The Hanshin Tigers gave notice Saturday night that their preseason surge was no fluke.

Newly-acquired first baseman George Arias belted a two-run homer and left-handed starter Kei Igawa went the distance as the Tigers beat the Yomiuri Giants 3-1 at the Tokyo Dome to open the 2002 season.

It was the first time the Tigers, who finished in the league cellar the last four seasons, had won an Opening Day game in 12 years. Last year, the Tigers opened the season with a 17-3 loss to the Giants.

Hanshin barely escaped another Opening Day disappointment when the Giants threatened to score in the bottom of the ninth inning.

Yomiuri center fielder Hideki Matsui led off with a single to shallow right field and advanced to second on Kazuhiro Kiyohara’s infield base hit. Igawa got Akira Eto to pop up to shallow center field before facing Giants catcher Shinnosuke Abe, who hit a scorching line drive that Tigers shortstop Atsushi Fujimoto was just barely able to knock down.

Fujimoto then tossed the ball to second baseman Makoto Imaoka to force out Kiyohara as Matsui began sprinting to third base. Imaoka then tossed the ball to Hanshin third baseman Atsushi Kataoka, who applied the tag to Matsui as he turned back to second base.

Tom O’Malley, a former Hanshin first baseman who is working as the Tigers special assignments coach this year, was pleased to walk away with the win despite its unusual ending.

“How about them Tigers!” O’Malley said after the game. “That’s not the way we drew it up in the game plan, but we’ll take it.”

After one inning, the game appeared to be unfolding as a classic pitchers’ duel. Yomiuri starter Koji Uehara struck out the side in the first inning and Igawa fanned the first two batters he faced in the bottom of the inning.

Hanshin right fielder Shinjiro Hiyama put the Tigers on the scoreboard in the second inning with a solo home run over the right field fence.

Arias, who joined the Tigers this season after playing two years for the Orix BlueWave, gave Hanshin a 3-0 lead after hammering a Uehara fastball into the center field bleachers in the fourth inning.

“I really wanted to do something in the opening game and I was just waiting for a fastball,” Arias said. “But I don’t want to take anything away from Uehara because he pitched great and he struck me out twice.”

While Arias only needed two at-bats to adjust to Central League pitching, third baseman Atsushi Kataoka may need a little more time.

Kataoka went 0-for-4 and struck out twice despite returning to the Tokyo Dome, where he played 10 years for the Nippon Ham Fighters before signing with the Tigers as a free agent last year.

The Giants finally got on the scoreboard in the fourth inning when Kiyohara ripped a 125-kph slider into the left field stands. But Igawa quickly settled down and retired the next eight batters.

Igawa struck out nine and allowed just six hits and three walks to give manager Senichi Hoshino his first win as Tigers skipper.

Hoshino resigned as Chunichi Dragons manager last year and accepted the Hanshin job after Katsuya Nomura, whose wife was arrested on suspicion of income tax evasion, was forced to step down in December.

Tigers fans appeared to come to the game energized following the team’s success in the preseason, in which Hanshin compiled a 15-3 record with two ties. They chanted team songs even during the singing of the national anthem and never let up until the final out.

Uehara suffered the loss for the Giants despite a strong effort in which he struck out 10 Tigers batters in eight innings.

The loss was also the first for Yomiuri’s Tatsunori Hara, who made his managerial debut Saturday. Hara was elevated to Giants skipper after Shigeo Nagashima stepped down last year.

Swallows edge Dragons

Yakult shortstop Shinya Miyamoto had three hits, including an RBI double in the Swallows’ three-run fifth as the defending Japan Series champ edged Chunichi 5-4 at the Nagoya Dome.

Akinori Iwamura singled and doubled and scored twice to pace Yakult, which posted an Opening Day win for the fourth year in a row.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.