More than 300 former Yomiuri Giants players, including Hideki Matsui and Shigeo “Mr. Giants” Nagashima, were at Tokyo Dome on Opening Night to participate in a ceremony celebrating the franchise’s 80th anniversary.
So there was no way the present-day Kyojin were going to let their longtime archrivals crash the party.
“We never want to lose, especially against Hanshin,” said outfielder Itaru Hashimoto.
Hashimoto did his part with a tiebreaking two-run double in the fifth inning, and four Giants hit home runs as Yomiuri came from behind to rout the Hanshin Tigers 12-4 in front of a crowd of 44,971 on Friday night.
“We could not lose today after that sensational ceremony,” Giants manager Tatsunori Hara said. “I’m glad we came through.”
The Kyojin are the favorites to win the CL pennant and were firing on all cylinders at the plate on the first night of the season.
Hayato Sakamoto hit the 100th home run of his career in the fourth off starter Atsushi Nomi, and new addition Yasuyuki Kataoka hit his first in a Giants uniform, a three-run shot, in the fifth. Jose Lopez and Leslie Anderson, another newcomer, added back-to-back solo shots on consecutive pitches in the sixth against reliever Naoto Tsuru.
Every member of the Yomiuri lineup, including starting pitcher Tomoyuki Sugano, finished with at least one hit. Lopez also had an RBI double and was 3-for-5 with four RBIs while Sakamoto finished 3-for-5 with a pair of RBIs.
Kataoka was the Giants’ most high-profile signing in the offseason, and was hitless in his first two at-bats before his home run.
“I’m not really a home run hitter, but my first hit as a Giant happened to be a home run, and I’m so pleased about that,” Kataoka said.
Sugano got the win in his first Opening Night start. He took a long look down at the mound at the beginning of the game as if taking in the moment.
“I was given the privilege of being the first pitcher to take the mound at Tokyo Dome this year,” he said. “So I was sort of greeting the mound.”
Sugano wasn’t particularly sharp but pitched well enough to get the job done, allowing four unearned runs over seven innings. He struck out three and walked one.
“His control could’ve been better,” Hara said. “But it’s only the first game, so he will get stronger.”
Sugano, in his second season as a pro, became the first Giants pitcher to start an opener within his first two years.
“I was surprised to get the call to start over my senpai (the team’s veteran pitchers), but was determined to do my best and get our team off to a good start,” Sugano said.
Prior to the game, a parade of former Giants walked onto the field to watch a video history of the Yomiuri franchise that featured Hara, Matsui and Yomiuri legend Sadaharu Oh speaking in between historic footage of Japan’s first professional club.
Many of the team’s various trophies and pennants won over the years were also displayed on the field.
“It was such a great ceremony,” Hara said. “We felt the weight of the history of our club. We have the responsibility to play in the 80th anniversary season, so it was great to start it with a win.”
Following the ceremony, Caroline Kennedy, the United States Ambassador to Japan, threw out the first pitch.
The Tigers raced to a 4-0 lead on run-scoring doubles by Yamato Maeda, Mauro Gomez (two-run), and Matt Murton in the third but couldn’t hold on to the advantage.
“They honestly just beat us tonight,” Murton said. “They really swung the bats well. They’re a good ball club. All we can do is come back tomorrow and try to even the series up.”
Nomi in particular had a night to forget.
He made it through two shaky innings without any damage, then gave up 10 runs over the next 2 2/3 frames. Tsuru threw 1 2/3 innings of relief and allowed a pair of runs.
The Giants trailed 4-0 after the top of the third and began mounting their comeback in the bottom half.
Hisayoshi Chono, Shuichi Murata and Shinnosuke Abe reeled off consecutive singles with two outs, and Lopez cleared the bases with a double.
Yomiuri pulled even on Sakamoto’s solo homer in the fourth and went ahead when Hashimoto doubled in two in the fifth. Sakamoto made the score 7-4 with an RBI single later in the frame, and Kataoka tacked on three more with a home run.
Yomiuri continued to pile it on in the sixth, going ahead 12-4 on the back-to-back blasts by Lopez and Anderson.
The Tigers will hope to file this one away as a blip in a long season.
“No one game is more important than the other,” Murton said. “Other than the fact that you are playing the Giants, you are within your division, and they’re kind of the team to beat, so those games are almost worth two games. That makes it maybe a little bit more important, but there’s 143 games left. You never want to lose a ball game, especially the way we lost tonight, but all we can do is come back and try to win tomorrow.”