The long wait is finally over! Spring is in the air, the cherry blossoms came out in full bloom across most of Japan, and NPB had its Opening Weekend! There is plenty to talk about, and in an attempt to cover all 12 teams (at least this time!), we will give you a brief look at each matchup that took place. Naturally, we start where there is a brand new ballpark and the season started a day earlier for two teams…
Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters vs. Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles
Takayuki Katoh of the Fighters threw the first regulation pitch at Es Con Field Hokkaido on March 30 just after 6 pm, and it was a strike. He fanned the first-ever hitter, Ryosuke Tatsumi. The Eagles’ Maikel Franco collected the first-ever hit at the ballpark, and his teammate Yukiya Itoh hit the first-ever home run. The Fighters scored their first-ever run on a Yuki Nomura sacrifice fly in the bottom of the sixth, but dropped their first game, 3-1. Masahiro Tanaka became the first winning pitcher at the new ballpark. The Fighters would come back to win on Saturday, 4-3 (a walk-off by Kotaro Kiyomiya), but then lost the rubber match on Sunday, 2-1.
Saitama Seibu Lions vs. Orix Buffaloes
The biggest free agent signing of the offseason, Tomoya Mori, gave his new team a big boost on Opening Day. Playing against his old team, Mori hit a game-tying solo home run to open the ninth inning. The next inning, his mate Yuma Mune gave the Buffaloes a 3-2 win with a home run of his own. The Buffaloes won the second game of the series as well (9-2), as Yutaro Sugimoto hit a home run in the first inning and the Buffs never looked back. On Sunday, though, they ran into closer-turned-starter Kaima Taira, who threw seven innings of five-hit, one-run ball, striking out nine. The Lions avoided the sweep, winning 4-1.
Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks vs. Chiba Lotte Marines
One of these teams was unable to avoid a sweep, and in fact, struggled to score runs the entire weekend. It took the Marines until the sixth inning on Sunday to bring a runner home, and even then, it was not enough to draw even with the Hawks. Hawks’ starter Tomohisa Ohzeki held the Marines off the base paths through five innings in the opener, as the Hawks won 4-0. They took Game 2 even more handily, 7-0, as Koya Fujii and his friends limited the Marines to three hits. On Sunday, the Hawks took an early four-run lead and ran with it, completing the sweep with a 5-3 victory.
Tokyo Yakult Swallows vs. Hiroshima Toyo Carp
Munetaka Murakami homered in his first at-bat of the season, and the Swallows pitchers shut out the Carp bats all game, resulting in a comfortable 4-0 win on Opening Day. They scored just one run – a Jose Osuna home run – on Saturday, but it was enough, as the Carp remained scoreless through two games. The Carp got on the board on Sunday, putting up a run in each of the first two innings, but it was not enough. It was Murakami who made the difference in the end, hitting a double to the wall, and combined with a bobble and a poor relay throw from the outfielder, he scampered all the way home for the decisive run in the Swallows’ 3-2 victory.
Hanshin Tigers vs. Yokohama DeNA Baystars
Hall of Famer Randy Bass threw out the ceremonial first pitch for the Tigers. The ex-teammate of new manager Akinobu Okada was on hand to see the Tigers piece together runs in three of the first five innings. With a 6-3 lead heading into the ninth, WBC rep Atsuki Yuasa walked the bases loaded with just one out… but shut down the Baystars’ cleanup hitters (who also played in the WBC: Shugo Maki and Neftali Soto). On Saturday, the Tigers overcame an early 4-0 deficit, and the game went right down to the wire. With two outs and the bases loaded in the twelfth, down to their final strike before the game would be declared a tie, Koji Chikamoto hit a gapper to walk the game off, 6-5. The Tigers completed the sweep on Sunday with a comfortable 6-2 win.
Yomiuri Giants vs. Chunichi Dragons
It is hard to believe, but Dragons manager Tatsunami kept his Opening Day starter Shinnosuke Ogasawara in the game for nearly 8 innings (and 145 pitches!). When he ran out of gas and gave up the lead, he got pulled. Fortunately for him, the Dragons rallied in the ninth to take the opener, 6-3. The rest of the weekend went to the Giants, though, as new import pitcher Foster Griffin combined with a few relievers to shut out the Dragons, 2-0. On Sunday, Yoshihiro Maru hit the go-ahead home run in the bottom of the eighth, and WBC pitcher Taisei made his season debut, preserving the 3-2 lead for his first save of the season.
Just a few notes before we wrap things up. Dragons reliever Yariel Rodriguez, who also played in the WBC, announced he would not return to the team. He instead will pursue his dream of playing MLB. Former MLB Cy Young winner (and current Baystar) Trevor Bauer experienced a shoulder strain and will not be ready as early as anticipated. However, he did some long tossing today. Finally, the spring national high school tournament, also known as Koshien, ended on April 1. For the first time in the 95-year history of the event, Yamanashi Prefecture (Yamanashi Gakuin) brought home the championship. Congratulations to those fine young men!
What a weekend! I don’t know about you, but I’m more than ready for a full week of baseball, starting tomorrow!