How a young pitcher, and an even younger team, beat the odds to bring home their franchise’s first Japan Series championship.

18-year-old Masahiro Tanaka pitches for the Rakuten Golden Eagles in 2007. Photo taken from Wikimedia Commons.

By Sam Ceisler

During the 2004 NPB season, long-festering financial struggles for the Orix BlueWave and Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes came to a head. Poor play and low attendance at both team’ ballparks led to team owners claiming massive losses. This forced Orix Corporation and Kintetsu Corporation to consider merging the two teams in order to return to sustainability.

In the midst of these discussions, on June 15 of 2004, the Japan Times wrote, “A merger between the two clubs would not only mean a restructure of the Pacific League from the current six-team system to a five-team setup, but could speed up the restructuring of Japanese baseball into a one-league format.”

If NPB lost a team and there were only five organizations in the Pacific League, it would also mean a loss of more than 100 baseball jobs. With that prospect in mind, the Players Association organized a strike. As opposed to playing games on September 18 & 19, players practiced and held autograph sessions with fans instead. The Players Association hoped that their actions would force league executives to consider taking steps to keep NPB’s classic 12-team structure intact.

Carlos Mirabal is an American pitcher who co-founded the Japan Retired Foreign Players Association. He played for the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters from 2000-2005 and participated in the strike. “The foreign players were not involved in any of the players association stuff,” he said. “But it was still my team. I wanted to support my teammates. We were still together.”

Thanks to that strike, NPB reached a decision by the end of September: with the addition of an expansion team for the 2005 season, the league’s 12-team structure would be preserved. This would be the first time in more than 50 years that NPB would be adding a team.

After a brief bidding period, the rights for the expansion franchise were given to Rakuten CEO Hiroshi Mikitani. He chose the city of Sendai in the Tohoku region to be the new team’s new home, and the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles were formed.

The Eagles hired Marty Kuehnert to be the team’s first General Manager. It was the first time a foreigner had ever held the position of GM for an NPB team. Kuehnert hired Yasushi Tao to be the team’s first manager. To fill in the Eagle’s roster, the league held a dispersion draft with the remaining players from the Buffaloes and Blue Wave merger.

“It was a strange draft and very unfair,” said Kuehnert. “They [the Buffaloes and BlueWave] got to keep the first forty guys from the two teams, and then we were able to choose from 41. They were able to keep all the best players. We got the dregs– other than [Koichi] Isobe and [Hisashi] Iwakuma.”

Former Rakuten Golden Eales General Manager Marty Kuehnert spending some time with JapanBall tour guests in 2019.

On opening day of 2005, the team won their first-ever game by a score of 3-1. The next day, they lost their second game by a score of 26-0. Things didn’t get much better from there. Despite the star power that Isobe and Iwakuma brought to the Eagles roster, the team struggled mightily through its first year.  Rakuten finished the 2005 season with a record of 38-97-1.

Ownership made a number of changes for the 2006 season, notably demoting Kuehnert from GM to Assistant to the President, and replacing manager Yasushi Tao with five-time Pacific League MVP Katsuya Nomura. But, those moves didn’t help all that much. The team only did marginally better in 2006, finishing with a record of 47-85-4.

Despite the team’s struggles, the fans were happy to have baseball back in Sendai. The last team to call the city home had been the Lotte Orions during the 1970s.

“The fans were very generous,” Kuehnert said. “When I walked out and was forlorn after games, people would come up and pat me on the back and say, ‘Don’t worry, it’s going to get better.’ They were very kind.”

It turned out those fans were right, and things quickly got better. After an abysmal 2006 season, the Eagles selected a pitcher in the amateur draft who had turned heads at that summer’s annual Koshien high school baseball tournament. That pitcher was a young man named Masahiro Tanaka…

Ma-kun

Masahiro Tanaka was a quiet kid. Born in Itami, a small city in Hyogo Prefecture, Tanaka was first introduced to baseball when he was in the first grade. Although he’d eventually become a pitcher, Tanaka started out playing catcher on his elementary school team.

By the time he was in eighth grade and playing for the Takarazuka Boys team, he was able to pick off stealing baserunners from his crouched position behind the plate, and his coaches were taking notice of his arm strength. That year the team started putting him in to pitch, and by the start of ninth grade Tanaka was done playing catcher.

Every summer in Japan, fans across the country tune in to watch the Koshien high school baseball tournament, a tradition that goes all the way back to 1915. The 49-team competition is a hallmark event of the Japanese calendar year. If Tanaka, then 14 years old, wanted to further his baseball career, he’d want to join a high school team that could compete in Koshien.

American audiences may have a hard time understanding just how big the summer Koshien is in Japan. In the 2020 documentary, Koshien: Japan’s Field of Dreams, former Nippon-Ham Fighter and current Los Angeles Angel Shohei Ohtani likened the event to the World Series.

Kevin Beirne, a pitcher from Houston, Texas, who spent four years in NPB, echoed much of the same. “It’s on TV,” Beirne said, “I would say it’s like the Final Four over here, and the Superbowl, mixed into one.”

To make Tanaka’s Koshien dreams a reality, his middle school coach, Koji Okumura, suggested he look outside of Hyogo Prefecture. He wound up choosing Komazawa University Tomakomai High School, on the cold, northern island of Hokkaido. In a tryout at the school, a 15-year old Tanaka wowed coaches with his curveball and slider.

That year, the team qualified for Koshien and won its first title, but Tanaka hadn’t made the final tournament roster. That was 2004, his tenth-grade season.

In 2005, Tanaka really came into his own. Tomakomai made it back to compete in Koshien and over 25.2 innings in four appearances in the tournament, Tanaka struck out 38 batters. Tomakomai won in the finals for its second straight Koshien title.

In 2006, Tomakomai made it back to the Koshien finals once again, this time thanks to seven straight complete games from Tanaka during the regional qualifying rounds. He allowed only two total runs over that stretch.

In the finals, Tomakomai would be playing against Waseda Jitsugyo, a Tokyo-area high school. Jitsugyo’s star player was also a pitcher, a young man named Yuki Saito.

Both teams put their aces on the mound for the matchup; Tanaka drew the start for Tomakomai, Saito drew the start for Waseda Jitsugyo, and on August 20, 2006, they took to the field in an attempt to be crowned a Koshien champion.

But, after a 15-inning bout, with the score still 1-1, the game was declared a tie. Tanaka had thrown 165 pitches and Saito had thrown 178. A rematch was scheduled for the next day, and both star-pitchers took the mound once again.

If Tomakomai managed to beat Waseda Jitsugyo and win the series, the team would have achieved Koshien’s second-ever three-peat. But it wasn’t meant to be. As luck would have it, with a 4-3 score and two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning, Saito was on the mound to face none other than Masahiro Tanaka. Despite his .345 batting average during the tournament, Tanaka fell short and struck out. Although he didn’t manage to win another Koshien, his legacy continued to grow.

Tanaka began to appear in TV advertisements for Kirin Beer and Mitsuya Cider.  He was chosen to play on an all-star team that toured the United States. He became popularly known as Ma-kun, a nickname from his childhood. Then, he went pro, and in late-2006 he was drafted by the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles.

“We thought he’d be very good,” Marty Kuehnert said. “He looked like a bulldog on the mound. He looked great: big body, very strong, excellent pitcher. We had a really good feeling that he’d be a great pitcher for us, but I don’t think any of us realized how great he would be.” 

Over the 2007 season, Tanaka pitched 186.1 innings for a 3.82 ERA and an 11-7 record. He struck out 196 batters and held a 2.88 strikeout to walk ratio. For the first time, the Eagles didn’t finish in last place. Rakuten’s 2007 record was 67-75-2, and Tanaka was named the Pacific League’s Rookie of the Year.

In 2008, Tanaka posted an even lower ERA, at 3.49, and a 9-7 record. However, shoulder inflammation forced him to miss a few starts. During that year, as well as throughout the 2009 and 2010 seasons, Tanaka continued to improve. But, it wasn’t until 2011 that Ma-kun really took that final step and proved just how dominant he could be. 

Tragedy Strikes Sendai

After a disappointing last-place finish in 2010, the Eagles were hoping to bounce back for the 2011 season. Alongside Tanaka, the pitching rotation featured veteran Hisashi Iwakuma and highly touted rookie Takahiro Shiomi. After seven years in MLB, Kazuo Matsui had returned to Japan and signed with the Eagles. All signs pointed to a revitalized Rakuten, but nothing could prepare the team for what happened in early March.  

On March 11, 2011, a 9.1 magnitude earthquake struck less than 50 miles off the coast of Sendai. Less than an hour after the earthquake’s initial shockwaves hit the coast, 30-foot tsunami waves began to batter Japan’s shores, traveling as far as six miles inland. Around 80 miles south of Sendai, these tsunami waves flooded the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, prompting the Japanese government to declare a state of emergency.

Over the following days, multiples aftershocks of more than a 6.0 magnitude struck Japan. The situation at the Fukushima Daiichi plant became more dire, as the reactor’s cooling units failed and radiation in the area continued climbing, exceeding eight times their normal levels.

The nuclear disaster left years of lasting effects. In the aftermath, cleanup workers have been diagnosed with leukemia, and executives from the Tokyo Electric Power Company were indicted on charges of negligence relating to the event.

All in all, upwards of 20,000 Japanese citizens perished in the disaster, and more than 100,000 lost their homes. The financial cost of the event amounted to more than 25 trillion Yen ($309 billion). 

Like many others in Sendai, the Eagles found themselves homeless. Miyagi Baseball Stadium had been damaged in the earthquake, and tsunami waves had flooded the team’s offices.

“We got away pretty lucky,” Marty Kuehnert said. “We did have significant damage. We had sinkholes in the field that had to be filled in. The office was an absolute mess. The biggest damage actually was to the walking bridge from the office building over to the field. That had to be completely redone.”

“But, when we saw the devastation in other parts of Sendai,” Kuehnert said, “Our damage was nothing compared to what other parts of the city experienced.”

NPB was forced to postpone opening day until April 12, 2011. The earthquakes had caused major power shortages, and the league had to retool the schedule to have more day games in order to conserve energy used by stadium lights.

But, Japan began to rebuild. The season got underway and the Eagles played their first few home games in Hyogo Prefecture, not far from where Tanaka had played catcher for his elementary school team. Rakuten won the first game of the season 6-4 over the Chiba Lotte Marines. Eagles players wore patches on their uniforms that read “Gambatte.”

“It [gambatte] means hang in there. Do your best,” Kuehnert said. “In that situation it was a very appropriate phrase to use.”

“It was like after 9/11 when baseball started up again. After 9/11 when the Yankees went to Boston there were signs in the stands that said, ‘We Love New York.’ How can you not try to stick with someone when they’ve gone through such a big adversity?”

Over that 2011 season, Tanaka brough a new intensity to his game. He won his first Sawamura award after a career year, pitching 226.1 innings for a 1.27 ERA. With a 19-5 record, Tanaka struck out 241 batters and walked only 27, an 9:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

Unfortunately for the ace, his team couldn’t put together a winning season. The Eagles finished in fifth in the Pacific League, with a record of 66-71-7.

Despite those poor results, the young team from Sendai had earned a lot of respect from fans and competitors alike over the span of that 2011 season.

Tomoki Negishi is a former Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles executive, and the CEO of Pacific League Marketing, a company dedicated to expanding the global profile of NPB. He said, “I felt that the Eagles became a symbol for the heart of the people of Sendai after the disaster.”

Marty Kuehnert said much of the same. “Everybody throughout Japan, and the baseball world especially, was very sympathetic to what had happened to everybody in the Tohoku region. So, for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles when we went around, everybody was very empathetic. People were very supportive.”

Lucky Number ‘13

Rakuten played a little better the next year, but all things considered the team’s 2012 season wound up much the same as its 2011 season. The Eagles finished at .500 with a 67-67-10 record, and Tanaka had another year with an 8:1 strikeout to walk ratio. Sendai continued to recover from the earthquake, and the Eagles continued chasing that elusive first pennant.

By 2013, Tanaka was still the leader of the Rakuten pitching staff, but his aspirations had shifted slightly. He let his team know that after the season, he’d be pursuing a playing career in the United States. That announcement raised the stakes. A good year would not only solidify Ma-kun’s seven-year legacy with Rakuten but would also put him in a position to sign a big MLB deal in 2014.

Kazuo Matsui was still on the roster in 2013, and still searching for his first championship; in 2007 Matsui had appeared in the World Series with the Colorado Rockies, but the team was swept by the Boston Red Sox. He had also lost in the Japan Series three separate times: in 1997, 1998, and 2002, each time as a member of the Seibu Lions.

To strengthen the pitching rotation, the Eagles signed highly coveted right-handed rookie Takahiro Norimoto before the 2013 season. Rakuten also signed sluggers Casey McGehee and Andruw Jones, who had both played for the New York Yankees in 2012. Manager Senichi Hoshino hoped that the addition of those two big bats would help the team take the next step towards success, and the move paid off.

Including playoffs, Jones hit 26 homers on the season while McGehee hit 28. Jones had 94 RBI on the season while McGehee had 93. The two had on-base percentages of .391 and .376 respectively, with batting averages of .243 and .292.

Matsui had a .311 OBP and the third-most RBI on the team with 58. Infielder Ginji Akaminai led the team with a .317 batting average, and outfielder Ryo Hijirisawa led the team with 21 stolen bases. Simply put, the Rakuten lineup looked great in 2013, but no one looked as good as Tanaka.

Ma-kun started on a hot streak and never fell off, finishing the regular season with 24 wins and zero losses, a new Japanese record. In 212 innings of work, Tanaka managed to keep his ERA at 1.27. He was also called in for a save in late September against the Seibu Lions, finishing off a come-from-behind victory in a 4-3 game to clinch Rakuten’s first-ever Pacific League pennant.

Tanaka was so good that he not only won the Pacific League MVP that year, but his second Sawamura award as well. He was only the 12th player in NPB history to win multiple Sawamura awards.

Former NPB and MLB pitcher Shigetoshi Hasegawa, who had his own share of stellar seasons, said, “Tanaka dominated every single game and the entire season in 2013. It was really awesome.”

The rookie Norimoto didn’t look too bad either; he won 15 games and was named Pacific League Rookie of the Year.

“We would tell the story that between Tanaka and Norimoto, the two of those guys had one more win than in my year when I was GM in 2005,” Marty Kuehnert said. “When you get performances like that, you’re going to win.”

The Eagles finished the season with an 82-59-3 record, and moved on to play the Chiba Lotte Marines in a six-game Climax Series matchup. The winner would go on to represent the Pacific League in the Japan Series. Rakuten would need Tanaka’s dominance to carry into the postseason if the team wanted to be crowned champions, and true to form, Ma-kun brought his best stuff.

In game one of the Pacific League Climax Series, Tanaka recorded a complete game shutout as the Eagles beat the Marines 2-0. Rakuten wound up winning the series 4-1, and moved on to face NPB’s winningest team, the Yomiuri Giants, in the Japan Series.

The Central League Pennant winners brought a stacked pitching rotation into the championship behind rookie Tomoyuki Sugano and 2011 Central League Rookie of the Year Hirokazu Sawamura, as well as reliever Scott Mathieson, a flame-throwing Canadian import.

Rakuten gave the game one start to rookie pitcher Takahiro Norimoto, who pitched incredibly well despite the pressure. Over eight innings he only gave up four hits and struck out ten, but the Eagles weren’t able to give their young pitcher any run support and the Giants squeezed out a 2-0 win.

Game two saw the teams pit their aces against each other. Sugano and Tanaka both befuddled hitters for the first five innings of the game, but in the bottom of the sixth Sugano allowed Takero Okajima to score on an RBI single by Ginji Akaminai. Sugano was then hooked after walking Andruw Jones. Rakuten scored again in the bottom of the seventh to make it a 2-0 game. In the top of the eighth, Takayuki Terauchi of the Giants managed to hit a solo homer off Tanaka, but that was the Giants’ only run of the night. Tanaka pitched all nine innings for a Rakuten win. He remained unbeaten in 2013, and had evened out the Japan Series at 1-1.

The teams traded wins in the next two games, with Rakuten taking game three and Yomiuri taking game four. Game five was another pitcher’s duel, with the Giants game one winner Tetsuya Yamaguchi drawing the start against Rakuten’s Wataru Karashima. After five scoreless innings by Karashima, Rakuten brought Takahiro Norimoto in for a relief stint. The game wound up going to extra innings, where Norimoto scored the go-ahead run in the top of the tenth, and retired the side in the bottom of the tenth for the win.

That gave the Eagles a 3-2 series lead and a chance to win the team’s first ever Japan Series, at home in Miyagi Stadium, with none other than Masahiro Tanaka on the mound. He would once again be facing Giants rookie Tomoyuki Sugano.

It would likely be Tanaka’s last start in Japan before he moved to MLB. After earning Rookie of the Year, an MVP award, two Sawamuras, and keeping an undefeated regular and postseason record through the 2013 season, here was his opportunity to give the fans in Sendai one final memory.

Rakuten got out to an early 2-run lead, but things went south in the fifth inning. With one out and a 2-2 count in the top of the frame, Jose Lopez took Tanaka deep for a game-tying 2-run homer. Tanaka would let another run score that inning, and the Giants got one more insurance run in the top of the sixth. Despite trailing 4-2 after six innings, Rakuten manager Senichi Hoshino decided to let his ace keep dealing and hope for some run support. Unfortunately, it never came. Tanaka threw 160 pitches over a complete game and lost his first decision of the season.

Game seven would be played the following day and featured a rematch of game three’s starting pitchers. Rakuten’s Manabu Mima, who won game three, came out hot in game seven and pitched six scoreless innings. Yomiuri’s Toshiya Sugiuchi on the other hand, did not. Rakuten runners scored in both the bottom of the first, and bottom of the second innings, putting an end to Sugiuchi’s short outing. Rakuten scored again in the bottom of the fourth.

With a 3-0 lead, manager Senichi Hoshino hooked Mima after six innings. Like he had in game five, Hoshino put Norimoto in for a few innings of work. The kid gave up two hits over two innings, but no runs. Then, with a 3-0 lead in the top of the ninth, in game seven of the Japan Series, Masahiro Tanaka took the mound once again.

It was shades of Koshien all over again. After coming up short despite a herculean effort in a title-clinching game the day before, Ma-kun had a chance for redemption.

This time, he succeeded.

With two outs, runners on the corners and a 1-2 count, Tanaka put a pitch on the outside part of the plate and got Kenji Yano to swing and miss. Balloons were released and Miyagi Stadium erupted in cheers. Ma-kun yelled and threw his arms up in triumph, and catcher Motohiro Shima ran out to the mound to give him a hug.

“I have a picture that I really like of us shaking hands just before hugging in the dugout,” Marty Kuehnert said. “Who would think that he would come in after he had pitched 160 pitches the day before? And then he comes in to close it. Everybody was thrilled.”

“It was total elation. You couldn’t have been happier than seeing that happen,” he said.

Moving Up and Moving On

Two years after the devastating 2011 Tohoku earthquake, the Eagles brought a championship back to Sendai. Kazuo Matsui was finally a champion, as was Andruw Jones. In the celebrations after game seven, Rakuten players performed a Japan Series tradition: tossing their manager into the air. It was Hoshino’s first Japan Series win in four tries as a manager. 

Unfortunately, Rakuten dealt with a bit of a championship hangover throughout the 2014 season. The team finished in last place in the Pacific League with a record of 64-80-0 and manager Senichi Hoshino was replaced.

Rakuten has continued to struggle since. The Eagles finished in last place in the Pacific League during the 2015 and 2018 seasons. The team is yet to win another pennant or appear in another Japan Series.

As he said he would, Masahiro Tanaka moved to the United States in 2014 to pursue a career in MLB. The New York Yankees won the bidding for the prized right-hander, offering him a 7-year contract worth $155 million.

New York Yankees pitcher Masahiro Tanaka in 2014. Photo taken from Wikimedia Commons.

Michael Fratto is from Greenville, New York, and he and his family are Yankees season ticket holders. “I remember when he was introduced to MLB and him coming over, it was a really big deal,” Fratto said. “I remember being hyped up about him. I know he was renowned over there and coming over here, it was electric again. It felt like Matsui, or Ichiro, one of those stars coming over to play.”

Tanaka had an immediate impact on MLB, and the Yankees organization. In his first season in the USA he won 13 games, kept up a 6.7-1 strikeout to walk ratio, and received an All-Star nod. In his seven seasons with the Yankees, Tanaka has never had a losing record. In fact, his only season without double-digit wins was 2020’s Covid-shortened 60-game season.

“The first probably two or three years, I feel like he was lights out,” Fratto said. “He could’ve been the number one starter. It was always between him and CC [Sabathia] for the number one spot.”

“But, I will say as he has gotten older, the ability to last long in games has really gone downhill. He’s really a five inning, six inning max, pitcher,” Fratto said.

The stats back up Fratto’s assertion. In 2014, Tanaka’s first year in MLB, he averaged more than 6.2 innings per outing. But, that measurement has been trending down ever since. In 2017, Tanaka’s innings per outing dropped below six, and during the 2020 season Tanaka averaged less than five innings per outing.

Although the young Ma-kun was known for complete games, and for taking little rest between appearances, he’s starting to show his age. His contract with the Yankees expired after the 2020 season, and it’s still unclear whether the team plans to resign him.

“I’d like to see [the Yankees] resign him, but not for long term,” Fratto said. “You have to give him possibly a three-year deal, maybe, with a fourth-year option.”

Regardless of whether he stays in New York or not, Masahiro Tanaka has already exceeded any expectations that were set for his career. The catcher-turned pitcher won a championship in Japan’s summer Koshien. He became a decorated pitcher in NPB with a Pacific League rookie of the year, an MVP, the winningest record in the league’s history at 24-0 and two Sawamura awards. He helped the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles win their first ever Japan Series, and brought a championship to Sendai after a major disaster decimated the city. He has received two All-Star nominations in a seven-year MLB career, and through all his seasons in both NPB and MLB, Tanaka has never posted a losing record.

As Marty Kuehnert said, “I don’t think any of us realized how great he would be.”

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