The Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters rediscovered some of their missing power in time to welcome Masahiro Tanaka back to Japan.
Sho Nakata hit a two-run homer in the first inning, Kazunari Ishii went deep in the second and the Fighters spoiled Tanaka's season debut with a 4-1 win over the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles on Saturday afternoon at Tokyo Dome.
"He's a pitcher who represents Japan, he's an amazing pitcher," Nakata said of his homer in the first inning. "I just connected and I'm glad I got that hit."
Tanaka, making his highly anticipated return to Japan after seven seasons with the New York Yankees, allowed three runs over five innings. He was charged with the loss, which ended a 28-game regular-season win streak that began in 2012. Tanaka also remained stuck on 99 career NPB wins.
"While I was pitching, I was making various adjustments," Tanaka said after game, according to Sports Nippon. "It's different than the preseason games up to now, because once you're able to enter the season, whether you win or lose is the important thing."
Tanaka (0-1) allowed all three runs via the long ball against a team that has struggled to hit for power.
The Fighters waited 10 games before getting their first home run of the season and had just two through 17 games.
Nakata struck after Tanaka walked Kensuke Kondo, crushing a high fastball over the wall in left center to put Nippon Ham ahead 2-0 in the first. Nakata had also homered off Tanaka during a practice game in the spring.
"For that to come while our condition isn't so good, it was a big home run both for myself and the team," Nakata said.
After the Eagles pulled a run back on an RBI single by Fumiya Kurokawa in the top of the second, Ishii opened the bottom half by taking Tanaka deep to right to make the score 3-1.
"I'm glad I was able to put up a run right after we'd just given one up," Ishii said.
Nakata got his second of the game in the sixth, reaching the upper level at the Big Egg with a solo homer against Kazuhisa Makita, another former MLB pitcher.
"Uwasawa was giving it his all, so I'm glad we were able to add another run," he said.
Tanaka was pitching in Japan for the first time since 2013. After spending seven seasons in MLB, he returned to the Eagles for the 2021 campaign.
The right-hander had been scheduled to make his debut in Rakuten's second game of the year before being sidelined with a calf injury.
He got his season underway on Saturday with a strikeout of Haruki Nishikawa and then got Ryo Watanabe to ground out.
Then trouble struck.
Tanaka walked Kondo on four pitches before giving up Nakata's blast on a 154-kph fastball, his hardest-thrown ball of the day.
Tanaka allowed four hits overall, struck out five and walked one before being relieved to start the sixth.
Fighters starter Naoyuki Uwasawa went seven innings, allowing just one run and striking out seven to get his first victory of the year. Uwasawa had gotten off to a rocky start, allowing 11 runs combined in his first two outings of the year, both losses. He bounced back with six innings of one-run ball against the Orix Buffaloes last week.
"I feel like I've caused the team some trouble since the start of the season," Uwasawa said. "It's been pretty difficult for me, but I'm a little relieved that I got my first win."
Uwasawa (1-2) allowed three hits and walked two.
"Being given the lead made it easier for me," Uwasawa said. "More than anything, Nakata hitting that home run really put the team in a good mindset, and I was able to pitch with the feeling that I couldn't lose."
Toshihiro Sugiura worked the ninth for his fourth save of the year.
Nakata finished 2-for-4 with three RBIs after going hitless in his three previous games. The home runs were his first two of the season.
The infielder also made a nice play in the field during the seventh, reaching into the stands to catch a foul ball.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.