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.