Masahiro Tanaka had a kind of happy homecoming when he helped celebrate the Nippon Ham Fighters’ new stadium on Thursday, when NPB opened its season with just one game. Nippon Professional Baseball’s other 10 teams will open their seasons Friday.
Eagles 3, Fighters 1, at Kitahiroshima Taxpayers’ Burden Park: Tanaka, who became a celebrity high school pitching ace nearby, retired the first 13 batters he faced before allowing one run on two hits, two walks and a hit batsman to win the first game played at the new stadium in Kitahiroshima, Hokkaido, which borders the Fighters’ former home of Sapporo, where they were less-than-satisfied tenants at Sapporo Dome from 2004 to 2022.
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The Orix Buffaloes are champions, and they celebrated COVID style, remotely from behind closed doors at Kyocera Dome Osaka, after they watched the Lotte Marines lose on the dome’s big screen to end Lotte’s quest for a dramatic come-from-behind championship.
Sasaoka’s back and Shinjo’s on deck
The Hiroshima Carp on Wednesday announced that Shinji Sasaoka will be back to manage the club in 2022 after they made a late rush for a playoff spot this season but finished fourth. Also on Wednesday, the Fighters officially installed Atsunori Inaba as manager, while Nikkan Sports reported that Tsuyoshi Shinjo will be named the next manager in the coming days.
Former Fighters manager Trey Hillman, whom some reports linked to the Fighters’ job after he left his gig as Miami Marlins bench coach, said Tuesday he is looking for work along the lines of a special assignment coach that won’t take him away from home for a prolonged period of time because his priority is enjoying spending as much time as he can with his father in Texas.
He did mention that there was some interest in him from Japan, but that it had been from the SoftBank Hawks. Hillman retains close ties with the Fighters through international director Kenichi Iwamoto, and the club was probably aware of his preferences.
Eagles 2, Marines 1
At Sendai’s Rakuten Seimei Park Miyagi, Lotte’s Kazuya Ojima pitched great for six innings, but couldn’t do everything the Marines needed to avoid a loss by himself. Reliever Chihaya Sasaki (8-1) surrendered two hits, that—with a sacrifice by veteran Ginji Akiminai—were enough for Rakuten to break an eighth-inning tie and end the Marines’ shot at their first pennant in 16 years.
Lotte got off the mark with a run in the first on a Takashi Ogino leadoff single, a sacrifice and a two-out double when Takahiro Norimoto left a 2-1 splitter in the zone, and Brandon Laird pulled it past third.
Ojima worked a 1-2-3 first, thanks to a good catch in the gap by center fielder Hiromi Oka for the second out, and Norimoto struck out the side in the Marines’ second, ending the inning with his 1,500th career strikeout, tying him for 57th all-time.
Shimauchi singled to lead off the Eagles’ second. A groundout and a wild pitch put him on third with one out, but two sharp grounders couldn’t bring him home as Ojima retired 14 of the first 15 batters he faced.
A meaningless game for the Eagles, skipper Kazuhisa Ishii pulled Norimoto after three innings, to give rookie lefty Takahisa Hayakawa some work ahead of the playoffs. Norimoto struck out five, raising his career total to 1,501, 10 back of former Giants ace Tetsuya Utsumi and 14 behind former Tigers ace Atsushi Nomi.
Hayakawa retired all nine batters he faced and the Eagles tied it after two were down in the fifth. Ojima got two easy outs but walked Kazuki Tanaka. Ryosuke Tatsumi lined a 2-1 fastball to put runners on the corners, and light-hitting catcher Hikaru Ota lined a fat 2-2 two-seamer over the plate into left for an RBI single.
The Eagles loaded the bases in the sixth after Shimauchi singled with one out to start the threat, but Ojima popped up Tatsumi on a good cutter up and in.
Shimauchi beat out a leadoff single to open the eighth and pinch-runner Yuya Ogo was sacrificed to second. An intentional walk put two on for pinch-hitter Hiroto Kobukata, and his single did the damage. Sasaki got a double play to limit the damage but Sung Chia-hao struck out the side, starting with Leonys Martin and Laird to end it with his seventh save.