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Carter Stewart, who turned his back on major league baseball to sign with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks a year ago, made his first-team debut in a practice game on Friday.

With Nippon Professional Baseball’s season on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic, clubs began playing practice games on what would have been opening day for the Central and Pacific leagues.

The Hawks, the three-time defending Japan Series champions, hosted the PL rival Chiba Lotte Marines, with the 20-year-old Stewart allowing one run over five innings in a 4-2 win.

The 198-cm right-hander, who was the eighth overall selection in Major League Baseball’s 2018 amateur draft, had frequent trouble putting the ball where he wanted, and walked five batters.

But the quality of his fastball and curve made it hard for Marines hitters to make solid contact even on fat pitches. Former New York Yankee Brandon Laird, who has hit 163 home runs in five NPB seasons, accounted for the Marines’ only run off Stewart with a long home run off a high, fat fastball.

“Aside from that home run, I was happy to get my first big league start and I was happy to perform and give my team a chance to win,” Stewart said.

Overall, he allowed three hits and struck out five, including one on his fastest pitch of the day, a 154 kph (95.7 mph) fastball to escape a bases-loaded jam in the first inning.

“I shouldn’t have been in that spot in the first place,” Stewart said. “I walked three guys in that inning. I was a little bit nervous in the first inning. I was very excited to get out of it . . .I pumped one up, threw a little bit harder, got the guy out.”

“Five innings, one run is pretty solid, but obviously I still have a lot to work on.”

Hawks skipper Kimiyasu Kudo, who was a wild but hard-throwing pitcher as a youngster who went on to win 224 career games, was impressed.

“He found a higher gear,” Kudo said. “From the start he had quality stuff.”

“If we have a number of injuries it’s not impossible that he could contribute (to the first team).”

Now the challenge is to improve and stay ready for when the season does start.

“I’m excited for the season to come,” Stewart said. “Nobody knows when that’s going to happen, but obviously with what’s going on right now it’s best to do what you can and keep practicing and keep getting better for whenever.”

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