Zelous Wheeler jogged out to his position for the fifth inning as the crowd roared for him at Tokyo Dome. Wheeler had some words for Yomiuri Giants pitcher Shosei Togo as he passed the mound and clapped his hands and tipped his cap as the cheers grew louder.
It was mostly the fans in orange and black showering Wheeler with applause, but there were more than a few Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles fans who couldn’t help but smile and join in.
Wheeler faced his former team for the first time on Tuesday night and welcomed his old friends into his new home with a come-from-behind three-run home run against Takayuki Kishi in the fourth inning that propelled the Giants to a 9-4 win in their interleague opener on Tuesday night at the Big Egg.
“I was just trying to get a hit, he got me out twice,” Wheeler said of facing his former teammate in the fourth. “In that situation, I was trying to be aggressive and got the job done.”
Justin Smoak also homered for the Giants, who got off to a winning start against the Pacific League as interleague play returned to Japan for the first time since 2019. Last season’s interleague slate was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We got a tough two weeks with the Pa. League,” Wheeler said. “But we’re going to come out and continue to play hard as one team.”
Wheeler spent the first five seasons of his NPB career with the Eagles in the PL before being traded to the Giants early in the 2020 season. So Tuesday was a reunion of sorts, and Wheeler chatted with a few of the Eagles prior to the game.
He only finished with the one hit, but it was a big one as he became the 40th player in NPB history with at least one home run against every NPB team.
Wheeler is off to a hot start this season, batting .383 with six home runs. He had a 22-game hitting streak earlier in the year.
“I just come out here and try to play hard every day,” he said. “I really don’t care about the results. I just want to play hard and be satisfied with that.”
Yomiuri padded the lead in the seventh on bases-loaded walks by Takumi Oshiro and Yoshiyuki Kamei and a two-run single from Seiya Matsubara.
Smoak had one of his best games since his NPB debut in April, going 3-for-4 with a home run, his fifth of the year, and two RBIs. It was his second three-hit game of the season.
Smoak was one of Yomiuri’s two high-profile acquisitions in the offseason and is batting .343 with five home runs and nine RBIs in 19 games.
The Giants outhit the Eagles 17-8 in the win. Naoki Yoshikawa led the way with four hits and Matsubara finished with three. Eight of the nine Giants starters, including Togo, finished with at least one hit.
Togo (4-2) didn’t exactly have his best game on the mound but was still credited with the win despite allowing four runs over five innings.
The Eagles got all four of their runs in the fourth on a double by Daichi Suzuki and a three-run homer by Hiroaki Shimauchi.
Kishi took the loss after allowing five runs — four earned — in four innings.
Smoak gave the Giants an early 2-0 advantage with a solo homer in the second and an RBI single in the third.
The Eagles fought back in the fourth.
Ryosuke Tatsumi hit a ball into the outfield to begin the frame and ended up with a double when the ball bounced in and out of outfielder Yoshihiro Maru’s glove. Tatsumi scored when the next batter, Suzuki, hit a ball to center that also glanced off Maru’s glove.
Hideto Asamura then drew a walk to put two on for Shimauchi, who gave the Eagles a 4-2 lead with a three-run home run. The homer was Shimauchi’s seventh of the season.
Akihiro Wakabayashi and Oshiro singled to begin the Yomiuri half of the fourth and Wheeler put the home team in front 5-4 with his blast to left.
The Giants tacked on four more runs in the seventh to put the game away.
Yuki Takahashi (5-1, 2.55 ERA) is scheduled to take the mound for the Giants against Rakuten on Wednesday. The Eagles will counter by sending Takahiro Norimoto (4-1, 2.56) to the mound.
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