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Kaneko, LaRocca lead Buffaloes to season-opening victory

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TOKOROZAWA, Saitama Pref. — Chihiro Kaneko couldn’t believe he was going to start the Orix Buffaloes’ first game of the season. On Thursday, he made believers out of the Seibu Lions.

Kaneko struck out 10 and Greg LaRocca drove in the game-winning run to lead the Buffaloes to a 2-1 victory over the Lions in front of an Opening Day crowd of 27,137 at Seibu Dome.

“I heard on the 18th I would be the Opening Day starter,” Kaneko said, “but I really didn’t believe it until I saw my name in the newspaper.”

Kaneko went almost pitch for pitch with Seibu ace Hideaki Wakui, allowing a single run on six hits over seven innings to pick up the win.

“He just continues to do exactly what he did in the second half of last year,” Orix manager Terry Collins said of Kaneko. “He’s an impressive young man to be around. He never gets rattled and just does his job and makes pitches.”

LaRocca was the hero at the plate after driving in the game’s first run on an RBI double in the third. Later, with Wakui ahead in the count 0-2, LaRocca delivered a deep sacrifice fly to center, which allowed the winning run to score.

“That was a hard pitch to hit,” LaRocca said of his game-winning RBI. “It was a cutter or something. He (Wakui) is a good pitcher. You’ve got to beat him when he’s making pitches.”

LaRocca’s heroics made a loser of Wakui, who allowed two runs, one earned, and three hits while striking out four.

“He’s really tough,” Collins said of Wakui. “He’s really been tough on us. He moves his fastball around, throws the split, and throws his breaking ball for strikes. To match him pitch for pitch, like Kaneko did, is really impressive.”

Wakui led the Pacific League with 17 wins in 2007, but Kaneko seemingly came out of nowhere to turn the opener into a pitcher’s duel.

“I was nervous before the game but settled down quickly once the game started,” Kaneko said. “More important than the fact that I won is that the team won.

The 24-year-old reliever-turned-starter seemed to have a plan to work the outside of the plate and stuck to it for most of the game. One of his few mistakes was a pitch he hung over the plate in the fourth inning, and G.G. Sato smacked it for a home run.

“It’s really amazing because (Wakui) didn’t get a lot of work all season last year,” Collins said. “Matter of fact, we were here and I asked him, ‘Have you ever started?’ and he said, ‘Not in the major leagues.’ “

“I said, ‘Well, we’re going to see what it’s like. We’re going to give you a chance.’ He got ready and I mean he’s pitched great. He has really pitched great.”

In the third inning, the Buffaloes took a 1-0 lead on LaRocca’s aforementioned two-bagger. Leadoff man Tomotaka Sakaguchi scored on the play.

The Lions knotted the score in the next inning when Sato sent Kaneko’s 2-0 offering into the left-field seats.

Wakui ran into trouble in the seventh. Takeshi Hidaka drew a leadoff walk and was safe at second when Sakaguchi attempted a sacrifice bunt and Wakui made a throwing error.

Yuichiro Mukae followed with a sacrifice bunt to give Orix runners at second and third with one out. LaRocca then followed with a deep sacrifice fly to put the Buffaloes back on top.

Reliever Tsuyoshi Kikuchihara worked a scoreless eighth before yielding to closer Daisuke Kato, who picked up the save.

Darvish blanks M’s

SAPPORO (Kyodo) Yu Darvish threw a stellar game in a pitcher’s duel to lead the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters to a 1-0 shutout of the Chiba Lotte Marines as the Pacific League regular season got under way on Thursday.

Atsunori Inaba drove in the only run of the game at Sapporo Dome with a sixth-inning groundout, which gave Masataka Nashida his first win since taking over for Trey Hillman as manager of the two-time defending league champion.

Darvish, last year’s Sawamura Award winner, marked the start of his fourth season as a professional with the seventh complete-game shutout of his career.

He allowed four hits, struck out 10 and walked one in a 124-pitch outing.

Darvish (1-0) worked himself out of a jam in the fifth inning after Lotte loaded the bases with two outs on two hits and a walk.

Tsuyoshi Nishioka then hit a grounder to first baseman Terrmel Sledge and Darvish raced to cover first base to beat out the Marines leadoff man in a very close call, prompting Lotte skipper Bobby Valentine to storm out of his dugout to argue.

“I was desperately running toward first base trying not to give up a run and I felt extremely pleased with the call, which I thought could have been ‘safe’ at the moment,” Darvish said of the fifth-inning threat.

“I guess how this game turned out to be was one that all the players and fans would like to watch,” Darvish said. “I knew there had been no Nippon Ham pitcher who threw an Opening Day shutout in nine years. I just wanted to achieve it but never imagined how tough it was to be done.”

Hawks 4, Eagles 3

At Yahoo Dome, pinch hitter Hiroshi Shibahara delivered a “sayonara,” three-run homer in the bottom of the ninth inning, helping Softbank rally past Tohoku Rakuten for a dramatic start to what might be the final season for Hawks manager Sadaharu Oh.

Shibahara sent a 0-2 changeup from Domingo Guzman (0-1) over the right-field wall after Hitoshi Tamura hit a leadoff infield single and Nobuhiko Matsunaka doubled to put runners on second and third with none out.