Following an offseason that was shorter than usual, pro baseball returned to Japan over the weekend.
There were home runs, super plays in the field, highly anticipated debuts and even fans in the stands. There were also, however, reminders things aren’t quite back to normal as NPB opens another season under the cloud of a pandemic.
The silence that permeated last year’s games returned as fans were asked to continue cheering in ways that don’t involve shouting or the usual chanting, singing and playing of instruments that are staples of the NPB experience. Some teams filled some of the space with recorded versions of the familiar songs and chants.
It was also quiet because there weren’t as many fans present, with limits on attendance still in effect. The largest announced crowd over the weekend was 16,479 for a game between the Hiroshima Carp and Chunichi Dragons at Mazda Stadium (which holds 33,000) in Hiroshima on Saturday.
But after beginning last season with no fans, teams were just happy to have people in the stands.
“I’m happy we’re able to start the pennant race together with the fans while the cherry blossoms are in full bloom,” Giants manager Tatsunori Hara said Friday. “Things are starting to return to normal.”
One thing that won’t be returning to normal this year is the length of games. With local and government officials continuing to ask bars and restaurants in the Tokyo metropolitan area to close early due to the pandemic, NPB decided to limit games to nine innings this year.
The new edict nearly came into play on the first night of the season, when the Giants and Yokohama BayStars went into the bottom of the ninth inning tied 7-7. Yomiuri’s Yoshiyuki Kamei, however, ended that game with a sayonara home run.
The Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks and Chiba Lotte Marines were tied entering the bottom of the ninth in their game on Saturday. Hawks shortstop Kenta Imamiya ended that one with a walk-off hit to center.
The Giants and BayStars did end up tying 1-1 on Sunday, while the Carp and Dragons made it through nine frames without either side scoring a run the same day.
Two teams, the Hanshin Tigers and the Hawks, made it through the first weekend of the season with 3-0 records.
The Tigers swept a Central League road series against the Tokyo Yakult Swallows and slugged six home runs in the process. The one that drew the most attention was a massive shot to center by rookie Teruaki Sato on Saturday. Jerry Sands, meanwhile, got his second NPB season off to a hot start with two homers in the opener and another on Sunday.
The defending CL champion Giants are also undefeated after winning two and tying one against the BayStars. Takayuki Kajitani, who signed with the team as a free agent, introduced himself to Giants fans with a grand slam on Saturday and an RBI hit on Sunday.
On the other side, BayStars manager Daisuke Miura, who spent 25 years with the club as a player, is still searching for his first victory in his debut season in the dugout.
The Dragons and Carp finished their series in Hiroshima with matching 1-1-1 records. Carp rookie Ryoji Kuribayashi had a strong debut in relief, getting a pair of groundouts before securing his first save by striking out Akira Neo.
“I could calm down and pitch because I was able to retire the first batter,” Kuribayashi said.
He became the first Carp rookie to record a save in his first appearance since Katsuhiro Nagakawa 18 years ago.
“It wasn’t because of me, it’s thanks to everyone that I was able to get a save,” he said during his hero interview. “From now on, I don’t want to fail to get saves.”
Kuribayashi, the club’s top pick in last year’s draft, tossed another scoreless frame on Sunday and has retired all six batters he’s faced, recording three strikeouts.
The defending Pacific League champion Hawks beat the Marines handily in the season opener then won a pair of close contests on walk-off hits.
Imamiya, limited to 43 games in 2020 due to injuries, was one of the stars of the weekend for SoftBank. He hit a two-run homer on Friday and made a superb diving play on Saturday before later connecting on his walk-off double.
The Hawks had to rally from a run down in the ninth on Sunday and won on a two-run single by pinch hitter Keizo Kawashima.
The Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles took two of three off the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters to start the season. Prior to the start of the series, however, they lost Masahiro Tanaka to a calf injury that is expected to keep the star pitcher out for at least three weeks.
The other series in the PL saw the Seibu Lions win two of three games against the Orix Buffaloes.
The opener: Eagles pitcher Hideaki Wakui made history with his win over the Fighters on opening day. Having already won openers for the Lions and Marines during his career, Wakui became the first NPB pitcher to start and win on opening day for three different teams.
The closer: Yoshiyuki Kamei also delivered a first on opening day. Kamei’s walk-off homer on Friday didn’t just give the Giants a win, it made him the first NPB player to record a pinch-hit sayonara home run on opening day.
Milestone win: Hawks manager Kimiyasu Kudo reached a milestone on Saturday night, becoming the 31st manager to reach 500 wins. According to Nikkan Sports, he’s the third fastest to hit that mark.
Kudo became the Hawks manager in 2015 and has had a wildly successful tenure. The 57-year-old is 501-316-21. Kudo has guided the team to three Pacific League pennants and five Japan Series titles in six seasons.
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