Baseball / Japanese Baseball

Brandon Laird powers Marines past Eagles as rookie teammate Kyota Fujiwara makes Opening Night start

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

The Chiba Lotte Marines and their fans were already well aware of Brandon Laird and his sushi-making ways before this season.

They just like the “Makuhari Sushi” a lot better than the version that was on the menu before.

Laird put a jolt into the Lotte faithful with a towering three-run homer in the sixth that gave the Marines a one-run lead they wouldn’t give up in a 5-4 victory over the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles in the season opener on a chilly Friday night in front of a crowd of 30,308 at Zozo Marine Stadium.

“I’m hoping he’ll be able to keep doing things like that for us this season,” Marines manager Tadahito Iguchi said. “He showed his power from the first game.”

The slugger is famous for his sushi performance after home runs and gave the fans a show in his first game with the Marines.

“I told you was going to open up that sushi shop tonight,” Laird said after the game.

The two teams entered the sixth with the score tied 2-2 before Jabari Blash, in his first NPB game, gave Rakuten the lead with a two-run single in the top half.

Shogo Nakamura singled with one out and Katsuya Kakunaka drew a two-out walk to bring Laird to the plate against reliever Ryota Ishibashi in the bottom of the inning. After taking the first pitch for a ball, Laird connected on a 144-kph fastball to put the Marines ahead.

Which is just what he went to the plate to do.

“Yeah, two people on base and a guy who likes to throw his two-seam inside, I was definitely looking for it,” Laird said.

Laird was making his debut with Lotte after spending the previous four seasons with the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, for whom he hit 131 homers, including a PL-best 39 in 2016.

“I was definitely nervous, but good nervous,” Laird said. “New year, you wanna make a good first impression, but also don’t wanna put too much pressure on myself. So I’m just happy I could have a good game and come through with a big hit today.”

Laird wasn’t the only new face in pinstripes on Friday.

Outfielder Kyota Fujiwara was making his pro debut, becoming the first rookie out of high school to start an opener for Lotte since 1965. He also hit leadoff, which made him, according to Sports Nippon, only the second high school rookie to hit in the No. 1 spot in a season opener.

“It was good experience,” Fujiwara said. “I want to carry it over into my next game.”

Fujiwara received the loudest cheers of the night each time he came up to bat and gave the crowd what it wanted with an infield single in the seventh for his first NPB hit. The last high school rookie to get a hit in a season opener was Shohei Ohtani.

“I’m happy about that,” Fujiwara said. “I just want to keep playing hard from now and gain more strength and keep growing into a regular player.”

The Marines brought up the rear in NPB with 78 home runs last year. They hit three on Opening Night, with Shohei Kato and Shogo Nakamura going yard in the first and fourth innings, respectively.

“Last year was difficult for both the team and myself,” Kato said. “I’ve been waiting on this day for half a year and I’m just trying to make a fresh start.”

Lotte didn’t even need its new “Home Run Lagoon,” the seating section that was created by moving the outfield walls in. All three Marines homers would’ve gone out last year as well.

The only player to benefit from the new area on Friday was Rakuten’s Zelous Wheeler, who hit a two-run shot in the second. The Eagles got their other two runs on Blash’s sixth-inning hit.

Tomohito Sakai (1-0) threw one pitch, retired one batter and was credited the win in relief for Lotte, which got 3 1/3 perfect innings from four pitchers out of the bullpen. Naoya Masuda picked up the save.

Ishibashi was the losing pitcher.

The Eagles just hope they didn’t lose more than the game.

Starter Takayuki Kishi came out during the fifth, seeming to indicate a problem emanating from the back of his thigh. The Eagles are already down one ace with Takahiro Norimoto having had elbow surgery during the offseason.

Fighters 7, Buffaloes 3 (10)

Lions at Hawks — late

Osera baffles Maru, Giants

Hiroshima

KYODO

Daichi Osera struck out former teammate and two-time MVP Yoshihiro Maru four times on Friday as the Hiroshima Carp blanked the Yomiuri 5-0 in the teams’ Central League season opener.

The Carp, aiming for a fourth straight Central League championship, lost Maru over the offseason to free agency. But the Giants’ new center fielder accounted for only four of his team’s 11 strikeouts against the Hiroshima right-hander.

With excellent location and movement on all his pitches, Osera allowed seven singles and a walk over eight scoreless innings.

“I wanted to do my best so we could start the season in good fashion,” said Osera, who was making his first Opening Day start. “I just focused on one batter at a time.”

Yomiuri ace Tomoyuki Sugano surrendered a third-inning solo homer to Tomohiro Abe. The right-hander, who won the Sawamura Award the past two seasons, allowed one run on four hits and three walks. He struck out three.

The Carp broke the game open in the eighth, scoring four times against the Giants bullpen.

Hiroshima closer Shota Nakazaki loaded the bases with two outs before preserving the shutout.

BayStars 8, Dragons 1

Tigers 2, Swallows 1 (11)