Masahiro Tanaka didn’t have the return to Japan he’d hoped for, but it was an important first step nonetheless.
Tanaka was back on an NPB mound for the first time since 2013 and was given a rough welcome by the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters on Saturday afternoon at Tokyo Dome.
Sho Nakata absolutely crushed a high fastball for a two-run home run in the first inning and Kazunari Ishii opened the second with a solo shot. Tanaka didn’t give up anything else, but the damage had been done.
He took the loss in his first game back — with the Fighters winning 4-1 — after allowing three runs on four hits in five innings. The result snapped his record 28-game regular-season winning streak, which began with a victory over the Fighters in 2012.
Tanaka struck out five, including the first batter he faced, and walked one on Saturday. He was still lamenting the two home runs after the game.
“It was a really wasteful way to give up runs,” Tanaka was quoted as saying by Nikkan Sports.
In addition to the runs Tanaka gave up, Naoyuki Uwasawa was pitching well on the other side and didn’t give the Eagles a chance to save Tanaka’s afternoon.
“There was a lot of attention on this game,” said Uwasawa, who allowed a single run over seven innings. “We got the first run against such a great pitcher, so I felt like I had to win.”
With his season debut out of the way, Tanaka can move forward.
Game 1 gives Tanaka some things to take back to the drawing board before his next start. When asked about his slider and split-finger fastball, he said those were two areas that needed work.
“I think the slider was better, but since my mechanics weren’t good in the first place, neither pitch felt that good,” he told Nikkan Sports.
Tanaka’s return was big news in Japan and how he fares this season will continue to be a major point of interest among NPB fans.
The league has changed since Tanaka was dominating in the early part of the decade. He admitted during his introductory news conference he was going to have to make a lot of adjustments and that it wouldn’t be easy.
That was laid bare in his first practice game in the spring, when Nakata tagged him for a three-run homer in the first inning, and again on Saturday.
The last time NPB fans saw Tanaka was in 2013, when he went 24-0 during the regular season and helped the Eagles capture their first Pacific League pennant, first PL Climax Series crown and first Japan Series title.
He moved to the Yankees via the posting system that offseason and spent the next seven seasons in the Bronx, where he was 78-46 with a 3.74 ERA. Tanaka reached free agency after the 2020 season and when the Yankees didn’t move to re-sign him, he made a high-profile move back to Rakuten in January.
He was scheduled to make his 2021 debut in the Eagles’ second game of the season, but was sidelined with a calf injury.
A crowd of 9,985 was on hand at the Big Egg on Saturday to watch him finally take the mound.
The crowd cheered when he emerged from the dugout to do some stretching and long toss shortly before the game and again when his name was called during the starting lineup announcements.
With COVID-19 measures limiting the number of fans and also forcing them to change the way they cheer, the atmosphere wasn’t exactly what Tanaka remembered.
“Because of the situation with the coronavirus, the stadium atmosphere hasn’t returned to the way it was before,” Tanaka told reporters. “But even in this situation, I felt the joy of being able to play in front of the fans.”
His next start could come at home in Sendai, where the fans are eagerly awaiting his return. Despite taking the loss on Saturday, Tanaka is taking some positive aspects from the game into his next start.
“It’s good I was able to hold them to zero after give up the runs,” he said. “I hope I can continue pitching like I did in that half of the game.”
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