcine pugilists.

Like Ohtani, Fujiwara began his career against veteran right-hander Takayuki Kishi, who retired both in their first pro at-bats. Kishi, however, left with leg issues, and the Marines came from behind to win at home.

At Sapporo Dome, Orix Buffaloes rookie Yuma Tongu singled in two runs in his first at-bat against the Fighters, who came back to win on Sho Nakata‘s 10th-inning grand slam.

In the Tigers-Swallows game, despite the presence of Messenger and the rest of Hanshin’s over-the-hill gang, the offensive action was highlighted by rookies. Yakult’s 19-year-old third baseman Munetaka Nakamura, who dominated the Eastern League last year, delivered a sacrifice fly to open the scoring. The Tigers, however, broke through against Yasuhiro Ogawa when rookie Seiya Kinami (3rd pick in 2018) reached on an error and scored on a triple by Koji Chikamoto (1st pick).

In Hiroshima, new Yomiuri Giant Yoshihiro Maru returned to the park where he won two MVP awards for the Carp, and went 0-for-4 with four strikeouts for the second time in his career. Carp starter Daichi Osera made it look easy, locating his fastball and breaking ball and throwing some cutters that would make Mariano Rivera take notice as he struck out 11 in a 5-0 win.

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