The NPB’s first week produced a number of story lines, such as Yuki Saito’s debut with the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, Yokohama BayStars slugger Terrmel Sledge’s red-hot start and Tokyo Yakult Swallows pitcher Tatsuyoshi Masubuchi’s flirtation with a no-hitter.
Still, as far as signs of encouragement go, it’s hard to overlook the efforts of a group of foreign pitchers over the past week.
Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles hurler Darrell Rasner, Hanshin Tigers pitcher Jason Standridge, the Chiba Lotte Marines’ Hayden Penn and Hiroshima Carp newcomer Bryan Bullington all got off to strong starts with big performances on the mound.
Each enters the season with something to prove and in position to make an impact on the pennant race for their respective clubs.
Standridge is looking to build upon a solid 2010 campaign after finishing 12-8 with a 3.69 ERA, while Rasner (5-11, 4.48) and Penn (1-3, 3.69) want to make their mark.
The Carp, meanwhile, hope Bullington will add some sorely needed depth to their rotation alongside Kenta Maeda.
Bullington, the No. 1 pick of the 2002 MLB draft, who is in his first year in Japan after spending much of 2010 with the Kansas City Royals, was the most impressive of the four this week.
Making his first NPB start on hallowed ground at Koshien Stadium, Bullington threw eight shutout innings against the Tigers, striking out seven and walking two to lead the Carp to their first win this year, becoming the first foreign pitcher to win his first start for the Carp since Robinson Checo in 1995 in the process.
Just one night earlier, it was Standridge holding court at Koshien, throwing seven innings of one-run — none earned — ball against the Carp, striking out six and walking a pair.
“I just wanted to come out and do my job and give my team a chance to win,” Standridge said during his hero interview.
He was in control on the mound, allowing just Jun Hirose’s fourth-inning single and giving up another to Akihiro Higashide in the sixth in a 2-1 Tigers win. Standridge after the game humbly gave most of the credit to the Tigers’ fielders.
Rasner got things started at QVC Marine Field on Wednesday, beating back the defending Japan Series champion Marines with six strong innings of one-run ball, striking out six and walking one.
“It felt good,” Rasner said of his outing. “Just to get back into a routine . . . I’m real excited to get back into a routine and get this thing going. It was a long spring training and everyone’s excited to start playing.”
As was the case in Osaka, Wednesday was just the appetizer as Penn delivered the main course on a warm, sunny Thursday afternoon in Chiba.
After being tagged with a pair of early runs, Penn dialed in and pounded the Eagles into submission with a sinker that induced a parade of ground balls in a 5-2 Lotte win.
“I just wanted to come out here, compete and give everything I’ve got,” Penn said. “I wanted to get back to the dugout and get our bats at the plate. I just really wanted to keep the team in the game.”
The season has just started so it’s too early to begin to make any inferences about how each player’s season will play out.
Still, there’s nothing like a good start, and what a beginning it was.