Japanese Baseball

Rain and empty stands greet players as long-delayed NPB season begins

by Jason Coskrey

Staff writer

If there was one saying that rang true as a light rain fell on a cool night at Yokohama Stadium is was this one:

Better late than never.

Nippon Professional Baseball finally got underway across Japan on Friday night, almost three months to the day this coronavirus-delayed campaign was supposed to begin.

Players took the field in stadiums rendered empty by COVID-19 precautions, one of the many new realities they’ll face this season.

“I think there will be a lot of first-time experiences,” Hiroshima Carp pitcher Daichi Osera said after his team’s 5-1 win over the Yokohama BayStars at Yokohama Stadium.

NPB is the third major league to get started after the Chinese Professional Baseball League in Taiwan and Korea Baseball Organization in South Korea.

The NPB season was originally scheduled to open March 20, but was delayed earlier that month as the COVID-19 pandemic worsened in Japan and around the world. Five players would later test positive for the virus.

The league announced its June 19 start date in late May and teams began playing practice games on June 2. The teams all began the 2020 season around 6 p.m. on Friday, with the exception of the Carp and BayStars, who had to wait an extra 30 minutes because of the rain.

The delay wasn’t enough to throw Osera off his game. The Carp ace went the distance, allowing four hits and striking out four. Osera also hit his first career home run, an opposite-field shot in the ninth, and finished with three RBIs.

“Because I was talking with Aizawa-san, I was able to pitch carefully,” Osera said, referring to Carp catcher Tsubasa Aizawa. “I’m happy I was able to pitch until the end somehow.”

The BayStars had few answers for him, with their only offense coming from Jose Lopez, who homered in the second inning. Osera didn’t allow another hit until the seventh.

“Osera was unbelievable today,” BayStars manager Alex Ramirez said. “That guy was on, not only pitching but also hitting. It was his day today.”

An Osera gem was among the most normal things to happen on a night that felt abnormal without the constant singing and cheering that gives NPB its famously vibrant atmosphere.

“It’s too quiet in here,” Seibu Lions pitcher Zach Neal said to fans watching at home during his hero interview at MetLife Dome in Tokorozawa, Saitama Prefecture. “I’m not used to it being this quiet in here. I’m excited for the day that you guys can come back in here and make it a little more rowdy and a little loud and get back to normal times.”

They would’ve had a lot to get loud about on Day 1.

Two pitchers, Osera and the Hanshin Tigers’ Yuki Nishi, went deep on opening day, the first time that’s happened in NPB history. In Fukuoka, the three-time defending Japan Series champion Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks won on a sayonara single by Ryoya Kurihara. The Chunichi Dragons and Tokyo Yakult Swallows staged a back-and-forth affair at Jingu Stadium that ended with Chunichi on top 9-7 after 4 hours, 49 minutes. Neal threw six shutout frames for the Lions and Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles ace Takahiro Norimoto started the year with seven innings of one-run ball.

In addition to starting the season behind closed doors, which NPB Commissioner Atsushi Saito apologized for in a statement on Friday, there are other COVID-19 measures in place.

Players are asked to refrain from high-fives with bare hands, so they gave each other air high-fives — and in Yokohama the mangers did an air handshake after exchanging lineup cards. Managers and coaches will also wear masks during games.

Hero interviews after games on Friday were done with social distancing rules in mind.

Off the field, the players will be given PCR tests once a month and have their temperatures checked before heading to the stadiums.

The new measures don’t change baseball itself. Although the switch to games ending in ties after 10 innings will likely alter late-game strategy.

The silence, though, was extremely noticeable.

In Yokohama, instead of the fans providing the soundtrack, the thud of Osera’s practice pitches hitting their mark echoed around the stadium during the top half of every inning. Exhortations yelled from the bench could be heard, as could players calling for fly balls.

Teams tried to add a little atmosphere in various ways. Some used cardboard cutouts, others put up messages of support around their stadiums. The BayStars put fans watching online on the stadium scoreboard to sing the team song and scream support for pitcher Shota Imanaga, who ended up with the loss. It’s possible a limited number of fans could be allowed in stadiums in July.

Because of the delay in starting the season, teams are scheduled to play just 120 games, with no interleague or All-Star Series.

The Pacific League is scheduled to finish Nov. 6 and the CL on Nov. 7. The Japan Series is slated for a Nov. 21 start.

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