Yoshiyuki Kamei doesn’t actually hit a walk-off, or otherwise huge, home run every time he steps up to the plate — it just feels that way sometimes.
Kamei connected on another one in his very first at-bat of the 2021 season to beat the Yokohama BayStars at Tokyo Dome on Friday night.
Just minutes after the Yomiuri Giants blew a two-run lead in the top of the ninth inning, Kamei led off the bottom half by sending Kazuki Mishima’s third pitch hurtling toward the seats in right field as his teammates spilled out of the dugout to celebrate an 8-7 victory.
The first opening day pinch-hit sayonara home run in NPB history — of course that’s something Kamei would pull off.
“Well, I’ve just gotten started this year, but that was my No. 1 hit so far this season,” Kamei said afterward.
Kamei, 38, may not be in the lineup every day anymore, but he’s always a threat to give the Giants a lift in a key spot at the plate or important moment in the outfield. This is his role now, in his 17th pro season.
The Giants are deep and will get even deeper when Eric Thames arrives from the U.S. later in the year. The Kyojin don’t need Kamei to start day in and day out, but his work as a super sub — as he showed Friday — is going to aid them in their quest for a third straight pennant and first Japan Series title since 2012.
That’s exactly what he did Friday, saving the Giants from a possible tie that for all intents and purposes would’ve felt like a loss.
“Kamei’s amazing home run had a lot of significance,” Giants manager Tatsunori Hara said. “It gives the team a lot of energy for tomorrow.”
Kamei isn’t new to this. Friday’s home run was the seventh walk-off blast of his career. In the Giants’ long and storied history, that ties him with past greats Shigeo Nagashima and Shinnosuke Abe and leaves him one behind Sadaharu Oh — Kazuhiro Kiyohara owns the NPB record of 12. Kamei also has plenty of other important hits throughout his career.
He spent the first 8½ innings of Friday’s game watching and staying ready.
“I didn’t neglect my preparation,” Kamei said later.
Giants ace Tomoyuki Sugano got the start on opening day for the seventh time in his career and even though he wasn’t as pinpoint as usual, he left the mound with a 6-3 lead thanks to a three-run homer by Takumi Oshiro in the third.
The BayStars, however, weren’t going down quietly.
Shunta Tanaka cut Yomiuri’s lead to one with a two-run single in the seventh and later tied the game at 7-7 with another two-run single in the ninth.
The contest was a homecoming for Tanaka, who spent three seasons with the Giants before being claimed by Yokohama as free agent compensation after Yomiuri signed Takayuki Kajitani in the offseason. Tanaka finished the game 3-for-4 with six RBIs.
The teams went into the bottom of the ninth with the score tied and already knowing there wouldn’t be a 10th. NPB announced before the season that extra innings wouldn’t be played this year as part of Japan’s efforts — which also include restaurants and bars continuing to close early — to contain COVID-19.
Giants catcher Seiji Kobayashi was due up to begin the ninth, but Hara made the call to go to Kamei.
The Giants veteran had been watching Mishima throw his warmup pitches, and noted he didn’t see many strikes, wondering if he’d get a ball to hit. When Mishima gave him a hittable slider, he got all of it.
“I got power from all of my experience up to now,” Kamei said.
Kamei’s shot was the first walk-off homer in a Central League opener since Alex Ochoa did it for the Chunichi Dragons in 2005, according to Nikkan Sports. The pitcher who gave up that home run was the BayStars’ Daisuke Miura, who was making his debut as the team’s manager in Friday’s contest.
While it was an exhilarating win for the Kyojin, the game was just one of (hopefully) 143. There’s a long way to go, but the Giants are hoping to keep having Kamei play a big role going forward.
As always, the veteran will be ready.
“I didn’t expect to get my first at-bat like that but I’m glad we won,” Kamei said.
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