TOKOROZAWA, SAITAMA PREF. – Takahiro Norimoto went the distance on Opening Day as the Japan Series champion Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles defeated the Seibu Lions 2-1 on Friday
Norimoto, the 2013 Pacific League Rookkie of the Year who went 15-8 in his freshman campaign, struck out 10 in a 133-pitch effort and Kazuo Matsui belted a two-run homer against his old team to provide all the offense before a crowd of 31,819 at Seibu Dome.
Lions starter Takayuki Kishi allowed two runs in seven innings. The right-hander gave up seven hits, while walking one and striking out three.
Norimoto opened the game with four straight balls, but settled down and faced little trouble until the eighth, when with his pitch count climbing, Eagles skipper Senichi Hoshino considered taking him out and sent pitching coach Yoshinori Sato to the mound.
“He asked me if I thought I could do it,” said the 23-year-old Norimoto, whose third walk of the game put two on with one out in the eighth.
But he got out of trouble and a similar pinch in the ninth to seal the win.
“I pitched well throughout the spring, but never as good as this,” Norimoto said. “I was nervous at the start, and when I walked the first batter I thought, ‘Now I’ve done it.’ “
Andruw Jones, batting cleanup for Rakuten, pulled an inside fastball into the corner in left to open the second inning, and alertly took second when left fielder Fumikazu Kimura failed to field it cleanly off the wall.
Kishi struck out ex-Boston Red Sox star Kevin Youkilis in his first official at-bat in Japan, and got another easy out before Matsui lowered the boom on a low-inside slider, driving it into the seats down the right-field line.
“I just reacted to it,” said Matsui, who started his career with the Lions. “Other than the homer, I didn’t have a very good game but I learned a few things.
“We won last year, but that doesn’t matter. You have to go out every game and get the job done.”
The hosts halved the champions’ lead in the bottom of the third on a Masato Kumashiro two-out double.
Ginjiro Sumitani led off with a single and was sacrificed to second, where he remained until Kumashiro was jammed on an 0-1 fastball and his fly eluding a diving attempt by right fielder Takero Okajima.
Kishi escaped jams in the fourth, fifth and seventh, and reliever Atsushi Okamoto did the same in the eighth thanks to Kimura, who snared a sinking liner off the bat of Youkilis with two outs and runners on first and second.
Norimoto, who had all his pitches working from the start to go with a fastball that hit 150 kph, faced his biggest threat in the eighth when he retired 2013 PL RBI leader Hideto Asamura to end the inning.
Hoshino opted to keep his right-hander in the game after veteran major leaguer Cody Ransom had his first hit in Japan, a one-out single before Norimoto induced a game-ending double play.
Asked if Norimoto was now his ace, Hoshino snapped.
“You can’t be an ace until you’ve pitched three years, don’t you know anything?” he said. “I was thinking of pulling him in the eighth or ninth, but our relievers blew so many late leads last year, I figured I’d put the game in his hands to win or lose.”
Fighters 6, Buffaloes 5 (12)
At Sapporo Dome, Hokkaido Nippon Ham’s Eiichi Koyano tied it in the 10th inning with an RBI double and beat Orix with a sayonara RBI single in the 12th.
Hawks 11, Marines 5
At Fukuoka’s Yafuoku Dome, Softbank banged out 16 hits and torched Chiba Lotte ace Yoshihisa Naruse (0-1) for six runs in 4 1/3 innings.
Swallows 9, BayStars 1
At Jingu Stadium, Tokyo Yakult rookie Naomichi Nishiura got the start at shortstop and delivered the knockout blow with a three-run homer in his debut at-bat as the Swallows demolished Yokohama behind six innings from 2013 Rookie of the Year Yasuhiro Ogawa (1-0).
Carp 3, Dragons 2 (10)
At Nagoya Dome, Kila Ka’aihue hit a game-tying two-run homer in the sixth and Ryosuke Kikuchi broke a 2-2 tie with a 10th-inning RBI double as Hiroshima beat Chunichi.