SENDAI – A nation cast its collective eyes on earthquake-ravaged Sendai Friday as the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles made their long-awaited return to their home field at Kleenex Stadium following the tragic March 11 earthquake and tsunami.
A sea of emotions was brewing and ace right-hander Masahiro Tanaka delivered the goods with a gritty 3-1 complete-game victory over the Orix Buffaloes.
“I was waiting for this day for a long time. I knew that this would be a special game and I prepared for it well. I am glad that we could get this victory for all our fans,” said Tanaka. “I was more hyped than ever on the mound and I went out there with that feeling from the first inning,” said the 2007 Rookie of the Year.
Rakuten brought out the lumber early in support of Tanaka against former major leaguer Park Chan Ho.
Eagles first-year manager Senichi Hoshino had hoped for a resounding victory for the homecoming in the fourth contest against Orix this season, but he chalked up the win, despite the dearth of runs.
“This will be an unforgettable game in my baseball career. We carry the emotions of all our fans on our shoulders and must fight to win,” Hoshino said.
Akinori Iwamura had a one-out single in the second inning, followed by Randy Ruiz’s broken-bat single up the middle. Motohiro Shima hit another single to center to load the bases and Masato Nakamura belted an RBI single to left for the opening run in front of a sellout crowd.
One out later with the bases juiced, Ryo Hijirisawa laced a dribbler up the middle, pushing across two more runs for a 3-0 lead.
“We swung the bats well for one inning, and then it was back to the (poor) way we’ve been hitting. We need to score more runs than that,” Hoshino said.
Kleenex Stadium was partially damaged in the quake, delaying Rakuten’s home opener by more than one month while repair work was being done.
Tanaka ran into trouble in the seventh when he allowed a single to right by Hirotoshi Kitagawa and Aarom Baldiris’s high chopper up the middle to put runners at first and second, but he escaped the threat with a fly out by pinch hitter Mike Hessman.
In the eighth, Tanaka allowed a run to score on Mitsutaka Goto’s comebacker in which shortstop Kazuo Matsui failed to complete a double play after a runner was erased at second when he threw over the outreached glove of first baseman Takeshi Yamasaki.
But he struck out Okada swinging on a full-count forkball with first base open for the final out of the inning. Tanaka had fallen behind the count 3-1, but was confident he could get Okada out.
“I wasn’t about to walk Okada just because I was behind in the count. I hate doing that. I always want to challenge batters to swing at pitches,” he said.
Tanaka’s (2-0) final line: Six hits, six strikeouts and two walks in a 138-pitch outing.
“I could pitch the game I wanted even though I gave up that run. Of course, the fans’ cheers are what really boosted my spirits, especially, in the final inning. I really want to express my appreciation,” Tanaka said after getting Daisuke Maeda on a comebacker for the last out of the game.
Park (1-2) scattered nine hits with four strikeouts while walking none over eight innings.
Amateur golfer Hideki Matsuyama, who debuted at this year’s Masters, threw out the ceremonial first pitch after an emotional opening ceremony, attended by Miyagi Gov. Yoshihiro Murai, Eagles owner Hiroshi Mikitani and United States Ambassador John Roos.
The sophomore at Sendai’s Tohoku Fukushi University was the only one to make the cut among the field’s six non-professionals and finished in 27th behind golf star Ryo Ishikawa (20th) at the first major of the year, bringing good news to grief-stricken Japan.
Marines 3, Hawks 2
At QVC Marine Field, Takashi Ogino had a two-out, bases-clearing double to give his team the lead in the fifth inning and Chiba Lotte held off Fukuoka Softbank in a narrow victory.
Takuya Furuya (1-0) got the win in relief while Hiroki Yamada (2-1) threw three-run ball over seven innings of the loss.
Fighters 4, Lions 1
At Sapporo Dome, Yoshio Itoi overturned a 1-0 deficit with a two-run double in the sixth inning and added an RBI double in the eighth as Hokkaido Nippon Ham handed Seibu it third loss in a row.
Brian Wolfe (2-1) threw one-run ball over seven strong innings, striking out five with no walks. Hisashi Takeda worked the ninth for his sixth save. Kazuhisa Makita (0-2) was tagged for four runs in 7 1/3 innings for the Lions.
BayStars 7, Giants 6
At Yokohama Stadium, a run scored on a failed double play attempt on Hichori Morimoto’s grounder and Shuichi Murata stroked a three-run double for a one-run lead in the sixth as Yokohama sent struggling Yomiuri to its fourth straight defeat.
The BayStars snapped a three-game skid with Shintaro Ejiri (1-0) picking up the win in relief. Yasunari Takagi (0-1) took the loss.
Tigers 4, Swallows 1
At Koshien Stadium, Lin Wei-zhu hit a go-ahead two-run double in the fourth inning and Takahiro Arai added a two-run single for insurance an inning later as Hanshin rallied past Yakult, ending Tokyo Yakult’s 11-game undefeated streak, including two ties.
Ryohei Kawamoto’s one-out homer gave the Swallows a 1-0 lead in the third before the rally off Hitoshi Yamamoto (1-1). Yasutomo Kubo (2-0) limited the damage to one run over eight innings and Tigers closer Kyuji Fujikawa had a 1-2-3 ninth for his fourth save.
Carp 7, Dragons 0
At Nagoya Dome, Bryan Bullington pitched his first shutout in his third start in Japan, dominating to two-hit the Dragons in a masterful outing as Hiroshima routed Chunichi.
Bullington (3-0) retired the first 17 batters he faced before issuing a one-out walk to Tony Blanco in the fifth inning. He only surrendered singles to 2010 CL MVP Kazuhiro Wada and Motonobu Tanishige in the eighth and ninth, respectively.
Yoshihiro Maru hit a three-run drive off Kenichi Nakata (1-2) in a four-run sixth and Bullington, who struck out eight and walked one, helped his own cause with a two-run single in the eighth inning.