NPB baseball is here, and with it comes a new league slogan: Pride in our hearts; gratitude in our play (誇りを胸に。感謝をプレーに。) The idea behind it is that last season’s 3-month delay, plus having to play in empty stadiums for part of the year, has given a renewed pride and thanksgiving for being able to play the game they love in front of fans.
First, a little bad news about the start of the season: Rakuten Eagles’ ace Masahiro Tanaka has experienced discomfort in his right calf, and is expected to miss up to three weeks of action. Also, despite the fact that some new imports have made it into Japan, one of them, Yokohama DeNA Baystars pitcher Fernando Romero, tested positive for Covid-19 upon entry into the country. He has been isolated and is being monitored, while the rest of the players will also spend two weeks in self-quarantine.
OK, let’s move on and talk about the action on the field, shall we? Opening weekend matchups were as follows, with the records in the matchups in brackets:
Yomiuri Giants (2-0-1) vs. Yokohama DeNA Baystars (0-2-1)
Hiroshima Toyo Carp (1-1-1) vs. Chunichi Dragons (1-1-1)
Tokyo Yakult Swallows (0-3) vs. Hanshin Tigers (3-0)
Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks (3-0) vs. Chiba Lotte Marines (0-3)
Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles (2-1) vs. Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters (1-2)
Saitama Seibu Lions (2-1) vs. Orix Buffaloes (1-2)
Let’s look a little more closely at some of the weekend’s highlights.
Friday: Third-year outfielder Ryosuke Tatsumi (Eagles) hit the first home run of the NPB season on the very first pitch of the bottom of the first inning of the first game. The Eagles thumped the Fighters 8-2.
The Giants held a substantial lead late in the game but saw the Baystars come back and tie it in the top of the ninth. Six of their runs came off the bat of newly acquired infielder Shunta Tanaka, whom they received as compensation for departing free agent Takayuki Kajitani. Just when we thought we’d see a tie, Yoshiyuki Kamei hit a walk-off home run on the third pitch of the bottom of the ninth.
Jerry Sands (Tigers) hit two home runs, including a solo shot in the top of the 8th that proved to be the game winner as the Tigers took down the Swallows 4-3.
Speaking of comebacks, the Dragons found themselves behind 4-0 after 7, but scored 5 runs in the 8th and 2 more in the 9th. They staved off the Carp’s fierce comeback attempt in the final frame, prevailing 7-6.
Saturday: Kajitani saw his compensation pick nearly steal the show on Friday, but made up for it by hitting a grand slam home run to help propel the Giants to a huge 10-5 win.
Tigers’ highly-touted rookie Teruaki Sato hit his first career home run, a towering blast to dead center, as the Tigers once again out-slugged the Swallows, taking this one 9-5.
Hawks manager Kimiyasu Kudo became the third-fastest manager to 500 career wins when infielder Kenta Imamiya hit a walk-off double to help the Hawks to a 3-2 win over the Marines.
Sunday: For the second straight day, the Hawks walked off their game, this time after nearly blowing the game in the top of the 9th. Marines pinch-hitter Tsuyoshi Sugano hit a two-run homer to give his team a late lead, but Kenzo Kawashima slapped a double down the right-field line in the bottom of the inning, scoring two and helping the Hawks complete their sweep.
Eagles’ prize rookie lefty Takahisa Hayakawa recorded his first career win, fanning 8 and allowing just 4 hits through six shutout innings of work. The Eagles prevailed 5-0.
After many failed attempts to tie games earlier in the weekend (those darn walk-offs!), two Central League matchups fought hard to low-scoring ties. The Giants used a clutch hit from Kajitani in the 8th inning to tie their game with the Baystars at 1, and the Carp and Dragons both failed to cross home plate in their scoreless stalemate. The Carp actually had base runners in every single inning, even loading the bases twice, but went home with a bag of bagels for their efforts.