Last week was one of contrasting fortunes for two of the biggest signings of the NPB offseason.
Eric Thames and Justin Smoak finally got on the field for the Yomiuri Giants on April 27, after having their arrival to Japan delayed by coronavirus travel restrictions and then enduring two weeks of isolation. They were both in Yomiuri’s starting lineup against the Tokyo Yakult Swallows, with Smoak getting a hit in his first at-bat.
Then things took a turn for the worse.
Thames went down in pain while trying to field a ball in left field and was taken off on a stretcher. He was quickly transported to the hospital and was later diagnosed with a ruptured right Achilles — effectively ending his season just as it began.
After everything it took for Thames to get to Japan, he’s now heading back to the U.S. for surgery after less than three full innings in NPB.
“I’ll definitely have a successful surgery and get to work on my rehabilitation right away,” Thames said in a statement released by the team Friday.
The Giants will absorb the loss because they have a deep roster. The fans, however, will miss out on seeing Thames, whose arrival was highly anticipated after three monster seasons — and 124 home runs — with the NC Dinos in the Korea Baseball Organization and three solid seasons with the Milwaukee Brewers in MLB from 2017 to 2019.
Smoak’s first week went much better. The switch hitter singled from both sides of the plate in his debut, finishing 2-for-4 against the Swallows.
“I think he had a splendid debut, batting from both the right side and left side,” Giants manager Tatsunori Hara said after the game.
Smoak was then 3-for-4 with a homer on Wednesday. He hit safely in the first four games he played and got off to an 8-for-15 start with a home run and two RBIs.
As big as Thames’ signing was, Smoak is a big name in his own right. He was an MLB All-Star in 2017 and hit 196 home runs in the majors. He has the potential to be a powerful addition, from both sides of the plate, in a lineup that already features Kazuma Okamoto — who has five homers this year and hit 62 combined in 2019 and 2020 — in front of him in the No. 4 hole.
Smoak is also using Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water” as his walkup music, which is a nice touch.
Giants fans didn’t see Smoak play in person during his first week. Because Tokyo is one of the four prefectures under Japan’s latest state of emergency, all four of Yomiuri’s games last week — at Jingu Stadium and Tokyo Dome — were played without fans.
The second-place Giants also had two games postponed last week because of the state of emergency — in hopes of playing with fans later. The club won its two games at Jingu to begin the week but had a surprise waiting for it back at home.
Chunichi Dragons starter Yuya Yanagi struck out nine and outpitched Yomiuri ace Tomoyuki Sugano as the fifth-place club earned a 3-2 win on Friday. The Dragons’ hitters did the heavy lifting on Saturday, recording 13 hits in a 9-6 victory.
The Dragons also won two games against the Hanshin Tigers, the Central League’s first-place club, to begin the week before dropping the finale and were 4-1 last week.
“The team’s condition is really good right now,” Dragons pitcher Shinnosuke Ogasawara said Saturday. “We’ll just keep trying to do our best to win the next series.”
The Tigers began and ended the week in first place after going 3-2, while the third-place Swallows were 1-4. The Hiroshima Carp were also 1-4 last week, and the Yokohama DeNA BayStars were 4-2.
In the Pacific League, the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters’ week came to a premature end due to COVID-19. The team was supposed to face the Seibu Lions in the finale of their three-game series on Sunday. That game was called off after seven Fighters players — and also some staffers — tested positive for the virus. Nippon Ham’s three-game series against the Chiba Lotte Marines, which was scheduled to begin Monday, was also called off.
The Fighters, who beat the Lions on a walk-off walk on Saturday, were 3-2 last week. The Lions were also 3-2 in five games. The league-leading Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles were 2-1-2 last week, the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks were 2-4, the Marines went 2-4 and the Orix Buffaloes finished 2-2-1.
Marines outfielder Ikuhiro Kiyota is on the way back after the team lifted his suspension Saturday.
Kiyota violated the club’s coronavirus protocols when he dined out with someone during a road trip in Sapporo in late September 2020. Kiyota, who was among the eight top-team players to test positive for the virus in October, was given an indefinite suspension in January.
He apologized to the team and its fans in a statement released through the club Friday.
“The punishment is over and I want to contribute to the team winning without forgetting how remorseful I am,” he said.
An eerie interruption
The 6.8 magnitude earthquake that struck off Japan’s northeastern coast on Saturday also sent a jolt through the Eagles’ practice in Sendai.
The club stopped its workouts before its game when the shaking started, with manager Kazuhisa Ishii checking to make sure everyone was OK.
The Eagles, of course, were the team impacted most by the Great East Japan Earthquake and the resulting tsunami that struck the region 10 years ago.
Chunichi was able to put runners on base against Hanshin on April 29. The club wasn’t as adept at keeping them there, unfortunately.
The Dragons batters hit into four double plays in the game, the first time they’ve done that since 2018, according to Chunichi Sports.
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